Underrated: Karl Heinz Bohrer

The author of one of the greatest German autobiographies is also an Anglophile man of letters

Underrated
(ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY)

Karl Heinz Bohrer has written one of the great autobiographies in German. Indeed, Bohrer’s two volumes, Granatsplitter and Jetzt (Shrapnel: The Story of a Youth and Now: History of My Adventures with Fantasy), belong not just to German but to world literature. He combines the meticulously observant reportage of a former foreign correspondent with the flights of fancy of an omnivorous man of letters. How could so enjoyable a memoir be the work of an octogenarian German professor?

The German professor has always been seen as a comic figure. From Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss in Candide (who proclaims that “all is for the best”) to Carlyle’s Professor Teufelsdröckh in Sartor Resartus (whose big idea is “the Everlasting No”), the Teutonic pedant has been satirised abroad for centuries. By the time Bohrer came onto the scene in the late 1960s, the Germans too were mocking their academics, but their satire was cruder and crueller. The leader of the Frankfurt School, Professor Adorno — a Jew who had fled the Nazis — found one incident, in which three bare-breasted women showered him with rose petals, literally heartbreaking; he died of a heart attack soon afterwards. Jürgen Habermas, interviewed by Bohrer at the time, demanded that the press should ignore such antics. But the extreme Left was the story and Bohrer has always had a nose for that. He interviewd Ulrike Meinhof before she turned to terrorism.

His intellectual ambition is very German, taking in the whole history of Western literature and thought, but in person Bohrer resembles the absent-minded Oxford don. Having avoided professorial pomposity by having a second career as a journalist, he has somehow contrived to hold chairs in Bielefeld and Stanford while being domiciled in Paris (where his first wife, the writer Undine Gruenter, lived) and, after her death in 2002, in London, where his second wife, Angela, has her home. She is a daughter of Count von der Schulenburg, one of the leaders of the German resistance against Hitler. Bohrer is also close to another of the Schulenburg sisters, Adelheid (“Neiti”), and her husband, the politician and poet Lord (“Grey”) Gowrie.

Such a rarefied career is unusual. Indeed, Bohrer is merciless on the provincialism of the professoriate; for him, post-war Germany’s vulgarity was Hitler’s posthumous revenge. The professors have reciprocated, hating the fact that he is politically conservative but temperamentally radical, even transgressive. As a child of the Weimar Republic, he loves to cross boundaries, professional or political. Only at ease on the edge, he is the exception to the rule that, after the vertiginous highs and lows of the last century, German culture has settled for a safety-first mediocrity.

In the 1960s, when his contemporaries gravitated towards the Frankfurt version of the New Left, he was inoculated by reading Orwell and Koestler. Unlike those who compensated for their parents’ Nazi past by moving to the extreme Left, Bohrer came from an anti-Nazi family and so had no qualms about becoming literary editor of the centre-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Like his father, who had once knocked down an SA thug who tried to stop his Jewish friend from dancing with a blonde, Bohrer takes risks — not physical but intellectual.

His contribution to transatlantic academic discourse has been his defence of the fantastic and the daemonic against the relentless rationalism of modernity. That led him to write about odd men out: Ernst Jünger rather than Thomas Mann, the risqué romantics rather than the Weimar classics. But Bohrer can be quite down to earth. The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard would greet him with the words: “Why don’t we go and eat a beef sausage together?” (The beef sausage is a Frankfurt speciality, created by butchers for their Jewish customers who couldn’t eat pork.)

Shrapnel is, among other things, an elegy for the post-war England Bohrer discovered in his youth. It was love at first sight. He was awestruck on entering the Reform Club or the House of Commons, just as he had been childishly gleeful at collecting pieces of shrapnel from RAF bombs (hence the book’s title). His horrified teenage reaction to the first pictures of Belsen has the ring of truth.

Bohrer is baffled by Brexit. Back in 1982, as the London correspondent of the FAZ, he caused a furore in Germany by defending the Falklands War. Now he is not so sure. “For the first time, I found in English patriotism much that was hopelessly limited. Their feeling of superiority belonged to the past, especially when it expressed itself in the snobbery of the Spectator or Standpoint.” He is not entirely wrong about the Spectator, but it is unlike Bohrer (who was editor of the German journal Merkur for three decades) not to distinguish between two such different magazines. At least he reads them. What he loved most about England was the cosmopolitanism — and the BBC accents — that were legacies of empire. He now laments their disappearance, but he remains the most Anglophile of German intellectuals. No wonder he is underrated.