“Being a publisher is not a profession, it’s a passion, an obsession.” This line from a letter written by Kurt Wolff could well have been the motto of his entire life. He was one of the most extraordinary personalities of German publishing in the 20th century. Wolff’s career spanned fifty years of publishing experience and brought together in his person the classical ethos of the 19th century as well as the dynamic, feverish search for new areas of experience characteristic of the 20th century.
At the dawn of his career, Wolff was the first publisher to bring out the writings of Franz Kafka; while towards the dusk of his life he discovered and published Günter Grass and printed his Tin Drum. Kafka – Grass: They are epochs apart and worlds apart. Kurt Wolff embraced them in his astonishing career. He was one of the personalities who gave shape to cultural life between the two World Wars and beyond reaching into the post-war period.
Kurt Wolff was born on 3 March 1887 in Bonn. Kurt Wolff’s father was a professor of musicology and a musician; his mother, a descendant of an old, traditional Jewish family, died prematurely when Wolff was only seventeen years old. Classical music and classical German literature were very much part of the family tradition.
Kurt completed his schooling (Abitur) at Marburg and joined military service for a year at Darmstadt. This is where he made his first literary contacts. Kurt Wolff began university studies in German literature at Marburg and continued at Leipzig, but he never obtained a degree. A bit like Rabindranath, he was “beyond degrees”.
Nonetheless, he distinguished himself academically when, at the age of twenty-two, he brought out a two-volume edition of the writings of Johann Heinrich Merck, a poet and friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the same year (1909), Wolff married Elisabeth Merck of Darmstadt, a descendent of Johann Heinrich Merck. Her family owned the well-known pharmaceutical concern bearing their name. Wolff’s mother-in-law, Clara Merck, a formidable, cultured woman of high society, was to be Wolff’s mentor and guide for many years.
From his mother’s as well as from his wife’s family, Kurt Wolff was comfortably well off. The young couple lived a status-conscious social life, quite untypical of the bohemian style current in student circles. After all, Kurt Wolff was still a student. At the University he made the acquaintance of Ernst Rowohlt, who had, with his very limited means, founded, in 1908, a publishing firm, the – still flourishing – Ernst Rowohlt Verlag. He was able to arouse Wolff’s interest in his venture, and Wolff entered into partnership with Rowohlt in 1910.
This partnership, however, lasted only a little over two years. Rowohlt and Wolff separated in November 1912. For a few months, Wolff continued to run the publishing firm under its old name, but in February 1913, he changed it to Kurt Wolff Verlag. Dedicating himself to his work with characteristic intensity, Wolff expanded his production with an astonishing rapidity.
Within less than one year, Kurt Wolff s publishing house employed a staff of fifteen people. He and his editors discovered and first published many of the finest writers of that time, writers who now have a secure place in literary history. Among the best known are Franz Kafka whose mentor, Max Brod, introduced him to Wolff. In 1919, Kurt Wolff moved his rapidly expanding establishment to Munich, taking with him sixty employees.
Wolff’s publishing house suffered its first setback with the post-war inflation which began to have an impact from 1921. Gradually, production and sales dwindled and picked up only from 1924 with the revaluation of the German currency. A second crisis was caused by the worldwide economic breakdown in 1929, a crisis which Wolff’s company did not survive. Wolff sold off his publishing rights and his stock of books and liquidated his firm in 1930. In only 17 years Kurt Wolff had written publishing history.
Kurt Wolff’s admission of defeat had, however, not merely economic reasons. He had expanded his publishing work at such a frenzied pace that it left him exhausted and drained. His marriage with Elisabeth Merck broke down and was dissolved in 1930. For a decade, he waited and tried to launch a new company. During those years of uncertainty, he travelled restlessly throughout Europe. In March 1933, he left Germany. Shortly afterwards, he remarried and made several abortive attempts to settle down first in Italy, then in Paris.
He was arrested and kept in several French internment camps until he succeeded in getting a visa for the USA where he, his wife and their newborn child arrived in March 1941. The Wolff family spent almost twenty years in American exile. By 1942, he was able to establish a new publishing company, Pantheon Books, in New York. His most important success was the English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
After the war, Kurt Wolff renewed his contacts with the German publishing world, but it was not until 1959 that he handed over his publishing business in America and moved to Switzerland where he established a branch of Pantheon Books. Kurt Wolff and his wife settled down at Locarno from where the couple set out for repeated trips to Germany, France, England and again the USA. In Germany, Kurt Wolff was highly honoured as the grand-seigneur of publishing, and many went to Locarno to meet the charming old man. In fact, he once again and for the last time started a small publishing company.
In the years 1961 to 1963 Kurt Wolff also reviewed his life and evaluated his work in a series of radio essays. One of these talks was dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore. Towards the end of 1963, Kurt Wolff died in a tragic car accident near Stuttgart. He was 76 years old. His grave is at the cemetery of Marburg, the town which harbours the Deutsche Literaturarchiv. It is visited by many scholars from all over the world. These scholars regularly take a walk down to the cemetery adjacent to the protestant church to visit Kurt Wolff’s grave which is clearly marked. It is like a pilgrimage.
The Kurt Wolff Verlag and Rabindranath
Wolff was a mere 25 years old when he separated from Ernst Rowohlt and established a company under his own name. Only nine months later, in November 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize and Wolff, accepting Gitanjali for publication shortly before or after this event, published Tagore’s slim volume of prose poetry in early 1914.
After Kurt Wolff started his own company, he discovered and published almost all the young poets and prose writers who were later known as expressionists. As a consequence, Kurt Wolff derived his fame from the fact that he was the publisher and mentor of German Expressionism. Wolff himself, however, resisted his name being identified with Expressionism. He insisted that the group of young writers he promoted were too diverse to merit one common term.
We see that Rabindranath Tagore’s lyrical prose did not quite fit in with German Expressionism. The yearning for a harmonious life close to nature certainly found resonance with the young generation, yet Tagore’s classical style, his romanticism as well as his celebration of the Divine were at odds with the general intellectual climate. In this early stage of his career, however, Kurt Wolff was grateful for the publicity which the success of Tagore’s books gave to his publishing house. Tagore indeed helped to establish the Kurt Wolff Verlag in the public mind. And more so, it helped Kurt Wolff to attract other good and commercially successful authors.
Until the mid-1920s, every book that Tagore’s British publisher, Macmillan, brought out, was published immediately in German translation. In 1914, three volumes came out, viz. apart from Gitanjali also Der Gärtner (The Gardener) and Chitra. This short play, derived from Tagore’s Bengali play Chitrangadā, was in fact translated from English to German by Elisabeth Merck. In 1915, it was Der zunehmende Mond (The Crescent Moon).
Tagore’s books were coupled with those of the German novelist Franz Werfel to form a series. It was hoped that Tagore’s selling power would rub off on Werfel and others. During the war years, books by Tagore and by Werfel were advertised together projecting their humanity and pacifism. The image thus created of Tagore, however, still lacked the messianic aura which he was to receive during his visit to Germany in 1921. Before Christmas 1915, Tagore was idealized as the ‘poet of peace in the noblest sense of the word’.
During the war years of 1916 and 1917, no new books of Tagore appeared. But 1918 saw four new Tagore books being published by Wolff, 1919 three, 1920 three, and in 1921 no less than seven new books appeared and in addition the eight-volume Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works) which also contained two newly translated texts. This coincided with Tagore’s first visit to Germany in 1921 which was the climax of the Indian poet’s popularity in that country.
However, around the same time, in August 1921, inflation started to set in, and it culminated in a catastrophe. Until the beginning of 1923, books continued to be bought in sufficient numbers. But apart from being read, these books were used as capital investment. The sales of Rabindranath Tagore’s books helped to keep the Kurt Wolff Verlag afloat during the inflation years. Kurt Wolff’s own estimate was that the Kurt Wolff Verlag had sold ‘more than one million’ copies of Tagore s books ‘by the end of 1923.’
At the height of inflation, though, in 1923, Wolff published hardly any new books because of the astronomical cost of paper, printing and binding. Tagore’s royalties which Wolff had paid into a German bank, depreciated to the extent of becoming valueless.
With the consolidation of the economy and the revaluation of the Mark in 1924, Wolff and his associates realized with amazement that all of a sudden Tagore was no longer a favourite with the German public. The firm failed to sell off a huge stock of Tagore books. In retrospect, Wolff interpreted this as a major shift of interest and literary taste – away from mystical poetry, away from ‘the East’ and towards writing with a pragmatic relation to reality and towards constructive Western values. This coincided with a political re-orientation in Germany. The country made an attempt to overcome its spiritual and cultural crisis, which was inflicted on a people humiliated by a lost war.
In 1923, two more new books, and in 1925, one final title, Tagore’s masterly novel Gora, saw the light of day. No new publication was presented for Tagore’s second and third visits to Germany in 1926 and 1930. In fact, as early as in 1923/1924, Tagore’s German translator Helene Meyer-Franck complained that two volumes which she had already finished translating, were left unpublished. Kurt Wolff did however, as was his wont, print several different editions of each book – cheap and luxury editions, in large and small format, for collectors and for the general reader – to suit every taste and pocket.
In December 1929, Macmillan inquired with Kurt Wolff Verlag about the situation concerning its Tagore books. The polite reply was that due to the economic ‘depression’ it was ‘safer […] to restrain the publication of fiction.’ This was probably meant to convey to Macmillan that no new books would be taken up for publication, nor old ones reprinted. The publisher confirmed that excepting one book, all others were ‘still available’.
When Rabindranath Tagore visited Germany a third time in 1930, the Kurt Wolff Verlag was in the process of dissolution. No new translations or editions of Tagore’s works are known to have been published by the legal heirs until after the Second World War.
The Publisher and his Author
Kurt Wolff was steeped in the German cultural tradition of the genteel middle class (Großbürgertum) by his upbringing, his studies, his marriage and his inclinations. As an aesthetically sensitive person, he appreciated art and classical music. Living in style, he savoured the finer things of life; though one wonders whether the haste and intensity with which he worked did not deny to him a full appreciation and enjoyment of literature and the arts. Leisure and contemplation were not for him. The style of his letters, which rarely deviate from their business focus, did not allow him the time for a personal remark. These are all witnesses to Wolff’s driven nature.
The brand of spirituality which Rabindranath Tagore embodied and continuously propagated must have been mysteriously strange and inaccessible to Kurt Wolff. After Tagore, Wolff did not publish any other book of Indian spiritual writing except for the Sermons of the Buddha.
Wolff may not have rated Tagore very highly as a writer. In later life, Kurt Wolff became uncharacteristically direct when he confessed in a letter to Boris Pasternak, another Nobel laureate author he published: ‘At the beginning of my work as publisher, an author of the Kurt Wolff publishing house received the Nobel Prize. Above all, at the time, it pleased me from a selfish point of view, as a great boost for a young publishing business. I certainly did not begrudge the dear old Indian ascetic his Prize, but it was not of much significance: one could as well have chosen another author.’
In his radio essay of 1962, Kurt Wolff had mellowed and wrote about Tagore with generosity. Wolff listed all the European and American men of letters who recognized ‘the Indian’s great poetic genius’, in order, so it seems, to disprove those German intellectuals who ‘denigrated his work’ at a time when Tagore’s popularity and the sale of his books boomed. Wolff bemoaned the fact that there was ‘a long-standing tendency among German intellectuals to look down on authors who were very successful’.
Finally, Kurt Wolff highlighted Tagore’s personality. It was not so much the poet and writer Wolff appreciated in Tagore, but his charismatic personality. Wolff was so deeply impressed by the person when they met in 1921, that he concluded that inevitably Tagore’s works could not be inferior. Wolff wrote: ‘Once I became convinced that the creator was utterly pure and genuine, I could not possibly doubt that his creations were the same.’ But Wolff backed out immediately, half-withdrawing his appreciation: ‘Naturally my recollections here are those of a publisher; I would not presume to express an opinion as a critic or literary historian.’ 
Kurt Wolff maintained a correspondence with Rabindranath Tagore and his son Rathindranath. Only three letters exist of the early phase of their relationship (1914), as all business aspects of publishing Tagore in German were discussed with the English publisher Macmillan. The remaining letters were written before and after Tagore’s first visit to Germany in June 1921. The correspondence is business-like in tone and content from both sides. Questions of copyright and accounts, of translation, publishing new books and their sale were discussed. It contains numerous financial balance sheets.
In 1921, the correspondence revolved around Tagore’s visit to Germany. Rabindranath and his son desired to purchase or receive as gifts a rather large number of German books for the budding Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan. They requested Kurt Wolff and Heinrich Meyer-Benfey (the husband of Rabindranath’s German translator, Helene Meyer-Franck) to make suitable arrangements. On several occasions Kurt Wolff reminded the poet and his son that his company held the exclusive rights to Tagore’s books in the German language.
Thus, attempts by German-speaking Bengalis to translate the poet directly from the original, and attempts to bring out editions by other German publishing houses, were foiled. Helene Meyer-Franck, especially, was a victim of this policy. The haste with which Wolff pursued his enterprise of publishing Tagore was much in evidence throughout.
In 1921, Kurt Wolff brought out a collection of stray thoughts which Tagore had written or compiled especially for a German edition, Flüstern der Seele (later published in English under the title Thought Relics). The correspondence mentions a number of times that the royalties of this book were to be made over to the Deutsche Kinderhilfe (Help the Children Fund) in Berlin and Vienna. This was the poet’s contribution to ameliorate the suffering of children in war-ravaged Germany and Austria.
Rabindranath’s Meetings with Kurt Wolff
Kurt Wolff obviously saw Tagore’s presence in Germany as an excellent way of promoting the sale of his books. So Wolff offered Tagore to ‘work out a favourable schedule of lectures’ throughout Germany.
On 5th June 1921, arriving from Berlin, Rabindranath Tagore and his companions were received by Kurt Wolff in Munich. They had lunch with him and were taken on a drive through the city in the afternoon. This was followed by a dinner with Wolff. 6th June was also dedicated to sightseeing and social visits. On 8th June, Tagore lectured at Kurt Wolff’s palatial publishing house in front of a distinguished gathering which included Thomas Mann. While being Tagore’s host, Kurt Wolff had an opportunity to observe this exotic author at close quarters. He praised the ‘great dignity’ of the poet and his ‘most impressive figure’.
He related that his daughter thought that ‘God was paying us a visit’. Wolff felt that Tagore’s ‘way of moving and speaking was simple and direct’, that ‘the conversation was natural and relaxed, but not trivial’. Similar impressions can be found in almost every article or memoir describing encounters with Tagore. Wolff remarked that: ‘what interested him [Tagore] most was Germany’, that is, the fate of a nation which had lost a major war, and which as a consequence was impoverished and demoralized.
Wolff then proceeded to relate an unusual episode in some detail. In the afternoon Tagore wanted to take rest. He refused the offer of a bedroom or a chaise longue. Instead, he preferred to remain in the dining-room, but alone. Everyone withdrew. After some time, though, Wolff returned on tiptoe to fetch a notebook he needed urgently. He continues:
“I saw – although I could not believe what I was seeing – that Tagore had remained in the same position in which he had conversed for hours, with his large, beautiful eyes wide open. I saw him, but he did not see me, even though I was less than ten yards away. I gazed at him for a long time and grasped the fact that his open eyes were seeing nothing […] I realized that he was resting by withdrawing […] from his outer existence into an inner one.
I could not grasp what I was seeing and made no attempt to find a rational explanation for it; I knew only that I was experiencing a marvel and that this sublime man from the East had an existence on two levels […] Here was a man […] who could draw energy from mysterious sources inaccessible to Westerners.”
This episode left a deep impression on Kurt Wolff. Quite obviously, he did not understand experiences of a psychic or spiritual nature. As a result, he fully attributed Tagore’s trance-like state to the ‘Mysterious East’. It left Wolff ‘convinced that this man was completely and utterly uncorrupted and genuine’, and his facile conclusion was (as we have seen) that Tagore must be a great poet.
When Tagore returned to Germany in 1926, the ‘Tagore-Rummel’ (Tagore mania) had subsided. Before entering Germany, however, Kurt Wolff briefly met Tagore in Zürich. From there, Tagore proceeded to Vienna where he gave a lecture organized by Wolff. He travelled on to Paris via Munich where he spent a night.
Since Wolff was abroad on that day, the poet was received by a frightened Arthur Seiffhart, the company’s director of production, who with his scant knowledge of English had to explain why the sales of Tagore’s books had dramatically slumped. Finally, after staying in France, England and Scandinavia, Tagore returned to Munich and stayed in Kurt Wolff’s care (15th to 18th September). On 16th and 17th September the programme included lunch at Wolff’s residence, a gathering of intellectuals and an excursion to the lakes outside Munich.
Thereafter, they never met again. Wolff was already out of business when Tagore visited Germany in 1930. This was the end of a relationship between a publisher and his author which from the beginning was symbiotic – centred around the business of getting books published. No private remark is known by Rabindranath or his son Rathindranath about Kurt Wolff as a person.
When this relationship between Wolff and Tagore had long faded into memory, two decades after Tagore’s death and towards the end of Wolff’s life, this publisher did reflect on Tagore’s possible significance for Germany’s cultural and spiritual life. This happened in the before-mentioned radio essay from which I have already quoted. Wolff placed Tagore in the tradition of the German orientalist preoccupation with India. He mentioned the ‘breakdown of the ideas and ideals of Western civilization’ after the First World War which lured the German bourgeoisie to seek ‘the light’ from the East.
In his final paragraph, Kurt Wolff waxed eloquent about Rabindranath Tagore evoking archetypal thoughts on the polarity of ‘East’ and ‘West’:
“[Before I published Tagore’s books ] The reading material available to still this hunger for Eastern philosophy and poetry was all from the distant past until, in the years just after the war, a contemporary figure suddenly emerged: a poet, a cosmopolitan, a religious man who nonetheless sought no converts, a moral authority who did not moralize. He came bringing poems and verses which offered themselves freely, demanding nothing in return; possessed of a new innocence, they remained outside the sphere of ideology, vessels of human wisdom that introduced a fresh breath of Eastern beauty.
As people read, they felt in the presence of something magical and beyond reason. Touched by waves of a secret, mysterious force, they could sense that the author of these poems was of that so rare phenomenon, a case in which creator and creation are one, parts of a single whole. There is something miraculous about this, which gives the figure of the poet an almost messianic significance.”
For Kurt Wolff these statements define an altogether new way of seeing Tagore and speaking about him. More truly himself perhaps, because altogether practical, was Wolff’s statement immediately following the above quotation: Kurt Wolff stated: ‘Certainly one factor which contributed to Tagore’s success in Germany was the relative ease with which his works could be translated […]’
Tagore was easy to translate because his words had already been transferred from Bengali into the English language by the poet himself. In some sense, Tagore’s words had already been appropriated by Europe. It is therefore a beautiful evolution in the history of Tagore’s dialogue with Germany that two generations after Kurt Wolff, his descendents arrive in Kolkata and Santiniketan to rediscover Tagore and discover him here where Tagore lived and worked. Here they will begin to understand him more deeply behind the European language and beyond Kurt Wolff’s singular attempt to make Rabindranath Tagore known to Germany.
This life sketch is based on the following material: Wolfram Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930 (Frankfurt: Buchhändler-Vereinigung, 1977), Bernhard Zeller’s foreword to: Kurt Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911-1963, pp. vii-lvi. – Karl H. Salzmann, ‘Kurt Wolff, der Verleger’, Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel 14 (22nd December 1958), pp. 1729-1749. For a fuller, more detailed version of this lecture please read Martin Kämpchen, Rabindranath Tagore in Germany. Four Responses To a Cultural Icon. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla 1999, p. 58-84.
The sequence of events is not quite clear. Some commentators claim that Gitanjali was first rejected and then, after Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, this decision was reversed. See Kämpchen, Rabindranath Tagore in Germany, p.66-77.
Kurt Wolff, ‘Vom Verlegen im allgemeinen und von der Frage: wie kommen Verleger und Autoren zusammen’, in Expressionismus. Aufzeichnungen und Erinnerungen der Zeitgenossen, ed. by Paul Raabe (Olten/Freiburg im Brsg.: Walter Verlag, 1965), p.292.
Martin Kämpchen, Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Bibliography, (Santiniketan, Rabindra-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, 1997), nos. 15 to 23.
Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930, column 853.
Quoted in: Göbel, column 858. (Letter dated 9th October1922).
Göbel, op.cit., column 860.
Göbel, op.cit., column 640; also the German radio-essay on Tagore which has been printed only in English translation: Kurt Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, in Kurt Wolff. A Portrait in Essays & Letters, ed. by Michael Ermarth, trans. by Deborah Lucas Schneider (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. l18. (Due to a printing error, the published English text says ‘1913’ instead, obviously, 1923.)
Göbel,, op.cit., column 862.
Göbel, quoting from a letter by Kurt Wolff to Franz Werfel dated 23th June 1930; see Arthur Seiffhart, Inter Folia Fructus. Aus den Erinnerungen eines Verlegers (Berlin: Fundament Verlag, ), p. 42.
Letter by Helene Meyer-Franck to Rabindranath Tagore dated 13th Oct. [1923?] (Rabindra-Bhavan archives, Santiniketan)
Letter by Kurt Wolff Verlag to Messrs. Macmillan dated 14th December 1929 (Rabindra-Bhavan archives)
Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers. p. 479. The letter is dated 25th October 1958 from New York City.
Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, p. 124.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 124.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 123.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 126.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 126.
Preserved at the Rabindra-Bhavan archives of Visva-Bharati (Santiniketan) and at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University Library (New Haven, USA).
Letter by Rabindranath Tagore to Kurt Wolff dated 21st April 1914; reply by Kurt Wolff to Rabindranath Tagore dated 14th May 1914; reply by Rabindranath Tagore to Kurt Wolff dated 8th June 1914 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).
Letter by Kurt Wolff to Rabindranath Tagore dated 30th April 1921 (Rabindra-Bhavan archives).
Letter by Kurt Wolff.
Rathindranath Tagore’s unpublished diary (Rabindra-Bhavan archives).
Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, p. 120.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 120.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 121.
Letter by Kurt Wolff to Rathindranath Tagore dated 10th July 1926.
Seiffhart, Inter Folia Fructus, pp. 41f.
Letter by Kurt Wolff to Professor Mahalanobis (who accompanied Tagore on his European trip in 1926) dated 16th September 1926 and addressed to the Hotel Bayerischer Hof where Tagore and his entourage stayed (Rabindra-Bhavan archives).
Wolff, op.cit., p. 127.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 127.
Wolff, op.cit., p. 128.
Dr Dr Martin Kämpchen is a writer on India and a translator of Tagore from Bengali to German. He lives at Santiniketan, India. For more information visit his website www.martin-kaempchen.com.
[Note: This article is an excerpt of a chapter that has previously been published as “Merck and Rabindranath Tagore. A chapter of Indo-German cultural exchange.” Edited by Anjum Katyal. Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata 2012. It is based on a Lecture held on 17th January at the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata.]