04 March 2021
Rosa Luxemburg: a brief glimpse in five items
Rosa Luxemburg, who was born 150 years ago this month, has come to be seen as an iconic figure of socialist and revolutionary thought. Her life and legacy are reflected not only in her own works but in the many works about her that have been written in various genres – biography, academic study, polemical and literary – since her murder in 1919. Below are a handful of examples from the British Library’s collections which illuminate some of the many aspects of her story.
Rosa Luxemburg, Die industrielle Entwickelung Polens (Leipzig, 1898) 8282.ff.14. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
Die industrielle Entwickelung Polens
Luxemburg’s first published monograph was her doctoral thesis, Die industrielle Entwickelung Polens (‘The Industrial Development of Poland’). Although Luxemburg was herself Polish, she gained her doctorate from the University of Zürich, since women were barred from higher education in Poland, where Luxemburg, as a Jew and a Polish speaker in a country under Russian rule, faced additional social and educational challenges. She had sought refuge in Zürich in 1889 to avoid detention for her revolutionary activity at home. The city was something of a centre for socialist exiles, and alongside her university studies, she continued working for the cause, becoming known as a writer, organiser and highly effective public speaker. By the time her thesis was completed and published, her written work was focusing more on these issues, and a plan to write a longer economic history of Poland never came to fruition.
‘Junius’, Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie (Berlin, ) YA.1997.a.11594. (Image from the Bavarian State Library)
Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie
Luxemburg strongly believed in the international nature of the struggle for social justice. On the outbreak of war in 1914, she hoped that workers would refuse to fight and would recognise that the ruling classes in their own countries were the true enemy and the workers of other countries their true allies. When the German Socialist Party (SPD) members of the Reichstag gave their support to war, she felt betrayed. Together with Karl Liebknecht, the only SPD representative to remain opposed to the conflict, she founded the Spartacus League, which grew into the German Communist Party. Jailed for her socialist and pacifist activities, Luxemburg continued to write in prison, most notably the pamphlet Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie (‘The Crisis of Social Democracy’) in which she set out her views on the war as an imperialist and capitalist project and her despair at the attitude of the SPD, and calls for revolution. Published in 1916 and often referred to as the ‘Junius Pamphlet’ after the pseudonym Luxemburg wrote it under, it is one of her best-known works.
January Fifteenth. The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
Following the brutal murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht by right-wing ‘Freikorps’ militias in the aftermath of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919, they were seen as martyrs for the socialist cause. Although Luxemburg had often disagreed with fellow-socialists on a range of issues, she was increasingly depicted as a heroine of the left and has sometimes been described as the woman who could have united the different strands of Weimar Germany’s left-wing politics in the face of the growing right-wing threat. In 1924 the Young Communist League of Great Britain published a pamphlet entitled January Fifteenth. The murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, 1919 (8140.i.4.). The first in a planned series of ‘Manuals for Proletarian Anniversaries’, it suggested ways to commemorate Luxemburg’s and Liebknecht’s murders, an anniversary which still sees still sees parades and acts of remembrance take place today.
Margarethe von Trotta and Christiane Ensslin, Rosa (Nördlingen, 1986) YA.1987.b.6118
Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic of Rosa Luxemburg
As well as eulogies and memoirs, Luxemburg was from early on remembered in poetry, drama and fiction. In 1986 the German director Margarethe von Trotta released her film Rosa, which portrayed Luxemburg in a decidedly feminist context. Luxemburg has often been regarded as uninterested in feminism as she tended to keep at arm’s length from the formal women’s movement of her time. This was partly because she felt that she would be sidelined by being associated purely with women’s issues, but also because she saw the issue of equality as being vital to all workers regardless of nationality or sex. She was also somewhat wary of the way the suffrage movements tended to be predominantly run by and focused around educated middle-class women. Nonetheless, she had close ties with leaders of the women’s movement, particularly her friend Clara Zetkin, and her own determination to live in both the personal and political sphere on an equal footing with male friends, lovers and colleagues is reason enough to celebrate her today as a feminist pioneer.
Kate Evans, Red Rosa (London, 2015) YC.2017.b.584
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg
A recent publication that depicts the many facets of Luxemburg’s life, work and personality in a compelling and accessible way is Kate Evans’s striking graphic biography Red Rosa, a work originally commissioned by the New York branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Evans initially knew little about Luxemburg, but studied in particular her collected letters (London, 2013; ELD.DS.286414), which is perhaps what gives the book such a rounded picture of Luxemburg both as a brilliant thinker and inspirational political figure, and as a very human woman determined to live on her own terms. Kate Evans will be one of the speakers at a British Library online event marking Luxemburg’s 150th birthday on 5 March 2021. Rosa Luxemburg: At Home in the Entire World brings together authors, actors and activists to examine Luxemburg’s revolutionary legacy.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
05 February 2021
Women's Suffrage in Switzerland
In 1971 Switzerland became one of the last countries in Europe to grant women the vote at national level; only the small neighbouring principality of Liechtenstein was later in doing so, in 1984. It may seem surprising that a country that was an early republic, that became in the 20th century the home of several international and humanitarian organisations, and that is often seen as a model of stability and good social order, should have lagged so far behind in such a key area of human rights.
Switzerland had not been without a women’s rights movement, and there had been formal calls and campaigns for female suffrage from the 1860s onwards. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, writers such as Meta von Salis and Emilie Gourd, to name but two, argued for women’s rights in various spheres, and several women’s organisations were founded. A ‘Swiss Congress for the Interests of Women’ was held in Geneva in 1896, and campaigners also had male allies such as the jurists Louis Bidel and Carl Hilty, who both published articles in favour of women’s right to vote.
Proceedings of the 1896 Women’s Congress in Geneva, Bericht über die Verhandlungen des Schweizerischen Kongresses für die Interessen der Frau = Actes du Congrès suisse des intérêts féminins ... ( Bern, 1897.) 8416.h.26. (Image from Zurich University Library)
A Swiss general strike in November 1918 included women’s suffrage among its demands but was short-lived and came to nothing. Two formal parliamentary motions on the subject in the same year were effectively ignored, and various petitions to Parliament were equally unsuccessful. From 1920 onwards, some Swiss cantons held referendums on allowing women to vote at cantonal level, but none of the motions were passed.
The central role of the popular referendum in Swiss politics offers one clue to why Switzerland took so long to grant women the vote. Major constitutional change, whether at national or cantonal level, can only be brought about by a referendum rather than by parliamentary vote alone as in other European countries. And of course, the voters in these referendums were all men! It was also argued that the constitution defined a Swiss citizen with full rights in clearly masculine terms (‘un suisse’, ‘ein Schweizer’). As early as 1886 Emilie Kempin-Spyri, the first Swiss woman to gain a doctorate in law, had argued that this was a generic masculine rather than being intended specifically to restrict citizenship to males. However, this argument was rejected by the Swiss Federal Court, as it would be again over 40 years later, when put forward by jurist Léonard Jenni.
A 19th-century edition of the Swiss Constitution (Fribourg, 1856) 8073.d.74.
Swiss citizenship also became linked in many people’s minds with the compulsory military service performed by Swiss men. In fact it was an attempt in 1957 to extend this obligation to civil defence work to be undertaken by women that provided part of the impetus for the first national referendum on female suffrage in 1959. Although the civil defence proposal had not been passed, it had opened debate on whether women could be asked to perform national service when they lacked full political rights.
The arguments for and against women’s suffrage in the 1959 referendum, as in earlier cantonal votes, were familiar ones, as reflected in pro- and anti-suffrage posters. Opponents argued that political debate was beyond women’s understanding and too dirty a business for them to sully themselves with, and that political rights would make them neglect domestic and maternal duties or turn them into de-feminised harridans. Supporters countered that women deserved to have their voices heard in a free and modern society, that anti-suffragists were selfish reactionaries seeking to reserve power for themselves, and that a ‘yes’ vote would win male voters the gratitude and respect of women.
Posters from the 1950s against and in favour of female suffrage (images from swissinfo.ch)
In 1959 the anti-suffrage voices were more successful, and the motion to grant women the vote was defeated by a two-thirds majority. However, in three Cantons – Vaud, Neuchâtel and Geneva – there was a majority in favour of women’s suffrage, leading all three to give women the vote at local and cantonal level. Other cantons followed suit in the next decade, and by 1970 nine of Switzerland’s 25 cantons had universal local and cantonal suffrage. This development was a factor in the decision to hold a new national referendum, which took place on 7 February 1971 and saw the 1959 result reversed, with a two-thirds majority in favour of women’s right to vote in national elections. By the end of the following year, most cantons had also granted full suffrage at local and cantonal level.
The run-up to the 1971 referendum forms the background to the 2017 Swiss film Die göttliche Ordnung (The Divine Order), in which the women of a Swiss village go on strike from domestic duties to persuade the local men to acknowledge their rights. They succeed, and at the end we see the main protagonist standing proudly beside her husband as he casts his vote for women’s suffrage. However, in the kind of community depicted, the reality would probably have been rather different. Even in 1971 the rural north-eastern cantons voted overwhelmingly ‘no’ to women's suffrage, and two of them held out at cantonal level for almost two more decades. Appenzell Ausserhoden granted women cantonal voting rights only in 1989, and it took a Federal Court ruling the following year to force neighbouring Appenzell Innerrhoden to do the same. Willingly or not, Europe’s last bastion of electoral inequality had finally fallen, and all Swiss women could enjoy equal voting rights.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
Marie Boehlen, Eine kleine Geschichte des Frauenstimmrechts in der Schweiz, 2nd ed.. (Zurich, 1955.) 8418.a.2.
Verena Bodmer-Gessner, Bibliographie zur Geschichte der Schweizer Frau im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert ... 2nd ed. (Zurich, 1968.) 2745.g.5.
Frauengeschichte(n) : Dokumente aus zwei Jahrhunderten zur Situation der Frauen in der Schweiz (Zürich, 1986.) YA.1990.b.7138
Louis Adolphe Bridel, Le Mouvement féministe et le droit des femmes (Geneva, 1893) 8416.h.21.(3.)
Carl Hilty, De senectute. Frauenstimmrecht (Bern, 1900.) YA.1993.a.25223
Werner Kaegi, Der Anspruch der Schweizerfrau auf politische Gleichberechtigung. Gutachten ... ( Zurich, ) 8418.fff.2. (French edition, tr. Bernard Hofstetter, Le Droit de la femme suisse à l'égalité politique … ( Geneva, 1956.) 8418.ff.39.)
Iris von Roten, Frauenstimmrechtsbrevier. Vom schweizerischen Patentmittel gegen das Frauenstimmrecht, den Mitteln gegen das Patentmittel, und wie es mit oder ohne doch noch kommt (Basel, ) 8298.a.25.
Nehmen Sie Platz, Madame : die politische Repräsentation der Frauen in der Schweiz (Bern], 1990.) YA.1994.b.533
Frauen und Politik = Femmes et politiques (Bern, 1994) 34 1073.498000
Sibylle Hardmeier, Frühe Frauenstimmrechts-Bewegung in der Schweiz (1890- 1930): Argumente, Strategien, Netzwerk und Gegenbewegung (Zürich, 1997.) YA.2002.a.1466
Daniele Lenzin, Die Sache der Frauen: OFRA und die Frauenbewegung in der Schweiz (Zürich, 2000) YA.2002.a.18725
Beatrix Mesmer, Staatsbürgerinnen ohne Stimmrecht : die Politik der schweizerischen Frauenverbände 1914-1971 ( Zürich, 2007.)
Susanna Woodtli, Gleichberechtigung: der Kampf um die politischen Rechte der Frau in der Schweiz. (Frauenfeld, ) X:100/15476
Der Kampf um gleiche Rechte (Basel, 2009.) YF.2010.a.9729
Schulz, Kristina. Frauenbewegung, die Schweiz seit 1968 : Analysen, Dokumente, Archive (Baden, ) YF.2015.a.8530
Fabienne Amlinger, Im Vorzimmer der Macht? : die Frauenorganisationen der SPS, FDP und CVP, 1971-1995 (Zürich, ) YF.2019.a.23260
Claire Torracinta-Pache, Le pouvoir est pour demain : les femmes dans la politique suisse ([Lausanne], 1984.) YA.1986.a.9986
Doris Stump, Sie töten uns, nicht unsere Ideen: Meta von Salis-Marschlins, 1855-1929, Schweizer Schriftstellerin und Frauenrechtskämpferin (Thalwil/Zürich, 1986.) YA.1988.a.7520
Doris Brodbeck, Hunger nach Gerechtigkeit : Helene von Mülinen (1850-1924), eine Wegbereiterin der Frauenemanzipation ( Zurich, 2000) YA.2001.a.23815
Marianne Jehle-Wildberger, “Wo bleibt die Rechtsgleichheit?” Dora Rittmeyer-Iselin (1902-1974) und ihr Einsatz für Flüchtlinge und Frauen (Zürich; St. Gallen, ) YF.2020.a.10618
Marianne Delfosse, Emilie Kempin-Spyri (1853-1901): das Wirken der ersten Schweizer Juristin : unter besonderer Berücksichtigung ihres Einsatzes für die Rechte der Frau im schweizerischen und deutschen Privatrecht (Zürich, c1994.) YA.1996.a.20102
28 November 2020
Friedrich Engels: politics and paradoxes
On New Year’s Eve 1857, a Manchester businessman wrote a long letter to a friend in London, ending with a description of an enjoyable day’s foxhunting. He boasted of having been one of the best horsemen in the field, and was excited to have been in at the kill. It might come as a surprise that the writer and recipient were the ‘fathers of communism’, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but it points to some of the contradictions in the life of Engels, whose 200th birthday we mark today. (The letter can be found vol. 40 of the complete works of Marx and Engels, pp. 233-6)
Engels family background was almost a pattern of early 19th-century German ‘Biedermeier’ rectitude: his parents were devout pietists, and his father’s cotton mill in Barmen (now part of the city of Wuppertal) was part of Germany’s early industrial development. The young Engels soon rejected his parents’ religion, but would be associated with the family business, Ermen & Engels, for significant portions of his life.
It was while studying commerce as an apprentice in Bremen that Engels began to move in radical circles and to write about the harsh life of factory workers that he observed. Although he used a pseudonym to avoid embarrassing his family, they were concerned enough at his political views to send him to England to take up a clerical post in Ermen & Engels mill in Salford in the hope of turning him away from radical ideas. The plan backfired as Engels became more rather than less concerned with the plight of the workers and the need for them to combine against their oppressors. He closely studied the lives of the working people in and around Manchester, not merely researching statistics and studies, but visiting some of the poorest and most wretched districts of the city and meeting the people there.
Title-page of the first edition of Zur Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (Leipzig, 1845) 1141.d.25
The resulting book, Zur Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (The Condition of the Working Class in England), published in 1845 after he had left England, remains one of Engels’ best-known works. Although no English translation appeared until 1886, this first German edition has a long dedication in English ‘to the working classes of Great Britain’, ending with an exhortation to them to continue progressing towards a better future. Its ending – ‘be firm, be undaunted – your success is certain and no step you will have to take … will be lost to our common cause, the cause of humanity!’ seem to foreshadow the famous final words of the Communist Manifesto, which Engels wrote with Karl Marx four years later: ‘Workers of all countries, unite!’
Cover of the first edition of the Communist Manifesto (London, 1849) C.194.b.289
Engels and Marx had first met briefly in 1842, but the encounter was not a success. However, during his time in Salford, Engels had published various articles in German radical papers that had interested Marx, and when they met again in Paris in 1844, they found that their thinking had become very similar, and quickly agreed to work together. It was the start of a life-long friendship and collaboration, but one where Engels, by his own willing admission, would play second fiddle to Marx, whose mind and work he considered the more important.
In practice, this meant giving up much of his own revolutionary work to provide both moral and practical support to Marx. After the failure of the revolutions of 1848-9, both men lived as exiles in Britain. While Marx studied and wrote, Engels returned to his clerical job with Ermen & Engels, gradually rising to become a partner in the firm. During the 20 years that he worked there, Engels lived a double life: a middle-class businessman who enjoyed bourgeois pursuits and was a member of prestigious social institutions, yet was dedicated to ending the grip of middle-class businessmen on trade and industry, and a champion of the working classes who was part of the system that exploited them, and who worked in a trade dependent for most of his career on cotton produced by enslaved people in the Americas. This double life took literal form in the two households he maintained, one where he could entertain ‘respectable’ colleagues and friends and one where he could live with Mary Burns, an Irish worker who was his partner from 1842 until her death in 1863 (he later lived with her sister Lizzy, and eventually married her on her deathbed in 1878).
Friedrich Engels during his time in Manchester (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)
As well as juggling these different lives, Engels was sometimes pushed almost too hard by Marx. After Mary’s death, Marx’s letter of condolence also contained an appeal for money couched in joking terms that the grieving Engels found hard to forgive. And when Marx fathered an illegitimate son with the family’s servant, Helene Demuth, it was Engels who claimed paternity of the boy and gave him his name to save Marx’s wife Jenny from discovering the truth. Nonetheless, the bond between the two men remained strong. Their almost daily letters overflow with private jokes and nicknames and scurrilous gossip alongside – sometimes part and parcel of – intense social, political and theoretical debate. Engels was also much loved by Marx’s family and considered by his daughters as a ‘second father’.
In 1869 Engels was at last able to give up his day job, move to London to be near Marx, and return seriously to writing. After Marx’s death, he worked with Marx’s daughter Eleanor to complete the second volume of Das Kapital – as well as understanding his thought better than almost anyone else, Engels was one of the few people who could easily read Marx’s handwriting.
Inscription in volume 2 of the Russian translation of Das Kapital presented to the British Museum Library by Engels and Eleanor Marx (St Petersburg, 1885). C.185.b.12.
Although Engels was by this time something of a grand old man of revolutionary socialism, he remained and still remains somewhat in Marx’s shadow. He has no massive monument like Marx’s famous grave in Highgate Cemetery (Engels’ ashes were scattered in the sea near Beachey Head), and the commemorations of his bicentenary have been modest in comparison with those for Marx in 2018, and not just because of the Covid pandemic. Perhaps the anniversary will nonetheless offer an opportunity to look again at his work and legacy.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
15 October 2020
Solidarity in satire
This is the last post in a series of blogs on the Solidarity movement published to commemorate its 40th anniversary. You can read about the 21 Gdánsk demands here, the poet Jadwiga Piątkowska here, and 'Mały Konspirator', a manual to anti-government activity in 1980s Poland, here.
The British Library collection of Polish underground ephemeral publications [BL shelf mark Sol. 764] includes a significant number of posters, photographs, cartoons and humorous ephemera created by artists involved in various opposition groups. The ephemeral publications best reflected a rapidly changing reality in 1980s Poland. They were particularly effective in conveying Solidarity ideas, documenting its activities and informing about crucial social and cultural events of the time. Both simple in form and laconic, these visual materials carried powerful and indirect commentaries on the political situation as well as delivering witty, amusing and comforting messages. Most of them were produced anonymously and only some had features that later allowed for identifying their designers.
Lenin with Mohawk punk graffiti (1987) designed by Dariusz Paczkowski, a street art and graffiti artist. It was created to mock the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, whose image was widely used in communist propaganda.
Arrest warrant – the society hunts a national enemy (ca. 1982). A mock ‘wanted’ poster for General Wojciech Jaruzelski, responsible for proclaiming martial law in Poland in December 1981, with a description and an offer of a reward for his capture.
I love PZPR (the Polish United Workers’ Party) – an image of a wolf dressed as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother with a police baton; I love the USSR – an image of General Jaruzelski and a red star; I love ZOMO (Motorized Reserves of the Citizens’ Militia) – para-military formations particularly brutal during the period of martial law in 1981-1983. At the right bottom corner – Solidarity wins!
The next two images are examples of ephemera discouraging Polish citizens from voting in elections and must have been created either in October 1985 for the parliamentary elections, or in June 1988 for the election to the National Councils.
A sticker styled after a telegram: “Stay at home / stop / Gorbachev votes in your place anyway / stop”.
Election List. Candidate no. 1 the Polish United Workers’ Party, Candidate no. 2 the Alliance of Democrats, Candidate no. 3 the United People's Party, Candidate no. 4 the Christian Social Association. *Fill in missing data.”
A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. Created in 1981.
New Year’s wishes with the image of Lech Wałęsa, the future first democratically elected president of Poland and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Created in the 1980s.
The Military Song Festival in Kołobrzeg 88. The festival began in 1969. Part of the official propaganda, it was organised by the Main Political Directorate of the Polish Army and its aim was to instill patriotism and promote the image of a heroic soldier. In 1988 a group of activists from Ruch Wolność i Pokój (Freedom and Peace Movement) planned to disrupt the festival carrying with them 30 posters. Stopped and searched by secret service agents they managed to leave behind this poster which features the logo of A Cappella, a periodical published by Ruch Wolność i Pokój.
A poster by Ruch Wolność i Pokój advertising an International Seminar on Peace taking place in Warsaw on 7-9 May 1987. Ruch Wolność i Pokój was a peaceful anti-government movement and advocated non-violent resistance. Its programme included support for conscientious objectors, protection of the environment, international cooperation, protection of the rights of minorities, abolition of capital punishment, and withdrawal of the Soviet army from Poland. It carried out numerous protests including hunger strikes, occupational strikes, marches, happenings and public burning of draft cards.
“A teddy bear is better than a machine gun”. A poster with the logo of A Cappella published by Ruch Wolność i Pokój
Zuzanna Krzemień, Ela Kucharska-Beard and Magda Szkuta, Curators of East European Collections
03 October 2020
German Reunification - Before and Beyond 1990
On 3 October 1990, after over 40 years of division, East and West Germany became a single state. The breaching of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 and the opening of borders between the two states that followed had brought the question of a possible unification to the fore, but many assumed it would be a slow process over several years. However, the replacement of East Germany’s ruling Socialist party by a pro-unification coalition after the country’s first free elections, and the near-collapse of the East German economy, hastened the process, and the two states became one within less than a year.
The British Library’s holdings of material on the question of German reunification go back far further than the early 1990s. On its foundation in 1949 the West German Federal Republic established the Ministerium für gesamtdeutsche Beziehungen (Ministry for all-German Relations; the word ‘gesamtdeutsche’ was later replaced by ‘innendeutsche’ (Intra-German’) to avoid accusations that the Ministry advocated a return to pre-1937 borders). Part of the Ministry’s remit was to manage formal relations with the East German Democratic Republic, since the Federal Republic refused to recognise it as a legitimate state and therefore could not handle relations through the Foreign Office. But the Ministry also published material on the East German state and on the prospects and practicalities of a potential reunification, such as a collection of documents reflecting the Federal republic’s efforts to restore German Unity.
Die Bemühungen der Bundesrepublik um Wiederherstellung der Einheit Deutschlands durch gesamtdeutsche Wahlen: Dokumente und Akten (Bonn, 1952) S.F.430/12.(2.)
As well as official government publications on the issue, individuals also published thoughts and reflections. We have several works by the politician and writer Wilhelm Wolfgang Schütz, starting with Die Stunde Deutschlands: Möglichkeiten einer Politik der Wiedervereinigung (‘Germany’s Hour: Possibilities for a Policy of Reunification’; Stuttgart, 1955; 8030.aa.28.). One of his later works, Reform der Deutschlandpolitik (Cologne, 1965; X.709/3138.) was translated into English as Rethinking German Policy: New Approaches to Reunification (New York, 1967; X.709/6290). A pamphlet edited by Klaus Otto Skibowski, a close adviser to the first Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, sets out what he sees as the moral case for reunification, but also considers practical issues around the process, not least the financial implications. Interestingly, the map on the cover shows a jigsaw-image of Germany including areas within its pre-1937 borders. The question of what territory would be included in a united Germany was not fully settled until 1970 when West Germany formally recognised the Oder-Neisse Line as the border with Poland, and reiterated in the 1990 reunification treaty.
Cover of Klaus Otto Skibowski (ed.), Wiedervereinigung Deutschlands (Aschaffenburg, 1955) 08073.d.89.
Although most of the literature from the 1950s and 60s in our collections takes the West German line that East Germany is Soviet-occupied territory, there are some exceptions, such as a, Programm der nationalen Wiedervereinigung Deutschlands (Programme for German National Reunification; Stuttgart, 1952; 08074.f.12. The text is available online here), issued by the West German Communist Party, which depicts West Germany as a slave state of American, British and French imperialists, and an expansion of the East German system to the west as the most desirable form of reunification.
In the 1960s, the Federal Republic began to establish more formal and co-operative relations with the states of Eastern Europe, and in 1972 finally formalised relations with the German Democratic Republic. While the question of reunification did not go away, our collections contain fewer publications on the issue from the 1970s and 80s. But following the actual reunification, the number of publications naturally increases, from the formal reunification treaty signed on 31 August 1990 (S.F.583/476) to academic studies and political reflections.
Cover of Günter Grass’s critical take on reunification, Ein Schnäppchen namens DDR (Frankfurt am Main, 1990) YA.1995.a.29449
Not all of these are positive. The Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass was one of the most prominent voices expressing concern and dismay at the way the West German Federal Republic effectively absorbed the former German Democratic Republic. Similar concerns are expressed in satirical form in a collection of sketches and cartoons, Das letzte Ende, from the East German Cabaret Distel (‘Thistle’), and find a poignant echo in the popular film Good Bye Lenin where the main character, having tried to keep the truth about the events of 1989-90 from his ailing mother, a former East German party activist, fakes a broadcast announcing the end of the German Democratic Republic in a way that he himself finds more acceptable and relatable than the reality.
Cover of Das letzte Ende: gibt es ein Leben nach der Wiedervereinigung (Berlin, 1991) YA.1994.b.4972
It is certainly true that after initial euphoria, Germans on both sides of the former divide found it difficult to adapt. Many East Germans lost their jobs as the infrastructure of their former state crumbled and was rebuilt according to capitalist principles, while some westerners resented the large amounts of money pumped into the east to tackle these problems. The concept of the ‘Mauer im Kopf’ (‘wall in the head’) was coined to describe lingering mistrust and misunderstanding among the citizens of the different former republics. Reunification also saw a rise in right-wing nationalist groups which identified and attacked immigrant workers as a scapegoat for their own dissatifactions (the website zweiteroktober90 examines the roots and early manifestations of this violence).
The many books – from Germany, Britain and beyond – in our collection published since 1990 examine these problems and contradictions, and examine the history of reunification and the new Germany since 1990. A search in our online catalogue using the keyword ‘Wiedervereinigung’ or, for more recent material, the subject heading ‘Unification of Germany (1990)’ is a good way in to exploring the collections.
Despite the challenges and problems around reunification, for most who remember the days of a divided nation it is hard to see it as anything other than a positive step, and a recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that ‘around nine-in-ten Germans living in both the West and East say that German unification was a good thing for Germany’ and that ‘life satisfaction in East Germany has skyrocketed since 1991’. Although today’s 30th anniversary celebrations will be muted due to the Covid pandemic, there is still every reason to celebrate.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
09 November 2019
The Revolutionary Year of 1989
Thirty years ago today the crossing-points between two German states opened, marking the end of the Berlin Wall, demolished in the following months. The concrete barrier, separating East and West Berlin from 1961 until 1989, has been a symbol of the Cold War and the division of Europe. It was also a stage of dramatic escapes and a topic frequently explored by artists and writers.
The demolition of the Berlin Wall generated high hopes about the new order emerging in 1989, after the collapse of authoritarian regimes across Central and Eastern Europe and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union. Timothy Garton Ash gave one of the most compelling accounts of these events and the spirit of the period. He went to Berlin to study the archival sources on the German resistance to Hitler, but found himself in the middle of a political upheaval in the region and embarked upon writing what he himself described as “history of the present”. He witnessed, among others, the first partly free election in Poland, the celebratory reburial of Imre Nagy (the executed prime minister of the revolutionary government in 1956) in Hungary, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, We the People: the Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Cambridge, 1990), YK.1991.a.7367
Front cover of Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: the Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (London, 2019), ELD.DS.107591 (a revised and updated fourth edition of We the People)
As a major turning point in European history, the events of 1989 have been repeatedly revisited by historians and social scientists. What exactly happened? Did the transition to democracy and free-market economy bring the expected results? Did the end of communism live up to the expectations of the people? Answers to these pertinent questions can be found in two volumes (co-)edited by Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian-American political scientist, who invited leading scholars in the field to rethink the meaning and impact of what is often called an annus mirabilis, a miraculous year.
The issue of bringing to justice people involved in authoritarian regimes has been hotly debated long after the transition to democracy. These debates are particularly vivid around the anniversaries of the revolution. In a large comparative study, edited by Michael Bernhard and Jan Kubik, the commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the changes are analysed in 17 post-communist countries. The authors looked into how the memory of the historical events was shaped by various parties in order to serve their political agenda and concluded that the fractured memory of 1989 undermines democracy in the region.
Front cover of Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration (Oxford, New York 2014), YC.2014.a.12893
The most recent attempt to rethink the changes of 1989 is a freshly-published book, The light that failed: a reckoning by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. They critically assess the belief prevalent after 1989 that the liberal democracy was destined to expand worldwide. The book begins with the sarcastic assertion that “the future was better yesterday”.
Andrzej Sadecki, British Library PhD placement student working on the topic ‘Politicisation of commemorative practices in Eastern Europe’
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The light that failed: a reckoning (London 2019), DRT ELD.DS.455162 (EPUB)
Timothy Garton Ash, We the People. The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Cambridge 1990), YK.1991.a.7367
Timothy Garton Ash, The magic lantern: the revolution of '89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (London 2019), ELD.DS.107591 (EPUB)
Vladimir Tismaneanu (ed.), The Revolutions of 1989 (London 1999), YC.1999.b.2118
Vladimir Tismaneanu, Sorin Antohi (eds.), Between past and future: the revolutions of 1989 and their aftermath (Budapest, New York 2012), YC.2002.a.8579
Michael Bernhard, Jan Kubik (eds.), Twenty years after communism: the politics of memory and commemoration (Oxford, New York 2014), YC.2014.a.12893
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 Democratic Republic, from Deutsche Demokratische Republik: Handbuch (Leipzig, 1979) X:800/14702
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.
A official handbook of the East German Parliament, Die Volkskammer der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Berlin, 1964) S.F.1372/2.
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, 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! Literarische und bildkünstlerische Arbeiten der Schuljugend des Bezirkes Neubrandenburg zum 30. Jahrestag der Pionierorganisation 'Ernst Thälmann' (Neubrandenburg, ) X:990/11196
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’.
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 (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.
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
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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!”
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
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
16 August 2019
‘C’est un détournement’: Mezioud Ouldamer’s copy of Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s Mémoires
In 1959 Guy Debord and the Danish artist Asger Jorn published Mémoires, ‘a work entirely composed of prefabricated elements’ with ‘supporting structures’ by Jorn. In the jargon of the Situationist International (SI), the avant-garde anti-authoritarian movement they helped form in 1957, it is a work of détournement:
Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation — a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework. Détournement is the flexible language of anti-ideology. (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, thesis 208)
Double-page spread from Mémoires (Copenhagen, 1957; RF.2019.b.63), section 2, bright red indicating Debord’s creative energy
Double-page spread from Mémoires section 3, fragments of maps struck through with blue lines, facing a nebulous blue splodge
Wrenched from their original contexts, fragments of texts and isolated images are linked and obscured by roughly applied, bright inks. Not always ‘supporting structures’, Jorn’s paintwork draws connections between fragments, but ‘then Debord’s words and pictures change Jorn’s avenues into labyrinths […] A connection is made, a connection is missed, the reader is lost, the reader enters another passageway, then another’ (Marcus, p. 128).
‘Guinness is good for you’: détourning advertising as the slogan is placed next to the fragment ‘in the daily struggle’
Through his creative reinterpretation of the autobiographical genre, the author enacts the process by which the ‘society of the spectacle’ and the commodification of experience might finally be blown apart to uncover again the unique everyday amidst the alienating capitalist superstructure. As Mémoires’ final fragment puts it, ‘I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’.
Final page of Mémoires
The British Library’s copy of Mémoires has an inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer (1951-2017), an Algerian political activist and author of a number of works inspired by the Situationists and his friendship with Debord.
Inscription by Mezioud Ouldamer in Mémoires
Ouldamer writes: ‘It is a détournement | It was in Ecclesiastes. | And even in Proverbs. | There is still a belief in this rotten “God”. There is nothing, Evy. I love you. | Le Singe [the monkey or the imitator]’. It isn’t clear when Debord gave Ouldamer the copy, of which there were perhaps one thousand in small circulation amongst associates, but their friendship appears to have flourished in the early 1980s. Ouldamer’s presence in our copy shifts the frame of the work and provokes us to think about race, ethnicity and the Algerian crises that were part of the context of both the original publication and Debord’s subsequent gift to Ouldamer.
Algerian intellectuals were already part of the Lettrist International, the SI’s forerunner, including Hadj Mohamed Dahou, who continued into the SI. Compatriot Abdelhafid Khatib wrote a fragmentary first example of a psychogeography in 1958. Thus the Algerian Situationist context was well established when the next generation came to maturity. Between 1953, the year of ‘The Manifesto of the Algerian Group of the Lettrist International’, and Ouldamer’s early activism came Algeria’s hard-won independence in 1962. From this point onwards, the violent suppression of native Algerian rights by French colonists transformed into the suppression of Berber rights by the single-party leadership Front de liberation nationale (FLN) with their exclusive focus on Arabization. This eventually led to the Berber mass activism and strikes of 1980, known as the ‘Berber Spring’.
Ouldamer, a native of the largest Berber region, Kabylia, co-edited a pamphlet entitled L’Algérie brûle! [‘Algeria is on fire’], attributed to ‘un groupe d’autonomes algériens’. In it, they pay homage to the activists for restoring to millions of Berber people a long-restricted freedom of expression. They reveal the illusion of Algeria being the standard-bearer for third world revolution, when it has reproduced ‘all the mediocrities and ignominies shared across all the world’s police states’. The incendiary pamphlet then evokes our inscription as it continues, ‘Les insurgés de Tizi-Ouzou n’ont fait que cracher sur toute cette pourriture’ [the insurgents of Tizi-Ouzou have done nothing else but spit in the face of this rottenness].
L’Algérie brûle! (Paris, 1981) X.809/55238
L’Algérie brûle! was published by Debord’s longstanding publisher and friend Gérard Lebovici at éditions Champ Libre, Paris. It appeared early in 1981, by which time Ouldamer had been arrested, ultimately to serve one year in prison for breaking article 144 of the Algerian penal code, which is cited on the back flap of his next book, Offense à President. The law forbids citizens to attack the honour of authorities ‘by words, gestures, threats, […] even by writings or drawings not made public’. This book was written in Paris, Ouldamer’s new home following his release, where his friendship with Debord developed. In March 1984, Lebovici was assassinated. Debord rigorously investigated the circumstances of his friend’s death, all the while encouraging Ouldamer to publish his work with the same publisher, now run by Gérard’s widow Floriana under the name éditions Gérard Lebovici.
Mezioud Ouldamer, Offense à Président (Paris, 1985), YA.1987.a.18728
The success of Offense à President led Ouldamer to work on the book that would spark the most reaction, Le Cauchemar immigré dans la decomposition de la France [‘The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France’]. Debord again offered advice throughout. One letter from Debord on 9 May 1985 invites Ouldamer to the small hamlet of Champot, adding that his girlfriend would also be welcome. Is this the ‘Evy’ mentioned in Ouldamer’s inscription in Mémoires?
Le Cauchemar immigré dans la décomposition de la France (Paris, 1986), YA.1987.a.3700
Le Cauchemar immigré inspired Debord to pass his own comments on the politics of immigration that had risen to the surface, especially since 1983’s March for Equality and against Racism. Debord’s ‘Notes on the “immigrant question”’ were written in response to Ouldamer’s ideas and are probably more famous today than the work that inspired them. Ouldamer’s matter-of-fact delivery is similar to Debord’s as he writes ‘the spectacle of a nightmarish immigration dominates every mind, to the extent that immigrants themselves have begun to give in to this image’. The last lines of Le Cauchemar immigré are indeed taken from Debord’s last lines of his notes to Ouldamer. The gist is, will the earth’s future inhabitants emancipate themselves from the current hierarchical and repressive system, or ‘will they be dominated by an even more hierarchical and pro-slavery society than today?’ Sharing a militancy, Debord and Ouldamer close by saying, ‘we must envisage the worst and fight for the best. France is assuredly regrettable. But regrets are useless.’
Ouldamer’s inscription in the BL’s copy of Mémoires arguably offers a détournement of its own to Debord and Jorn’s détournement. At the very least, this contextual history reinserts global and racial dynamics into a work of the European political avant-garde, in which the Algerian crises of the 20th century arguably often only played a sub-textual role. If Mémoires ‘wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time’ then that language was surely not just the fragmented artistry of Paris, but also the Arabic and the Berber languages of Algeria.
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
References / Further reading
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York, 1994), YC.1994.b.6105
Guy Debord, Correspondance [vol. 6, Janvier 1979 – Décembre 1987] (Paris, 1999-2010), YF.2008.a.37298
Nedjib Sidi Moussa, ‘In Memoriam Mezioud Ouldamer’, in Textures du Temps
Erindringer om Asger Jorn, ed. by Troels Andersen and Aksel Evin Olesen (Silkeborg, 1982), X.425/4198
Greil Marcus, ‘Guy Debord’s Mémoires: A Siutationist Primer’, in On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972, ed. by Elisabeth Sussman (Cambridge, MA: 1989), YC.1992.b.1936
Boris Donné, Pour mémoires: un essai d’élucidation des Mémoires de Guy Debord (Paris, 2004), YF.2004.a.15028
Tom McDonough, ‘The Beautiful Language of my Century’: Reinventing the Language of Contestation in Postwar France, 1945-1968 (Cambridge, MA: 2007), YK.2007.a.9440
Bart Lans and Otakar Mácel, ‘The Making of Fin de Copenhague & Mémoires: The tactic of détournement in the collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’ (Delft, 2009)
Ella Mudie, ‘An Atlas of Allusions: The Perverse Methods of Guy Debord’s Mémoires’, Criticism 58 (2016), pp. 535-63
25 July 2019
Matilde Serao: proud to be imperfect
This woman so conventional and gossipy, false among the people and so simple, so affectionate, so frank with herself, so vain with others and so humble with me, so ugly in her daily life and so beautiful in moments of love, so incorrigible and disgusting, so docile to the teachings, I like her a lot, very much, too much […]
This is how, in a letter to a friend, Edoardo Scarfoglio describes the woman he was about to marry. The future wife was Matilde Serao (1856-1927), writer and journalist, who, at 26, left Naples to live in Rome where, in the capital’s literary salons, she became known for her wit, and was often frowned upon because of her spontaneous laughter and gestures. Scarfoglio had already brutally criticised Fantasia, the novel published in 1883 that made Serao famous, describing its language as inexact, improper, a mixture of dialectal words from Italian and French.
Photograph of Matilde Serao in 1887, reproduced in Alberto Consiglio, Napoli amore e morte – Edoardo Scarfgoglio e Matilde Serao (Naples, 1959) 010601.aaa.94
In an interview with Ugo Ojetti, Matilde Serao said this in her defence:
Even though my language is incorrect, even though I cannot write and I admire those who write well, I must confess that if I should by any chance learn to do it, I would not do it. I believe, with the liveliness of that uncertain language and broken style, to infuse warmth in my works, and warmth, not only vivifies the body, it also preserves it from the corruption of time.
Covers of Serao’s Fantasia (Florence, 1914) W12/6416 and of an English translation by Henry Harland and Paul Sylvester, Fantasy (London, 1891). 12205.ee.3/17.
In the introduction to the edition of Fantasia published in 2010, Riccardo Reims wrote:
[…] if a novel containing the same rapid descriptions of 10 young girls in a college, lined up in a classroom, […] briefly defined […] – Giovanna who, without reading, her eyes semi closed, bites a rose, and the pale Lucia with her mellow hair, lips too red, who holds her own head with one hand and through the fingers looks at the teacher […] – were published today, there would be screams of wonder, no offence to the living writers.
In 1884 Serao published Il ventre di Napoli, clearly recalling Zola’s Le ventre de Paris (1873). She gives a vivid and concrete image of late nineteenth-century Naples, under the influence of the positivistic approach of French literary Naturalism and the detached look of Italian Verismo. Her description of Naples takes us to the most tragic and dark parts of the city, and suddenly we are dazzled by the remarkable livelihood of the people in it: it is as if Serao makes the Neapolitans flourish from the dirt of the city with their colourful songs, elegance and passion for handicraft.
Title-page of Il Ventre di Napoli (Milan, 1884) 10130.bb.19.
Serao and Scarfoglio married in 1885. In the same year the couple founded the newspaper Il corriere di Roma. Two years later in Naples they founded Il corriere di Napoli, which in 1892 became Il Mattino. After a while, the marriage went though some crisis: in 1903, Serao left Il Mattino and founded Il Giorno.
In March 1925, the philosopher Giovanni Gentile wrote a manifesto of the fascist intellectuals, following a conference of fascist cultural institutions. The manifesto was published by the national press on 21 April; Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Luigi Pirandello were among the signatories.
On the following 1 May, Benedetto Croce wrote a poster entitled ‘A reply from writers, professors and Italian publicists, to the manifesto of the fascist intellectuals’. The poster was published by the daily newspaper Il Mondo and Matilde Serao was among the contributors. In 1926 the newspaper was suppressed by the Fascist regime and Matilde Serao’s nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature was stopped. She died the following year, on 25 July.
Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections
Matilde Serao, Fantasia, introduzione di Riccardo Reim. (Milan, 2010). YF.2011.a.19669
Ugo Ojetti, Alla scoperta dei letterati.... (Milan, 1895). 11852.bb.23.
All translations by Giuseppe Alizzi
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