This year's Frankfurt Book Fair was marred by violence amid protests against a far-right publishing house. It's time to rethink our relationship with literature.
FRANKFURT — There was something approaching mass hysteria last weekend at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest trade show for the publishing industry. In the evening, brawls broke out between strangers among the empty booths. Fists flew at book launch parties. The title of the German text behind much of the fervor was Mit Linken leben ("Living with the Left"), published by the far-right Antaios publishing house. But there was also the presence of Bjorn Hocke, a far-right Alternative for Germany politician, that riled up the crowd. The book was a hastily-written riposte to another book titled Mit Rechten reden ("Speaking with the Right"), published by Klett-Cotta, a rival publisher. The latter book's title was meant to be sincere: a call for meaningful debate instead of marginalizing political opponents.
This plea may now seem like wishful thinking after last weekend's ruckus, but it's not. Since the organizer of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, may not deny a booth to any legal publishing house or reject books that are popular with readers on the political right. Likewise, the association may not ban young men, clad in neo-fascist uniforms and military-style boots, so long as they never take a swing at anyone. The same goes for members of Antifa, who are at the fair to do more than just chant slogans. Everywhere book fairs must accept the risk of a fight breaking out if they wish to conform to the law and do not want to make simply suspecting someone of causing trouble a criterion for exclusion.
When thug and the reader are one in the same.
In the run-up to the event, some people had demanded that the Frankfurt Book Fair exclude far-right publishers. Their demands still have not been retroactively validated in light of the fighting. Had the German Publishers and Booksellers Association caved to such demands, it would have only served to fuel the far-right's propaganda of playing the victim of the mainstream.
In the hysteria over the proximity of books and thugs, the publishing industry frequently winds up on its soap box, pushing a familiar myth. In these sermons, the book as such is a medium which civilizes and builds bridges between people. It is an instrument of culture that reliably counteracts barbarism. The brawl that broke out in Frankfurt suggests that we can bid farewell to this illusion. For it may be true in individual cases that a cultivated reader can confront an illiterate thug, but more realistic and unsettling in Germany today is that the thug and the reader are one in the same.
Newspapers, magazines, books can kindle a fire. Even below the punishable level of hate speech, they have just as much capacity to shrink as broaden the worldviews of their readers. They can just as easily fuel emotions as strengthen arguments. This is a truism that manifests itself in front of the public eye in Germany today. It appeared long before fists flew at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The fight did not befall the event from exterior forces nor could it have been avoided by excluding radicals and reactionaries. But in the end, you don't ban the books, you arrest the thugs.