Germane Germans

‘Do we still have an intellectual elite that reads, and writers to cater for it? In Germany, we have Merkur’

Mara Delius

Intellectual magazines are a thing of the past, to be kept on the dusty shelves of libraries. With their puny sales figures and resistance to subordinating content to electronic presentation on shiny new gadgets, such periodicals of the mind are anathema to the needs of the publishing industry. 

But at the beginning of the last century intellectual magazines sprang up in big cities from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Some lasted only one or two issues, while others had more success, or at least notoriety, especially those with a clear-cut political and literary direction: in Vienna, Karl Kraus’s Die Fackel (“The Torch”) or in America, the Partisan Review. An intellectual magazine is not only a collection of ideas, but of different writers, characters, lives — a cultural phenomenon. But do we still even have an intellectual elite that reads, and writers to cater for it? After all, most of us prefer to have our opinions reaffirmed, not challenged. 

The mere existence of the German magazine Merkur (“Mercury”) shows that such scepticism might be misplaced. It has been blissfully ignoring any talk of decline (despite bouts of financial trouble) for more than 60 years. A monthly journal of roughly 100 pages, its bold subtitle states it is a “German journal for European thought”. It was founded in 1947; in 1984 the editorship was jointly assumed by the literary critic and former London correspondent, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and Kurt Scheel, a sociologist. Their aim was to create a space for a view on the world that is academically informed, but not academic. Political and cultural issues are paired together, the outlook is liberal in the old-fashioned sense, and with an ironic twist. Now the editors are about to hand over to Christian Demand, an art historian.

Although published in the south of Germany, Merkur is compiled and edited in an apartment in the Charlottenburg district of West Berlin. With its wooden floors and grand windows, it evokes both the intellectual climate of West Berlin before the wall came down and the aura of avant-garde circles and thinkers, such as Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, who lived in the area during the Weimar Republic.

Merkur‘s attitude is influenced by offbeat viewpoints: it delicately pokes fun at the earnestness and metaphysical wonder that determines most of Germany’s public debates. As the mission statement puts it: “The good old enlightenment values of criticism, scepticism and sarcasm are employed against obtuseness and utopianism.” In the world of Merkur, the true intellectual is the daring outsider, not a commentator on current affairs. One may wonder just how this is possible at a time when being an outsider is considered de rigueur by the mainstream.

Above all, the magazine is independent, thanks to the support of a charitable foundation set up by its publisher, Klett Cotta. So it has no need to worry about increasing the circulation (about 5,000 a month). This also means that Merkur is not an organ of a particular world view, even though there is a distinctly contrarian flavour to it. 

In short, the endeavour is deliberately anachronistic. Merkur is not concerned with pleasing anyone, either in form or content. There are no pictures, the sparse layout is always the same. Add to this the fact that it can be difficult to get hold of and that online subscription was introduced only about a year ago, and you have a niche product. 

“Every subject can appear on our pages,” the editors write, “as long as it fulfills three conditions: intellectually original but not necessarily scholarly, relevant for educated readers but not pandering to any specific persuasion/not tied to a particular viewpoint, and presented in elegant essayistic form without academic fluff.” 

Perhaps it was this elitism that made it such a desirable place in which to be published — for some, that is. Many influential German intellectuals wouldn’t have been seen dead with an issue in the pockets of their corduroy jackets. They opposed the particular brand of aestheticism that informed the magazine, preferring instead the left-leaning Kursbuch

Over the past 20 or so years intellectuals from Jean Améry and Jean-François Lyotard to George Weidenfeld have written for Merkur. The last double issue was devoted to the topic of outsiders — “why everyone tries to be a nonconformist and only few succeed” — which could be read as a mission statement (although the editors would probably deny that). Some sneered that an ageing gang of collaborators had come together for one last time to paint themselves as the avant-garde, while merely rehashing the arguments of the past.

 Whatever they may say about Merkur, though, it provides an alternative to mediocrity: the idea of an intellectual stance without ever serving it to you on a plate. 

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