THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

7 posts from October 2019

29 October 2019

UNOVIS – the Bauhaus of the East

This year is the centenary of the Bauhaus, prompting worldwide celebrations from Brazil to the UK, from Germany to China. The Bauhaus as a school of art and architecture is long gone, but as a marketing and PR campaign it has not yet run out of steam. The history of art has put it on a pedestal, and for decades it has been widely recognised as the undisputed primary source of inspiration for Modernism, but is it?

The almost fanatical reverence for the Bauhaus in the West certainly overshadows its most influential contemporary, the People’s Art School, which was located in a small provincial town in modern-day Belarus called Viciebsk (Vitebsk), hundreds of miles from any major cities.

Professors at the People's Art School in Viciebsk

Teachers at the People’s Art School in Viciebsk, July 1919 (Wikimedia Commons)

The school was the brainchild of Viciebsk’s most famous son, Marc Chagall. It was approved in August 1918 by Anatoly Lunacharsky, head of the People’s Commissariat for Education, and officially inaugurated in January 1919, just over two months before the Bauhaus and amid the upheaval of the Russian Civil War. But it was what happened next that actually cemented Viciebsk’s place in the history of modern art. The following year in November 1919, Chagall invited the maverick of 20th century modern art, Kazimir Malevich to teach in his humble art school in Viciebsk.

Title page of O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve with Malevich's black square

Kazimir Malevich, O novykh sistemakh v iskusstve (Viciebsk, 1919), C.114.n.46.

2019 therefore marks the centenary of Malevich’s arrival in Viciebsk, and under Malevich, the People’s Art School became a completely different breed with a singular voice. Malevich was in fact persuaded to move from Moscow to Viciebsk by a young teacher who was already teaching there, El Lissitzky, who would later become a celebrated artist worldwide in his own right. With Malevich came his Suprematism, and a clash with the pluralistic approach to styles preferred by Chagall was inevitable. Lissitzky very soon was won over by Suprematism and created his famous/ infamous pro-Bolshevik propaganda poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919), a powerful image that graces the floor of the art school (now a museum) today.

El Lissitzky  ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919)

El Lissitzky, ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1919) (Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will be the centenary of another significant event in modern art history: the emergence of UNOVIS, and this warrants separate mention. The group was first founded by students from the People’s Art School on 19 January 1920 under the Russian acronym MOLPOSNOVIS, meaning ‘Young Followers of the New Art’, but within days, the group was joined by the teachers and was renamed POSNOVIS, meaning ‘Followers of the New Art’.

On 14 February 1920 it was renamed again, this time UNOVIS, meaning the champions, or the affirmers of the New Art – not followers any more. The architect of this cult-like group was Malevich, and it counted many future superstars among its converts, including Lissitzky, Vera Ermolaeva (who was also director of the School for a time), Nina Kogan, and Lazar Khidekel. The transition of the school from the influence of pluralistic individualism championed by Chagall to collective, impersonal and non-objective art was now complete – all the works created by UNOVIS were signed with Malevich’s iconic black square for anonymity.

Title page of Suprematizm. 34 risunka with Malevich's black square

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematizm. 34 risunka (Viciebsk, 1920). Wikimedia Commons. The British Library holds two facsimiles of this work in Russian and English (X.419/3137 and YA.1997.a.15443).

The whole town of Viciebsk soon became their testing ground as members decorated it with Suprematist art in all its forms, but the group’s ultimate goal was to apply Suprematism to the largest and most permanent art form with a more lasting impact on society: architecture. Although the group did not actually realise any architectural projects during its ephemeral existence, its Suprematist aesthetics inspired and continue to inspire many architects, even its antagonists, throughout the 20th century and up to this day, including the late Zaha Hadid, one of world's most sought-after ‘starchitects’ of recent decades.

The Bauhaus as a school is famous for its short life-span which ended in 1933, but UNOVIS was even more short-lived, it lasted just over 2 years and was dissolved in May 1922 for various reasons including financial ones. Nevertheless, UNOVIS had announced its presence to the world and had a far-reaching impact on 20th-century art and architecture beyond its very short life. The legacy of Viciebsk was re-affirmed by a major exhibition held at the Centre Pompidou in Paris last year (the catalogue is available at the British Library, LF.31.a.6493). The Viciebsk Centre of Modern Art is also planning a series of UNOVIS centenary publications and events next year, including exhibitions, a conference, and a poster competition.

Issue of Supremus newspaper

Issue of Supremus, a newspaper dedicated to Malevich and the legacy of Suprematism (Moscow/Zurich, 1991-2001). HS.74/803

There are a number of additional items related to this intensely creative period in Viciebsk in the collections of the British Library. Most notably, they include an original copy of Malevich’s manifesto Bog ne skinut: iskusstvo, tserkov', fabrika (‘God is not cast down: art, church, factory’; Viciebsk, 1922; C.114.n.33.). The Library also holds the first issue (1919) of the Viciebsk journal Revoliutsionnoe iskusstvo (‘Revolutionary Art’; C.191.b.6), which includes articles by Chagall and Malevich, as well as a facsimile of Almanakh UNOVIS 1 (Moscow, 2003; LF.31.b.1837), which was originally published in 1920. In addition, there is a strong collection of works by and about individual members of UNOVIS, as well as a wealth of secondary literature on the group.

Tszwai So, co-founder of Spheron Architects, is a London-based artist and architect

 

25 October 2019

Dutch Literature takes Centre Stage at the British Library

The New Dutch Writing campaign came to the British Library on Saturday 12 October. Martin Colthorpe from Modern Culture and the Library’s Events team had organised a day packed full of great names from Dutch literature, society and culture and topped it all with a keynote by Simon Schama.

Three panels, consisting of Joris Luyendijk and Naema Tahir, Esther Gerritsen and Herman Koch, and Jeroen Olyslaegers and Bart van Es, talked about tolerance, identity and belonging.

There were around 70 people in the audience, including pupils from the Rainbow School, a Dutch school in London, and undergraduates from the Dutch department of UCL.

Panel 1: left to right Joris Luyendijk, Naema Tahir, Henriette Louwerse
Panel 1. From left to right Joris Luyendijk, Naema Tahir, Henriette Louwerse (chair). (Photo: Marja Kingma)

Naema Tahir was born of Pakistani parents who moved first to the UK and then to the Netherlands. She herself has lived all over the world. She has written several books about immigration as seen through the eyes of the immigrant.

Cover of Eenzaam Heden

Cover of Eenzaam Heden (Amsterdam, 2008) YF.2008.a.22909

Brits and Dutch alike get confused about her, because she does not answer to any of their stereotypes. She regards the Dutch as tolerant, but believes that they only accept immigrants to a certain point, never wholeheartedly. They are not interested in the heritage of the immigrants.

Joris Luyendijk can relate to that. He has lived abroad for many years and did projects on subjects unfamiliar to him. The most famous example of this is his blog for The Guardian on the 2008 financial crisis in the UK and the subsequent book Swimming With Sharks. Luyendijk sees Dutch ‘tolerance’ as ‘enlightened indifference’, a belief that as long as immigrants totally conform, become like the Dutch, it is all fine. This may stem from the time when the Dutch regarded themselves as the guide country of the world. He sees problems arising when immigrants live according to their own traditions and values, which sometimes clash with Dutch liberal attitudes or long running traditions.

Title page Swimming With Sharks

Title page Swimming With Sharks (London, 2015) YK.2016.a.1327

Current Dutch literature has moved away from a very introspective view, agonising about one’s own identity, and family relations within very ‘Dutch’ families. This had made it hard to sell abroad. Today novels feature global topics, such as immigration, terrorism, globalization and climate change, which identity issues are made a part of.

Panel 2. From left to right: Suzi Feay (chair), Esther Gerritsen, Herman Koch
Panel 2. From left to right: Suzi Feay (chair), Esther Gerritsen, Herman Koch (photo: Marja Kingma)

I wonder whether Dutch citizens would finally embrace their fellow immigrant citizens if they participated in the ‘free market’ on Dutch National Day, or ‘King’s Day’. After all, that day is where the real character of the Dutch comes out in full, observes Herman Koch in his latest novel The Ditch. Adults actively encourage children to stake out a plot on the street as their market stall, which they guard jealously against anyone who dares to trespass. And all in order to sell junk to each other.

Like Koch, Esther Gerritsen is interested in the dark side of the human psyche, including infidelity. In her novel Roxy the eponymous protagonist goes in search of an enemy to take revenge on, after she discovers her husband’s affair when he and his lover die in a car accident. She is an outsider both in the glamorous world of her late husband and in the working-class environment she came from. The road trip she embarks on with two other women she hardly knows and her toddler daughter is a belated coming-of-age journey, where she finds she doesn’t really belong anywhere. Gerritsen feels similarly an outsider, or as someone ‘from the cold side’, a Dutch expression referring to the ‘in-laws’. Being from a working-class background she doesn’t always feel at home in the Dutch literary scene.

Panel 3. From left to right: Helen Fry (chair), Jeroen Olyslaegers, Bart van Es
Panel 3. From left to right: Helen Fry (chair), Jeroen Olyslaegers, Bart van Es (photo: Marja Kingma).

The Second World War was a time when ‘identity’ was a matter of life and death. Bart van Es won the Costa Book Award in 2019 for his story The Cut-Out Girl, about Lien, a Jewish girl who lived in hiding with his family and stayed with them after the war. It wasn’t until fairly recently that Lien felt she belonged somewhere and was loved. Not surprising if you lose all of your family when you are not even ten, when you are constantly on the run from your oppressors, moving from one hiding place to the next as a Jewish girl amongst Christians. As Lien said, “Without family you have no memory.” Bart himself discovered things about his family he never knew.

Jeroen Olyslaegers’ Will is a novel based on real events during the War, set in Antwerp. In it Olyslaegers examines people’s choices during times of oppression and danger. As a police officer ordered to take Jewish families out of their houses, what do you do? What did others do? Did they resist, or were they bystanders? All of Olyslaegers’ characters in Will are ambiguous; they are first and foremost looking after themselves, trying to survive, and that means not always acting morally correctly.

Cover of Will

Cover of Will (London, 2019) ELD.DS.455850

Despite the countless books written about the war, both Van Es and Olyslaegers are convinced that there are many more stories out there that want to be told, written down, and translated into new stories for a new audience.

Simon Schama closed the day with a passionate talk about Rembrandt. I stopped taking notes, hanging on his every word. Schama sees Rembrandt as a great intellect, a learned man, considering the large archive of drawings he kept, which he later was forced to sell.

Rembrandt. ‘Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver’

Rembrandt. ‘Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver’ (1629, private collection.) Reproduced in Simon Schama, Rembrandt’s Eyes (London, 1999) YC.1999.b.9511.

Rembrandt mastered the two criteria set by Alberti for being a great artist: craftsmanship and creativity. Rembrandt had both in spades. Schama placed Rembrandt in the midst of Amsterdam’s transformation from almost rural backwater to the city that became the trading centre of the world. Rembrandt ended up alongside Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, by being known by his first name only. Now that is some identity.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections (Dutch languages specialist)

 

23 October 2019

‘The Shakespeare of the dance’: Jean-Georges Noverre

As we celebrate World Ballet Day in the year which sees the centenary of the birth of Margot Fonteyn, arguably the greatest ballerina that a British company has ever produced, it is instructive to consider how much farther back the tradition of ballet as we know it extends. In the very first line of a pamphlet entitled Problema russkogo baleta (‘The Problem of Russian Ballet’), A. L. Volynskii claims that ‘Modern classical ballet was born in Russia, and grew up there’ – a statement which, had he read it, would no doubt have left Jean-Georges Noverre speechless.

Cover of Problema russkogo baleta with a drawing of a ballerina

Cover of Problema russkogo baleta (Petrograd, 1923) YA.1997.a.20295

Noverre was born in Paris on 29 April 1727, and was expected to follow a military career like his Swiss father. Instead, though, the young Jean-Georges chose a vocation requiring equally rigorous discipline, studying dance with a M. Marcel and then with the famous Louis Dupré and making his debut at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 8 June 1743. This led to further engagements abroad; while still in his teens, Noverre performed at Fontainebleau, and in Berlin before Frederick II, at whose court he met Voltaire. The king’s excessive thrift, however, led his maître de ballet, Lany, and several of his colleagues to break their contracts and desert the Prussian court in 1747. Noverre became ballet master in Strasbourg and created his first great success, Les Fêtes chinoises, there. He went on to Vienna, where he worked under Empress Maria Theresa and became maître de danse to her 12-year-old daughter, the future Marie Antoinette, who later became his patron.

Portrait of Noverre

Portrait of Noverre from Deryck Lynham, The Chevalier Noverre: father of modern ballet (London, 1950) 7920.e.34

In 1755, he went to London with his family and his company to work with David Garrick at the Drury Lane Theatre. He had access to Garrick’s library, enabling him to study classical literature and draw on it for subjects for his ballets while developing his own methods of teaching dance and choreographing for the stage. It was here, in 1756, that he began to formulate his ideas in a treatise published four years later in Lyons.

When the London production of Les Fêtes chinoises was destroyed by rioters on the eve of the Seven Years' War, Noverre and his family were forced to go into hiding. Although he continued to oversee productions at Drury Lane, he was not credited on the playbills. When Marie-Antoinette became Queen of France in 1774, she recalled her former dancing-master, and appointed Noverre to the Paris Opéra. However, in 1779 Noverre was displaced from his position because rival ballet masters and dancers Jean Dauberval, Maximilien Gardel and Mlle Guimard campaigned against him, although he did not finally leave the Opéra until 1781.

Noverre’s innovatory ideas are preserved in his Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets, of which the British Library holds a copy of the first edition (1760); it was translated into English in 1782. He was strongly opposed to the flamboyant virtuoso style of Italian choreographers such as Gasparo Angiolini, his successor in Vienna. Maria Theresa herself declared in 1774 that Angiolini was ‘producing abominable ballets’ there, and said of Noverre that, although he was ‘unbearable, especially when he has had a little wine which frequently happens to him, […] I find him unique in his art and his ability to get something out of the most indifferent material’.

Title page of Lettres sur la danse  et sur les ballets

Title page of Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (Lyons, 1760) 785.b.54.

The type of material which Noverre brought to life is evident from another volume in the British Library’s collections, Recueil des programmes de ballets de M. Noverre. This contains details of ballets such as his first great dramatic piece, Der gerächte Agamemnon / Agamemnon vengé, first performed in Vienna in 1772. In a preface, Noverre anticipates criticism for taking liberties in his presentation of great classical myths, but defends his decision to bend the rules in accordance with contemporary taste, maintaining that ‘a ballet is not a drama, and that it is impossible for a production of this kind to be subordinated to the strict rules of Aristotle’. The action conflates the entire Oresteia of Aeschylus, culminating in a scene where Orestes is ‘terrified by the Furies, tormented by Crime, Remorse and Despair personified, and finally rent by the bloodstained spectre of his mother’ (providing, no doubt, not only a terrific spectacle but all kinds of opportunities for vengeance by any performers with a personal grudge against the dancer portraying Orestes).

Title page of Recueil des programmes de ballets de M. Noverre

Title page of Recueil des programmes de ballets de M. Noverre (Vienna, 1776) 11739.a.7

Besides Garrick, the great influences on Noverre’s work were the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose opera-ballets he greatly admired, and the dancer Marie Sallé, notable for her acting abilities and imaginative use of mime, who collaborated with Handel during her London seasons. Sallé also shared Noverre’s belief in the potential of ballet for dramatic expression and narrative rather than mere displays of impressive footwork. Cooperating with Noverre allowed Sallé to introduce many of her own ideas, including costumes which departed from the rigid ceremonial quality of earlier productions and allowed the dancers greater freedom of movement. For Noverre, as later for Wagner, ballets within operas could not be merely inserted to provide a pretext for glittering display, but should be closely integrated into the action: ‘the dancers … would have to abandon their posturing and take unto themselves a soul’.

Noverre’s own life was almost as eventful as the plot of any of his ballets. In June 1776 he returned from Vienna to Paris, retaining his post there until the French Revolution reduced him to poverty. He died on 19 October 1810 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, at the beginning of a century which would see his concept of the ballet d’action established as the basis of classical ballet performance throughout Europe.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

18 October 2019

“Free Croatia for Croatian people”: the Croatian journal “Hrvatska revija” 1951-2000

Hrvatska revija (‘Croatian Review’) was a Croatian émigré journal published in Croatian in Buenos Aires (1951-1965), Paris (1966), Munich (1967-1977), Munich/Barcelona (1978-1990), and Zagreb (1991-2000). In its time the journal had the reputation of being the most sought-after cultural, literary and political journal of the Croatian emigration. It was also regarded as the most successful project of Croatian émigré publishing. The significance of Hrvatska revija today lies in the material preserved in its over 33,000 pages, containing some 11,000 articles and 1700 book reviews which, published over a period of 50 years, closely recorded and documented Croatian émigré life and culture. It is also an indispensable source for the study of recent Croatian history.

Front cover of the March 1955 issue of Hrvatska revija showing a relief in stone by Ivan Meštrović, ‘Croatian mothers on the run’

Front cover of the March 1955 issue of Hrvatska revija (P.P.7615.ch) showing a relief in stone by Ivan Meštrović, ‘Croatian mothers on the run’.

In 1951 Croatian émigrés Vinko Nikolić, a poet and journalist, and Antun Bonifačić, a writer, founded Hrvatska revija as a cultural and literary quarterly. From 1955 Nikolić was its sole editor until his death in 1997. Hrvatska revija was modelled on the notable literary journal of the same name published by the Croatian cultural society Matica hrvatska in Zagreb from 1928 to 1945. (Hrvatska revija: dvomesečnik Matice hrvatske. Ac.8967/19.). After Nikolić’s death in 1997 the journal was again published by Matica hrvatska from 1998 to 2000.

The journal had a steady following and was one of the most widely-read literary journals in Croatian émigré communities. This success was partly due to Nikolić’s editorial skills and his selection of journal associates which reached beyond members of the Ustaša, the Croatian ultranationalist pro-Nazi organisation, to which he had once belonged.

Nikolić’s Hrvatska revija published literary pieces, historical and political articles, literary criticism, book, music, theatre and art reviews, essays, memoirs, and travel writings. The journal was exquisitely illustrated with drawings, vignettes and other artistic contributions. Altogether there were around 600 contributors. In addition to original contributions Hrvatska revija had regular features, such as notes on cultural events, in particular about Croatian print and publishing activities, obituaries, and other useful information of general interest for Croatian émigré communities. The journal was funded by subscription and by support from loyal followers within these communities.

Front cover by Zdravko Dučmelić for Victor Visa, Sabrane Piesme featuring an abstract boat design

Front cover by Zdravko Dučmelić for Victor Vida, Sabrane Piesme [“Collected poems”] (Buenos Aires, 1962). X.0900/80.b.(2.). published in the series Knjižnica Hrvatske revije “Ciklus Hrvatski pjesnici” no. 2.

Between 1957 and 1991 Hrvatska revija published 67 books in the series Knjižnica Hrvatske revije (“Croatian Review Library”) which was arranged in four sub-series reflecting the journal’s editorial concept for promoting its cultural and political agenda while engaging with its readership: “Redovita izdanja” (‘Regular editions’, 1957- ), “Ciklus Hrvatski pjesnici” (“Croatian poets”, 1960- ), “Izvanredna izdanja” (“Special editions”, 1964- ) and “Ciklus Ljudi i krajevi” (“Peoples and places”, 1965- ).

Front cover by Pero Maruna for a collection of essays by Bogdan Radica, Sredozemni povratak featuring an illustration of the sun with a face above the sea

Front cover by Pero Maruna for a collection of essays by Bogdan Radica, Sredozemni povratak (Munich; Barcelona, 1971.) X.0900/80a.(7.).published in the series Knjižnica Hrvatske revije “Redovita izdanja” no. 7.

Hrvatska revija promoted itself as an all-Croatian, non-party journal, aimed at Croatian people abroad and at home, dedicated to the cause of Croatian state-building and fostering national identity. By embracing democratic political systems in the west and denouncing terrorism as a political struggle, Nikolić made a clear shift away from his Nazi past but remained a right-wing ideologist.

He tolerated and printed the critical ideas of the former members of the Ustaša regime in the Independent State of Croatia, but didn’t allow criticism at large. He therefore advocated a revisionist one-sided national history of the recent past. Nikolić regarded people who died fighting for the Independent State of Croatia as martyrs, and depicted those who fought against Nazism as communists who ruled over Croatia against the will of the majority. Hrvatska revija was not in the least interested in the significant contribution of the Yugoslav partisans to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Notwithstanding these limitations Hrvatska revija claimed that 90 percent of Croatian writers and publicists abroad had contributed to the journal. It enjoyed the reputation of being an organ of Croatian intellectuals abroad, which brought together Croatian political émigrés of different political beliefs.

Front cover of 1972 Hrvatska revija

Front cover of Hrvatska revija (March 1972)

The journal cherished the culture of anniversaries and celebrated important events in Croatian culture and history. For example Hrvatska revija was the first to write about the Bleiburg tragedy of 1945 and estimated the number of casualties to be over 200,000, largely based on the fundamental concept of Croatian victimhood during war. This kind of assessment, provided in émigré literature, made a huge impact at home since this topic had not been discussed in Communist Yugoslavia.

Front cover by Pero Maruna Frano Nevistić, and Vinko Nikolić, Bleiburška tragedija hrvatskoga naroda featuring an abstract depiction of the tragedy

Front cover by Pero Maruna Frano Nevistić, and Vinko Nikolić, Bleiburška tragedija hrvatskoga naroda / (Munich, 1976) X.0900/80a(8), published in the series Knjižnica Hrvatske revije “Redovita izdanja” no. 8.

Similarly Croatian historical personalities who argued for the building of an all-Croatian state were given due attention, whereas those who promoted the unity of the South Slavs, were regarded by Hrvatska revija as people who didn’t believe in Croatia. This simple formula of Hrvatska revija meant that if someone was for Yugoslavia they were automatically against Croatia, as it was impossible to be both. Even the nation’s greats such as Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer or the historian Franjo Rački were barely mentioned in the journal. On the other hand inspiration was sought in Croatian nationalists abroad or dissatisfied apostates from the communist regime at home, among whom Franjo Tuđman was given a prominent place in Hrvatska revija before 1990.

The journal worked hard to reconcile former enemies and bring together political opponents around a political idea which claimed that neither the Ustaša lost nor the partisans won in the Second World War but that only Croatia was defeated. For Hrvatska revija, Yugoslavia was a violent and oppressive state within which Croatia was enslaved. The journal finally saw the violent death of Yugoslavia and the accomplishment of its political programme of a free Croatia for the Croatian people.

Redesigned front cover of Hrvatska revija (September 1998) featuring the word 'revija' in block letters

Redesigned front cover of Hrvatska revija (September 1998)

In addition to the abundance of research material on émigré life and contemporary Croatian culture and history, Hrvatska revija offers riches to researchers into the development of right-wing ideology, political thought and ideas in Croatia and in general.

The British Library holds the full set of Hrvatska revija from 1959 to 2000, but is wanting the volumes for 1951-1954, issues 2 and 3 for 1955, issues 3 and 4 for 1956, and the volumes for 1957-1958. The Library holds most of the titles published in the series Knjižnica Hrvatske revije.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections

11 October 2019

The 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian writer Peter Handke have been awarded the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature after the award was suspended last year due to a sexual assault scandal

Born in Poland in 1962, Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Prize, is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary Polish writers. Noted for the mythical tone of her writing, she is adored by her readers and highly praised by critics. Tokarczuk has won many prestigious literary awards for her works both in her native country and abroad. In 2018 she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, translated into English by Jennifer Croft (London, 2017; ELD.DS.228759). The book was first published in Poland in 2007 as Bieguni (). The Polish title refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from the perspective of an anonymous female traveller.

Cover of Bieguni ('Flights')

Cover of Bieguni (Krakow, 2007) YF.2008.a.36755

A trained psychologist, Tokarczuk spent a few years practising as a therapist before devoting her working life to her literary career. She is the author of nine novels and a few short stories and essays, and her books have been published into 30 languages including English, Chinese and Japanese. The main translator of her books into English is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose most recent translation is Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (London, 2018; ELD.DS.325469), shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. The novel, regarded as an eco-crime story, explores the issues of the animal rights and vegan movements unveiling the hypocrisy of traditional beliefs and religion. The book and the film Spoor by Agnieszka Holland based on this novel caused a political uproar in Poland.

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych ('Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead')

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Krakow, 2009) YF.2010.a.22348

Olga Tokarczuk was a speaker at two recent British Library events: “A life of Crime? Crime writing from Poland”, in 2017, and “Olga Tokarczuk: An evening with Poland’s best”, in 2018. Recordings of both events are available to listen in our Reading Rooms via the online catalogue.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

The 2019 prize has been awarded to the Austrian writer Peter Handke. The Nobel Foundation cites his “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” He has won many of Austria’s and Germany’s major literary prizes over the course of a long career.

Born in 1942, Handke began to write while studying at the University of Graz. He became involved with the ‘Grazer Gruppe’, a group of writers (including another future Austrian Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek) associated with the literary magazine manuskripte (P.903/797). 

Alfred Kolleritsch und Peter Handke

Peter Handke (left) and magazine editor Alfred Kolleritsch at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of manuskripte, 2013. (Photograph by Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Handke became known in the 1960s for his experimental plays such as Publikumsbeschimpfung (Frankfurt am Main, 1967; X.907/8495. English translation by Michael Roloff, Insulting the Audience (London, 1971) 11663.l.2/42.). This begins with the words, “You will not see a play” and has the uncostumed actors address the audience from what is usually a bare stage. He has also written novels, poetry and essays. English-speaking audiences, although they may not realise it, are perhaps most likely to have come across his work as the screenwriter for Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Handke has also won awards as a film director.

From the start of his career Handke attracted controversy, although not necessarily for the experimental nature of his work. In an early public appearance at an event organised by the influential post-war writers group Gruppe 47, he gave an angry speech attacking the Group and the work of its members. More recently he has been criticised for his stance and his writing on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This has led to protests at the award of other literary prizes to Handke in recent years, and the Nobel award has attracted similar criticisms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

07 October 2019

70 Years of Books From and About East Germany

On 7 October 1949 the Soviet-occupied area of Germany became an independent state with the official name Deutsche Demokratische Republik/DDR (German Democratic Republic/GDR). The Western-occupied territories had become the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany) in May of the same year, and for the next four decades there would be two separate German states with very different government, societies, ideologies and allegiances.

Map of the German Deomcratic Republic (East Germany) in 1979

Map of the German Democratic Republic, from Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch (Leipzig, 1979) X:800/14702

Wilhelm Pieck (left) aned Johannes Dieckmann (right) in the East German Parliament

Wilhelm Pieck (left) is sworn in as President of the newly-founded GDR, 11 October 1949, from Heinz Heitzer [et al.], DDR – Werden und Wachsen: Zur Geschichte der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Berlin, 1975) X:809/23404

The British Library and its predecessors acquired books and other material from the GDR for the whole period of its existence and continues to buy works about the East German state and its legacy. Many are of course research-level publications, the backbone of our non-British collecting, including the output of East German academies, universities, museums and other scholarly institutions, but there are also more general and in some cases ephemeral works which shed light on everyday aspects of life in the GDR.

Cover of 'Die Volkskammer der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik'

A official handbook of the East German Parliament, Die Volkskammer der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik  (Berlin, 1964) S.F.1372/2.

9th Party Conference 1976

Images from the 9th Party Conference of the SED, from Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch

Official GDR Government publications were received by the Library via international exchange agreements. While our holdings are not complete, we have the proceedings of the East German Parliament (Volkskammer) from the late 1950s to 1990 and the official record of laws and treaties for the whole period of the GDR’s existence. Full details of our own holdings, as well as those of the LSE and Bodleian libraries, can be found in the collection guide on our website  We also hold a complete run on microfilm of Neues Deutschland the official newspaper of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Masthead of 'Neues Deutschland' 7 October 1949 with headlne 'Tag der Geburt der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik'

Masthead of Neues Deutschland, 7 October 1949, announcing the birth of the German Democratic republic. MFM.MF538H

We hold a small amount of material for and about the East German youth movements, including a collection of poems and art by members of the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation to celebrate its 30th anniversary. In one poem a boy reflects that in 30 years time he will have a son of his own who will also be a pioneer; I wonder if he remembers that today?

Cover of 'So sind wir, so ist ein Pionier', showing a girl in uniform saluting

Cover of So sind wir - so ist ein Pionier! Literarische und bildkünstlerische Arbeiten der Schuljugend des Bezirkes Neubrandenburg zum 30. Jahrestag der Pionierorganisation 'Ernst Thälmann' (Neubrandenburg, [1978])  X:990/11196

Cover of songbook 'Leben, singen, kämpfen' showing a young man brandishing a flag

Cover of a songbook for the Freie Deutsche Jugend, Leben, Singen, Kämpfen (Berlin, 1949) A.697.dd

Many publications serve as guides to or histories of the East German state. An impressive publication from 1979, simply titled Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch gives a full overview of the state’s geography, history, economy, institutions and culture. Like other state-approved histories such as Heinz Heitzer’s DDR – Werden und Wachsen, the Handbuch gives a resolutely upbeat account of the GDR. Inevitably much material has a greater or lesser degree of propagandist content and is openly critical of the West German state, such as a study of the popular magazines and pulp fiction found in a typical Munich news kiosk and described by the study’s author as ‘poison in colourful pamphlets’.

Book jacket showing a newspaper kiosk and the covers of some West German magazines

Gift in bunten Heften: ein Münchner Zeitungskiosk als Spiegel des westdeutschen Kulturverfalls (Berlin, 1960). X.529/47019

Cultural and leisure activities within the GDR are also represented: music, art and sport all feature in the collections, often in books received as donations or as part of exchange arrangements, intended to showcase the GDR’s cultural credentials. 

Cover of 'Sports in the GDR' showing a girl in a leotard holding a teddy bear

Cover of Sports in the GDR (Dresden, 1980) L.45/1458. This was published on the occasion of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the young gymnast is shown holding the official mascot for the games

And of course we acquired original literary texts by prominent East German writers,  such as Christa Wolf, Volker Braun, Heiner Müller and many others.

We also hold West German material about the GDR from the period of its existence, also often propagandist in its own way. In the early decades of the two states, West German authors deliberately avoided using the name ‘Deutsche Demokratische Republik’, instead referring to the ‘Soviet Occupation Zone’ (Sowjetische Besatzungszone/SBZ), or sometimes just as ‘the Zone’ as in a 1965 history.

Front cover of the handbook 'SBZ von-A-Z ',1966

SBZ von A bis Z : ein Taschen-und Nachschlagebuch über die Sowjetische Besatzungsone Deutschlands (Bonn, 1966) W8/7230. A guide to the GDR produced by the West German Federal Ministry for All-German Affairs

Cover of "20 Jahre Zone" showing an East German Politician and a crowd of protestors

Henning Frank, 20 Jahre Zone: kleine Geschichte der "DDR" (Munich, 1965) F13/4579. (Note how thew designation DDR is placed in inverted commas)

The GDR lasted only 41 years; in October 1989, even as the regime celebrated the state’s 40th anniversary, mass protests were growing in the country and many citizens were taking advantage of new opportunities to flee to the west. Within a few weeks the Berlin Wall had been breached and within a year the GDR had officially ceased to exist, acceding to the Federal Republic to form a single state.

After German reunification, books about the GDR continued to appear: scholarly studies of all aspects of East German history, politics and society; official reports on the activities of bodies such as the Ministry for State Security (STASI); literary works with the GDR as a theme; memoirs of former GDR citizens. We even have some more light-hearted items, some of which pick up on the trend for ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for East Germany), such as a collection of the ‘best Trabi jokes’ mocking the famously unreliable East German cars.

Book cover with a cartoon of a Trabant car springing over the Berlin Wall

Nils Brennecke, Warum hat der Trabi Räder? Die schönsten Trabi-Witze (Reinbek, 1991) YA.1994.a.9428 

All the material we hold from and about the German Democratic Republic can be found in our online catalogue. With 70 years’ worth of material, we must have something for every research interest in the area.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

01 October 2019

Defending a Nazi – a barrister’s path from opponent of Nazism to advocatus diaboli

“If you appoint me to defend this man, I will stand on the river bank naked, wearing only a white sheet, and scream that I am Jesus Christ” – that’s how we can summarize the reaction of Jaroslav Mellan, a lawyer, at the idea of him being asked to defend Karl Hermann Frank.

Cover of Noc pred popravou with a photograph of Karl Hermann Frank

Cover of Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou (Prague, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

The Czechoslovak Bar Association was in a tricky position. It was March 1946. Karl Hermann Frank, one of the most prominent Nazi leaders, had just been transferred from an American prison to Czechoslovakia, where he was to be tried and convicted of war crimes. The Bar Association, closely watched by the international community, had the difficult task of finding an advocatus diaboli for Frank, a job which no one wanted. The choice fell on Kamill Resler, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement and a defender of Jewish clients during the war, who was threatened with the withdrawal of his professional qualifications if he refused to defend the accused. Resler tried to challenge the decision a number of times, but to no avail. The situation was made even more dramatic by the fact that some of Resler’s relatives and friends were killed during the war as a result of Frank’s orders.

Photograph of Frank in front of his shop

Frank in front of his bookshop in Karlovy Vary, reproduced in Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu: K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Prague, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

And yet, despite his hatred for Frank, Resler believed that every criminal deserves a fair trial. In his opinion, a barrister’s duty was to disregard his feelings about the accused and to defend him to the best of his abilities. And that’s precisely what he did. Resler argued that Nazism was a disease and Frank, as its follower, must have suffered from a psychiatric disorder. He claimed that Frank lacked the ability to judge the consequences of his actions during the war and, on top of that, was unaware of what was happening in the concentration camps, even though he visited them several times.

Caricature of Resler

Caricature of Resler, reproduced in Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia: the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Before the war Frank worked as a bookseller and clerk. He enrolled in the German National-Socialist Workers Party in 1919, and when it was dissolved by the state, in the Sudeten German Party. Gradually he managed to reach the highest-ranking position in occupied Czechoslovakia, that of Secretary of State of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and chief of police. But now, with the war being over and he himself incarcerated in a Czechoslovak prison, isolated from family members and fully aware of the general hatred towards him, he became extremely depressed and struggled to find the emotional stamina to defend himself. That meant that Resler not only had to defend Frank, but that he actually found himself forced to console the Nazi prisoner and motivate him to fight for his life till the very end. The idea of Frank’s having hope of avoiding the death sentence would contribute to the image of a fair court trial that could not be questioned by international opinion.

Photograph of Resler during Frank’s trial

Resler during Frank’s trial, reproduced in Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia

Frank was at first very displeased with the fact that he would be defended by a Czech barrister. Resler upset him a number of times, as he didn’t hide his criticism of Nazi ideology and actions. Yet Frank had his softer side too. One day prison guards found him crying in his cell because two Czech prisoners had given him a loaf of bread as a Christmas gift. Frank was emotionally prepared to deal with hatred, but he wasn’t prepared for kindness.

Throughout the trial Resler was careful to keep a distance from him. Only when Frank heard the pronouncement of the death sentence did Resler shake his hand for the first time. He stayed with him in the prison cell for the three hours between the announcement of the verdict and the execution. When Frank was being taken to the gallows, he bade him farewell by saying: “Die like a man!”

Photograph of Frank sitting on a chair in a prison cell

Frank in prison cell, reproduced in Pán protektorátu

And thus Frank had a fair trial and the Czechoslovak justice system could not be criticized by the international public. The only detail that spoiled the whole picture was the hangman, who after the execution took the noose with which Frank was hanged and drank it away in a bar. Other than that, the moral standards of the Czechoslovaks successfully passed the test.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Slavonic and East European Collections Cataloguer

References/further reading

Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia : the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu : K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Praha, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou : K.H. Frank a jeho obhájce : archivy promluvily (Praha, 1995), YA.1999.a.737