German Adaptations of Pop in 1960’s Literature
von Thomas Hecken

The term “pop”

Pop literature is a term that has been widely used ever since the second half of the 1990s among intellectual circles throughout the German-speaking world. In comparison with the Anglo-American sphere, the concept simply does not exist in this particular sense. In customary parlance, the term typically serves the writer of the contemporary German “Feuilleton” in identifying those novels by authors who report either in an affirmative manner or in a cynical, crypto-depressive way on the world of modern goods, media, and leisure. Such writers, for the most part, tell stories about the lives of younger consumers and lifestyle aficionados.

Sometimes, in a more avant-garde version, they employ the genre and text forms of the popular culture and carry them forward in a cold, alienated way, by emptying them of their semantic or ideological sense. Considering this situation, it seems strange that in Western Germany in the years surrounding 1968, especially 1967-1970, a lot of discussions revolved frequently around pop literature and similar topics in anthologies, reviews and then quickly again in academic papers.

This appears strange because the year “1968” not only stands for an historic date, but in general usage has long functioned to reference a period of downright consumption- and capitalism-critical attitudes and postures. Thus, it does not surprise us to read in an essay by the author Rolf Dieter Brinkmann from the year 1969 about the “murderous race to be competitive,” or about the “extinguishing of the individual in the day-to-day terror.”[1]

In opposition to this horror scenario, Brinkmann relies upon “social restructuring” carried by “global sensibility”,[2] “like that,” he says,  “which has also become effective in student uprisings everywhere.”[3] In this way, he hopes as a writer for a literary “movement” that can create “a little piece of liberated reality”, a movement that “helps to facilitate the use of force on the part of the suppressed, the underprivileged, the excluded and on the part of the outsider against the militarized standard and the standardized understanding.”[4]

It may certainly seem even more astonishing in view of this well-known 1968 rhetoric, when we hear Brinkmann, in the same essay, gushing about the “photos of Vogue-Beauties” and the “smoothness […] of the surface of a picture” in the typical manner of pop artists.[5] However, these statements appear unusual not just from today’s perspective. They are remarkable, above all, because they represent a radical break with the West-German intellectual past of the years 1948-1966.

During this time, a harsh critique of mass media and mass culture ranked among the most important discourses of German columnists, academic scholars and literary authors. First of all, it enabled the intellectuals of those years to break with the German, National Socialist past in a way which omitted self-criticism, for it allowed many of them to return to the conservative opinions they had already been expressing in the twenties (e.g., criticism of the “Massenmensch”—the man of the crowd, had been an important topic of Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger). At the same time, they could reject the socialist alternative, to National Socialism in the name of this criticism of mass culture as “totalitarian”. And, thirdly, a distance could be signaled through the critique of mass culture in respect to America.

Again and again, it was pointed out in the most critical manner that the modern “Massenmensch” had lost his moral and cultural identity, his steady place in an ordered community, and was, therefore, a human “atom”, an easy victim of manipulation by political leaders and social ideologies. Amongst such “leaders” were not only “populist demagogues” counted, but also—within the Americanized, capitalistic, western world—the imperatives of consumption. In the view of the intellectual and of the elitist bourgeois, standardized goods and media produced in large quantities served to homogenize the rest of the population into a mere crowd.

Along those lines, in merely talking about culture, one could more or less subliminally express one’s objection to the existing democracy. Conservative forces demanded a stronger curtailment of electoral laws and the right to free expression, insisting on the privilege of educational elitism. Left-wing, liberal intellectuals doubted that majority opinions could be the result of free, individual decisions, since they took for granted—just as their right-wing colleagues did—the corruptive power of the modern media and of consumer culture, or, as Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer had claimed, the manipulative force of the “culture industry”.

Of course, such evaluations and opinions were also commonly found in America around the same time and were published to an extent in American magazines by exiled German intellectuals like Adorno and Horkheimer, who, in the fifties, later returned to their liberated homeland. In contrast to the American debate, however, nearly all intermediary tones and revaluations are absent in Germany, like those brought forth by David Riesman, Robert Warshow or Paul Lazarsfeld.

That culture which was detested by professors, high school teachers, columnists, modern authors and other members of the cultured bourgeoisie (e.g., leading officials, lawyers, doctors), and which was consistently and clearly to be negatively evaluated in Germany, was the Massenkultur or “mass culture” (quite rare exceptions can be found among empirically-oriented sociologists like René König and Alphons Silbermann, who are ultimately assigned to the ‘American school’).[6] Only beginning in the seventies do the often more positively connotated words “populäre Kultur” (popular culture) gradually come to substitute “Massenkultur” (mass culture) in Germany.

This, of course, is not meant to imply that there was no form of popular culture (in the modern Anglo-American sense) in Germany. Naturally, Thomas Mann and Günter Grass were not the only authors being read in Germany, just as, after the disastrous end of the National Socialist regime, it comes similarly as no surprise that the German popular culture of the post-war period no longer consisted predominately of racist propaganda or the glorification of blood and soil. Nevertheless, it remains obvious that many films and hits with allegedly apolitical content and narration retained a specific German quality.

So-called “Americanization” is more strongly revealed during the post-war period in the fact that many consumer goods and electronic entertainment products, which were already widespread in US-households, ranked at the top of the German population’s purchase lists.[7] Rock ’n’ Roll and some Hollywood films, on the other hand, had only reached parts of a predominantly adolescent audience in the fifties, whereas German performers were almost exclusively to be found in charts up until and on through the mid sixties. In addition, German adaptations of international models resulted in much-domesticated versions which completely lacked the aggressiveness or new sound of, say, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, or, later, of the Beatles.

The decisive fact for our topic is that there were still no intellectuals present in Germany who were enthusiastic about American forms of popular culture. Something along the lines of the English Independent Group, for example, or the French film critics and, later, directors of the Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard, for instance) were absent in Germany. It is true that some isolated magazines appeared that today would be referred to as “Zeitgeist” or lifestyle magazines (in the fifties, above all, Magnum; in the sixties, Twen).

But, for a long time, what dominated their pages was mainly the coverage of modern design, photography and jazz music. Even the earliest, more specialized music magazines, aimed at student audiences—Song and Sounds—had only just begun to turn to rock music with some effect in 1968. Still, the prevailing majority of articles were devoted to folk music and social critical German ‘singer-songwriters’ or dedicated to recent, progressive jazz productions. Much-read news magazines like Der Spiegel also were standoffish in relation to beat music, which nevertheless caught on rapidly among teen-agers in Germany from the mid-sixties on up to 1968.

American Pop Art also had a hard time asserting itself in the sixties in Germany. At documenta, 1964 in Kassel—the most significant show of contemporary, experimental art in Europe—Pop remained on the margins. And, in German literature and art criticism it was still being quite controversially discussed in the mid-sixties. One particular discussion within the circle “Poetics and Hermeneutics”, in which many of Germany’s leading modern art and humanities experts were gathered, can be looked as paradigmatic for the intellectualist stance on Pop Art. They accepted Pop Art as an extension of abstract art. In their understanding, the starting-point of Pop Art was to “brutally” show consumer goods or products of the popular media as an act to overcome the pictorial illusion of space, and not as an affirmation of the represented objects of popular culture.[8]

The early German reception of Beatnik literature proceeded quite similarly. The publication of poems by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in a leading German magazine for modern literature, Akzente, ran under the characteristic premise that the poems of the Beatniks luckily did not concern themselves with “Halbstarken-Poesie” —that is: ‘rowdy’ or ‘hooligan’ poetry—as the editors had first feared following reports from America.[9] One must be aware that the word “Halbstarke” was used in Germany for those youthful Rock ’n’ Roll followers whom one suspected almost unanimously of committing delinquent acts.[10]

Taken all together, one can almost confirm what Rolf Dieter Brinkmann wrote polemically in 1969: “Whereas the literary production of the BRD toward the end of the fifties did not even contain reference to contemporary objects that perforated normalized behaviors—Bill Haley’s forelocks, the marvelous, confused, excitingly beautiful shouting of Little Richard, Buddy Holly’s ballades or Elvis Presley’s rock music […], rather, inflated itself further with the already known, like the Frankish cherry gardens, Nordic lichen, the amusement of a summer afternoon (under high trees) etc., the Beat Generation at least let itself be energized by the stars of the jazz scene: Miles Davies [sic], playing with his back to the public, Thelonious Monk, slightly crazy and spaced out… Kerouac wrote bob-prosodies, a prose which washed away the stiff grammatical scaffolding, the Mexico-City-Blues, lyric poetry, which was structured after jazz arrangements, or take the rhapsodic excesses of the early Allen Ginsberg, the pictures frozen in the refrigerator by Burroughs…“[11]

From this, it already becomes clear that Brinkmann would like to tie up to these American models; the anthology published by him, in which his essay is found, is logically named, Acid: New American Scene. As the title of the article implies, however, at the end of the sixties it can no longer be about jazz prose, but about connections to contemporary rock music. Thus, poems and novels that Brinkmann and other authors published, were often referred to by critics as “pop literature”.

And with that, the break with the German literary and intellectual tradition of the post-war period was consummated. Before the word “Populärkultur” was even being used (while criticism of mass culture still dominated), intellectual avantgardistic circles now talked about “pop”, and no longer in a negative way, or as a mere generic term (for example: “pop music” for all English-speaking titles in the hit parades). The use of the term is also remarkable to the extent that, even before that, the term “Pop music” was already in use among certain adults in Germany, who often put a demonstrative pronoun before the word (“that pop music”) in order to signify their distance to this teenage musical phenomenon. Everyone else in Germany up until 1967 were still talking about “beat” or “beat music”.

How is this unusual intellectual and literary turn toward “pop” to be explained? In Germany, the reason lies quite unambiguously in the fact that “pop” was momentarily equated with “counter-culture” and “underground” by a great number of artists, literary columnists, politicized students and younger theorists. A starting-point for this had already been delivered by the acceptance of Pop Art among some young German artists such as Wolf Vostell. They were seeing American Pop Art in constant connection with Fluxus actions and provocative Happenings.

The question: Whether the pictures and objects of Pop Art—which portrayed in part well-known consumer-objects from the American supermarket or the stars of Hollywood and Rock ’n’ Roll—were intended to be affirmative, critical or indifferent, can thereby be unambiguously answered at least in one facet: They were completely an expression of criticism to the extent that they formed an affront compared to the artistic taste of the cultured bourgeois elite (‘Bildungsbürgertum’).

Even if these German artists were by no means engaged in drawing comics, manufacturing designs for cardboard detergent-boxes (and probably still preferred compositions by Stockhausen rather than listening to Brian Wilson), their mere commitment to these forms of pop culture was at that time an avant-garde act in itself. The alienating effect of Pop Art consists in taking popular objects, pictures and signs out of their usual context, in most cases slightly altering them. However, this demonstrative confession that objects of popular culture are to be valued estranges the prevailing majority of educated art lovers. Thus, the alienating effect here simply consists of artists or intellectuals positively confessing to the phenomena of ‘mass culture’.

In Germany in the late-sixties, we can find different variations of this revaluation of pop. A somewhat anti-authoritarian, but still partly-traditional socialist, like the German student leader Rudi Dutschke reminds us of the Latin roots of the term “popular culture”. As opposed to Anglo-Americans most German language users do not know that in “popular” the Latin word “populus” (“people”) can be found. In Germany, one has always spoken of “Volk” (for “people”) and “Volkskultur” (for “folk (or people’s) culture”). Therefore, the term “populäre Kultur” (“popular culture”) is especially well suited to signify the novelty of the phenomenon and to separate it from traditional German “Volkskultur”, which stems from the time of romanticism as well as from the nationalist-racist concept of “the people”; the latter belonged to the core of the National-Socialist ideology.

Dutschke now thankfully stressed the meaning of American “underground literature”, the impressive strength of the speeches of Malcolm X, the writings of Frantz Fanon and the songs of the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin. All of these examples had something in common in his eyes: They reached the “people” because they spoke their language. Nevertheless, according to Dutschke, such popular literature did not yet exist in Germany: “We still do not have a wide continuous underground literature, there is a lack, so far, of dialog between intellectuals and the common people”, regrets Dutschke.[12]

Dutschke’s evalutation of the situation was correct. German “underground” literature was directed not at the “people”, but at avant-garde students, Bohemians and artists. “Pop” for them was not an abbreviation for “popular culture”, but for a culture that consciously removed itself from restricted taste and the conventional, petit-bourgeois morality of the “people”. Above all, “pop” took on a progressive quality for these groups, because it fell outside the claim staked by the educational-elitist canon. For them, the act of distinction from the conservative intellectual seemed much more important than a turn toward the “people”. The old elites were not challenged in the name of the “people”, but rather, under the mark of the avant-garde.

This general tendency could assume different forms. The author Hubert Fichte, for instance, discussed sound recordings by the Münchner Bach Orchestra, Count Basie and the Rolling Stones together in one column.[13] Helmut Heissenbüttel, an older representative of the experimental modern age, who at the time was a very much known and respected author in Germany, made clear by other means that, in listening to new records, he was not merely giving himself over to the perspective of a teenager.

“Pop” to him was still a synonym for “commercialization”; and he criticized the Beatles and Bob Dylan for not freeing “U-music” from the “schematics of melodic arrangement”. In addition, “more interesting musicians and groups, like Jimi Hendrix, The Loving Spoonful, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac or Juli Driscoll” are for Heissenbüttel “always on the fringe of the commercially schematized”. He fully accepts, on the other hand, The Velvet Underground’s piece “Sister Ray” from the LP “White Light / White Heat”, its “homogeneous sound-space” reminding him of the “incessantly changing sound substratum by John Cage.”[14]

How is it then with authors like Rolf Dieter Brinkmann? We’ve gotten to know him as an eager follower of Little Richard and of photographs of “Vogue-Beauties”, who in the same breath demanded far reaching social change. Therefore, we should expect him to be a party member of contemporary pop music as well, who appeals neither to classical knowledge (Bach) nor relies upon the stars of contemporary music (Cage) for cultural self-legitimization.

And indeed, Brinkmann celebrates “rock music!” Admittedly, he defines it quite scientifically and bureaucratically as “sensuous experience, provoked by the operation of devices of high technology: the opening up of new qualities of human feeling”.[15] Nevertheless, the direction is quite clear. Brinkmann appreciated the intensity in rock music produced in an artificial, electric way. And straightaway in the next sentence, he turns antagonistically against the usual German cultural criticism, which constantly played out the natural and original against things artificial and cultured.

In another article, Brinkmann defined “Pop” systematically as a phenomenon that accepts the “now achieved state of the engineered environment” as “‘natural’ environment”.[16] Brinkmann used this definition of “pop” in his contribution to the debate on Leslie Fiedler’s thesis on postmodern literature. Fiedler’s famous article “Cross the Border, Close the Gap”, which also appeared in America in 1969, had originally been published in a German weekly paper subsequent to a talk by Fiedler, held in Freiburg in 1968[17] (the later American contribution was a slightly modified version of this German text).

In this essay, Fiedler lined up vehemently against the literature of the modern age and demands, instead, a “postmodern” literature, which should take up mass-media genres such as “western, science-fiction and pornography”;[18] “by the adoption and camping of pop forms“, the separation between “mass culture” and “high art” should be annulled.[19] In Germany, a violent discussion about Fiedler’s proposition inflamed itself within the literary-critical scene. A wide variety of authors such as, for example, Jürgen Becker and Martin Walser decidedly contradicted Fiedler, only Brinkmann fought on his side in the name of art-intensive “pop”.[20]

Consequently, in a letter to a publisher of “underground” literature Brinkmann announced, he was going to publish “pop-style stories” [poppartige Geschichten].[21] In actuality, however, there were no such pop-stories in Fiedler’s sense to be read, neither from Brinkmann nor from other German authors. What was available, however, were a large number of literary releases in the style of Pop Art. Above all, one could often find references to familiar names and symbols, or direct quotes and citations from texts of ‘Populärkultur’, especially in poetry. The most well known was a text by Peter Handke, which adopted the tactical lineup for a football team from a newspaper (a very offensively aligned 2-2-5-formation) and released this as a poem in the style of Duchamp and his pop successors.[22]

Nevertheless, at that time, many novels and stories by German authors were being referred to by literary critics as “pop literature”. To earn this classification, it was mostly sufficient to write about younger people and to strike, above all, a more aggressive or scandalous tone. It was likewise sufficient if you supplied a story without a customary plot; thus, stressing more strongly, the material or junk-character of the text. In this way, avant-garde techniques returned to Germany. However, in the latter case, the term “pop literature” referred not just to Pop Art. It also stands to reason that the term was being used because the youthful pop culture at the time had been seized up by the psychedelic wave, which dissolved the familiar structure of popular songs.

Thus, the term “pop” even by passionate followers like Brinkmann was only being used in connection with more experimental or aggressive variations of popular culture. An important exception was formed by the often eager reception of more conventionally erotic photos of female film stars and nude photographs from magazines. Such pictures were hardly ever rejected but rather, enthusiastically accepted. As a consequence, Elfriede Jelinek, (later) a Nobel Prize Laureate, still stood alone at the end of the sixties with her program of feminist criticism of the “Müten” (myths) of “mass communication” within the (male) countercultural literary scene.[23]

The disintegration and blurring of the boundaries of traditional forms, as it had been carried out in “underground” culture, fit—in the eyes of many anti-authoritarian left-wingers (in spite of or maybe just because of its appeal to male bias)—with political, anarchistic-libertarian aims. Even Herbert Marcuse, who certainly was no Grateful Dead follower, took some pleasure in the behavior patterns of young people. In contrast to his colleagues and friends of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, for example), Marcuse, who in Germany as well as in America was highly influential among young, left-wing intellectuals, valued the “the erotic belligerency in the songs of protest” and the “sensuousness of long hair.”

Marcuse’s enthusiasm however, did not remain unbowed; in the end he insisted on the fact that the “immediate refusal” could not be allowed to have the last word, the “Estrangement Effect” had to be preserved, otherwise the rebellious renunciation of traditional art could be all-too-rapidly “absorbed” by the capitalistic market.[24] The very scope of the success of countercultural activities among liberal arts audiences and feuilleton writers likewise served as a counter indicator. The followers of the Pop-underground interpreted such success not as a sign of the welcome liberalization of taste and opinions, but as an indicator of not having operated radically enough. Thus for instance Ralf-Rainer Rygulla, Brinkmann’s friend and colleague, complained that, “Warhol’s last film about lesbian girls and addicted gays was received favorably by the official critics. The mass media accepts Leary’s LSD parties.” Therefore, his conclusion and final demand is that, “the cultural countdown must be accelerated”.[25]

Such critical arguments and catchphrases assert themselves to a great extent in the course of 1968/69 within the left-wing intellectual scene. Scarcely was the term “pop” being positively used by some of its intellectual and avant-garde followers, before it quickly became the synonym for commercial and manipulative products. During the seventies, “pop” in Germany formed a modern counterpart to the old concept of “mass culture”. Those who, within the countercultural scene, still trusted in the positive effects of some forms of popular music now spoke, for example, of “progressive rock music”. Only at the start of the eighties—under the influence of the English post-punk / New Wave scene and some authors of the New Musical Express like Paul Morley and Julie Burchill—did young German intellectuals and authors start singing the praises of pop-affirmation once again. However, that is another story.[26]


Übersetzung aus dem Deutschen von Aleksey.


[1]    Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Notizen 1969 zu amerikanischen Gedichten und zu dieser Anthologie, in: Rolf Dieter Brinkmann (ed.), Silverscreen. Neue amerikanische Lyrik, Köln 1969, S. 7-32, hier S. 11.

[2]    Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Der Film in Worten, in: Rolf Dieter Brinkmann/Ralf-Rainer Rygulla (eds.), Acid. Neue amerikanische Szene [1968], Reinbek bei Hamburg 1983, S. 381-399, hier S. 381.

[3]    Brinkmann, Notizen 1969 zu amerikanischen Gedichten und zu dieser Anthologie, S. 11.

[4]    Brinkmann, Der Film in Worten, S. 384.

[5]     Ibid., S. 388

[6]    Eg. Alphons Silbermann, Hände weg vom Schlager, in: ders., Ketzereien eines Soziologen. Kritische Äußerungen zu Fragen unserer Zeit, Wien und Düsseldorf 1965, S. 89-119.

[7]    Cf. Ralph Willett, The Americanization of Germany, 1945-1949, London 1989.

[8]    Hans Robert Jauß (ed.), Die nicht mehr schönen Künste, München 1968 (= Poetik und Hermeneutik 3), S. 691ff.

[9]    Walter Höllerer, Junge amerikanische Literatur, in: Akzente 6 (1959), S. 29-43.

[10] Kaspar Maase, ‘Halbstarke’ and Hegemony. Meanings of American Mass Culture in the Federal Republic of Germany During the 1950s, in: Rob Kroes/Robert W. Rydell/Doeko F. Bosscher (eds.), Cultural Transmissions and Receptions. American Mass Culture in Europe, Amsterdam 1993, S. 152-170.

[11] Brinkmann, Der Film in Worten, S. 386.

[12] Rudi Dutschke, Die Widersprüche des Spätkapitalismus, die antiautoritären Studenten und ihr Verhältnis zur Dritten Welt, in: Uwe Bergmann et al., Rebellion der Studenten oder Die neue Opposition, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1968, S. 33-93, S. 92.

[13]   Hubert Fichte, Plattenragout, in: Konkret, No. 6, Februar 1966, S. 38f.

[14]   Helmut Heißenbüttel, Musik der Jungen, in: Der Monat, Heft 239, 1968, S. 112-114.

[15] Brinkmann, Der Film in Worten, S. 393.

[16] Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Angriff auf das Monopol. Ich hasse alte Dichter [1968], in: Uwe Wittstock (ed.), Roman oder Leben. Postmoderne in der deutschen Literatur, Leipzig 1994, S. 65-77, S. 71.

[17] Leslie A. Fiedler, Das Zeitalter der neuen Literatur. Die Wiedergeburt der Kritik, in: Christ und Welt, 13. 09. 1968, S. 9f.; Leslie A. Fiedler, Das Zeitalter der neuen Literatur. Indianer, Science Fiction und Pornographie: die Zukunft des Romans hat schon begonnen, in: Christ und Welt, 20. 09. 1968, S. 14-16.

[18] Leslie A. Fiedler, Cross the Border, Close the Gap, in: Playboy, December 1969, S. 151, 230, 252-258, S. 253.

[19] Ibid., S. 256.

[20] Uwe Wittstock (ed.), Roman oder Leben. Postmoderne in der deutschen Literatur, Leipzig 1994.

[21] Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Brief an Hartmut Sander, in: Oberbaum Linkeck Almanach 1956-1968, Berlin 1968, o. S.

[22] Peter Handke, Die Innenwelt der Außenwelt der Innenwelt, Frankfurt am Main 1969, S. 59.

[23] Elfriede Jelinek, Die endlose Unschuldigkeit, in: Renate Matthaei (ed.), Trivialmythen, Frankfurt am Main 1970, S. 40-66.

[24] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation, Boston 1969, S. 36, 47.

[25] Zit. n. Heinz Ohff, Pop und die Folgen!!! oder die Kunst Kunst auf der Straße zu finden, visualisiert v. Vostell, Düsseldorf 1968, S. 38.

[26] Cf. Ralf Hinz, Cultural Studies und Pop. Zur Kritik der Urteilskraft wissenschaftlicher und journalistischer Rede über populäre Kultur, Opladen 1998.