THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

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 his will have a son of his own who will 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 (Berlion, 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