German literature exhibition reminds the world of the devastation of war

To celebrate Friedrich Schiller’s birthday, Germany’s Museum of Modern Literature honors the author of ‘Ode to Joy’ and acknowledges his impact on European history

Museum of Modern German Literature in Marbach am Neckar
A selection of artwork from the Museum of Modern Literature's permanent collection in Marbach am Neckar, Germany.Chris Korner

Hermann Hesse once said it’s near impossible to create great art amid wars — both personal and historical — while simultaneously searching for peace through exile, internal transformation or death. However, the Museum of Modern German Literature in Marbach am Neckar (southern Germany) proves that notion wrong. Its masterful exhibition is comprised of over a 1,000 individual pieces that together create a profound reminder for all the world. Since its opening in 2006, the museum has celebrated Friedrich Schiller’s birth in Marbach on November 10, 1759. The museum’s exhibitions are drawn from the expansive collection of the German Literature Archive in the adjoining building. “Our collections are open to anyone who wants to delve deeper into any discipline,” said research director Anna Kinder.

This center of modern German literature seems especially relevant during the unsettling Ukraine-Russia and Hamas-Israel wars. In November, it welcomed Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose literary voice sheds light on the wounds of the world — exodus, war and inequality.

It’s no accident that the museum and the archive are located in this small city of 16,000 residents. Marbach, also known as Schillerstadt, is in the state of Baden-Württemberg, just a few miles from France and not far from Switzerland and Austria. War after war have bathed Marbach in blood and fire, turning it into a microcosm of German history and the epicenter of German literature. “The collection preserves a large number of literary documents from 1750 to the present,” said Kinder.

Modern German Literature in Marbach am Neckar
The Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar, Germany.Chris Korner (DLA-Marbach, www.dla-marbach.de)

The museum building exudes an air of permanence and fortitude. Designed by British architect David Chipperfield, the museum’s exterior is surrounded by large columns that evoke the mausoleum of Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut and entrances to the pharaonic tombs. The influence of Egyptian funerary architecture is even more pronounced along the staircase and hallway to the exhibit room featuring Friedrich Schiller (1759-1802), the poet who wrote Ode to Joy, which Beethoven later set to music. The room showcases many of the the author’s personal items — inkwells, drawings, and manuscripts — used to create the great works that influenced later generations.

The permanent exhibition

The chill hits you as soon as you open the door. The lights are dim, sounds are muffled. The first image is decidedly morbid — Nietzsche’s death mask — in the center of a simple, white table with the date of his death: 1900. Next is Stefan George’s 1901 notebook labeled Frühling (Spring), opened to pages with a handwritten poem: “Write your verses like an axe / so you can wield them like an axe.” This is where the museum’s journey into the history of literature and the wounds of Europe begins.

The following exhibits are like musical notes in a Wagnerian opera — nothing is random. Everything is part of the century’s emotional journey, perfectly describing the literary creations of German authors whose lives were indelibly marked by war, the pursuit of coherence and the immortality of Schiller’s work.

The next featured author is Hermann Hesse, the Tübingen bookseller who fled to Switzerland to escape Nazism. Displayed are photographs of The Glass Bead Game author with his father, and another of Hesse, naked and barefoot, clinging to a mountainside. There’s a note written by Hesse and one by his first wife, Mia Bernoulli: “I looked for steep rocks from which to view the sea…”

Museum of Modern German Literature in Germany
Documents and manuscripts from the Museum of Modern Literature's permanent collection on exhibit.

The exhibit also features a bust of Beatrice, a pivotal character in Hesse’s Demian, the 1919 novel that launched him to literary fame. There are photographs of Rilke in Paris, and letters exchanged by Rainer Rilke, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Hesse. The collection also includes letters to various authors from journalists and editors.

A poem by Jorge Luis Borges in German. Kafka’s many striking self-portraits. Photographs depicting the intimate creative process. In one corner, we have the infamous Adolf Hitler, as every story needs a villain. The museum obtained a letter from Hitler to author Ernst Jünger, who later prohibited the Nazi party from exploiting his work and helped many Jews escape Germany.

Literary gems

The museum paid €1 million ($1.07 million) for a collection of 7,600 letters written by Rilke and many more addressed to him. The manuscript of Kafka’s The Trial cost $2 million. The work that Walter Benjamin (a German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide before he was sent to a concentration camp) dedicated to his only son, Stefan, was donated by the Porsche Foundation, which paid millions for it.

The impact of all the letters, notes, images and verses is unmistakable — the permanent exhibition is teeming with ulterior motives. Each item holds a captivating narrative, an emotive resonance, or a catalyst for creation.

Herman Hesse’s Nobel Prize is displayed on a table, followed by a bust of the author and his last poem: “Tired of living, exhausted by dying.” The poem is accompanied by a note from his wife, Ninon Dolbin, saying “Everything is fine.” Hesse died the next morning — August 8, 1962.

As a fitting epilogue to the exhibition, hanging in the last corner are the first pages of the original manuscript of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (1979). The pages are marked by interesting deletions made by the author. There’s a letter from a girl thanking Ende for writing the novel about a boy’s journey to save the magical land of Fantastica, a place of wonder ruled by the benevolent and mysterious Childlike Empress. Their only hope is to baptize the empress with a new name so she can imagine the world anew. It’s an allegorical novel with a perfect ending to sum up the exhibition — one world dies and another is born through the power of literature.

Outside, on top of the hill, stands a statue of Friedrich Schiller. The faint sound of Beethoven’s Joy wafts through the air. Since 1985, the melody has been used to symbolize the European Union. Schiller’s poem expresses his vision of the human race becoming brothers after being torn apart.

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