In our series “Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive”, we present a treasure trove of rare finds and special documents of 200 years of MGH history, including insights into the dark years of Nazi rule.
„Dear Herr Meyer,
I received the magnificent goose, which you were again so kind to send me for Christmas, with somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, and that was certainly the first reaction, the present was welcomed with storms of enthusiasm, particularly because it arrived in good time to be eaten in peace and devotion, as is fitting. The goose was served for dinner on the 22nd and, recalling the words of a certain pastor – a North-German, of course! – who on a similar occasion told his 12 guests that the best part of eating such a bird is gnawing the remaining flesh from the bones for breakfast, we also put the rest of the roast goose to good purpose on the next day. In fact, in the form of the delicious drippings that the goose richly served, it is still with us today, helping to counteract the slenderizing effects of the cold winter air and the regular walks in the snow. But on the other hand! When I compare this absolute epitome of Pommersfelden beneficence with the almost Prussian austerity of our lunch in the canteen, I have the feeling that you are trying to demonstrate that the Monumenta are back on the very same slippery path that Kaegi1 has sharply criticised, leading from the distant halcyonic days2 when Goethe used to publish his studies in the Archiv to the bureaucratic scholarship of the Berlin Patent Office and the Prussian State Library. As often of late, I again had occasion to wistfully reflect that one may not depart from the circle of Franconian baroque without paying for it somehow. But what is to be done? We shall remain true to the Monumenta’s old motto: Sanctus amor patria dat animum3, even if we must adapt it a little to: Patriae inserviendo consumor4!
But now it is really time for me to thank you heartily from us all, not only for the material pleasure that you have given me once again, but much more indeed for the gesture of your friendly sentiments which, to say it unmistakably, I was able to savour in the meat. Both gifts have revived my wish to undertake the long-planned inspection of our Franconian outpost in the near future and to combine this with a little side-trip to Pommersfelden. What do you think: How about if we set our sights on Mid-January?
For now, however, I send you my best wishes for the new year and beg you to similarly greet your mother from me. With thanks once again and all the best greetings, yours truly F. Baethgen."
This humorously friendly letter from Friedrich Baethgen to Otto Meyer, 16 years his junior, documents more than just his understandable joy at receiving a Christmas goose five years after the end of WWII. To better understand the letter, let us briefly review the situation facing Friedrich Baethgen and Otto Meyer 72 years ago:
Early in 1944, the library of the Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde (i.e. the MGH) was evacuated from Berlin to Pommersfelden in Upper Franconia along with three female and one male staff members to escape the bombing raids. Two female members of staff remained in Berlin with the rest of the administrative records. After the end of the war, the plans to reorganise the MGH became the bone of contention between diverse interest groups wrangling over positions and – most particularly – over the new seat of the institution, since the previous location in Berlin now lay in the Soviet sector. For a full treatment of the complex mesh of interests and power involved in this struggle, see the literature listed below. In a study published in 2014 analysing roles of Theodor Mayer, Otto Meyer, Walter Goetz, and Friedrich Baethgen in the post-war reorganisation of the Monumenta, Nikola Becker comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to understand the negotiations and various attempts to gain control of the institute after the end of the war without proper knowledge of the personal relationships and interrelationships in the background (p. 49).
In September 1945, after the arrest of Theodor Mayer, who had been president of the Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde (MGH) since 1942, the government of Upper and Middle Franconia appointed Otto Meyer as commissary director of the MGH office in Pommersfelden. At the same time, Friedrich Baethgen and Walter Goetz, representing the Berlin resp. Bavarian academies of the sciences and humanities, were at work restructuring the MGH. From 1935 to 1945, as the National-Socialist Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde, the institution had been run according to the Nazi Führer-principle with the president alone making all decisions. After being re-constituted in September 1946, the MGH central board of directors elected Friedrich Baethgen as the new president of the Monumenta in 1947 with the endorsement of the Bavarian government. Theodor Mayer was at that time still undergoing denazification in internment. In the meantime, Otto Meyer had shown considerable organisational skill and personal engagement in securing the material basis of the provisional institute in Pommersfelden. In summer 1949, the MGH library and staff members moved to the new location in Munich, leaving Otto Meyer in Franconia to establish a branch of the MGH in Bamberg with the approval of Friedrich Baethgen.
The relationship was not perfectly harmonious. As the newly instated MGH president Friedrich Baethgen saw it, Otto Meyer’s repeatedly overstepped the limits of his position in his public activities. Writing to Meyer on September 19, 1950, Baethgen voiced his concerns: „I can very well understand your wish to fill your position in Bamberg with living content and I know that through your long and successful engagement in Pommersfelden you have become accustomed to a fair degree of independence. I fear, however, that over time these tendencies will lead to misunderstandings between us that, in the interest of our common purpose and to preserve our good personal relations, I wish to avoid by acting now.“ Baethgen goes on to list concrete instances of such behaviour, such as Meyer’s publication of an announcement in the local official newspaper „Regierungsblatt Oberfranken“ in May 1950, of which he himself was informed first in September. „When someone informs the public that the Deutsches Institut für Erforschung des Mittelalters Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH) has opened a new branch in Franconia, then that someone should be me as president of the Monumenta as a whole,“ he states clearly. Also the other points of concern were related to Meyer’s unauthorised activities in the name of the MGH. Baethgen concludes the letter with the wish that Meyer „take time to consider all of these questions“ and expresses his confidence „that you yourself will come to the conclusion that such things require a greater measure of contact with me“ (MGH-Archiv B 718). Responding at length to this letter on October 11, 1950, Otto Meyer avoided seriously addressing the question of Baethgen's authority and declared himself „absolutely willing to fall in line with [Baethgen’s] positions“ (MGH-Archiv B 718), ending with the submissive request that, if he found it necessary, his superior should not hesitate to send him further „corrective behavioural rules.“
Read against this background of tensions and conflicting views of their respective positions, Otto Meyer’s present of a Christmas goose and Friedrich Baethgen’s handwritten letter of thanks are much more than commonplace gestures. Baethgen’s letter to Meyer on December 29, 1950 documents both scholars‘ genuine efforts to uphold good personal relations despite their differing interests and opinions regarding the restructuring of the MGH. In December 1950, it was by no means clear that these efforts were doomed to fail.
1 Werner Kaegi, Swiss historian (1901-1979)
2 Greek mythology: a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful.
3 Love to our fatherland gives us the spirit.
4 In service of to the fatherland I consume myself.
Nikola Becker, Die Neuetablierung der Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Bayern ab 1944 im Spannungsfeld zwischen Theodor Mayer, Otto Meyer, Walter Goetz und Friedrich Baethgen, in: Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte 77,1 (2014) S. 43-68
Karl Borchardt, Intermezzo auf Schloss Weißenstein. Zeitungsbericht vom 2. April 1949: Fünf Jahre MGH in Pommersfelden, in: Mittelalter lesbar machen. Festschrift 200 Jahre Monumenta Germaniae Historica (2019) S. 240-243
Martina Hartmann, Aus der Reichshauptstadt auf die „Insel der Seligen“, in: Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte 77,1 (2014) S. 27-41
Arno Mentzel-Reuters, Das Reichsinstitut zwischen Ahnenerbe und Westforschung, in: ders. / Martina Hartmann / Martin Baumeister, Das Reichsinstitut für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde 1935 bis 1945 – ein „Kriegsbeitrag der Geisteswissenschaften“? Symposium des DHI Rom und der MGH am 28./29. November 2019 (2021) S. 1-53
Philipp T. Wollmann, Otto Meyer (1906-2000). Ein Historiker zwischen Drittem Reich und Bundesrepublik in Franken, in: Fränkische Lebensbilder 26 (2022) S. 287-320, v.a. S. 300-306
Additionally, the following documents in the MGH archive offer further insights into (among other things) the positions of Otto Meyer and Friedrich Baethgen: