Dresden: Treasures from the Saxon State Library
Prof. Meyer's Remarks at the Opening of the Exhibition, April 10, 1996
Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Meyer, Minister of Higher Education, Research and Culture of the Free State of Saxony
There are two ways to approach history. One way is to analyze and to explain the complexity of historical events in the hope of finding out their internal mechanism. As Goethe's Dr. Faustus says, "Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt / Im Innersten zusammemhält" — "Oh, for a glance into the earth! / To see below its dark foundation." It is the thirst for knowledge and the striving for power which are often motivating this approach to history. The means to accomplish this aim are data, models and concepts. It is an abstract approach.
The other approach to history tries to grasp the sense of past periods by describing their life and by narrating their stories. We are looking at the way people lived and worked, and we admire what they created and achieved. Like the audience of an historical play, we share their joys and their griefs, their hopes and their fears.
Of course we know that history, if it is to be a true account of the past, will have to combine the two kinds of approach, the analytical one and the descriptive one, because also in real life there is the unity of the general and the particular, and the driving forces of history can only be detected in what people needed, felt, thought and did. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate way to the heart of history when we select and present objects, documents, pictures and stories which can be considered to exemplify and characterize the spirit of the time.
It is exactly such a way which the exhibition of treasures from the Saxon State Library in Dresden tries to go — to give an insight into history by showing impressive examples from our historical and cultural legacy. The Saxon State Library is both — a treasure house of culture and a monument of history. Therefore this exhibition intends to be more than a presentation of rare treasures from one of the oldest libraries in Germany. What the librarians and historians who have designed and prepared the exhibition hope to illustrate is the cultural formation of Saxony as a state in Germany which, through a long time of its history, in a local as well as in an intellectual sense, was at the crossroads of Europe.
When the library was founded in 1556, Saxony was one of the richest regions of Germany and one of the European centers of reformation. The Dukes of Saxony were among those princes in the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation who because of their leading position had obtained the right of electing the emperor. The duke and elector who ruled Saxony from 1553 to 1586 earned the honorable name of "Father August," because he concentrated all his energy on promoting economy, learning and the arts. The foundation of the library was part of his efforts to make Saxony a thriving country. The prince himself inspected the lists of books offered at the book fair in Leipzig, the largest and most important city in his state, and he instructed his diplomats to buy rare and precious books abroad. The exhibition illustrates the spirit of renaissance and reformation, which strongly influenced the intellectual climate of this time, and the exhibits attest to the growing interest in science, commerce and industry, particularly in mining, which was the basis for Saxony's strong position in Germany.
Originally the library was located in the residence of the prince elector, because the books were intended for his personal use only. An important step in the development of the library was then taken by August the Strong, certainly the best-known and most popular of Saxony's princes. His golden monument, which shows him riding on a horse, can still be admired in Dresden, and also in real life he was an impressive personality, large, strong, handsome, talented, ambitious and reckless. He is probably equally famous because of his numerous mistresses and because he succeeded in persuading the Polish nobility to elect him King of Poland, in addition to his position as Duke of Saxony and as one of the Electors of the Roman Empire of German Nation. He was also a well-educated man and in 1728 he transferred the library from the castle to the newly set up baroque building of the famous Dresden Zwinger, making it, together with his new museums and galleries, part of his Palais Royal des Sciences, his Royal Palace of the Sciences.
The book stock of the library was constantly growing and in 1786 the library was transferred to a larger building, which had originally been intended to house the rich collections of art, particularly of porcelain, coming from China and Japan and therefore had been given the name "Japanese Palace." This was to be the home of the Saxon Library until the Japanese Palace was destroyed in February 1945. An important change in the character of the institution soon followed. In 1788, one year before the French Revolution, the Saxon Library was opened to the public. Since this year the library has had a yearly budget. The first register of readers, which has been preserved, contains famous names of literature and philosophy, among them Goethe, Schiller and Herder, the philosopher Fichte, the poets Heinrich v. Kleist, Ludwig Tieck and Novalis.
The development of the library mirrored the history of Saxony. It was characteristic of this German country that it excelled in industry, science, and culture. Not only were its princes rich, its cities and towns were also prosperous and, as a lucky consequence, not only the court and the nobility, but also the wealthy citizens took great pride in promoting learning and the fine arts. This is manifested by the rich private collections which almost from the beginning have been bequeathed to the library. At the same time, Saxony did not have a lucky touch with military adventures. There are still books in the library which were partly burned when Frederick the Great of Prussia had Dresden bombarded in 1760. And when in 1812 Saxony suffered a terrible defeat because it remained loyal to Napoleon who had made it a kingdom, the country lost almost half of its territory. But soon after this heavy blow, Saxony regained strength and again became an economically leading state in Germany. Also this position is reflected in the collections of the library. Although some of its functions, particularly in science and technology, were taken over by newly founded academic libraries, the Saxon Library continued to be the central library of the country. When in 1918 as the result of the revolution Saxony was made a republic or, as a German version is, a free state, the Royal Saxon Library was renamed Saxon State Library, a name which has been used since that time.
In February 1945 the war Hitler had ruthlessly unleashed came back to Germany and brought death and destruction to Dresden. The building of the library was destroyed and 250,000 books were taken away to Russia. In 1947 the Saxon State Library was reopened in former military barracks, and these buildings are still used as a provisional seat. When in 1952 the communist East German leadership dissolved the old German states on the territory of the GDR as a hindrance to socialist centralism, the Saxon State Library managed not only to survive as an institution, but also to keep its traditional name. Thus, the Saxon State Library — together with the Saxon Academy of Sciences and the Evangelical Church of Saxony — by its mere existence was reminding people of the history of Saxony.
In 1990, as a result of the peaceful revolution, the Free State of Saxony, following the will of the people, was established again as a member of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1995 the Parliament of Saxony, after a long debate, decided to integrate the library of the University of Dresden, whose building had also been destroyed during the war, into the State Library, which nevertheless will remain an institution of its own, and to set up a new building for the integrated library near the university campus. It is our hope that this decision will provide the basis for the Saxon State Library to be not only one of the oldest and most attractive state libraries in Germany, but also to strengthen its nationwide role in academic and cultural life.
Organizing and preparing an exhibition like this is an enormous task. It is a high honor and a great pleasure for me to express my sincere thanks, on behalf of the State Government of Saxony and its Prime Minister, Dr. Kurt Biedenkopf, to all those who made this exhibition possible, for their outstanding efforts. It took four years of careful planning and intensive cooperation between the Library of Congress and the Saxon State Library to select the manuscripts, maps, copper etchings, paintings and musical scores which could best illustrate the political and intellectual history, the artistic and architectural achievements and the remarkable master pieces of music Saxony has contributed to European culture. I am particularly grateful to Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, to Mrs. Margrit Krewson, the German/Dutch area specialist in the Library of Congress, and those in the Saxon State Library who had a share in preparing this event. I am glad that the acting director general of the Saxon State Library, Dr. Gattermann, and members of the library staff have come to Washington to attend this event.
An exhibition like this not only requires hard work, it also needs a lot of financial and practical help. Therefore it is a special honor for me to thank all those who supported this exhibition — the Donors' Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Humanities in Germany, the Dresden Hilton Hotel, the Dresden Cultural Foundation of the Dresdner Bank and Friends of the Saxon State Library. Last but not least I give my thanks to the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany and to the German Embassy in Washington for their advice and cooperation.
We are fully aware that this presentation of treasures from the Saxon State Library follows two outstanding events featuring famous European collections. "Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture" and "Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France." That the Library of Congress decided to choose the Saxon State Library as the third example for the role of libraries in the shaping of European culture is a great honor to us and makes us proud. Yet, it is not only pride we feel at this moment, but also gratitude. I am speaking of a feeling of gratitude going far beyond this event and those who made it possible. Let me use this opportunity to say that we feel deeply indebted to you, the people of the United States, for your unfaltering support of German unification. So, please, accept this exhibition also as a symbol of thankfulness for your help and understanding which made German unity possible — a unity in peace and freedom. I thank you all, and I wish you intellectual joy and stimulating experiences with the treasures from Dresden, a city at the crossroads of Europe.