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“Suddenly everything was different”

Fifty years ago, Germany’s first Institute of Comparative Literature was founded – at Freie Universität Berlin

Mar 02, 2016

Peter Szondi (links) und Religionswissenschaftler Gershom Scholem diskutieren 1971 eine Schrift von Walter Benjamin.
Peter Szondi (left) and religion scholar Gershom Scholem discuss a text by Walter Benjamin, in 1971. Image Credit: Marlene Schnelle-Schneyder

It’s just a word, but for Peter Szondi it made all the difference: The institute to be founded in December 1965 at Freie Universität would not be called merely the “Seminar for Comparative Literature” but rather the “Seminar for General and Comparative Literature.”

Writing to the dean of the faculty of arts on May 26th of that year, the Hungarian-born, Swiss-educated German studies scholar explained why that extra word was so important to him: “For quite some time now, historical research into de facto relationships between national literatures has included a systematic, theoretic consideration of all literature. It is an approach that does not compare differences but rather aims at uncovering commonalities.”

An approach already taken in the USA – applying literary theory, genre poetics, and literary sociology to the study of literature – should become standard in German institutes of higher education as well, he argued. It was just one word, but for German academia Szondi’s campaign was revolutionary.

The establishment of the first institution of this kind sent clear signals to the field of German studies, a field that in the mid-1960s was not only closed to literary theory but was still tainted by its Nazi past.

On the 30th anniversary of “General and Comparative Literature” at Freie Universität, Szondi’s late student Gert Mattenklott (1942-2009) proclaimed, “It was no accident that the university hired Peter Szondi, one of the first Jews who – after being ransomed from a German concentration camp as a child – earned hisdoctorate in Germany after 1945.” Thus the launching of the seminar had a certain historical – and moral – significance: As Mattenklott put it, “This institute would not exist without the sense of shame over the history of German philology under Fascism.”

Classes started in the summer semester of 1965, with 40 students and one professor: Szondi. Many who’d been unhappy with the over-subscribed and conservatively oriented field of German studies breathed a sigh of relief: “Suddenly everything was different,” recalls Hans-Thies Lehmann, a student of Szondi who went on to become a professor of theatre studies. “This field of study made sense again.” Szondi’s view that one must approach a text as one would approach a person – with the same respect and seriousness – became the ethical and political basis of the seminar’s approach.

A world opened up – and the world came to Dahlem: Szondi invited representatives from the circle of the Frankfurter School, such as Theodor W. Adorno; Gershom Scholem, the Jewish religion scholar from Israel; the French post-structuralist Jacques Derrida; and from the USA the scholar Samuel Weber, who - as Szondi’s assistant – taught seminars on Jacques Lacan.

Literary theorists teaching at Yale University – René Wellek, Geoffrey Hartman, and Paul de Man – delivered lectures and taught seminars; and Paul Celan did a poetry reading. With its excellent library housed in a villa at Kiebitzweg 23 – later relocated to Otto-von-Simson-Straße 23, site of Freie Universität’s student council – the institute became a world-renowned academic address. Szondi directed his institute for six years – until 1971. The “Szondi Myth” had been born.

In October 1971 Peter Szondi committed suicide – probably on the 18th of the month. He drowned himself in Halensee Lake. The institute was in shock. “Orphaned,” said his long-time student and tutor Henriette Beese, when she addressed the first generation of “post-Szondi” students in the summer semester of 1972.

Hans-Thies Lehmann also recalled, “His death turned us all into abandoned children.” The enormous difficulty of filling Szondi’s shoes left the seminar leaderless for six years, during which time his assistants took the reins. Two failed calls for applicants left the institute on the verge of closing in 1976. Finally, in 1977, Eberhard Lämmert was tapped as Szondi’s successor. In 2005 the institute moved out of Hüttenweg 9, where it had been located since 1983, to its current address in the complex of buildings on Habelschwerdter Allee 45. And it was renamed the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature.

Respect for a Work and Its Author – Honoring Peter Szondi’s Approach

How has the institute has developed over the past 50 years? What does it mean to study general and comparative literature today, and where do these studies lead? Starting last spring, students in a master’s seminar under Irene Albers have been dealing with these questions.

To mark the anniversary on December 16, 2015, they prepared an exhibition on the history of the institute. Twelve display cases will feature items uncovered in the previous months: books and letters, seminar schedules and photos. A folder was found on the institute shelves containing old semester and seminar schedules – a valuable treasure that someone nearly discarded.

The students visited the archives of Freie Universität in Lankwitz; Nele Ana Riepl and Sima Reinisch went to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which houses the papers of Szondi, Mattenklott, and the late Eberhard Lämmert, who passed away last May. The students also viewed Szondi’s journals, in which he recorded his seminar preparations.

The way he took notes provides insight into his methodical approach, says Nele Ana Riepl. Especially impressive for the students were their conversations with graduates of the institute – many of them professors, journalists, translators, and authors today. And they saw some things in a new light – including the importance of Hella Tiedemann: From 1990 to 2001 “just” an adjunct professor, this student of Adorno was actually “a central figure,” even during the so-called autonomous seminars during the strike semester 1988/89, which had a profound influence on the studies of many alumni.

The institute’s history is complex: How do today’s educators and students relate to the founder and namesake? The intention of the exhibition and accompanying volume entitled “After Szondi,” which includes essays, documents and conversations with alumni, is definitely not to create a “personality cult,” says master’s student Patrick Durdel. He and his classmates compared the seminar plans and study regulations of then and now. And they found conditions that would be unimaginable in today’s bachelor’s or even master’s degree program.

For example, the average duration of matriculation in the 1980s was 13.7 semesters; up to one year was needed to complete a term paper, due to the high standards. In Szondi’s day, students had to be able to read three languages in the original and be familiar with English, French, and German literature from the Renaissance to the present. A densely packed index card box with literary excerpts – also on display in the exhibition – bears witness to the exam preparations of a student in the early days. Fear of being unable to meet the challenge and of failing – given the high expectations – must have weighed heavily on many students back then.

Szondi’s character and charismatic teaching style have had a lasting influence on the field of general and comparative literature. It is not an easy inheritance. But even though the conditions for students and faculty have changed over the last 50 years, the material they grapple with has remained the same: literature. To encounter these works with the respect that Szondi demanded is a challenge. And it requires an attitude that remains relevant today.

The Peter Szondi Institute: Who Taught There after Szondi, and Who Teaches There Today

In 1977, six years after Szondi’s death, Eberhard Lämmert was tapped as his successor. He led the institute until 1993; from 1976 to 1983 he was also the president of Freie Universität. From 1980 to 1995 the linguist Peter Brock Meier held a second professorship. and Winfried Menninghaus was also a professor at the institute from 1989 until 2013.

Gert Mattenklott succeeded Lämmert in 1994. From 1991, Hella Tiedemann was an adjunct professor, teaching until 2001. In 2005, the appointment of Georg Witte brought Slavic literature into the mix, belatedly fulfilling one of Szondi’s wishes. Oliver Lubrich and Remigius Bunia held junior professorships, respectively, from 2008 to 2011 and from 2009 to 2015.

Today, the educators at the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature at Freie Universität include professors of linguistics Joachim Küpper (since 2000) and Irene Albers (since 2004), as well as the English literature specialist Claudia Olk (since 2011), who also is the president of the German Shakespeare Society. This semester, comparative literature scholar Caroline Torra-Mattenklott has joined the department.

The Peter Szondi Institute has three different regular visiting professorships: the Samuel Fischer Visiting Professorship for Literature; the Heiner Müller Visiting Professorship for German Literature, which is connected to the Berlin Literature Prize conferred by the Prussian Maritime Foundation; and the August Wilhelm von Schlegel Visiting Professorship for Translation.

This text originally appeared in German on Februar 16, 2016, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper supplement published by Freie Universität.