The significance of the collection
As Professor Andrew Barker from the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures explains, the collection presents a complete overview of the GDR’s literary (and sometimes broader) culture from its inception to its end (1949 to 1989), with the main focus on the period from 1960 to 1989.
“The collection gives an in-depth view of a literary culture that was state-sponsored, and whose vibrancy came from the fact that state-sponsored artists were often being subversive within literature,” explains Professor Barker. “There is this very vibrant relationship between literature, the politics of the day and the readership.”
A coveted research tool
Containing works from both internationally renowned and lesser-known GDR writers, including a range of female authors, the collection boasts a quality and quantity that make it a most coveted research tool.
It is rare, particularly in this country, to have access to a collection of this magnitude
“It is rare, particularly in this country, to have access to a collection of this magnitude,” explains Professor Barker. “It covers a gamut of literature, from narrative writing, novels and short stories to dramatic pieces, travel articles, periodicals and criticisms. It consists almost entirely of first editions, nearly all in their dust jackets, gathered together by a very, very competent collector who really knew the scene inside out.”
The collection has inherent aesthetic qualities as well as immense historical interest and, according to Professor Barker, students choosing to examine it will benefit from first-rate supervision - specialists Dr Laura Bradley and Dr Peter Davies are already working with the material and can supervise research on a wide range of related topics, and GDR experts Dr Pertti Ahonen (History) and Dr Elaine Kelly (Music) can cater for postgraduates whose interests cross inter-disciplinary boundaries.
“This collection is for those postgraduates aiming to understand literature and dictatorship, media control, lack of freedom of the artist within a totalitarian system, how far art can be directed, the function of literature in a closed society…” says Professor Barker.
“If a student was interested in an author from this period, virtually the entire output of that author would be here. This is an opportunity to do deep research on a Germanic topic here in Edinburgh - the resources are probably stronger than they would be in Germany itself and we have the expertise here.”
Recreation of a lost world
In the years since reunification in 1990, East German literature, literary criticism, cultural policies and their historical roots have gained a new and significant position. A particularly unique element of the collection, according to Professor Barker, is that it allows postgraduates to examine GDR material in the context of modern Germany.
He elaborates: “In Germany, since 1989, a huge amount of this literature has been destroyed - bucketloads, skipfuls of books were just thrown out of public libraries into the streets; put out in boxes for the rubbish. It is simply no longer available and belongs to a past that, I wouldn’t say people are trying to pretend didn’t exist, but it is certainly a past whose value is not being overstated at the moment.
“This collection represents a recreation of a lost world; we are talking about a complete time capsule with the GDR in that it has both a beginning and an end; it only lasted 40 years. It’s relatively modern and incredibly historical in how quickly the present becomes the past - it was only 20 years ago. But what is left is literature.”