President Detering, Members of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, Professor Lehmann, Ladies and Gentlemen!
I want to start by thanking you most warmly for the extraordinary honour you have done me, and to thank, first of all, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann who has been so generous to me.
»Soll ich dich gleich dem Sommertag erheben / Der du doch lieblicher und milder bist« – Friedrich Gundolf, as you know, was the great translator of Shakespeare. And that is his opening of »Shall I compare thee to a summers day?« – the summers day that you, Members of the German Academy, have so wonderfully and unexpectedly brought with you to London. But I have to tell you that, of course, the sonnet goes on: Maiknospen müssen rauhen Winden beben / Der Sommerlust bleibt allzukurze Frist. And the weather forecast for tomorrow is terrible.
When I was listening to Professor Lehmann’s very generous words, I felt (in the famous phrase of the satirical magazine Private Eye): »some mistake surely«. The Friedrich-Gundolf- Prize has usually been given to translators, to those who have changed the words from one language to another. And this is, after all, the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. We at the British Museum have not dealt with Sprache or Dichtung but with things. You also have chosen to give the prize to me. But it is not I who presented German culture in London through the exhibition. It was my colleagues in the British Museum – I am very glad to see you here tonight: Sabrina Ben Aouicha and Clarissa von Spee. It was the colleagues in the BBC Radio 4, and I am glad that Jane Ellison and John Goudie are here this evening. And it was the many participants from all over (one of them, Gustav Seibt, is here this evening) who enabled us to attempt to translate something of German life, German experience, into a form that could be understood by a large British public. And I must start as well as by thanking you by apologising to you for the fact that I am going to speak this evening in English.
For anyone who attempts to present German culture to a British public it is a worrying fact that some of the greatest intellects and the greatest writers of the nineteenth century attempted to do exactly the same thing. And in any enterprise of showing to the British what Germany has achieved you are conscious that you are standing in the shadow, first of all, of course, of Thomas Carlyle. In 1824 Thomas Carlyle published his translation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and in his preface he wrote the following:
»Now it must no doubt be granted, that so long as our invaluable constitution is preserved in its pristine purity, the British nation may exist in a state of comparative prosperity with very inadequate ideas of Goethe: but, at the same time, the present arrangement is an evil in its kind; slight, it is true, and easy to be borne, yet still more easy to be remedied, and which therefore ought to have been remedied ere now. Minds like Goethes are the common property of all nations; and, for many reasons, all should have correct impressions of them.«
Carlyle began, as you know, a great campaign to explain to the British public why they should study and admire the achievements of Germany. And his own achievement was great. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was perfectly clear that it was not at all acceptable to continue with an »inadequate idea of Goethe«, and it was clear to everybody, thanks to Carlyle, that the greatest sovereign of Europe in recent centuries was Frederick the Great. And it is a fact that is worth remembering that on the outbreak of the First World War there were more than twenty pubs in London called »The King of Prussia«. We took Frederick the Great not just to our hearts but to our lips.
And Carlyle was followed, of course, by many, many others, English writers went to Germany and wrote about it, and they wrote about it with affection and amusement, and sometimes with irony: Thackeray’s unforgettable description of his visit to Weimar which he describes as »Pumpernickel« in Vanity Fair, and his wonderfully malicious translation of the word Durchlaucht to describe the Prince as »His Transparency« – a savage exploration of the limited power and the vanishing importance of the Prince.
And it is this difficulty of translating words from one language to the other that particularly exercised George Eliot. George Eliot, I think for most of us the greatest novelist of the nineteenth century, certainly a woman who spent a great deal of her life trying to understand German thought, German literature, and to transmit it. And her problem of translation was a profound one, and she wrote very powerfully about it. »It must be admitted«, she wrote in The Natural History of German Life in 1856, »that the language of cultivated nations is in anything but a rational state; the great sections of the civilized world are only approximatively intelligible to each other, and even that, only at the cost of long study; one word stands for many things, and many words for one thing; the subtle shades of meaning, and still subtler echoes of association, make language an instrument which scarcely anything short of genius can wield with definiteness and certainty.«
And she knew that that was true for writing in your own language and even more in translating another. But she was convinced this had to be done. And ten years later, in a little essay A Word for the Germans, she said: »In fact, if anyone in the present day can be called cultivated who dispenses with the knowledge of German, it is because the two other greatest literatures of the world [French and English] are now impregnated with the results of German labour and German genius. Let those who know this have the piety to acknowledge it.«
It was by the middle of the century absolutely given in London, in Britain, that to be a cultivated person you needed to speak German and to understand it. So much so that five years after the birth of Friedrich Gundolf, in 1885 when W. S. Gilbert wrote his comic opera The Mikado, he sets out in his famous song Let the punishment fit the crime what he thinks should be the punishment for those who are boring, tedious, and speak for too long. The verse goes as follows:
All prosy dull society sinners,
Who chatter and bleat and bore,
Are sent to hear sermons
From mystical Germans
Who preach from ten till four.
And by the end of the century, the greatest intellectual figure in Britain, Fdaldane, could talk of Germany as his spiritual homeland. So you might feel there was no need - there is no need – to attempt to present Germany to the British. But as you all know that extraordinary engagement of Carlyle, of Eliot, which included Coleridge and Fdaldane - all that came to an end with the two World Wars. And the problem, if you like, that we felt we had to address can also be, I think, established in literature. It is the problem, one might say, of »Emmeline’s war work«. In 1941, Lord Berners, an excentric, gifted dilettante, wrote a marvellous novel called Far From the Madding War. The heroine of the novel is Emmeline, and Emmeline’s father is the master of an Oxford college, clearly All Souls. Emmeline, like all young ladies of good family, knows she has to do something in the war. And the first section of the book is about how Emmeline will make her contribution to the great war-effort in 1941. She decides that she must look for something in the house and she finds an embroidery:
»She spread the embroidery over the back of a sofa. It was certainly a remarkable piece of work. An expert to whom she had shown it had pronounced it to be German, probably of the fourteenth century, bearing traces of Byzantine influence. It represented incidents in the lives of the saints, interspersed with lettered scrolls and devices composed of flowers, foliage and animals. It was wonderfully preserved. The colours were still fresh and glowed with a sombre radiance. [...] Focusing a swivel lamp on a corner of the embroidery she took up a small pair of scissors and, drawing up a chair, she sat down before it and began slowly, deliberately to unravel the tiny threads of silk, offering a mental prayer to God to grant her the requisite strength to persevere in her minute labour of destruction until not a single thread remained of this unique, almost monumental, work of art.«
There can be no better symbol of the catastrophe that befell the British understanding of German culture than Emmeline deciding to take as her »war work« the destruction of a perfectly preserved masterpiece. And that continued after the war, in real life, in the BBC. The great programmes on Civilisation, presented by Kenneth Clark, revealed Clark – a profoundly humane, civilised man – unable to engage with German culture without seeing it contaminated, defined by the twelve years of 1933 to 1945. And in a memorable passage he compares a portrait by Raphael of a cardinal with a portrait by Dürer of Oswald Krell. It is, for a man as balanced and as fair-minded as Clark, a monstrously unjust comparison. And he goes on to draw a totally preposterous conclusion: In the Raphael we see the refined, confident calm of a great Mediterranean civilisation. In the Dürer, he says, we see unreason and hysteria. It is an astonishing demonstration of how deep that loss of understanding had gone. Anybody looking now at those two could perfectly well, with a different set of prejudices, say that we see in the Italian the somnambulant idleness of a Mediterranean and in the Oswald Krell the relentless seeking for truth of the German spirit. Each would be absurd. But what it shows, I think, is the fact that not only had the understanding of Germany evaporated after the war but even high art could no longer bridge the gulf. And this was the problem that we felt we wanted to set ourselves at the British Museum and in the BBC. How could we find a way of enabling a British public which no longer studies German language, which can no longer read German literature, and which has been schooled to see the great achievements of German art through the prism of the Nazi years and of the Holocaust? How could we present a narrative with which they could engage directly? And that is why we turned to objects. And that is why I feel again that I am something of a fraud standing here today because we are not talking here about presenting Sprache or Dichtung. We were talking about something else. We came to the conclusion that the best spokesman for German experience and German understanding was not words but things: that the dumb objects could speak powerfully and honestly, and that a simple object, chosen with a particular context, could be not only beredt but also redlich, and that an object could manage both.
As for the choice of objects: We focussed on those parts of German experience which seemed to us hardest for the British to understand: objects that spoke of the changing frontiers of Germany, of the internal divisions of Germany over centuries, experiences for which there was no parallel in the British history. But we also wanted to choose objects that spoke of parts of German history which people would not know at all. And I think the object which produced the strongest emotional response in the whole exhibition was the handcart pulled by a mother and her children as she fled from Eastern Pomerania in 1945 in front of the advancing Red Army. That object spoke very powerfully, very directly, of an unimaginable dislocation from countries of which the British knew little. The idea of a family with all their possessions, and food, and children on that tiny handcart moved some of our visitors to tears. I don’t think any account of that expulsion, of that flight, could have had the same power.
But it did. something more. What was very striking was that nobody among our visitors knew that this expulsion had taken place. It is one of the most extraordinary facts that this, the greatest organised movement of peoples in European history ever, has totally escaped the memory of the British – partly, I think, because at the time the British were themselves not just concerned with their difficulties here but also with a similar huge movement of peoples between India and Pakistan, and comparable and difficult movements of people in Israel. And in that context, the memory of the great German expulsion and what it meant for Germany disappeared.
It was, I think, the demonstration of how objects can speak and how powerfully they can move and how they urged many to explore more the historical events – which was: understand better the fact that, for so many Germans today, the family has roots and connections from beyond the current borders of Germany in a way that we can hardly imagine.
The final object in the exhibition was one that perhaps produced the most positive, poetic response. It was Barlach’s bronze statue Der Schwebende. We immediately hit the problem of translation. How do you translate Der Schwebende? We decided »angel« would have to do, even though Barlach says quite clearly that it is not an angel. But »a hoverer« ... it doesn’t do it. It was further complicated by the fact that the congregation of the dome in Güstrow – which showed extraordinary generosity in lending this object which is the symbol of their city and their greatest and proudest possession – made the one condition about Der Schwebende, about this angel: that it must not come to London by air. It could not fly! And in that paradox, of course, was enshrined the value they attached to it. But the story of that sculpture – the attempt by Barlach to make a monument to the suffering caused by the First World War, using the face of Käthe Kollwitz looking for her lost son, that idea of a war memorial which is not in honour of the dead but in lamentation of the suffering – was something that, I think it is fair to say, the British public have never encountered. We have no word for Mahnmal. It is almost impossible to explain what a Mahnmal is. And that idea of something which does not celebrate but which warns and which calls to reflection was an idea impossible to articulate simply in words, but immediately graspable in the face of Barlach's Der Schwebende. And the story of the sculpture itself – put up in the twenties, removed and melted down by the Nazis, a later copy made, given by the church in Cologne to the church in Güstrow in the middle of the Cold War – the idea that this sculpture was itself (another word that we find difficult to translate) eine Botschaft, in every sense of Botschaft, was, again, immediately graspable. Not least the fact that the congregation in Güstrow felt that the journey to London was a natural part of the objects function: As an instrument and a symbol of reconciliation it had work to do in London which had not yet been done. And the reception was remarkable.
Those two objects were, I think, the demonstration of a new kind of power of the object to change the way people think, people understand, and people feel. And we were astonished by the response of our public. The visitors to the exhibition were over 113000 – far beyond what we expected. But far more important than that: the figures that the BBC were recording were enormous. The arrangement with the BBC – and I think this is (for us, at least) a model of Vermittlung – was that all the work we did together should be freely available to everybody: the download is free. The downloads of the radio programmes about these objects in the UK alone are nearly two million at the moment. And around the world there are another two million. This seems to us a remarkable thing: that there was such a desire in the British public and in the world to think about Germany in a way that allowed a new engagement – an engagement that included, of course, the twelve terrible years but allowed an immediate relationship to the people and to their hopes. The handcart and Der Schwebende do not ask for a moral judgement. They ask for an emotional engagement and an acknowledgement of a shared humanity. And the response was very, very gratifying.
I want to finish with one striking fact to us, and again it makes me feel that, concerning the idea of Vermittlung deutscher Kultur im Ausland, we are not really the right people. Because one of the most striking responses was from Germany itself: not only from Germans living here but also from Germans in Germany. I want to read two sample letters from Germans living in this country: »As a German, living and married in Great Britain for twenty-five years, these interesting daily fifteen minutes are not only an eye-opener to me but also a balm for my soul. It is so nice to hear, for the first time in these twenty-five years, about my country in a positive way.« That, I think, we would all feel, was the prize we were all hoping for, and that was what we set out to achieve.
And another one: »I am half German and half Greek, and have always battled with the two very opposing cultures but felt privileged to be part of both. I have lived long in the United Kingdom, and I have never been comfortable to declare my German side. As a student in the 1980s, I usually said I was Greek because there was such a strong anti-German attitude. Even today I find people are more welcoming if I say that I am Greek. This exhibition – and above all the radio broadcasts – will make a huge difference.«
And one final thing. What surprised us in the letters from Germany was something else:
»Having grown up in the post-war years in Thuringia, close to the light of Weimar and the shadow of Buchenwald, I was suspicious of any proclaimed history, whether distorted by the ideology of one side or the confused approach of the other. It is refreshing to listen to a voice that one feels one can trust, not least because it is a voice from outside.«
To discover that there are stories of Germany more easily told by non-Germans was, for us, a surprise, and an important one. We realized we could talk much more easily about the great achievements of Germany, with less inhibition about the great untainted moments of German culture and German civilisation while acknowledging the experience through which historically they are viewed.
And there is no doubt that engagement with German history and German experience has been powerfully transforming. I think of some discussions about how we here should address our history – whether, as well as our Denkmäler, we don’t need some more Mahnmale.
It is an enormous honour to have been chosen to receive from the Academy this prize on behalf of my colleagues and myself, and on behalf of all of them, I should like to express our gratitude and to wish to the German Academy here, in the British Academy, not just a very happy stay in London but eternal prosperity: »Nie aber soll dein ewiger Sommer schwinden«, »But thy eternal summer shall not fade«, or, in Shakespeare’s words which did not need Gundolf to translate them: We »can no other answer make, but thanks, / And thanks, and ever thanks«.