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Our Man in Havana at 50

Johann Gutenberg The Man and His Invention by Albert Kapr

Long before Dickens, Orwell, and Greene, there was literature from Germany – one of the true cradles of the written word in Europe. Even though Germany did not become a modern state until 1871, the first books originating from the Germanic culture appeared more than a thousand years ago and Johann Gutenberg, born in Mainz on the banks of the Rhine, changed the world with his invention of the mechanised printing press in the 15th century. Today’s global literary culture owes a huge debt to our cousins in Deutschland and there is a host of rare and collectable German books to discover.

Gutenberg Bible Facsimile Copy

Let’s start with Gutenberg’s Bible – the most famous book of all. Also known as the 42-line Bible or Mazarin Bible, the book was printed in Mainz and 180 copies were produced – 45 on vellum and 135 on paper. It has 1,282 pages and is bound in two volumes – less than 50 copies are supposed to exist and they are dotted around the world’s most famous libraries. A small number of copies have been broken up with the leaves sold individually….for a fortune! Unless you can walk into the British Library, Harvard, or Yale, and make an offer they cannot refuse then you will have to settle for a facsimile copy.

Douglas Martin’s translation of Albert Kapr’s biography, Johann Gutenberg, The Man and His Invention, is an excellent read if you want to put Gutenberg’s achievements into perspective.

Talking about major events in the 15th century, the publication of Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff in 1494 was a landmark in publishing. In an era when Germany was no more than a series of principalities and city states, the book became one of the first international bestsellers as authorised and pirated editions, including Alexander Barclay’s Ship of Fools English translation, swept through Europe.

Das Narrenschiff is a satirical poem attacking the abuses of the Catholic Church. It opened the way for the ProtestantReformation and its influence cannot be underestimated. Illustrated by woodcuts, Das Narrenschiff also featured work by the famous Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer – a native of Nuremberg. Look for the 1911 copies of Das Neue Narrenschiff (New Ship of Fools) with the remarkable Josef Hoffmann-designed bindings.

Luther BibleIn the 16th century, the Protestant reformers used the new printing technologies to publicise their ideas. Martin Luther translated the Bible into an accessible text and had a massive influence on the German culture and language. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Germanic domination of the arts continued with Mozart and Beethoven in their pomp. Countless scores, letters, books and ephemera are offered by AbeBooks’ sellers relating to these legendary composers.

Jumping to the late 19th century and Germany, thanks to the efforts of Otto von Bismarck, had become a unified nation with writers and thinkers springing up everywhere. Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the century’s dominant philosophers and his influence is still strong today in fields such as existentialism and post-modernism. His writing stretched from religion, culture, and morality to science. An excellent example of vintage Nietzsche criticism is Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner). Nietzsche believed the composer Richard Wagner had become too heavily involved in anti-semitism and also argued Europe was affected by nihilism.

Nietzsche died in 1900 just as Thomas Mann was hitting his stride. In the turbulent early decades of the 20th century, Mann, born in Lübeck, was a tour de force in literature. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and is famous for his novels, essays and short stories. He is best known for Buddenbrooks (1901) and Der Zauberberg (1924), which translates as The Magic Mountain. In 1930, Mann denounced Germany’s growing National Socialism movement. His citizenship was eventually revoked by the Nazis and Mann fled to the United States before Europe was torn apart by war.

Der Totenpflug poem by Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht was a prolific poet, playwright and theatre director who achieved international acclaim across the arts. In Germany, his plays are on equal footing with Shakespeare. One of the treasures on offer at AbeBooks is Der Totenpflug, a long-lost Brecht poem about a man and his relationship with nature. Another Brecht highlight would be a first edition printing of Trommeln in der Nacht – his famous 1922 play dealing with German soldiers and their return home after the Great War.

Although Franz Kafka was born in Prague, he wrote in his first language of German and many argue he is the greatest German writer of all time. A scarce 1916 first edition of Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) would be a very special addition to anyone’s collection but history-making novels like this one don’t come cheap.

Of course, we have barely scratched the surface of Germany’s contribution to literature. There was Georg Heym, famous for his expressionistic poetry at the start of the 20th century. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whom George Eliot called “Germany’s greatest man of letters”, was a key cultural figure during the Weimar era. Heinrich Heine was one of Germany’s great romantic poets. Hermann Hess was yet another German to claim the Nobel Prize for Literature when he picked up the award in 1946. The poet and novelist remains best known for Der Steppenwolf, published in 1927.

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Today, Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize winner, is Germany’s most famous living writer although his reputation has been darkened by the admission he served in the Waffen SS. Most famous for Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), his work is highly desirable among collectors of modern first editions. The American first edition of The Tin Drum has a memorable cover and would adorn anyone’s bookshelf.