Dietrich Schwanitz

English professor who wrote a bestseller
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The Independent Online

Few writers in Germany were as notorious as Dietrich Schwanitz, the professor of English whose vitriolic pen skewered the country's education system and and satirised an academic world ruled by political correctness and decisions by committee. As if his unconventional attitude and fame were not enough to incite his colleagues' distrust and even envy, Schwanitz also achieved apparently effortlessly what most academics can only dream of: writing books which became bestsellers.

Dietrich Schwanitz, English scholar and writer: born Werne an der Lippe, Germany 23 April 1940; Professor of English Literature and Culture, University of Hamburg. 1978-97; married (one son, one daughter); died Hartheim, Germany c 15 December 2004.

Few writers in Germany were as notorious as Dietrich Schwanitz, the professor of English whose vitriolic pen skewered the country's education system and and satirised an academic world ruled by political correctness and decisions by committee. As if his unconventional attitude and fame were not enough to incite his colleagues' distrust and even envy, Schwanitz also achieved apparently effortlessly what most academics can only dream of: writing books which became bestsellers.

His position as outsider and his refusal to accept the status quo may have been rooted in his unusual childhood. Born in 1940 in the Ruhr area, he was sent by his mother to Switzerland with the Red Cross to escape the intensifying bombing raids. For six years, the child grew up with Mennonite mountain farmers in a world without modernity, and without regular schooling. When he returned to his mother in 1950, the young Dietrich spoke a rural Swiss German and had never been inside a classroom.

The next step in the boy's life was marked by the kind of peculiar courage and individuality which he would later miss among his academic colleagues. A school director was intrigued by this "modern Kaspar Hauser". He accepted the child, who could hardly read or write, directly into his Gymnasium (secondary school) and took it upon himself to help the gifted boy to catch up with the curriculum. When Schwanitz took his final examination eight years later, he did so with top marks.

At university, Schwanitz became fascinated by Anglo-Saxon culture and literature, in which he also recognised the Puritan heritage of his Swiss childhood experiences. He studied English in Munster, London, Philadelphia, and Freiburg, and was finally appointed Professor of English Literature in Hamburg in 1978.

An unconventional university teacher who staged entire Shakespeare plays with his students and instituted creative writing courses, an unheard-of import from the English world, Schwanitz became known nationally with another spectacular if decidedly unprofessorial work in the Anglo-Saxon tradition: Der Campus ("The Campus", 1995), a novel reminiscent of authors such as David Lodge, in which he made mock of the Germany's rigid academia and the perils of an education system choked by a climate of political correctness, professorial collusion and mediocrity. Unsurprisingly, the novel won him few friends among his colleagues.

Already suffering from Parkinson's disease, Schwanitz resigned from his university post in 1997, but continued to write at his new domicile in south Germany. His next work, Bildung: alles, was man wissen muss ("Education: everything you must know", 1999), took up the unfashionable humanist idea of Bildung, the general education of an individual in all fields of knowledge, and became a surprise bestseller in a country increasingly unsure of its identity.

In the book, Schwanitz gave an overview not only of what he deemed to be the imperative contents of every well-stocked head and bookshelf, but also attacked a culture that had, according to him, exchanged the stable and canonic idea of Bildung for a mountain of useless news and information. Schwanitz now became a regular on the talk-show circuit and apparently relished the limelight.

Increasingly isolated on account of his illness, the author socialised less and less and invested his remaining energies in his work. His end was marked not by spectacular stage effects, but by the loneliness of suffering: he was found dead in his apartment by a neighbour on 21 December and appears to have died of hypothermia some days earlier. He leaves a wife and two grown-up children.

Philipp Blom

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