Move over, Weimar Berlin, here come the Wilhelmine years. This period, spanning roughly from 1890 to 1918, is being brought back to life by Rixdorf Editions, the remarkable Berlin- based indie press that has been bringing unfairly neglected texts from turn-of-the-century Germany into the hands of English-language readers since its founding in 2017. Rixdorf’s founder, the Australian James J. Conway, moved to Berlin in 2006 and worked as a commercial translator before establishing his one-man publishing house.
You run the blog Strange Flowers, which is dedicated to the fascinating, often obscure lives of mostly turn-of-the-century bohemian intellectuals. Were you always interested in these lively characters from the footnotes of history – or did Berlin trigger that in you?
It was both. I’ve always been drawn to these kinds of hidden stories. And then being in Berlin and having that space and time to think about what I want to do – well, one of the things was to write about these people. So I started collecting articles and books and links and all sorts of things about the figures I was interested in, and in 2009 I started writing about them. That was Strange Flowers.
Even then, the idea of doing a blog about your personal interests was already getting a little old. But it was really gratifying to make connections online with other people who shared these interests – connections that weren’t based on the usual signifiers of gender and race and so on. In an idealistic, utopian way, I think that’s the best of the internet.
Strange Flowers and Rixdorf Editions both focus on the pre WWI, so-called Wilhelmine era. What draws you to that period in particular?
It’s not usually a prominent part of the Berlin mythology… Well, initially it was exactly this lack of attention. Maybe I’m just a contrarian by nature. But if you show me a door and say there’s nothing behind it, then that’s the door I’m going to look behind. It’s the way I’m wired. At Strange Flowers, I was looking for stories that hadn’t been told. And here, it seemed, was a whole world that had been left unexplored.
Even in Germany, there’s sort of a taboo around this era – it’s seen as militaristic and conformist and belligerent. And it absolutely was. But within those very unpromising parameters, you had this incredibly rich counter-culture, an incredibly rich bohemian life. The fact that I couldn’t find out more about it drove me to explore it more, doing more and more research, going to the Stabi and antiquarian bookshops, reading online, building up a base knowledge of the era and its key figures. Then, at a certain point, I thought: Now what?
And that’s where Rixdorf came in?
Yes. I had this knowledge, this interest – an obsession, it’s fair to say. You don’t choose your obsessions, they choose you. I was well in by that point, and thinking about how to tell the story. And I realised that a lot of original texts from the era had never been translated into English. These weren’t just historical curios: they were really important texts. It seemed like the two things coming together – my previous work as a translator, and my interest in this period.
So I started my own independent press. I began with Berlin’s Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld, a book that says so much that is present to us now – about gender, sexuality, Berlin as a place of experimentation. It was all there much earlier than people realise. It’s really important we can go back to these texts, especially at a time like now, when you see all these terrible claims about people’s identities, like the pernicious lie that transgender identity is something totally new. We can go back and say, “look, here it is, and it was written in 1904.”
This year, you’ll be publishing three prose works by the Berlin author Else Lasker-Schüler, a figure who’s not so known in the anglosphere. What drew you to her?
I didn’t know who she was before moving to Berlin. In 2009, I wrote about her briefly on Strange Flowers, and I had the feeling we would meet again. I was fascinated by her life – it has this grand, operatic scale with the wars, escaping the Holocaust and living in Zurich in terribly precarious circumstances, before moving to Palestine.
And the time before that, when she was one of the most important figures of the Wilhemine bohemian scene. Lasker-Schüler came from a secure, upper-middle-class Jewish background, very assimilated. She could have lived a life of relative luxury. But something inside her, some drive, didn’t allow that. Eventually she left her husband and fell in with Berlin’s various bohemians of the time – the overlapping groups of anarchists, gay rights groups, reformists, utopians. It was a very fertile time for ideas, and Lasker-Schüler was right in the middle of it.
Today she is best known for her poetry, but her prose is increasingly getting its due. It’s so alien, so singular, and so confident in its singularity. And these three works really reflect her own transformation: first, someone who’s left her old life but is still wondering what’s next; then this figure who goes out into the world and encounters all sorts of characters. By the third book, she’s gained the confidence to look beyond her own life and create something entirely new.
You translate and write about these incredibly colourful characters who dissolve the boundary between art and life. Does this inspire you to try alternative lifestyles yourself?
It’s a contradiction, because I’m really drawn to this kind of performance – and Else Lasker-Schüler was a perfect example of that. For her, there was no break at all between her personality and her creations. She would write letters to Gottfried Benn as if she were a character in her book; she would go around Berlin dressed like someone from Arabian Nights.
I find it fascinating, the idea that you can be so committed to your art that you live it. It’s fantastic. But it’s not something I do myself [laughs]. I’m more of an observer – I’m happier watching people than being the one to be watched.