When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and communist regimes started falling all over Eastern Europe, one of the targets of people’s anger at communism were books and libraries. The fate of books in post-communist Europe is a large topic and definitely deserves more than one blog post, so in this one I’ll focus on East Germany. For now, let’s just say that communist-era books had it rough pretty much everywhere after the regimes that printed them went down.
1. The Land of Reading
Publishing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a combination of high intellectual standards, government meddling, and technological limitations. As a result of shortages, it is not uncommon to see relatively prestigious books printed on surprisingly low-quality paper, and in some cases the industry resorted to wartime solutions for decades after 1945. An example is a cheap type of paper that was common in Germany during WWII but remained in use in the GDR at least until the 1970s – one side of the paper would yellow much more quickly than the other, so that when you read these books today, one pair of pages is always white and the next pair yellow, and so on, which is quite a strain on the eyes.
Unsurprisingly, books were also a major channel for propagating official ideology. Apart from highly technical publications, most books had a Marxist tint; however, once the editors had paid their lip service to Marxism in the introduction, the remainder of the text was usually of high quality. I recently came across an essay by the New Yorker columnist Richard Brody in which he discusses the lure of book collecting. One of the bibliophile mementoes he singled out was “from my 1983 visit to East Berlin, where I changed more money than was required for entry in order to purchase several orange clothbound Leipzig Teubner classical editions.” He is referring to the GDR’s clever way to acquire foreign currency: every visitor would have to exchange a minimum amount of money into GDR Marks. To spend this money, two types of commodities were a popular choice among Westerners: cameras and books, especially editions of classics, brought out by publishing houses like Teubner and Reclam.
These same books were of course also much-read in their land of origin. In a country where travel was limited and many luxuries expensive, books served both as a popular pastime and as a substitute for visiting foreign lands in person. The state did its part and supported reading by instituting a very wide net of libraries which were free for everyone. At the same time, books were often the first medium through which sensitive topics like homosexuality, abortion, or envy of the Western lifestyle, were breached and discussed in public. Because the authorities sometimes did an about-face and banned a controversial book after it had already been published, it was common for such books to be grabbed up immediately after release, just in case. A commonly used phrase was that the GDR is a “Leseland”, a “land of reading.”
2. The Cemetery of Unwanted Books
Fast forward to 1993, when the New York Times published a long article about East German literature’s status within the unified country, titled “A Nation of Readers Dumps its Writers.” This summarizes well the radical change that occurred as soon as the Berlin Wall came down. After forty years of being denied bananas, jeans and Volkswagens, East Germans craved for everything Western and tried to shed everything that smacked of communism. Not just political or ideological books, but pretty much the entire domestic production suddenly found itself unsellable. Entire print runs were abandoned by publishers before they had even been sent out to bookstores. In his novel Himmelfarb, which takes place in the early nineties, Michael Krüger’s protagonist is a grumpy old professor who lives on the outskirts of Munich. He comments as he browses through a newly acquired copy of the selected works of Alexander Humboldt:
“[a] beautiful, intelligently edited book, sent to me by the publisher, as the eastern states, which had apparently banned reading after unification with the land of plenty, were either selling it below price or sending it to the paper mill, and in Leipzig of all places.”
Leipzig had been the first major centre of German publishing, and in 1991, it made headlines with another first – probably the world’s first book dump. Initially, unwanted books from the main East German warehouse for literature were sent to paper mills, and when the latter reached capacity, the books were burned as fuel in power stations. At last, whatever remained was transported to a waste deposit site at the town of Espenhain, where on May 1, 1991, a group of students uncovered around 500 tons (!) of books and other printed material deposited under a layer of construction and municipal waste. Among the few organizations to raise their voice in protest was the Union of German Writers, in whose name the poet Dieter Mucke reminded the German public of Heine’s dictum, “where they burn books, they will eventually burn people too.”
Altogether, it is estimated that about three million new books were sent directly to the scrap heaps immediately after reunification, which alone would make this one of the largest single episodes of book destruction in world history. Even more was to come during the 1990s, when the network of public libraries, which had been maintained by the East German state, was mostly dismantled. About 8000 libraries, or more than half of the total, were closed, and most of their books were sent to the dump. It is estimated that around 80 million (!!) books were destroyed in the process. This is such a huge number that I find it hard to really wrap my head around it. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine it as roughly 1600 km of books, enough to fill up a bookshelf stretching from Germany’s southern border to the North Sea – and back again. I have never come across such a huge number in any other episode of book destruction that I ever read of.
3. The Book Pastor
Fortunately, at least a few of these books survived. Among their saviours, pride of place goes to the pastor Martin Weskott from the West German village of Katlenburg, just next to the former border between the two Germanies. Weskott’s life changed in 1991 when a friend showed him a picture in a local newspaper, depicting the “book cemetery” at Plottendorf in Saxony. Weskott was amazed that this could be going on in a civilized country, and since it wasn’t clear from the picture what kind of books were being dumped, he drove down to Saxony with two of his friends to see more precisely what was going on.
Having arrived to Plottendorf, the three friends found a hole in the wire fence and climbed inside the dump. They quickly found themselves standing on enough reading material for several lifetimes. Among the titles dumped, there were the staples of Western culture: world classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, German ones such as Heinrich Mann and Stefan Heym, books by the Latin American revolutionary Eduardo Galeano were lying alongside the King of Prussia Frederick II, the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslaw Seifert, several of the Reclam classics editions, as well as children’s books, maps and books on history and architecture.
Weskott’s next step was to rent out a truck, make a number of return trips to the dump and transport as many of the books as he could back to his parish. He was lucky to have ample space at the parish to store them all, and soon afterwards he founded the Katlenburg Bücherburg, a non-profit where visitors could browse through his rescued books and take them home in exchange for a contribution to charity. After one year, Weskott estimated that he had already saved about 80,000 books, and he had made it a habit to travel down the East German countryside once a month, poking around for discarded and unwanted books.
Eventually, Weskott became known as the Book Pastor, a title which he has carried to the present day. In the nineties, the Bücherburg became a site of literary evenings, pointedly titled “The Garbage Writers are Reading,” where East German writers would present their work to a both cis- and transmural audience. As the destruction of GDR heritage subsided during the nineties, Weskott expanded his focus. He now also gathers Western books, as well as books that pre-and postdate the German division, and foreign books. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to climb around scrap heaps any longer, as most of the books now come directly from libraries, from individuals cleaning their attics, and from publishers’ unsold stock. After almost 30 years and several hundred book-gathering trips, the Bücherburg remains a must-visit for German-speaking bibliomaniacs.
4. A Library in Banana Boxes
Another approach to saving East German printed heritage was taken by Peter Sodann, a politician and actor who became famous for his role in the TV-series Tatort. Like Weskott, Sodann is also an unlikely candidate to fight for preserving the communist past. He spent time in GDR jails himself for counterrevolutionary behaviour, after having staged an irreverent play as a student. Nonetheless, Sodann had been an avid reader his entire life, and in the beginning of the nineties, he had a formative experience similar to that of Weskott. The library in Halle had dumped a huge amount of GDR-produced books soon after reunification, among them Goethe, Thomas Mann and Max Frisch. By the time Sodann heard of this, it was too late to save the books, but he pledged to save others which were about to be disposed of, and to bring them together into a library of his own.
Sodann began a drive to gather East German books, and with the help of around 250 donors, among them libraries, publishers and individuals, he ended up amassing more than half a million books. With intended irony, these were first stored in banana boxes: before 1989, bananas were a rare luxury item. When Western visitors are guided around the library by Sodann today, however, he likes to tease them that by storing Eastern literature in Western cardboard boxes, he is combining the best of both worlds.
It took a long time to find a space to properly house and present the books, since Sodann could offer a library but no money. During two decades of wandering, he had to sell his parents’ home to finance storage costs, part of the book collection became a victim of arson, and the others were endangered by the damp conditions in which they were often stored. Finally, Sodann’s pleas were heard by the mayor of the small town of Stauchitz in Saxony, and in 2011 they struck a deal to open one of the largest private libraries in Europe to the public.
In 2012, the Peter-Sodann-Library was officially opened inside a local mansion. The library includes a small movie theatre and a second-hand store, where duplicates are sold, while still more books are being stored in several warehouses around the country. There is also a nearby hotel which caters to visitors, and a number of buses continue bringing them to Stauchitz. Sodann likes to brag about requests he gets for books: libraries looking for missing copies, academics who need specific editions, publishers who don’t have some of their own books in their archive.
While there are several museums of communism scattered around Eastern Europe, this is the only specialized library I am aware of, and we definitely need more of them. The main excuse why nobody wanted to host Sodann was that all the GDR books were already in the national library in Leipzig, and thus his library was unnecessary. However, there is a difference between a national library and the kind of institution Sodann is building. A national library is a repository of texts, and the texts aren’t really meant to be accessed too often. In Stauchnitz, on the other hand, visitors can roam around the stacks, leaf through the books at will, and buy a few for themselves on the way out. It’s closer to a museum, or even a theme park, and much better equipped to give visitors a wholesome view of literature and culture in the former GDR.
In other Eastern European countries, the downfall of communism was accompanied by public bonfires of books, the torching of entire libraries, or official orders to purge the stacks. By contrast, the East German libricide was both quiet and spontaneous, and left very few traces in the national memory compared to the book burnings of half a century earlier. Nonetheless, it was a major event that deserves a mention in every history of the reunification. Germans tend to be good at learning from their own history; I hope they learn something from this too.
- Brody, Richard. “Unboxing Days and Nights.” The New Yorker, 7 July 2011. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/unboxing-days-and-nights
- Hafner, Katie. “A Nation of Readers Dumps Its Writers.” New York Times, 10 January 1993. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/10/magazine/a-nation-of-readers-dumps-its-writers.html
- Krüger, Michael. “Himmelfarb.” Salzburg: Residenz Verlag, 1993.
- Locke, Stefan. “Goethe in der Bananenkiste.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 June 2011. Available at: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/gesellschaft/bibliothek-der-ddr-goethe-in-der-bananenkiste-1656426.html
- Mack, Susanne. “Sag mir, wo die Bücher sind: Zur Lage der Bibliotheken in Sachsen-Anhalt.” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 5 November 2009. Available at: https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/sag-mir-wo-die-buecher-sind.1001.de.html?dram:article_id=156920
- Mueller, Adrian-Basil. “Ein ganzes Land in einer Lagerhalle.” Der Spiegel, 7 October 2015. Available at: https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/peter-sodann-sammelt-ddr-buecher-der-schatz-der-ostdeutschen-a-1056370.html
- Paul, Reimar. “Entrümpelte Kultur: Ein Pfarrer rettet Bücher aus ostdeutschen Müllkippen.” Die Zeit, 18 September 1992. Available at: https://www.zeit.de/1992/39/entruempelte-kultur
- Peter – Sodann – Bibliothek eG “… wider dem vergehen” Available at: https://www.psb-staucha.de/