Transatlantic Book Movement

Migratory paths and transfer routes before and after 1945

Why did the German Literature Archive (DLA) invite Kurt Pinthus, an early chronicler of expressionism who had emigrated to New York in 1939, to Marbach with his entire library of rare prints from the early twentieth century? How did a collection of autograph catalogues previously owned by Austrian writer and collector Stefan Zweig find its way from Salzburg to London after Zweig’s suicide in Brazilian exile in 1942 and finally to the DLA in the 1960s? How did flight, emigration, and war influence the preservation of German literature? How did archives, libraries, and researchers react to the translocation of a significant portion of their research material?

This case study examines the transfer routes and migratory paths of libraries and autographs concerning German literature after 1945. The ‘transatlantic book movement’ is in fact a metonym for a global phenomenon: the primary but the not sole focus of this study. Translocations can be studied using the materials formerly owned by emigrants. Their connections to museums and research organisations can be examined based on where such materials changed hands, for example in auction houses and antiquarian bookshops. Despite the efforts of the National Socialists to confiscate and/or destroy them, numerous private libraries and collections were saved from destruction or loss thanks to translocation, transfers, and change of ownership. These include Novalis’ philosophical writings, Adalbert Stifter’s manuscripts, Theodor Fontane’s correspondence, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s private documents, Karl Wolfskehl’s and Kurt Pinthus’ libraries, Curt von Faber du Faur’s baroque library, and much more. Today most, albeit not all, of these objects are held in German archives and museums. Their ‘return’ to Germany is the consequence of an academic desire for new scholarly editions and research, and of institutional collection policies that were both publicly funded and in alignment with research interests within German studies. How did migration and war, material politics and material awareness in museums and research institutions change after 1945? How did political events and processes of differentiation within academic disciplines influence the attention paid to conservation issues in literary studies? Why has provenance not become an object of research within literary studies in its own right? And how did questions of provenance nonetheless influence literary research after 1945?

Based on the example of prominent translocations – including Kurt Pinthus’ library as well as Stefan Zweig’s collection of autograph catalogues, which will be catalogued as part of the project – the case study reveals both continuities and disruptions within the discourse concerning the material archiving of German literature. The aim is to make visible literary scholarship and how it relates to the history of literary material as well as the aesthetic autonomy of a text. To this end, the project will comprise three interlinked levels of analysis: the object’s biographical background, discourse history, and a close reading of translocated texts with respect to literary perspectives on ownership and provenance. In addition to the objects themselves, and the materials associated with them, the most important sources include acquisition records, antiquarian and autograph catalogues.

In order to use these sources and to make them accessible to a broader range of researchers and research questions, the project will focus on digitally indexing and studying acquisition records, auction catalogues, and antiquarian catalogues at the DLA. An analysis of the lists and catalogues, based on digital humanities approaches, will enable researchers to provide information on trade centres, transfer routes, economic climates, and canonisation processes, as well as on the language and knowledge found in the catalogues – knowledge that reveals the precarious connections between the thoughts and actions of antiquarians, connoisseurs, and philosophers. This project intersects with the activities of the MWW research group ‘Provenance’ through their joint interest in the relationships between commerce, collections, and research.


Former staff: 

  • Caroline Jessen