Visionary editor and critic of digital power

Frank Schirrmacher: September 5th, 1959 - June 12th, 2014

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 11:39

Frank Schirrmacher, who has died aged 54, was a co-publisher of one of Germany’s most respected newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), and one of the country’s leading intellectuals.

In his writing, Schirrmacher often seemed to be coming from a point of view in which the cultural values of old Europe looked to be under attack, particularly from Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Nevertheless his efforts to understand and explain the significance of these new forces were often more impressive than those of the enthusiasts.

Schirrmacher’s instincts were often conservative. His 2004 book Der Methusalem-Komplott (The Methuselah Conspiracy) warned about the demographic shock that would hit Germany between 2010 and 2020. He might have sided with the youthful minority that would now have to work harder to support the burden of caring for their elders; instead, he rallied to the defence of the growing army of octogenarians. Left and right In recent years he increasingly seemed to wheel back and forth across the ideological divide. “I am starting to believe that the left was right” was the title of one of his essays in the wake of the financial crisis. “The crisis of so-called bourgeois politics, a politics which has kidnapped the bourgeoisie in the way communism once kidnapped the proletariat, is developing into a confidence crisis for political conservatism,” he wrote.

Born in Wiesbaden, son of Halina and Herbert Schirrmacher, he grew up in a middle class household, his father a civil servant. After academic stints at Heidelberg, Cambridge and Yale, he gained his doctorate at the University of Siegen in 1988, with a thesis on Kafka, the critic Harold Bloom and deconstruction that would later come back to haunt him as it emerged that he had cut corners, recycling previously published material.

Having joined the FAZ after university, he became the paper’s youngest ever literary editor at 30: a daunting task as his predecessor was postwar Germany’s most influential literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki.

In 1994, he became the youngest ever editor of the paper’s feuilleton (culture) section and one of the five co-publishers whose names were listed under the masthead. Time magazine listed him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

What Schirrmacher published on his pages often set the agenda, as when he accused the influential novelist Martin Walser of toying with antisemitic cliches in his novel Tod eines Kritikers (Death of a Critic): the critic thought to have been murdered in the story bore some resemblance to Reich-Ranicki.

Schirrmacher also became the first journalist to interview Günter Grass about his membership of the Waffen SS.

His 2009 book Payback was subtitled “How the information age forces us to do things we don’t want to do, and how we can win back control over our thoughts”. His most recent book, Ego: The Game of Life, saw him settling scores with neoliberal economics. It argued that a view of the world which broke down human relations into a series of equations and game-theory scenarios had subconsciously been carried over into the information age and was allowing capitalism to run rampant. Traditional economies, in which manufacturers made real goods to sell to real people, could provide a path to a better future, he hoped.

His management style at the FAZ was not universally popular. Many editors left the feuilleton while it was under his command, complaining to the editorial board that the office had become a place “that one enters with anxiety in the morning and leaves with relief in the evening”. One of them indeed went on to write a novel in which a character apparently modelled on Schirrmacher was murdered and eaten by badgers. Space for debate Over recent years, Schirrmacher increasingly steered the paper’s arts pages away from their literary roots, turning them into arguably the country’s leading forum for debate on digital issues.

“In terms of cultural coverage of digital issues, there was simply no competition to FAZ – not in Europe and not in the US – and it was all Frank’s achievement,” said Evgeny Morozov, one of the writers Schirrmacher sponsored. “For me, Frank was always the spiritual connection to the great Frankfurter Zeitung of the Weimar era – the one that gave employment to such great thinkers as Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer.”

Schirrmacher is survived by his wife, the journalist Rebecca Casati, and their daughter, as well as a son from his previous marriage, to the author Angelika Klüssendorf.