The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0198 Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Date: April 24, 2013 2:47:31 AM EDT
Subject: 20th Anniversary: German Shakespeare Society Reunited and Dieter Mehl’s Memoirs
Dieter Mehl: A Historical Episode. The Reunification of the German Shakespeare Society. Personal Reminiscences (Studien zur englischen Literatur, 24). Muenster: LIT-Verlag, 2013. (in German)
The German Shakespeare Society was founded in Weimar in 1864. Against the background of the Cold War, and after its President, Rudolf Alexander Schröder, died in 1963, the Society split into a Weimar Society and a West German Society, which, as two independent entities, went their different ways for the next thirty years, each with its own activities and membership. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, intensive negotiations resulted in a common conference followed by reunification.
Dieter Mehl, honorary Vice-President of the ‘World Shakespeare Association’, was elected first President of the united Society, and was twice re-elected at the conclusion of a three-year term of office. He occupied the position between 1993 and 2002. His personal reminiscences describe these events – so typical for this period of German history – from the point of view of an eye-witness. The book Dieter Mehl’s book Eine historische Episode. Die Wiedervereinigung der Deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft. Persönliche Erinnerungen .is available under:
German Shakespeare Society: Twenty Years On
It was twenty years ago that the two German Shakespeare Societies were solemnly reunited – societies which had, ever since their split in 1963, followed wholly divergent political and scholarly paths, each with its own annual conferences, yearbooks and membership.
The German Shakespeare Society, one of the oldest literary societies in Germany, was founded in Weimar on the 23rd April 1864 on the occasion of the three-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday. The initial impulse can be traced back to Wilhelm Oechelhäuser, an industrialist with a passion for literature, who managed to get the support of Franz Dingelstedt, the director of the Weimar Court Theatre, of various other literary scholars, and most importantly of Baroness Sophie von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach as the Society’s first patroness. The purpose of the Society was and remains to promote the appreciation of Shakespeare on stage and page by means of theatrical productions, translations, prestigious editions, annual conferences, and a growing Shakespeare library. In 1904 the Society commissioned the Shakespeare monument which still stands in a park by the river Ilm. It was in pursuit of such aims, then, that the Society, its membership augmented in the course of a century by people from every social class, made itself felt in Germany.
With the end of the Second World War, the division of Germany into zones of occupation, and the beginning of the Cold War, political conflicts within the Shakespeare Society itself reached a crisis and led, as preparations were in hand to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday (1964), to a definitive split. Until 1993 the West German Shakespeare Society had its headquarters in Bochum and the East German Shakespeare Society in Weimar. The originally smaller part of the membership resident in what was to become the GDR was able to develop a significant cultural impetus, effective in the realms both of theatre and scholarship. Those members resident in the GFR constituted themselves as the West German Shakespeare Society and, using the city of Bochum – famed for its theatre – as a base, continued to promote the appreciation of Shakespeare amongst German-speakers, meanwhile establishing international connections of great vitality, particularly with other European countries and the English-speaking world.
Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the two German Shakespeare Societies had begun making tentative approaches to one another – approaches accelerated after 1989 by a mutual desire for understanding and reunification. Consequently, a committee, in which both Societies had equal membership, was formed whose purpose was to lay the groundwork for reunification. It was agreed that the Weimar conference of 1993 would see a common programme of scholarship and the election of a single governing committee with its president from the former West German Society (Dieter Mehl, Chair in English at Bonn University) and a vice-president (Maik Hamburger, Berlin, translator and dramaturge) from the former East German Society. As a concession to legal requirements, the West German Society, in the guise of a subsidiary branch, was integrated into the East German Society with its headquarters in Weimar, and dissolved itself a year later. The headquarters of the reunited Society is the one it had during its first hundred years: Weimar. A single Shakespeare Yearbook is produced annually by the same Bochum publishing house once responsible for those of the West German Society. The Bochum headquarters closed its doors in June 1994.
In the twenty years since the reunification, the German Shakespeare Society has organized annual conferences in Weimar, Bochum and, on occasion, in other places, such as Bremen, Berlin, Vienna and Zurich, with prominent guests and lectures from the most disparate parts of the world. With around two thousand members, amongst them numerous university students and Shakespeare enthusiasts, the Society shows virtually no sign of its previous split. The hard work of reconciliation, and also the joy occasioned by a harmonious reunification will soon, no doubt, belong to a dimly-remembered past.