Literature is culture ... and it should not be dumped

Literature is culture ... and it should not be dumped

Peter Sodann collects books from the GDR

by Moritz Nestor, Klaudia and Tankred Schaer

When Peter Sodann welcomes us, we immediately think of the “Tatort” detective superintendent Bruno Ehrlicher. Sodann has played the role of the Dresden detective, who was always carrying a briefcase and who could not be upset by anything and who solved the most complicated cases, with great success for many years.
We meet with him in order to visit the Peter-Sodann-Library which he founded some years ago. It is located in a recently renovated manor in Staucha in Saxony. Here in this corner of Saxony about 4,000,000 GDR books found a home. Sodann experienced how books from bookstores and libraries were taken to the landfill truckload-wise after the wall came down. And he says:
“In 1989, a little girl came to me and said: ‘My parents send me, and they ask you to come to the union hall.’ It was about the union library in Halle an der Saale. There were many trucks, and everything was to be taken away, and I told them: ‘But you throw away your past.’ They answered that they did not care and ordered me to get out of their way, or something serious would happen. So I left, and from that day on I started to collect, because I wanted to keep my past.”
Peter Sodann set out to do something about all the libraries that were supposed to be unceremoniously destroyed. “We cannot dispose of our own history,” Sodann says. In 1989, he appealed to his contemporaries not to destroy the books, but keep them. Many people responded to this call, and since then thousands of books have been stored in banana boxes. Today the motto “In the banana boxes of the West lies the knowledge of the East” can be seen in the small theatre that Peter Sodann operates in Staucha.
It is Peter Sodann’s concern that people remember the story: “Forget is the mother of neglect”. Many of his friends had written books during GDR times, and now they are already forgotten. The book landscape in eastern Germany has changed radically since 1990. Of the original 150 state-licensed publishers of GDR there exist barely a dozen in an independent form. The number of employees has fallen below one-tenth. Less than one percent of produced German book sales take place in this part of Germany, now.
Is Peter Sodann only an old, backward-looking communist with GDR nostalgia? For a long time Sodann realized performances together with Norbert Blüm, a former German politician. In many respects, there are parallels in the life story of the politician Blüm and the theatre director Sodann:
“Well, Blüm is also a toolmaker like me. I’ve learned in the electric plants Sonnewitz, a nation-owned company, he has learned to be a toolmaker at Opel’s.”
Both discussed the history of the GDR a lot. Peter Sodann remembers the conversations with Norbert Blüm, and what he told him:
“I know about the many mistakes we have made. You know about the mistakes that you made. It will take a long time, because what we want to achieve is related to education and culture. There were attempts in the German Democratic Republic, attempts in the Soviet Union, attempts wherever communist or at least socialist thinking prevailed and things emerged; there were these attempts to have an educated people, to have a clever people. I was allowed to study again from the very bottom. Since I am grateful to the State I cannot condemn it. That this very state locked me up and told me that I was a counterrevolutionary, who I was not, that’s a different matter. I can even forgive them today, that is the way it is. – But if you are always trying hard to do something well, which cannot be done well because it is related to money, and to the stock exchange and to a land distribution that cannot be successful …. This is what we were always talking about.”
Peter Sodann calls himself a praying Communist:
“Why should I not believe in God? If I lived by the 10 Commandments, I would respect God, because he created this earth. It is round and has lakes and rivers and all sorts of things. And then this gift that he has given us, we should take care of it. Well, so I live in God, and I also pray.”
Peter Sodann is first of all an Impresario, director and actor, not a librarian. Still, he gets down to the task of bibliographic collection of titles of all publishers of the former GDR in all editions. Each book is collected in two copies: one as a reference copy, the other to be lent. The books are registered by publishers. In the GDR, there were 150 state-licensed publishers. Peter Sodann then calculated how many meters of shelf-space was needed for the entire book production of these publishers: There are ten kilometers of shelves. He could bid on the necessary shelves by a happy coincidence. The German National Library in Leipzig was redesigned. The old shelves were left behind and could be purchased cheaply – Sodann had to offer just a little more than the scrap dealer.
There are still many not unpacked boxes of books, and a lot of help would be necessary for the project. If adding the entire stock, there are around four million books. Meanwhile 600,000 books are digitally recorded.
In 2007, the association “Peter Sodann Library e.V.” was founded. Purpose of the association is to promote, maintain or expand a collection of literature published in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the GDR from 1945–1990. The collection should be available to the public in a reference library. The association advocates the prevention of the continued loss by the destruction of publications such as fiction, children’s literature, science, culture and sport and many others from the time between 1945–1990, and is committed to its preservation and storage.
In March 2007, 15 workers began to arrange and catalogue the Sodann book collection as part of a job creation scheme. In November 2007, a second project with the same staff started.
Now a young man helps with catalogizing the books as an employee of the Federal Voluntary Service. Although much is still to be done, the visitor nevertheless gets a good insight into the structure of the library. One would like to delve into the depths of the library and examine the literature.
Today an attempt is made to secure the library’s finances via the sale of books ( There are books to buy that are redundant or not belonging to the collection field, i.e. that have been published before 1945 or after 1990.
The theatre is still a particular concern of Peter Sodann. He has been impresario of the theatre in Halle for many years and has established a cultural island in the heart of the city for more than 20 years.
Here in Staucha Sodann shows us his theatre in the province, which should be a political theatre. The entire ceiling is festooned with old lamps from GDR production. Sodann knows what happens in the audience when the lights go on: The visitors remember “their” lamp, they are open to the past and mentally prepared for the play.
We can only hope that the planned “Akademie gegen das Vergessen” (Academy against forgetting) may soon begin its work. Then there will also be a cultural island with a library, theatre and research center in Staucha, which will have a tremendous influence far beyond the regional level. 25 years after the accession of the GDR to the scope of influence of the West German “Grundgesetz” (Basic Law), it is time that the GDR is no longer painted in black and white, but take a closer look is taken – to face the people in the GDR and their achievements with justice and equality, without a know-it-all attitude. That would be beneficial for all Germans. “Critical analysis” means honesty and respect in dealing with the history and cultural achievements of the other. It was a real pleasure for us to get to know Peter Sodann.     •

Giving hope to humans

“Giving people hope, but not the hope of election posters, but the hope of a peaceful life without terror and violence, the hope of a life in deep harmony with the world, that is what we can do and what we must do. If this hope still exists – and it does exist, the utopian dreams of a better living together of human beings, I am firmly convinced of that. The only possibility to leave behind the misery of wars, hunger and distress is by education and culture. This is not a modest, but a necessary task.”

from: Peter Sodann. “Mai-Reden und andere Provolationen”, March 2002. “Bibliothek gegen das Vergessen”, Stuttgart, 2nd edition 2008, from the chapter “Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” (Questions asked by a reading worker), p. 151

Library lest we forget

“I come from a reading country (where people read a lot). Literature was an enclave for hopes, dreams, ideals. The clashes took place in the books, which were willingly prevented in real life. Literature was meant to enlighten, to connect, to deliver backgrounds, where they should not have been. Books described the everyday life beyond mealy-mouthed ideology. The authors and poets were respected. They received prizes and awards and Stasi files, which sometimes contained more pages than the poet had ever written. That much attention was paid to them. Perhaps rightly so, because in the good books, even in those of Soviet authors (such as Valentin Rasputin, Chingiz Aitmatov or Vasily Shukshin), there was already thought and told what then, in 1989, led to the turnaround.
Ideas once conceived could not be prohibited, they were in the world and stayed in the world. The ideas were followed by action. Then the turnaround came over Germany, the divided fatherland became one again, promoted by the East. But what happened to the literature of the East? In Halle on the Saale, there was a clubhouse of the unions with a large library, there was the house of the German-Soviet Friendship with a library, there were the branches of the city library. The important thing about them were not the collected and catalogued books, but the real estates that were in demand and were to be sold. The literature was no longer lust but burden. Trucks drove up, were loaded with the printed and suddenly now worthless paper and headed to the urban garbage dump. Forward and not forgotten? At that time, the book burning by the Nazis came to my mind. Now, however, the process was much less spectacular. Who cared? It happened quietly, without resistance. I tried to call to halt the machinations, but no one listened to me. That’s why I decided, at that time, to set up – whenever and if possible at all – a library where all the books are to be found that have gone over the counter at GDR times since 8 May 1945 according to Schabowski best and most sensible statement: ‘The Wall is open’.“

from: Peter Sodann. “Mai-Reden und andere Provolationen”, March 2002. “Bibliothek gegen das Vergessen”, Stuttgart, 2nd edition 2008, p.130f.

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