The sharp-tongued Mr. Reich-Ranicki established himself as West Germany’s premier arbiter of literary taste after arriving with no money in 1958 from communist Poland, where he had been a diplomat and intelligence agent in the late 1940s.
He didn’t shy away from hard-biting criticism of authors, saying once that “clarity is the politeness of the critic; directness is his obligation and his job.” In his 1999 memoirs, “My Life,” he conceded that he had a reputation as “a man of literary executions.”
Initially part of the left-leaning literary circle known as the Group of 47, along with Nobel laureate Günter Grass, Mr. Reich-Ranicki wrote for the weekly Die Zeit, then was literary editor of the conservative-minded Frankfurter Allgemeine daily from 1973 to 1988. After that, he became the star of ZDF public television’s “Literary Quartet,” a popular book program.
Mr. Reich-Ranicki was by turns supportive and critical of Grass, with whom he fell out for a time after describing one of Grass’s books as “a complete failure.”
Marcel Reich was born into a Jewish family in Wloclawek, Poland, on June 2, 1920. When he was 9, his family moved to Berlin after the bankruptcy of his father’s construction company.
In 1938, he was denied entry into a German university because he was Jewish and was then deported to Poland.
After Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, Mr. Reich-Ranicki, like other Jews, was soon forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto. There he worked as an interpreter for the ghetto’s Jewish administrative council.
As an employee of the Jewish council, he was exempted from immediate deportation to a concentration camp. He married his girlfriend Teofila to spare her from deportation as well. They escaped Warsaw in February 1943, but Mr. Reich-Ranicki’s parents and brother were killed in the Holocaust.
After the war, he joined Poland’s communist party and went to London to work for the Polish government. At that time, he adopted the name Ranicki, which he merged with his surname.
Disillusioned by what he considered growing anti-Semitism in Poland, he decided not to return in 1958 from a study trip to West Germany. His wife and son, then visiting London, soon joined him.
Mr. Reich-Ranicki never denied having been a member of Poland’s communist party, but he became embroiled in an argument about his past
In 1994, following a German television report, Mr. Reich-Ranicki acknowledged having worked for Polish intelligence. He had previously criticized some East German intellectuals for not coming clean about alleged ties to their country’s secret police.
His wife died in 2011. Survivors include their son, Andrew Reich-Ranicki.
— Associated Press