Carl Ehrenstein: Expressionist Writer, Cultural Critic and Literary Agent

Rare items from the Carl Ehrenstein Archive

Stefan Litt
From the Carl Ehrenstein Archive, The National Library of Israel

Generally, the name Ehrenstein brings a twinkle to the eye of experts in German Expressionist Literature. For the most part, anyone who hears the name assumes it refers to Albert Ehrenstein, one of the most prominent poets of the avant-garde movement, whose poems are still being published to this day and have recently even been translated into Hebrew (in the anthology “Weltende : eine Anthologie von expressionistischer Lyrik ins Hebräische übersetzt”, translated and edited by Asher Reich, HaKibbutz Hameuchad, 2013).
Very few remember that Albert had siblings: Otto (who died during World War I), Fritz (killed in the Holocaust), Carl and a sister, Freida. Every one of them stood in the shadow of their famous brother, who was the only one of them to receive an academic education. An interesting symbiosis developed between Carl and Albert, since Carl also had literary aspirations. Albert supported Carl for as long as he was part of the makings of modern German literature.
It can must be assumed that without Carl, we would know much less about Albert: after Albert died in 1950, Carl saw to it to collect the various parts of his personal archive and sent them to the National Library in Jerusalem in 1956.

Carl Ehrenstein was born in Vienna in 1892. After graduating from high school, he received training in a college of economics in his home town. He then worked in a number of insurance companies and banks, and even spent a few months in London in 1911. Little did he know then that  in the future he would live in London and the surrounding area for many years.  Concurrently, inspired by his brother Albert, Carl tried his hand at literature. With Albert as his agent, Carl’s first work, Klagen eines Knaben (The Complaints of a Youth), was published as part of a series of young and modern literature by Kurt Wolf’s famous publishing house in Leipzig. Over 80 Expressionist works were published in that series, including one of the first works by Franz Kafka. During World War I, Ehrenstein feigned insanity to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungrian army. He spent time in a convalescent house in Switzerland. It is possible that there was an element of truth to his charade, as Carl suffered from a few nervous breakdowns over the course of his life.

During most of the 20’s of the 20th century Carl lived in Berlin and worked, for the most part, as a cultural critic for a local Communist newspaper (Die Welt am Abend). In the framework of his work for the newspaper he visited theatres, exhibitions, movie theatres and even sporting events, and wrote many reviews that appeared in the newspaper.  In many cases, Ehrenstein kept the invitation, program, ticket, manuscript of the review and its final printed version in his personal archives. At the same time, Ehrenstein began to translate texts from English to German, mostly popular literature. He tried to find German publishers interested in publishing translations of English literature into German. In January of 1928, Carl Ehrenstein travelled to London, with letters of recommendation from German publishers, in order to find new English books to translate into German. The visit, which was planned to last two months,, was extended indefinitely, and Ehrenstein never saw continental Europe again.

In England, Ehrenstein began to work for a number of English publishers,mostly for Putnam. He read numerous books in German and wrote reviews which often determined whether the book would be translated into English or not. In 1933 he came across a book by the German author Hans Fallada. Fallada’s work greatly excited Ehrenstein.  In the following years, until 1938, Carl Ehrenstein repeatedly wrote positive reviews of Fallada’s books and even corresponded with the author. This was, possibly, Carl Ehrenstein’s greatest achievement: introducing Fallada’s works to the English speaking public. There are indications that Ehrenstein even knew about the attempt to extract Hans Fallada and his family from Nazi Germany – an attempt that failed, as Fallada changed his mind at the last minute.



Portrait of Hans Fallada


In England, Ehrenstein began to write poetry in English. However, he did not make an effort to publish the poems. Their quality possibly justifies Ehrenstein’s reluctance; his works are not generally considered to be the best of his era.His personal archive, however, (which includes portions of the estates of his sister, Freida, and his friend Thomas Schramek) is important because it includes a wealth of correspondences with publishers and writers from the 20s and 30s of the previous century as well as the cultural criticism and reviews that he wrote. All of these elements come together to create a colorful picture of culture and international relationships in the era before World War II.



דיוקן של קרל ארנשטיין
העתק מכתב של ארנשטיין לפלאדה משנת 1938
גלויה מהנס פלאדה לארנשטיין משנת 1937
מכתב של רתנאו לארנשטיין משנת 1918




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