The foundation of the German Academy for Language and Literature was publically announced on 28 August, 1949 in St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt am Main. The Academy is located in Darmstadt since 1951.
Thanks to the experiences it had gone through, its political sensitivities, and its literary and cultural preferences, the generation that controlled the inner workings of the Academy in the years following its founding was capable and prepared only to very cautiously expose itself to new influences. From the conflicts of those early years, a culture of debate often tied to male friendships developed, which was still surprisingly open and interested in the issues. This is perhaps most clearly visible in the often courageous and far-sighted choices of recipient for the Büchner Prize, which might be considered somewhat surprising given the Academy's fundamentally conservative tendencies at the time. It was more than just conservative groupings within the Academy that held back its modernisation, but also its limited membership, which was strictly controlled by the nomination process. For the time being then, alternative voices were more likely to be heard outside the Academy and fellow institutions than within them, in literary associations such as Gruppe 47. In the 1950s, it developed into one the most important centres of literary dynamism in West Germany
If one examines the Büchner Prize winners of the 60s, it quickly becomes apparent that the Academy had undergone its own transformation by then. With Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ingeborg Bachmann, Günter Grass, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Heinrich Böll and Helmut Heißenbüttel, it not only demonstrated a great attentiveness for the newly emerged diversity in German-language literature, it had also placed itself squarely in the midst of the social upheaval of the time. Topics that occupied its members ranged from public debates over the state of the school system and a planned orthography reform, to the »appeal for a new government« signed by numerous members of the Academy, as well as opposition to the 1968 Emergency Acts and solidarity with the Prague Spring.
The awards ceremonies had become the setting of cultural and political conflicts. In the Darmstadt Orangery demonstrators accused 1965 Büchner Prize winner Günter Grass of pornography; an anonymous letter was received before the 1966 ceremony threatening a mustard gas attack during the presentation in protest at the literary situation (Chronik, 109); in 1968 the student newspaper in Darmstadt demanded student representation during voting for the Büchner prize as well as a clear rejuvenation of the Academy; in addition, demonstrators distributed flyers attacking the winner, Golo Mann; during the award ceremony for Helmut Heißenbüttel in 1969 the left-wing opposition took the floor and accused the Academy and its awardees of a formalistic understanding of literature – before Heißenbüttel began his acceptance speech with the famous words: »A speech is a speech ...« In his diary, the general secretary at the time, Ernst Johann, stated: »for the first time there was a serious attempt to disrupt our conference – which benefitted from the most beautiful autumn weather« (Chronik, 118).
However, the way in which an active discussion about the form of prize ceremony was carried out at the next opportunity, in spring 1970, is indicative of the new style of debate. The public character of the prize ceremony was affirmed, but the members also agreed that the awards ceremony would be aborted in the case of protests and disturbances – under no circumstances did the Academy want to convene under police protection. However, there was also energetic debate over the message conveyed by the ceremony: Ernst Kreuder, for example, wanted to see the ceremony move closer to Büchner, »less academic and more revolutionary,« another member warned against a »canonisation of our hero« (Chronik, 120).
The internal structures that had grown over time were also called into question and a »critical commission« was formed in 1972 with the intention of finding new approaches in three areas:
»1. The question of the Academy’s self-understanding,
2. The question of the Academy’s public image and role,
3. The question of possible democratisation of the bylaws.« (Chronik, 130)
Chronik: Zwischen Kritik und Zuversicht. 50 Jahre Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. Herausgegeben von Michael Assmann und Herbert Heckmann. Göttingen: Wallstein 1999. 81 Abb., 479 S.
Geschichte des Georg-Büchner-Preises. Soziologie eines Rituals. Judith S. Ulmer. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter 2006. 10 Abb., XI, 379 Seiten.