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The Correspondence between Eduard Berend and Heinrich Meyer

wernerMeike G. Werner, editor.

Eduard Berend / Heinrich Meyer: Briefwechsel 1938-1972. Marbacher Schriften. Neue Folge. Vol. 10. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2013. 


An Unlikely Friendship: The Correspondence between Eduard Berend and Heinrich Meyer, 1938-1972

The correspondence presents an unusual dialogue between two Germanists: Eduard Berend, the eminent editor of the works of Jean Paul, and Heinrich Meyer, the Goethe scholar and editor of the series German Studies in the United States. It is an eminently transatlantic story that shows how in the mid twentieth century the histories and literatures of two continents, Europe and America, were intertwined. As will become apparent, the correspondence demonstrates the troubling and paradoxical nature of the relationship, and suggests that our usual ideological categories for understanding the American and the German sides of the story break down when confronted with the more concrete realm of personal and professional worlds.

Born in Hannover in 1883, Eduard Berend studied German philology at the Universities of Munich and Berlin, and in 1907 he completed his studies with a dissertation (summa cum laude) on Jean Paul's aesthetics. After fighting in World War I, he pursued an academic career, but for reasons of anti-Semitism, his Habilitation was turned down three times (in Tübingen, in Frankfurt am Main, and in Freiburg). In 1927, the Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Prussian Academy of Sciences) commissioned Berend with the historic-critical edition of the works of Jean Paul (1763-1825), who is today, partly because of this excellent critical edition, considered with Goethe and Schiller as one of the most important writers of German classicism. By 1938, twenty of the thirty-two volumes of Jean Paul's works had appeared. Then, in 1938, the Prussian Academy of Sciences dismissed Berend; soon after he was sent to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, with his release based on the condition that he left Germany as quickly as possible. Desperate, Berend turned to his acquaintance in Houston.

Born in Nürnberg in 1904, Heinrich Meyer immigrated to the United States in 1930 where he started a successful career as a Germanist at the Rice Institute in Houston. When Meyer received Berend's call for help in December 1938, he responded immediately, securing an affidavit for Berend that allowed him to leave Germany for Switzerland, and supporting Berend in Geneva by helping to pay the rent for his one room apartment. After the war in 1946/47, Berend continued the edition of Jean Paul's works and in 1957 he moved to Marbach in West Germany, where he died in 1973 after completing twenty-eight volumes.

The correspondence spans more than three decades, but is especially intense in the years 1938-1941 and right after the War in 1946 until 1947. In his modest, polite ways, Berend explained to Meyer why leaving Germany was not a question of choice but of survival. The letters are moving documents, communicating the desperation of a German Jew who realized that leaving Germany was a question of survival. The letters also communicate the hardships of exile in Switzerland, Berend's vain attempts to get his sister and older brother out of Nazi Germany, and his reluctance to return to Germany after the war. Meanwhile, Berend kept working away -- under dire circumstances -- at the critical edition of Jean Paul's works.

It seems to be an unlikely friendship since on the other side of the Atlantic, Meyer, Berend's benefactor, showed some support for Nazi Germany and was interned for Nazi sympathies in 1943 at the Kenedy Alien Detention Internment Texas. His letters to Berend document the disbelief of a German nationalist in the U.S. about how unbearable the situation had become for Germans considered "unwanted" by the Nazis. Meyer also describes the precarious situation of Germans in the U.S., especially after Pearl Harbor. The letters show kindness nevertheless. After his release from the internment, Meyer lost his position at the Rice Institute, but then became a professor of German at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and in 1963 came to Vanderbilt University, where he taught in the German Department until 1972, and died in 1977.

The story of Meyer and Berend brings together a European and an American story, showing the imbrications of these histories in dark times. The correspondence documents the motivation to escape one continent, just as it reveals how difficult it was to imagine the real conditions of Jews in Germany. It reminds us too that these histories are not exhausted by the research on the great intellectual migration between 1930 and 1960. Instead, it shows scholars across two continents in fateful if distant embrace. As the correspondence is unique, it constitutes an important contribution to the history of Germanics in the United States and of trans-Atlantic scholarly ties more generally.


Eduard Berend (Passport, 1939):

berend pass

Heinrich Meyer (1929):


Berend letter to Meyer (1940):


At Vanderbilt (1974; Meyer in first row on left):