‘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.
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.Embed from Getty Images
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.
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.
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.
In 1934 Tauchnitz was on the point of collapse. Its brash new rival, Albatross, had succeeded far beyond its expectations and had stripped Tauchnitz of its sales, its authors and its prestige. Tauchnitz was ready to admit defeat and to agree to being bought by Albatross, but one thing stood in the way. The National Socialists, the Nazis, had just come to power in Germany, and Albatross was a company with multiple Jewish connections. In the political climate of the time, such a transaction was impossible.
Instead a complicated arrangement was put in place where Tauchnitz was bought by Brandstetter, the German printing firm that printed Albatross books. Brandstetter passed editorial control to Albatross, but kept the printing work for itself. From 1934, editorial control of both series was handled from Paris by Albatross.
With Huxley and various other writers though, they had a problem. Their books were being burned by the Nazis and were appearing on various lists of banned books. Albatross / Tauchnitz had to tread carefully along a narrow line if they were to survive at all in Germany. They had to exercise some self-censorship not only in terms of what they published, but how they published it and where they sold it. The story is told in some detail and in very entertaining form in Michele Troy’s new book ‘Strange Bird. The Albatross Press and the Third Reich’.
On the face of it, it made little difference whether books were published by Albatross or by Tauchnitz. Editorial control of both series was from the same office in Paris, the books of both series were printed at the same printer in Leipzig, and they were distributed by the same distributor in Hamburg. But the evidence of the books suggests a different story. Tauchnitz after all was a German firm, with a higher proportion of its sales in Germany, and had to be extremely careful about publishing writers that were not approved of by the German government. Albatross, although coming under considerable German control, seemed to be allowed a little more freedom. Its books, printed in Germany, but sold across Europe, earned valuable foreign currency for Germany and the Nazis were prepared to be a bit more tolerant.
But it seems clear that Huxley was no longer to be tolerated as a Tauchnitz author. He had moved to Albatross anyway for new publications, but even works for which Tauchnitz already had the rights were not reprinted. The Tauchnitz bibliography records reprint dates for the six Huxley volumes in Tauchnitz editions. Each was reprinted several times, but none of them after the end of 1934. A similar pattern exists for D.H. Lawrence and other writers not approved of by the Nazis.
Instead Huxley’s books were transferred across to the Albatross series. The two volumes of short stories, ‘Two or three graces’ and ‘Brief candles’ were reprinted in 1935 as Albatross volumes 246 and 247, followed shortly afterwards by ‘Music at night and other essays’ as volume 260. ‘Point Counter Point’ appeared in April 1937 as volumes 331 and 332.
Two volume, or even three volume novels had been a long tradition for Tauchnitz, although gradually dropping out of favour by the 1930s. For Albatross, they were almost unheard of. Longer novels appeared, not in two volumes, but in a larger ‘extra volume’ sold at a higher price. Presumably they could have done that with ‘Point Counter Point’, but, perhaps for contractual reasons, they chose to retain the Tauchnitz two volume format. Unlike Tauchnitz though, they offered the two volumes for sale together in a slipcase.
This transfer of Huxley’s books across to Albatross was probably made necessary by implicit censorship, but it made some sense anyway for editorial reasons. Albatross had been the more modern, edgier series, and Tauchnitz the more traditional, conservative one, even before the takeover. With new books still being added to both series, there had to be some basis for deciding which books appeared in which series and Huxley fitted better into Albatross. The opportunity to develop a ‘collected edition’ of Huxley’s works in Albatross may have been too good to miss.
On the other hand, shifting books from one series to the other could also have a financial impact. The two firms had different ownership structures, so profits from the books could end up in a different place. The Tauchnitz bibliographers, Todd & Bowden, accused the Albatross managers, particularly John Holroyd-Reece, of systematically transferring profits away from Tauchnitz, to the detriment of the new owners, Brandstetter.
This is probably unfair, and seems to take no account of the difficult circumstances in Germany at the time. Whether the various dealings were fair to Brandstetter or not, depends upon the basis on which they went into the arrangement, what the ongoing financial arrangements were, and also on what was politically possible in 1930s Germany. They did after all buy Tauchnitz at a time when, without the support of Albatross, it had little future or value at all. It is likely that Brandstetter’s financial interest came more from printing the books of both firms than from the profits of publishing. But the details of the arrangements were to be of vital importance later when war came to separate the firms.
There was still the question of whether any further new works of Huxley’s could be published. ‘Beyond the Mexique Bay’, appeared in Britain in 1934, nominally a record of Huxley’s travels in Mexico and Central America, but also including long sections that were critical of fascism and offensive to the German government. It could not appear in translation in Germany but it might be more tolerated in English. It did appear in 1935, as Albatross volume 269, but only after considerable self-censorship by the Albatross editors – “die Schere im Kopf”, or the scissors in your own head, as described by Michele Troy’s book. Even then it’s an open question as to how openly it could be sold in Germany as opposed to other European countries.
It was followed by ‘The olive tree and other essays’ in August 1937 (volume 336) and then by ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ in January 1938 as volume 358. Finally in July 1939, only a few weeks before the outbreak of war, came ‘Along the Road’, another collection of essays, originally published in Britain as early as 1925, so another example of catching up with Huxley’s earlier works.
In total then, 14 Huxley volumes in Albatross, five of them transferred across from Tauchnitz (and one more that never transferred), covering almost all his pre-war novels and short stories, as well as a representative selection of his essays and travel writing. In the end only D.H. Lawrence accounted for more volumes in the series, although Agatha Christie was level on fourteen. For a series that was printed in Germany in the 1930s and a writer whose books were burned and appeared on banned lists, that was quite an achievement.
Tauchnitz loved issuing celebratory volumes and had plenty of occasions to do so. The 500th volume of the series in 1860, the 1000th volume in 1869 and the 2000th in 1881 were all marked by specially commissioned volumes and by specially bound presentation copies to be offered to authors, friends and business contacts.
Then in 1887 it was time to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the business, with a specially published history. Much of this is taken up with a long list of the works published by the firm, making it a rather luxurious catalogue, but it also includes excerpts from authors’ letters to Tauchnitz, which was to become a feature of subsequent histories.
Volume 3000 seemed to slip by largely unnoticed, but volume 4000 in 1909 was marked by a ‘A manual of American literature’. This gave full recognition for the first time to the huge contribution from American authors to a series that for 70 years had been called ‘The Collection of British Authors’.
Then in 1912 another anniversary history to mark 75 years. The catalogue of publications has now disappeared, and more prominence is given to letters from authors, with Charles Dickens pre-eminent among them.
The milestone of the 5000th volume was reached in 1931 and celebrated with an ‘Anthology of Modern English Poetry’, but by then the business was tottering. It was sold in 1934, and lived on until the outbreak of war effectively as a sub-division of Albatross, the firm which had defeated it commercially.
So when the time came to write its centenary publication in 1937 it must have felt to some in the firm more of an obituary than a celebration. The task of writing it fell to John Holroyd-Reece, the Managing Director of Albatross, and in the end he did Tauchnitz proud, although an early draft had contained a paragraph seeming to celebrate his own role rather too much. Again the publication included a selection of letters from famous authors, including Dickens and Disraeli, this time in facsimile form, and also a range of congratulatory letters from well-known people, including the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and the Archbishop of York. Slightly oddly, it was given the title of ‘The Harvest’, perhaps suggesting that the firm was now reaping the benefits of previous efforts, and no longer sowing new seed for the future, a position uncomfortably close to the truth.
The book appeared in two different forms, one with cream paper boards, and one with gold wrappers, each with a blind-stamped Tauchnitz Centenary logo on the front. Neither version is difficult to find today. More interesting are the presentation copies prepared for authors and other friends of the firm. These are identical to the gold paperback edition, but the half-title is replaced with an individual printed page with the name of the person to whom it was presented. The copy illustrated here was presented to Janet Beith, the author of ‘No second spring’, published as volume 5157 in 1934. Other copies in public collections have the names of W.W. Jacobs, Louis Golding, H.M. Tomlinson and Helen Simpson.
Presumably copies were printed with the names of all Tauchnitz authors still alive in 1937, which would have included, amongst many others, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Daphne du Maurier, Aldous Huxley, P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne. As Louis Golding, whose copy survives, was published only by Albatross, never by Tauchnitz itself, this suggests copies may also have been presented to all Albatross authors. In that case, copies may exist with the names of Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others.
An intriguing question arises though from the fact that several of the Tauchnitz authors, including for instance Joyce, Wells and Huxley, had been placed on the list of banned authors, by the Nazi party, then in power in Germany. Albatross, whose editorial offices were based in Paris, continued to publish works by banned authors, but always in the Albatross series rather than in Tauchnitz, and presumably for sale only outside Germany. Interestingly the Albatross books were still being printed in Germany, just down the road from where other works by some of the same authors were being burned. But did Tauchnitz in 1937, a German-owned firm based in Leipzig, print special celebratory volumes for authors at that time banned in Germany? A copy printed for James Joyce would be an interesting find …
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.