Intellectual magazines are a thing of the past, to be kept on the dusty shelves of libraries. With their puny sales figures and resistance to subordinating content to electronic presentation on shiny new gadgets, such periodicals of the mind are anathema to the needs of the publishing industry.
But at the beginning of the last century intellectual magazines sprang up in big cities from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Some lasted only one or two issues, while others had more success, or at least notoriety, especially those with a clear-cut political and literary direction: in Vienna, Karl Kraus's Die Fackel ("The Torch") or in America, the Partisan Review. An intellectual magazine is not only a collection of ideas, but of different writers, characters, lives — a cultural phenomenon. But do we still even have an intellectual elite that reads, and writers to cater for it? After all, most of us prefer to have our opinions reaffirmed, not challenged.
The mere existence of the German magazine Merkur ("Mercury") shows that such scepticism might be misplaced. It has been blissfully ignoring any talk of decline (despite bouts of financial trouble) for more than 60 years. A monthly journal of roughly 100 pages, its bold subtitle states it is a "German journal for European thought". It was founded in 1947; in 1984 the editorship was jointly assumed by the literary critic and former London correspondent, Karl Heinz Bohrer, and Kurt Scheel, a sociologist. Their aim was to create a space for a view on the world that is academically informed, but not academic. Political and cultural issues are paired together, the outlook is liberal in the old-fashioned sense, and with an ironic twist. Now the editors are about to hand over to Christian Demand, an art historian.
Although published in the south of Germany, Merkur is compiled and edited in an apartment in the Charlottenburg district of West Berlin. With its wooden floors and grand windows, it evokes both the intellectual climate of West Berlin before the wall came down and the aura of avant-garde circles and thinkers, such as Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, who lived in the area during the Weimar Republic.