How the French brought Comparative Literature to Mainz

17 May 2013

An institute unique to Germany and treasures from the Mainz University Archive were the two main topics of the lecture evening held in the Central Library of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). Through this and similar events, the University History Research Association hopes to throw light on the history of the university. The evening commenced with a look at the subject of Comparative Literature.

The display case holds a black beret, together with a pair of gloves and a white bow tie. In addition to this, university archivist Dr. Christian George has put a black gown on display. All the items are from the estate of Frank Brommer, once Professor of Classical Archaeology at Mainz University. They now have now found a secure home in the JGU University Archive. George has brought them out for a small exhibition. "Up until the 1960s, the professors all wore this type of gown," stated the archivist.

The Mainz University History Research Association (FVUG) had arranged for two lectures to be given in the Central Library to illuminate two very different aspects of the university's history. George would be giving a presentation on the archive while Tobias Gunst would be using his lecture to outline the beginnings of the Comparative Literature program in Mainz.

Professor Dr. Mechthild Dreyer, Vice President for Learning and Teaching at JGU, also followed the invitation. "Our university has had a long history," she emphasized in her speech to open the evening. "But interest in the history of the university is something that is relatively new. All the same, we consider that this is an aspect that we should really concern ourselves with."

A desire for culture

In 1946, there arose "a new spirit at Germany's universities" – at least, this was how it was seen in the magazine Universitas at the time the first chair for Comparative Literature was established in Mainz.

Tobias Gunst, a research associate at the Institute of General and Comparative Literature, provides an in-depth assessment of the period in which his discipline first came of age in Mainz in his book Die Ausformung eine europäischen Bewusstseins (The Formation of a European Conscience). In this he analyses the work of Friedrich Hirth, a professor who was mainly responsible for making the discipline of Comparative Literature at Mainz into what it is today. In his lecture, Gunst outlined what Hirth had discovered as a result of research.

Some 80 percent of the infrastructure in the city of Mainz had been destroyed by 1945. Times were tough, scarcity was omnipresent. At the time, the French occupiers were surprised to discover that there was a rather unexpected hankering among the population: a desire and appetite for education and culture. As the Mainz Anzeiger, a local newspaper, put it in an article published in its issue of November 30, 1945: "We want to look beyond our provincial borders; we want to hear the heartbeat of the world again."

A university of the new spirit

The French, particularly Raymond Schmittlein, head of the Direction de l´Education Publique, were delighted that this was the case as it was their main intention to use culture in order to promote the re-education and democratization of Germany. This also included founding Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz as a "university of the new spirit." "Schmittlein wanted to move away from the previously ossified form of university with its apolitical professors," explained Gunst.

A discipline that the Nazis had denigrated as 'Jewish' and that had previously been unable to gain a foothold in Germany was particularly important to Schmittlein: Comparative Literature. He set in motion the establishment of a chair of Comparative Literature. This discipline was created in the first half of the 19th century as a counterweight to the standard approach of looking at national literatures individually. The intention was to highlight the importance of cultural and literary interactions and demonstrate just how fruitful these could be.

Friedrich Hirth came to Mainz as the first Professor of Comparative Literature. Born in Vienna and of Jewish ancestry, Hirth had made a name for himself in Paris as a journalist. His book Hitler oder der entfesselte Kriegstreiber (Hitler or the Warmonger Unshackled) published in 1930 proved to be prescient.

No degree program but 200 students

Gunst described the new professor's difficulties. For a long time, it remained uncertain whether his post as an endowed professor would continue to be financed, even though his lectures were popular. "Up to 200 students would attend them even though there was no degree program and it was not possible to obtain a degree." Gunst displays a photograph of Hirth wearing gown, bow tie, and beret.

It was the French who initially helped to ensure the survival of the discipline. The first independent Institute of Comparative Literature in Germany thus came into being in Mainz. Even though this set a precedent at the time, Comparative Literature as a separate subject has since disappeared from the curricula of many universities. JGU is once again on its own with its Institute of General and Comparative Literature.

But it is only possible to provide an account like this thanks to institutions such as the University Archive. Dr. Christian George has been running it since the summer of 2012 and has faced numerous challenges, which he spoke about in his lecture.

Challenges to the archive

Approximately 1,300 meters of archived material, including files, photos, news clippings, and an entire series of bequests are stored at various locations around the campus. George has his offices in the Central Library.

Here and there can be found documents crammed into jam-packed folders. Metal items, such as rusting paper clips and staples, represent a threat to their survival. "We have begun to remove the metal articles from the documents and find new storage locations," reported George. They will soon be moved to the basement of the Law and Economics Building. Even after the move has been completed, there will still be a lot to do. "Forty percent of our holdings are completely uncatalogued."

The archivist is keen on championing his archive and its documents. "We can provide a much better individual and detailed service to researchers than a larger archive." However, very few have so far taken advantage of the institution. "So it is our foremost aim to improve the archive's visibility." This was also one of the objectives of George's lecture while the Treasures from the University Archive exhibition to be seen in two glass display cases that evening were there to serve the same purpose.

A gown gets around

The treasures include an aerial photo of the university campus in 1946 and a photo of students who were enlisted as laborers directly after the war. The wonderful drawings made by the founder of the Botanic Garden at JGU, Professor Dr. Wilhelm Troll, were also on display. A suitcase contains the bequest of Dr. Karl Feldbusch. He left his estate to the university. "I have not yet been able to find out what his relationship with our university was," said George. "However, the suitcase contains roughly 20 different drafts of his will."

The interest in the exhibited items was enormous that evening. The gown was passed from hand to hand. Some of the visitors could not resist trying it on before it went back into storage in the archive.