On 13th November 1911 an article appeared in the Berliner Tageblatt marking the 100th anniversary of Kleist’s death, in which publicist Fritz Engel called for the establishment of a Kleist Foundation and the awarding of a prize in memory of the unfortunate author, so creating the recognition for young German writers that had been denied to Kleist throughout his lifetime. This call was seconded by well-known contemporaries including Otto Brahm, Paul Cassirer, Samuel Fischer, Walter Rathenau, Max Reinhardt and Arthur Schnitzler. In an almost businesslike and sober manner, the prize was described as a necessary investment in society’s future cultural prosperity. It was not to be a prize for the already established; the stipulation was the “promise of significant ability”. Thus, the first promotional award for literature was founded in Germany. It certainly became the most successful, considering the names of the prize-winners since then – from Oskar Loerke to Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, Anna Seghers or Else Lasker-Schüler. The reference to Kleist, a sceptic committed to the empirical who had made such a radical break with the tradition of bourgeois-idealist art, enabled modern literature to create its own tradition. The Kleist Prize is viewed as the most significant literature award of the Weimar Republic.
In the main, it owes its existence in both ideal and material respects to German Jews, for the majority of the original funding came from S. Fischer Publishers. In 1933 the Kleist Foundation was dissolved so that the Nazis could not take control of the Kleist Prize and the award could not be given to unworthy writers. The good name of the prize was preserved in this way. In 1985 the Kleist Prize was re-established by the Heinrich von Kleist Society, reverting to the democratic practice of selection that had been devised by Richard Dehmel during Kaiser Wilhelm II’s autocracy. A jury of seven people gives a list of candidates to a representative of their choice, who then decides whether to select one of their suggestions or to vote in favour of a different author as the prize-winner. This means it is not a society that decides, but an individual after mature consideration, exercising individual responsibility and prognostic courage. Thus, it is possible to avoid the lamentable and continuing domination of literature prize committees by critical gurus. The jury representatives change each year and with them the aesthetic and ideological preferences. The prize is currently endowed with 20,000 Euros and the sponsors are Georg von Holtzbrinck publishing group and the German Federation, respectively the federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg. The prize is awarded annually, in the theatre Berliner Ensemble on the anniversary of Kleist’s death in November. It is no longer defined as a ‘prize for the young’ but is not intended as an award for a life’s work, either; instead – in accordance with its Weimar tradition – it is a prize for writers willing to take risks, who may be regarded – like Kleist – as progressive thinkers for the future. Since 1985, the Kleist Prize has been awarded e.g. to Alexander Kluge, Thomas Brasch, Heiner Müller, Ernst Jandl, Martin Mosebach, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Gert Jonke, Daniel Kehlmann, Wilhelm Genazino, Max Goldt and Arnold Stadler.
The jury’s representatives in recent years have included Lars Gustafsson, Michael Naumann, Brigitte Kronauer, Luc Bondy, Andrea Breth, Jürgen Flimm, Hermann Beil, Uwe Wittstock and Daniel Kehlmann.
The current members of the jury are: Jens Bisky, Günter Blamberger, Michael Maar, Michael Merschmeier, Sigrid Weigel, Uwe Wittstock, N.N.
∙ Höpker-Herberg, Elisabeth: Noch einmal: Richard Dehmel und der Kleist-Preis 1912. Materialien aus dem Dehmel-Archiv. In: KJb (1986), 179-199.
∙ Kreutzer, Hans Joachim: Der Kleist-Preis 1912-1932-1985. Rede zu seiner Wiederbegründung. In: KJb (1986), 11-18.
∙ Sembdner, Helmut (Hg.): Der Kleist-Preis 1912-1932. Eine Dokumentation (mit einem Geleitwort von Walter Müller-Seidel). Berlin 1968.
∙ KJb 1986 ff. [Fortlaufende Dokumentation der Verleihungen des Kleist-Preises seit 1985, Abdruck der Reden des Preisträgers, der Vertrauensperson, des Präsidenten der Heinrich-von-Kleist-Gesellschaft]
(Text: Günter Blamberger. 2009)