Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Im Gespräch (Conversations with Goethe)
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1944
Germany during World War II. Switzerland is put to the test. Are they going to take a stance against Germany? Or will those powers triumph which are drawn to join powerful, fascist Germany? Who or what does it mean to be Swiss anyway? What does Switzerland stand for?
In 1944 Walther Meier (1898-1982), at the time manager of Conzett & Huber publishing in Zurich, finds an answer to this question that has continued to be successful until today. He initiates the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur (Manesse Library of World Literature). It is a declaration of war against all nationalist tendencies. Both man and the art he creates is international, is the implied message. Good and evil are not tied to nations!
Walther Meier’s Bibliothek der Weltliteratur challenges the limited world view of the so-called frontists, the Swiss fascists of the time. Yes, they were around in Zurich too. The national-conservative and anti-Semitic “Heimatwehr” was founded already in 1925. Sympathizers of the party protested against the Kabarett Pfeffermühle and the Schauspielhaus Zurich, both theatres which offered work to many actors which had fled Germany. The inglorious climax of the movement was the so-called “Eingabe der Zweihundert” (“Petition of the Two Hundred”), in which citizens not only demanded the end of Switzerland’s membership in the League of Nations but also the removal of numerous editors-in-chief from their posts. That was a wake-up call for liberal Swiss citizens. They initiated a movement against the frontist movement. In 1940 the Federal Council prohibited the National Movement of Switzerland; the last frontist organization disappeared from the public in 1943.
It is in this historical climate that the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur has its origins. No wonder its first three publications had a message. To take a symbolic stance they came from authors of all three warring factions. Tolstoy for Russia. For a human, intellectual Russia, which neither the absolutism of the Tsarist regime nor communism can claim. As a representative of the Western world Meier chose Herman Melville and his incomparable Moby Dick.
But the first volume of the series – and that should be understood as a signal – was the “other” Germany. The Germany of poets and thinkers. The Germany embodied in the great “Prince of Poets” of Weimar Classicism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
He is the counter-image of fascist Germany in the 20th century. “Im Gespräch” (“Conversations with Goethe”) is just that, a volume in which Goethe presents himself to his readers and mankind in a very private, confidential, human fashion. He tells us stories from his life. And Switzerland’s leading literary pundit of the time, Eduard Korrodi, who wrote for the New Zürcher Zeitung between 1914 and 1950, selected the texts of the anthology according to the publisher’s wishes.
That’s why the first volume in the Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur is much more than a text from the quill of a famous author. It’s a powerful testament to the free spirit, a manifesto for the unhindered exchange between the peoples. Faced with the perversions of the Nazi regime it paints an educated, aesthetically-minded, humanist Germany. And, with burning enthusiasm, it pledges allegiance to an open-minded Switzerland. A country that believes in the good in man. Even if that may seem difficult, yes, even impossible at times.
Translated by Teresa Teklić