With Nabokov in Berlin

Gastbeitrag von Prof. Zsuzsa Hetényi, Loránd-Eötvös-Universität Budapest

After my arrival at the Stabi, I started by a thorough “obkhod” (going around) of the wonderful retro-modern building of the library for choosing and noting the coziest places for reading at different times of the day, for scanning, for taking photos of the pages, for eating, for cold days and for warmer days (of my mostly golden-sunny October-November stay).

I applied for the fellowship and arrived in Berlin for preparing a monograph on Vladimir Nabokov in English. This book would be my second one on Nabokov, the first one being in Hungarian, a small language with a narrow reading audience. Now I see a kind of omen in the fact that on the cover of my Hungarian book I put a László Moholy-Nagy montage made in 1926 in Berlin.

The cover of my book on Nabokov in Hungarian, 2015, see the link above. - Foto: Zsuzsa Hetényi ; CC-BY-NC-SA

The cover of my book on Nabokov in Hungarian, 2015, see the link above. – Photo: Zsuzsa Hetényi

A Hungarian scholar has many hindrances when aiming to gain a place in a specific field’s scholarly community: besides the small language in the country we have libraries with a very limited budget, and also with a somewhat narrow-minded strategy of purchase. Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-born writer whose family was forced to leave Russia (because of the revolution of 1917), and went to Europe. Then, already with his own son born in Berlin, he left for the USA, where he started writing in English and became a famous American bestseller writer thanks to his Lolita. Then another move – he returned to Europe, he died in Montreux, Switzerland in 1977. His life was marked by many transitions, but in Berlin he spent the longest period of his life.

Soviet censorship had an absolute power in Socialist Hungary until its very end, so an official permission was obligatory for everything. Only that what could be printed in the USSR could be published in Hungary, so Nabokov was prohibited in both places until the late glasnost’ era, until 1987. Hence the paradoxical situation: Hungarian readers started to read Nabokov only a decade after his death, around 1989, when the Soviet censorship was abolished. This is why the Hungarian reading public became somewhat little attuned to Nabokov and this is why Nabokov is not at all on the place which he deserves and owns in world literature, he is only starting his way towards the Hungarian hearts and minds. So a Hungarian librarian will not order books on him, especially not waste the little budget for purchasing a book in English about a Russian writer or in Russian about an American writer. That is why a Hungarian scholar in order to be up-to-date in his or her field has to travel every 5-8 years and go to other big libraries of richer countries with a wider scope of interest.

I am sure of being not the only scholar who, during an intensive reading period, is faced the basic dilemma of the humanities in the postmodern era: the growing number of publications, the obligation to know everything and — a most difficult task — despite the huge burden of secondary reading keeping the creative power to write about one’s own ideas, without losing the pleasure of reading and analyzing the primary text. The biggest good surprises can happen coming across exciting ideas of others and the biggest bitter surprises when finding one’s own ideas already written by someone else earlier.

My four-week stay at Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin was a mixture of intellectual pleasure, hard work and some tension due to the short time and a lot of events, partly planned before, partly unforeseen earlier. Sometimes I left for events or exhibitions during the day – I am convinced that a grant’s successfulness can be measured also by new impressions and information about the city, the country and its history and culture.

I wonder how many books one has to read before writing another book… I asked myself this unanswerable question many times while comparing the amount of books to be read with those already read and my time frame, four weeks of my fellowship. Depending on the search criteria, my narrow field of interest connected to my nearest research goals (Vladimir Nabokov) gave from 189 up to 480 results only in category of books, apart from journal articles. Among them there were about a hundred from recent years and many older ones which I could not find even in US-based libraries. The great difference from American libraries is a result of the purchasing strategy: Stabi keeps an eye equally on the French, Russian and any-language scholarly book-market and purchases according to the subject, not language, publisher or country. So I could find very small but useful editions from the Urals or Central Asia, and also publications from small local institutes in France. Finally, I ordered approximately 90 books – some of them were read partly only, and many were photographed: I have returned to Budapest with about 500 double-page photos, some of them taken in the Rara Collection at Unter den Linden building (with special permission, of course). There, in one of the small journals looking very trendy and not serious, I have discovered a photo taken in 1926 at the rehearsal of a humorous play for the annual Russian ball, with a very young Nabokov sitting first on the left:

Russkii Berlin 1927.2. Actors of the theater piece “Kvatch” to be presented at the Russian Ball in 1927. Nabokov sits first from the left. He is mentioned in the list under his pen name V. V. Sirin he used in Berlin. – Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Signatur: 4° Td 2045 R

I was amazed when getting acquainted with Slavistik-Portal, this very professional hub of information about everything possible, including events, news and scientific novelties. With a great regret I left its scrutinizing for later times as I had realized I will be able to do it from home, and I treasured my Berlin-time for things feasible only on the spot.

I visited the library nearly every day of my Berlin stay, the longest day being from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., when I came first and left last… After a day like that one feels very far from the real world. And in the nights I copied my notes and photos to different memory cards and virtual libraries. I remember one night reading the word “Abholbereit” on the library-“Zettel” as follows: Alcoholbereit… (NB. I am abstinent… Still, I brought home a little “Berliner Luft” bottle given to me as a farewell present from Sabine Kaiser from the Eastern Europe Department, who was my universal helping librarian angel during all my stay.)

I made research not only on my goal stated in my application (Nabokov during his Berlin period) but for many further chapters, and also for my public lecture held November 12 under the title: “…doves and lilies, and velvet…” – Translating self-translation with remarks on synaesthesia and bilingualism (the case of Nabokov). The beauty of translating self-translating authors to a third language is that we have two originals in our hands. My proposition was to make a hybrid text out of the two and always use the more poeticized one – this is how I worked when translating Nabokov’s Mary/Mashenka and Glory/Podvig into Hungarian.

As for my future book, I worked hard on the problem of influence of Symbolist Andrey Belyi (1880–1934) on Nabokov. First of all, we have to ask what means influence in literature. Influence is the driver of literary evolution. It is not copying, not repetition, not being a disciple, but also contradicting, varying the answers to some problems raised by the elder generation, and – what interested me most – parodying. Already in 1921 Yury Tynianov argued that early Dostoevsky parodied Gogol’s works. Parody is also a postmodern phenomenon as one form of intertextuality. A further study I planned to elaborate in Berlin was Nabokov’s letter-coding, that is, his special device of attributing different meanings to individual letters of the alphabet in accordance with their graphic form. As a simple example, one of his heroes waiting for his execution associates the Russian Г (G, identical to Greek gamma) with a scaffold and Y with a catapult. Nabokov was a synesthete, so he associated also colors and images with letters. As he writes in his memoirs, Speak, Memory!:

“The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and diphthongs do not have special colors of their own, unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation).

I hasten to complete my list before I am interrupted. In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e’s and i’s, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u whose alphabetical value I can express only by ‘brassy with an olive sheen.’ In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel…”

A third problem to check was Nabokov’s relationship to the German language and culture, which he denied. He said he had not been involved in the social life in Berlin and did not learn and speak German. It is a mystification – he knew German well enough to read German newspapers and also to translate some poems, and was involved in many Russian cultural events in Berlin from giving lectures to playing in a small private theatre-group. He loved Berlin’s museums, the Zoo, strolling about in the streets, and also tennis courts… (as his favorite one, hidden behind the Schaubühne, is abandoned and closed and starts to decompose, I had to climb the fences to get in for a photo…)

Photo: Zsuzsa Hetényi ; CC-BY-NC-SA

Photo: Zsuzsa Hetényi ; CC-BY-NC-SA

So-called “Nabokov-places” are wonderfully listed and placed on a map in Dieter Zimmer’s Nabokovs Berlin (Nikolai, 2001) on the pages 142‑143.

During my stay I met several colleagues and fellow translators, and also visited places and museums (the new Pergamon Panorama before its opening), attended events on Russian culture (e.g. in the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin in Wannsee about the German translation of The Master and Margarita and as many commemorations about German history as I could (Reichstag, Gurlitt exhibition, Topography of Terror). I have never heard before about the fact what a coincidental day November 9 is in German history. My Facebook post on the Pogrom book presentation in the Akademie der Künste and the speech of Mr Frank-Walter Steinmeier got nearly 200 likes – I was happy to bring closer not only this part of German history but especially the culture of remembrance in Germany to some of the Hungarian intellectuals.

I have to return once (or more times?) again.


Frau Prof. Zsuzsa Hetényi, Loránd-Eötvös-Universität Budapest, war im Rahmen des Stipendienprogramms der Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz im Jahr 2018 als Stipendiatin an der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Forschungsprojekt: “A monograph on Nabokov in English”

Title covers of the monthly colonialist youth magazine "Jambo", volume 6 (1930), issues 1, 8, and 5. - (Personal Collection)

Imagined Hegenomies: Colonialist Literature for German Youth during the Weimar Republic

Gastbeitrag von Prof. Luke Springman, Bloomsburg University

A “flood” of popular literature about Africa swept the book market in Germany after it had irretrievably forfeited all its colonial possessions at the end of World War I. From 1884 to 1914, Germany had become the world’s third or fourth largest colonial power (depending whether one referred to land mass or to population); in Africa, Germany had claimed territory in what is today Togo, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Namibia. Overseas possessions, however, affected the German economy and culture little in comparison with the impact colonies had on England and France. Nevertheless, a dedicated minority of influential Germans devoted serious and sustained efforts after 1918 to keep alive the desire for empire in Germany. Their influence precipitated a surge of colonialist literature in the mid-1920s that maintained a strong presence in popular culture well after the end of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933), despite the indifference the general public held toward reclaiming colonies. At the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, I have studied colonialist African literature for young people by over thirty authors, and that represents only a selection.

Karl Angebauer, Afrikanische Siedlergeschichten, 1929. (Aus weiter Welt ; 5). - (Personal Collection)

Josef Viera (1890-1970) was one of the most prolific authors of colonialist literature. Viera served in the German defense force in German East Africa during World War I. Starting in 1925, he also edited a popular series of collected stories “Aus weiter Welt” (From the Wide World) for the prominent publisher of young people’s literature Enßlin & Laiblin. See: – Vol. 5: Karl Angebauer, Afrikanische Siedlergeschichten, 1929. – (Personal Collection)


Else Morstatt (1880-1930), Hinter dem großen See. Eine Erzählung aus Deutsch-Ostafrika.

Else Morstatt (1880-1930), Hinter dem großen See. Eine Erzählung aus Deutsch-Ostafrika. (Beyond the Great Lake. A Story out of German East Africa) Stuttgart: Thienemann, 1927. Frontispiece. Many of the authors of colonialist literature, such as Morstatt, had actually lived in German colonies. – Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Signatur: B VIII, 13218 KJA



In the 1920s, young people’s literature relating to the former German colonies represented a significant part of a larger output of propaganda that was produced to cultivate “den kolonialen Gedanken” (the colonial thought, that is, the colonialist mindset) and preserve the memory of imperial claims abroad. “Der koloniale Gedanke” and “die Erinnerung an die deutschen Kolonien” (remembering the German colonies) comprised two pivotal concepts in colonialist rhetoric that aspired to integrate hegemony as a component of German national identity for the younger generation of Germans. German colonialist societies under the umbrella organization Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft (DKG, German Colonial Society) gained significantly in membership and influence during the Weimar period, establishing themselves as the bastion of Weimar revanchism. Under the auspices of the DKG, the monthly magazine for young people Jambo appeared from 1924 to 1942, which served as the organ for the colonialist youth movement. Besides the colonial societies, a wave of Africa books and films propagated the memory of former colonies and cultivated the ideals for an imperialist future for Germany. Or at least those were the aspirations. Ultimately, the Weimar colonialist movement failed to imprint Africa on German collective national identity, and few works of colonialist literature are remembered.

Yet precisely in the failure of such an enormous enterprise lies a rich opportunity to investigate mechanisms of cultural memory, as understood in cultural memory studies of recent decades. Accordingly, collective memory and group mind-sets represent socially constructed orderings of past events that guide perceptions of and attitudes toward the present, while also shaping projections of the future. Africa, that is “German” Africa, in no small way appeared in fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, films, advertising, school curricula, youth organizations, exhibitions, colonial fairs, and monuments, but still could not overcome the power of forgetting.

Two salient features of colonialist youth literature serve as points of departure for the present investigations, which one may formulate as “context” and “text”. Context refers to the broad social and historical environment in which a work appears and which illuminates the significance of the work. For example, the film Zum Schneegipfel Afrikas (To the Snowy Peak of Africa, 1925) must be understood in relation to the expulsion of all Germans from “German East Africa” after World War I and the subsequent lifting of the ban in 1925. The film and its companion book were therefore not merely travel documentaries, but rather powerful propaganda designed to entice Germans to settle in the British mandate Tanganyika, an initiative that the Colonial Department in the German Foreign Office was secretly funding. Moreover, this Lehrfilm (educational film) was shown in schools and to youth groups. Context provides insights into the ways colonialist literature contributed to the construction of collective memory.

On the other hand, for the present study, “text” concerns the interplay of words and images. Most of the colonial books for young readers were illustrated and many of them richly so. Some of the authors were also artists and photographers who illustrated their own books. A number of the books also, as with Zum Schneegipfel Afrikas, appeared as companion texts for films. Images do not merely give a visual depiction of the written words, but can also interpret, expand on, even contradict what the author writes. Photographs, drawings, painting, maps, and cinematic sequences also augment emotional responses to the narrative.

Atlas für die Hamburger Schulen. Braunschweig: Verlag Georg Westermann, 1930. Signatur: 4° Kart. B 2262/13<1930>

Atlas für die Hamburger Schulen. Braunschweig: Verlag Georg Westermann, 1930. Every map of Africa in German school atlases showed Togo, Cameroon, Southwest Africa (Namibia), and Tanganyika as the former German “protectorates” with their former names, such as Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa). – Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Signatur: 4° Kart. B 2262/13<1930>

As a case in point for the interplay between images and words, Colin Ross, the most famous German world traveler during the Weimar period, published a travelogue for young readers titled Mit Kamera, Kind und Kegel durch Afrika (With Camera, Kith, and Kin through Africa, 1926), one of a series of his “kith and kin” books about traveling with his wife, daughter and son to exotic lands. Ross also created a film for young people from the large amount of footage from this trip that he did not use for his documentary film Die erwachende Sphinx (The Awaking Sphinx, 1927). The film Als Dreijähriger durch Afrika (As a Three-Year-Old through Africa, 1928) actually parodies the clichéd narratives by intrepid explorers: Ross’ son plays the role of the intrepid adventurer on his journey from South Africa to Egypt, depicted as a romp through a fairy-tale landscape. Although the film is loosely related to the book, and seems innocuous at first blush, the written narrative, film, and photographs taken together express at once exotic allure, eroticism, and uncanny fear. For example, the encounter with a Kavirondo tribe is a significant episode in both the film and the travelogue. The innocent play between the little white boy and warriors in ceremonial costumes belies the subliminal dread and disgust Ross harbored for these people. In the children’s book, as he sets up his camera, he describes in harsh terms — excessive for a children’s book — Kavirondo women as naked and repulsive old hags in drunken stupors, closing in around him and thrusting their breasts at him in a threatening manner. As a further contradiction, a photograph in the book of Ross’ daughter in seemingly pleasant company with Kavirondo women is at odds with the menace that the author portrays.

The task is not only to point out the blatant racism in this case, but rather to derive meaning from the combinations of texts and images as they both complement and contradict each other, then to place that meaning in a broader context of history and culture. Deeper analysis here, however, would exceed the intentions of the present account.

The black ladies trump the most daring evening fashion of their white sisters. - From: Signatur Us 2178/60

“The black ladies trump the most daring evening fashion of their white sisters.” – From: Colin Ross, Mit Kamera, Kind und Kegel durch Afrika. Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1926: 96. – Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Signatur: Us 2178/60

"Als Dreijähriger durch Afrika". Illustrierter Film-Kurier. Vol. 10 (1928), Number 945: cover. From: Deutsche Kinemathek. Copyright: Verlag für Filmschriften, Christian Unucka

“Als Dreijähriger durch Afrika”. Illustrierter Film-Kurier. Vol. 10 (1928), Number 945: cover. From: Die Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen. Copyright: Verlag für Filmschriften, Christian Unucka (




Herr Prof. Luke Springman, Bloomsburg University, war im Rahmen des Stipendienprogramms der Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz im Jahr 2018 als Stipendiat an der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Forschungsprojekt: “Colonial Memory in the Youth Culture of the Weimar Republic”

Im Kindergarten. Von Otto Piltz. - In: Daheim : ein deutsches Familienblatt mit Illustrationen ; 1906/2(1906)34. - S. 7. - Signatur in HAB: ZA 4° 27 ; CD B 24

Social Reform in the Conservative 1850s : The Central-Verein in Preußen für das Wohl der Arbeitenden Klassen and the Kindergarten

Gastbeitrag von Nisrine Rahal, University of Toronto

The kindergarten, founded in June 1840 by Friedrich Fröbel in Bad Blankenburg, was imagined as a “garden of children” from which a new humanity would evolve. Fröbel’s educational method focused on independent play motivated by toys and set activities. These activities, Fröbel believed, would allow children to learn their place in the world as well as develop their skills and individuality. The gardener, epitomized in the figure of the female kindergarten teacher, provided the maternal love and supervision that would assist the development of children.

Photo Source: Bildarchiv Friedrich-Fröbel-Museum Bad Blankenburg

“Kindergarten”, Titelblatt (F639). – Source: Bildarchiv Friedrich-Fröbel-Museum Bad Blankenburg

The kindergarten, to activists, was a revolutionary institution. In Fröbelian newspapers, such as Friedrich Fröbel’s Wochenschrift. Ein Einigungsblatt für alle Freunde der Menschenbildung, activists wrote countless articles on the necessity of the kindergarten to construct a new society. Here, they found not only space to share pedagogical innovations, but also to discuss political and social change and protest. The kindergarten provided an alternative route to challenge the traditional authority of the state and the church. The democratic movement, workers’ associations, teachers’ unions, Christian dissenters, and women’s associations all promoted the kindergarten within their platforms as a route to change society.

For this reason, the kindergarten was targeted as a political and dangerous institution tied to the democratic movement. Berlin Polizeipräsident von Hinckeldey defined a circle of “democratic notables” who utilized the kindergarten to spread revolutionary ideas. Both Hinckeldey and Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV labeled the kindergarten a “nursery of destruction.” In August 1851, the kindergarten was banned as a “socialist” and “atheistic” institution.

So how does one study the kindergarten during the reactionary 1850s when a system of suppression was put in place against revolutionary activism? The Central-Verein in Preußen für das Wohl der Arbeitenden Klassen provides us with one answer to this question. The Central-Verein was founded in 1844 as a middle-class response to the social unrest among workers and weavers in Silesia. The organizers of the association sought to address the social question (meaning the question of poverty, social misery, and inequality) by means of cultivating community support and educating workers. Not only did they promote education as a vital element for social change, but they also helped spread public libraries, banks, and new forms of insurance.  While many members of the association were under police surveillance and labeled dangerous revolutionaries, the Central-Verein continued its activism for social change during and after the conservative 1850s.

For the Central-Verein, early children’s education within pre-school institutions was part of a larger belief in uplifting the working class and promoting social reform. Members and pedagogues did not trust working class parents to provide young children with valuable early education in the household. Young children, they noted, were curious and learned through exploring. Appropriate educational institutions, such as the kindergarten, the Central-Verein believed, allowed to cultivate children’s natural curiosity, utilizing that as a pedagogical method for the proper mental, physical, and spiritual development of individuals.

Leopold Besser’s 1859 article “Ueber das Wohl der Arbeiterkinder in Klein-Kinder-Bewahr-Anstalten und Kindergärten” in the association’s newspaper, Zeitschrift des Central-Vereins in Preussen für das Wohl der arbeitenden Klassen, and Friedrich Ravoth’s April 19 1859 lecture, “Ueber den Geist der Fröbel’schen Kinderspiele und die Bedeutsamkeit der Kindergärten”, provide us with a window to examine how the kindergarten was mobilized within this liberal welfare movement. Both pieces not only seeked to challenge the state’s discrimination against the Fröbelian method, but also placed children’s education as a platform to discuss social reform.

In his article directed to middle-class reformers, Leopold Besser laid the groundwork for a re-examination of education in early childhood. He emphasized that one key issue plaguing the working class is poverty. Poverty prevented the mental and physical uplift of a vast majority of individuals. One area that would help stop the spread of this social disease would be public education. But how could this help those who were not old enough to go to school? These children, Besser wrote, would be at risk of being damaged in a key developmental phase of their lives. The kindergarten, and Fröbel’s method in particular, allowed for not only a more scientific approach to early child development, but also assisted parents through teaching them how to be better guardians.

Ravoth’s lecture illuminated a different setting of activism for the Central-Verein. In front of an audience of middle-class women and pedagogues, Ravoth discussed the developmental benefits of a system of play and the Fröbelian method. The period of childhood is connected with specific developmental goals. Toys and play, according to both Fröbel and Ravoth, allow children to develop mental and physical abilities to become perfect and productive individuals in society. Toys and carefully crafted activities wake children’s natural abilities largely to benefit all of society, not just the individual.

For both Besser and Ravoth, Fröbel’s pedagogical method was not simply educational, but also maintained a social hygienist value. Not only did the kindergarten battle poverty, but it also provided for the proper growth of human society. As Ravoth stated to his audience, “medicine…takes a special interest in all social aspirations and, according to one of its most important teachers and representatives (Virchow), it feels called upon to raise a crucial and important voice wherever it comes to social reforms.” (Ravoth, p. 2) Both Besser and Ravoth highlighted a clear change in kindergarten activism. Not only was there an attempt to bring the kindergarten back into social welfare activism, but also, as a new approach, the language of medicine was emphasized. The social hygienist approach to children’s play informed both discussions.

Both Besser and Ravoth demonstrated how liberal reform movements, such as the Central-Verein, were able to move beyond state-suppression. Here, the issue of social reform focused on educational uplift. Middle class women were idealized as key agents for this social change, however the notions of emancipation and revolution were left out. While by no means endorsed by the state, the Central-Verein (still suspect in the eyes of conservatives as it was) nonetheless continued to mobilize an ideal of society that challenged traditional authority. It exemplifies a continuation of activism for social change from the revolutionary 1840s through to the 1880s.

The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin allowed me as a historian of the kindergarten movement to follow the ways activism continued and was transformed during the conservative 1850s. The Central-Verein illuminates a continuation of revolutionary social reform that did not simply disappear. Rather there was a change in language and approach.

Our two sources provide us with a preview of a whole larger discussion that included petitions to governments, responses to state suppression through published pamphlets, and continuous meetings of social reformist teachers.


Frau Nisrine Rahal, University of Toronto, war im Rahmen des Stipendienprogramms der Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz im Jahr 2018 als Stipendiatin an der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Forschungsprojekt: “A Garden of Children and the Education of Citizens: The German Kindergarten Movement from 1837 – 1880”