It took a few years for Walter de Gruyter to turn his passion into a career. Born in Duisburg-Ruhrort in 1862, he first completed a commercial training. Subsequently, he took classes in German Studies at the universities in Berlin, Bonn, and Leipzig, and completed his studies with a PhD thesis on Middle High German literature (“The German Tagelied”), before returning to Ruhrort. Together with his brother, he took over his parents’ coal trading company which comprised briquetting plant and coal mine holdings.

However, increased concentration within the coal industry of the Rhineland and Westphalia area made it impossible for the family business to endure. The company was liquidated, and Walter de Gruyter returned to Berlin where he dedicated himself to the sciences and fulfilled his “favorite wish” (as he described it in a letter to a friend): he became a publisher, learning the book business from scratch. In October 1895, he started working as an intern with Georg Reimer publishers, and bought the publishing house only 15 months later. From 1897, at the tender age of 35, Walter de Gruyter was the owner of this renowned, tradition-steeped enterprise, widely known as the “publishing house of Romanticism” that had published the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Heinrich von Kleist, among many others.

From the very beginning, Walter de Gruyter was deeply committed to this liberal tradition. He acquired further publishing houses, some through purchase, some through partnerships. The roots of these publishing houses reach back to 1749, when Frederick the Great of Prussia granted the Königliche Realschule (Royal Middle School) in Berlin the privilege to open a bookshop and the right to “publish good and useful books.” But it was only Walter de Gruyter who, merging the publishers Reimer, Göschen, Guttentag, Trübner, and Veit, managed to form a successful academic publishing house.

The young publisher, proceeding step by step, had specifically sought to acquire publishing houses whose thematic focuses and programs would convincingly complement each other. Today, business economists would probably describe his strategy as “horizontal diversification.” Initially, the independent publishing houses formed the “Vereinigung Wissenschaftlicher Verleger” (Association of Academic Publishers), which, in 1923, was transformed into the publishing house Walter de Gruyter & Co., converting the formerly independent publishing houses into individual publishing units. Walter de Gruyter & Co. came to be a universal academic publisher covering a wide range of disciplines such as Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, German Studies, Medical Science, Mathematics, Engineering, Law, and Political Science, as well as the Natural Sciences. After the First World War, it counted among the largest and most modern publishing companies in Europe. Back then, the company (based in Genthiner Straße, Berlin-Tiergarten) already published some of the titles which are classics in today’s program, e.g., Pschyrembel Klinisches Wörterbuch (Pschyrembel Clinical Dictionary), Journal für die angewandte und reine Mathematik (Crelle’s Journal), and Kluge’s Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (Etymological Dictionary of the German Language). But Walter de Gruyter, far more than being a mere bibliophile, was also greatly engaged in socio-political matters. He supported liberal politicians, published the works of Friedrich Naumann, and, from 1904, worked in the managing board of the “Verein zur Abwehr Antisemitischer Umtriebe” (Association for the Defense Against Anti-Semitic Tendencies). After the First World War, however, he turned away from liberalism and joined the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (German National People’s Party). The loss of his two sons, both fallen in the war, had marked a great turning point in his life.

When Walter de Gruyter died unexpectedly in 1923, he left a solid family business that was ready for internationalization, a task taken up by his successors. Today, De Gruyter publishers are a family-owned business, in the third to fifth generation. In 2006, 109 years after Walter de Gruyter had started his career as a publisher, three of his grand-daughters, some other associates, and the publishing house initiated the nonprofit Walter de Gruyter Foundation for Science and Research, in memory of the passionate publisher and academic patron.