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Boxing clever – the first 6 Albatross books

The launch of Albatross books in 1932 was a key moment in the paperback revolution, even if not fully recognised as such at the time.  It signalled the imminent demise of Tauchnitz, which had dominated English language publishing in Continental Europe for almost a century.  It was to be the inspiration for the launch of Penguin Books three years later.  And it was in some respects the moment that paperbacks came of age in the twentieth century.

A lot of planning and preparation had gone into the launch, which brought together three remarkable men, John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch.  Their stories are too long and varied to cover here, but all three played important roles in publishing history, even apart from their time at Albatross.   It was important for them that the first list of Albatross titles made a statement about the ambitions of the new series.

Albatross First six anouncement

It was a mixed list, establishing the principle that the series would cover a range of genres and styles.  A crime story and a romance rubbed shoulders with more literary fiction.   A volume of short stories was published alongside the first volume of an historical family saga.   There was something for everyone, and importantly, with colour coding by genre, the mix of types of book was reflected in a mix of colours for the first six books.

The choice of the first three authors – James Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis, seemed to say that the series would be more at the cutting edge of modern literature than Tauchnitz had been in recent years.   It also said something about the ability of Albatross to attract authors away from Tauchnitz.

James Joyce in particular had been neglected by Tauchnitz.  They had eventually published ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’ in 1930, some ten years after being offered it, but had shown little interest in his other works.  So for Albatross, publishing ‘Dubliners’ as volume 1 was an open goal.

Huxley and Lewis had been treated better, with Tauchnitz publishing six volumes of Huxley and three from Lewis, arguably including their most important works.  But that was far from comprehensive coverage and as with Joyce, Albatross was able to target earlier works, overlooked by Tauchnitz, before later publishing new works.  Sinclair Lewis had in 1930 become the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, so it was a good time to be revisiting his earlier works.

The next three titles were perhaps a bit lighter, but Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole was a significant prize.  It was the first of the Herries Chronicles, a trilogy of books set in the Lake District, and probably the work for which Walpole is best remembered now.  He too had to be attracted away from Tauchnitz, which had published several of his earlier works, as did Warwick Deeping.   As Tauchnitz had had a near monopoly on publishing English literature in Europe, it was almost inevitable that the authors Albatross wanted to publish would already have had dealings with Tauchnitz.

The launch of the first six titles was also marked by the issue of a boxed set of the six books.  I have little idea how many of these were produced or sold, or indeed the price at which it was offered.  I have only ever seen the one example, illustrated below, and that is in less than perfect condition.  Although the box has no Albatross branding, I am pretty sure that it was produced for Albatross, rather than just being a home-made affair.  It’s possible though that it was produced only for presentation copies, offered to business contacts and colleagues.

Box Set First Six 2

Just one of the books in this box still has its transparent dustwrapper, and that is in poor condition, but all the books would originally have had them.   They were easily damaged and after a year or so, new titles were instead given paper dustwrappers in the same design as the books.

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Albatross and the Third Reich. A Strange Bird, but a wonderful book.

‘Strange Bird’ is a wonderful new book by Michele Troy, subtitled ‘The Albatross Press and the Third Reich’.  It vividly recounts the difficulties of a business publishing modernist British and American literature in 1930s Germany under the Nazis, and the lives of the key people involved as they cope with the sometimes brutal consequences.

Strange Bird

Michele Troy is Professor of English at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford in Connecticut.  On one level her book is a meticulously researched academic study, where every assertion is backed by detailed research referenced in copious footnotes.   But on another level it’s more like a novel, following the lives of a whole cast of characters, but particularly the three main founders of Albatross – John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch.

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Kurt Enoch (right) with novelist Erskine Caldwell, in the US after the war

The book is beautifully written, again more like a novel in places, but the story the author has uncovered is almost too implausible for the plot of a novel.  There are twists and turns as the business has to adapt to Nazi control and suspicion, and the team is then split apart by restrictions on Jewish ownership of property in Germany.   I won’t include too many spoilers, but the story reaches a climax with the German occupation of Paris in 1940.  The contrasts in the experiences of the main participants at that point are almost heartbreaking, but there is far more to come.  Triumph turns to disaster and disaster turns to recovery in very personal terms as well as in political, military and business terms.

Max Christian Wegner

Max Christian Wegner, after the war

Holroyd-Reece, Wegner and Enoch all had very successful publishing careers separately from Albatross, both before and after the war, and they worked together for only a few years.  I’ve long believed that in that short period they were able to create something really special, and that the Albatross series was a remarkable achievement in both literary and business terms.  But I had little idea before picking up this book of quite how remarkable it really was.  It needs the context of time and place, of everything that was going on in 1930s Germany, followed by the war and the post-war chaos, to understand the extent of their achievement.  ‘Strange Bird’ brings together the context and the achievement and ties it together with the intertwining personal life stories of three remarkable men.

Holroyd Reece Christmas Card 8 and 9

John Holroyd Reece in his Paris office, drawn by Gunter Böhmer for a 1938 Christmas Card

All three died many years ago, but as well as researching many archives, Michele Troy has tracked down relatives and uncovered personal reminiscences that transform the book from a dusty academic work to a spellbinding thriller.  Above all it’s the stories of the people that you come away with from this book.  They’re engaging stories and engaging people, for the most part sympathetically drawn characters, despite all their faults.

The book is part history, part biography, part novel, part academic treatise, part detective story, part bibliographical research, but above all it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.   I hope many more people will read it.

Publishing in the shadow of the Nazis. Tauchnitz, Albatross and Brandstetter in the 1930s.

By the time the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the firm of Bernhard Tauchnitz had existed in Leipzig for almost a century and had already survived a world war as well as the hyperinflation and depression that followed it.   The printer and publisher Oscar Brandstetter, also based in Leipzig, was fast approaching its 75 year anniversary.   Although the leaders of the two firms must surely have known each other within the Leipzig book trade, they were at that point unconnected, as far as I can tell.  They were shortly to be brought together by the intervention of a third firm, Albatross, based not in Leipzig, but in Paris, and which had existed for only a few months.   They presumably had little awareness of this, but may have had more awareness of some of the complications likely to arise from Hitler’s rise to power, which were to play a significant part in the coming together of the three companies.

On 10th May 1933, in the Opernplatz in Berlin, German students and brown-shirted stormtroopers gathered to burn books that they considered un-German.  It was followed by ceremonial book-burnings in other German university towns, including Leipzig.  Did a collective shiver pass down the spine of the German book trade, for so long based in Leipzig?

book-burning 2

The Opernplatz in Berlin – 10 May 1933

As well as the works of many prominent German authors, books by a long list of English and American authors were banned, many of them published by Tauchnitz, including H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos.  All of these writers had books published by Tauchnitz before May 1933.   No further books by any of them were published after that date, although a few reprints with later dates exist, possibly only for sale outside Germany.

Several of the banned authors had in any case already defected to Albatross, whose books were vastly more attractive than the Tauchnitz volumes, and had quickly established the upper hand in the marketplace.   So in the face of a formidable competitor, Tauchnitz was being asked to compete with one hand tied behind its back.   To make matters worse, Albatross was led by Max Christian Wegner, who had previously managed Tauchnitz in Leipzig, where he had tried to push through various changes, before the Board, finding his changes too radical, decided to part company with him.

At Albatross he found a Board, led by the Italian publisher Arnoldo Mondadori, that was more attuned to his way of thinking and he was able to implement many of his ideas, with striking success.  Amongst those ideas was the separation of the printing from the publishing side of the business.  Unlike Tauchnitz Editions, Albatross books were never printed in-house.  The first few were printed at Mondadori in Italy, but from volume 21 onwards, most were printed by Brandstetter, or more specifically by the Jakob Hegner department of Brandstetter in Leipzig.

printing colophon volume 29

Colophon for an early Albatross book printed by Hegner

How did the contact with Brandstetter / Hegner come about?   Had Wegner already had discussions with them when he was at Tauchnitz, possibly with the thought of them taking over the printing work for Tauchnitz?   Up to the point when he left, in May 1931, Tauchnitz books had always been printed in-house, but by the end of the following year books were being printed by the Bibliographisches Institut in Leipzig or by the Offizin Haag-Drugulin.  Was that one of the changes he had proposed?

It would take more than a change of printer to save Tauchnitz though, and by mid-1934 its financial situation had deteriorated to the point where it was put up for sale.   Although it was effectively unable to compete with Albatross, it had a back catalogue of over 5000 volumes that would have some value in the hands of the right owners, and in particular would have some value for Albatross.

But it was not Albatross who bought Tauchnitz, despite the rumours circulating at the time.  Albatross had too many Jewish links, both in terms of its owners and its managers, for that to be allowed in the political climate of the time.   Instead there was an effective partnership between Albatross and Oscar Brandstetter, where Brandstetter became the new owner of Tauchnitz and took on all the printing work, while editorial control was taken on by Albatross.

 Brandstetter Oscar    Brandstetter printing machine

Oscar Brandstetter                               The Brandstetter printing works

So Brandstetter may have been reluctant and largely nominal owners of Tauchnitz, there only to satisfy the authorities, happy to benefit from the substantial printing work, but with little interest in the publishing side of the business.   It’s hard to know for sure.  They were certainly not just printers.  They did have other publishing interests, but publishing contemporary English literature would be quite a specialised area that they might not have felt able to take on.  They surely would not have wanted anyway to go into direct competition with Albatross, one of their major printing clients.  A partnership where Brandstetter were the legal owners of Tauchnitz, but Albatross controlled the editorial side, would tie the two companies together and guarantee a substantial volume of printing work from both businesses.

But if that arrangement suited Brandstetter, other changes under way were more threatening.  The department of Brandstetter dealing with Albatross was run by Jakob Hegner, who despite converting to Christianity, came from an Austrian Jewish family and was strongly opposed to National Socialism.  He had been a publisher in Vienna, but his firm had run into difficulties in 1930 and was acquired by Brandstetter, with Hegner himself moving to Leipzig.  In 1936 though he was excluded from the Reichsschrifttumskammer, which effectively barred him from the book business in Germany, and he moved back to Vienna, before fleeing to England in 1938 after the Anschluss.  Interestingly Brandstetter published a short volume in 1937 celebrating the work of the Jakob Hegner business, with the title ‘Wirklichkeit und Wahrheit’ (Reality and Truth).  The title came from a work by Josef Pieper published by the firm, but could it also have been a commentary aimed at the German authorities that had effectively driven the founder of the firm out of the country?

Jakob Hegner book title page

Albatross had similar problems to deal with.  The distribution business of the company was run from Hamburg by Kurt Enoch, who was also Jewish.  Although a decorated officer in the German Army from the First World War, he was effectively required under the Aryanisation programme to sell his business, and he too emigrated, first to Paris and then in 1940 to the US, where he went on to work for Penguin Books and to found the New American Library.   Max Wegner moved back to Germany from Paris to take on Enoch’s role in distribution, leaving John Holroyd-Reece in charge of the editorial side.

Holroyd-Reece is rather demonised by the Tauchnitz bibliographers, Todd & Bowden, but almost certainly unfairly.   He did have some potentially difficult decisions about which books to publish under the Albatross brand, and which in the Tauchnitz Edition, but did so in a way that distinguished the brand images – Albatross more edgy and modern, Tauchnitz more conservative and traditional.  While Todd & Bowden accuse him of unfairly favouring Albatross, his decisions were restricted by censorship in Germany, and in any case the reality is probably that without the intervention of Albatross, Tauchnitz would have had no new publishing programme at all after 1934.   They had failed commercially and anyone else would have struggled to compete with Albatross in anything other than reprinting previous successes from their back catalogue.  Brandstetter, as legal owners of Tauchnitz would have had little cause for complaint about Holroyd-Reece’s stewardship of the company in the few years before the Second World War.