Fontane.200 – How the City, State and University are Preparing for the Fontane Anniversary Year

The 200th anniversary of Theodor Fontane’s birth will occur in 2019. Experts, admirers and connoisseurs everywhere are already preparing for the anniversary – and they want it to be more than a marathon of remembrance. An early peek behind the scenes.

The University of Potsdam and the Fontane Archive in the Anniversary Year

“We are located in the Villa Quandt in Potsdam, which has high visibility,” says Dr. Hanna Delf von Wolzogen, the director of the Theodor Fontane Archive. The cultural program offered in the fireplace hall of the Villa Quandt, located in Potsdam’s Nauener Vorstadt neighborhood, includes literary readings and scholarly presentations about Fontane and his time. An expressive chalk drawing of Fontane stares down at the audience from above the hearth. During the University’s anniversary week in June 2016, the Fontane Archive was represented by a lecture about the exchange of letters between George Fontane and the writer Ludovica Hesekiel. Many people do not know about George, who was Fontane’s oldest son; he died at a relatively early age. Like his father Theodor, George was also in contact with Hesekiel. Fontane researcher Dr. Heide Streiter-Busch edited the letters, which she discovered. The Archive and its events are oriented primarily to Potsdam’s citizenry, yet the archivists would like to reveal more of their treasures by presenting the Villa Quandt’s Fontane holdings during the anniversary year.

The Fontane Archive has belonged to the University of Potsdam’s Faculty of Arts since 2014, and they will work together on designing the scholarly program for the Fontane year. A group of Germanists and historians is planning to establish a Fontane research initiative at the faculty that will work on a larger consortium project. “This means that the Fontane year will also offer an occasion to access important Fontane research materials in a bundled way, beyond the anniversary year,” explains Dean Prof. Dr. Thomas Brechenmacher. “This larger project will be presented to the public in 2019, supported by diverse scholarly formats including conferences, a lecture series, and new formats for teaching, presentation, and discussions.”

The Fontane Archive inquires into Fontane and the Media

A scholarly conference will address the subject of “Fontane / Media” from an interdisciplinary perspective. Scholars will focus on the diverse media that Fontane used as an author. “Fontane worked primarily in a journalistic vein,” says von Wolzogen. “He watched the development of the newspaper as a medium very closely, starting in 1848.” As a critic of both theatre and literature, he published in both conservative and liberal newspapers, thereby reaching a very diverse audience. “Among his colleagues, Fontane was one of those who intentionally engaged with media. Writing had to put food on his plate; he wrote for the literary market,” says von Wolzogen. He was also a well-known poet and novelist, and a passionate writer of letters. “We should also view his letters as a medial tool with which Fontane steered his literary production.” 

The conference is dedicated to the other side of Fontane’s work, namely in the media. The focus will be on the reception of Fontane in last 100 years – there are numerous theatrical and film adaptations of his works, including even Fontane crime thrillers – as well as very recent changes brought about by new media, which also affect the Archive’s work. “The Internet has created new forms of publication and reception,” explains von Wolzogen. “Digitalization can make an author known in a new way, and can also change academic teaching.” The archive is currently working on an online platform for all of Fontane’s letters. The Federal Minister for Culture and Media has already provided support for technological implementation. This will provide the basis for the world’s largest holdings of Fontane’s letters, and the first part will be edited and published by 2019.

Digitalization will fundamentally change how these documents are read. “We are already handling manuscripts like images,” says von Wolzogen. “The relationship of writing and images is playing a more important role in our work today than it did earlier.” For example, Fontane often wrote into the edges of the pages as far as he could, much to the dismay of archivists. His writing is barely larger than a dot. He also frequently drew sketches. This visualization in place of simple text interests scholars in the field of art, film, images, and media studies. The conference will be related to an exhibition project at the House of Brandenburg-Prussian History as well as a Fontane project at the Film Museum Potsdam, which is focusing on an exhibition about the film adaptations of Fontane’s novels.

“Even to the present day, Fontane’s image includes the fact that he was a great writer of letters,” says Rainer Falk from the Fontane Archive. The Archive wants to publish his letters in print as well because there are so many people who still enjoy reading them. They are being edited critically according to the source materials, including commentary – one of the most pressing issues in Fontane research. The letters to editors, publishers, reviewers and fellow writers are a testament to literary life in the last third of the nineteenth century, says von Wolzogen. In this correspondence, Fontane did not draw strict boundaries between personal and business-related letters: “With Fontane, a colleague is often also a friend,” explains Falk.

In an additional major project slated for Fontane’s birthday, the Archive is working on an online portal that seeks to network various digital research projects on Fontane’s life and work. In addition, the comprehensive, previously digitized manuscript holdings will be available online in collections. The Archive has the world’s largest holdings of the Fontane estate, with 20,000 pages of original handwritten documents and 10,000 manuscript copies. “We want to provide search tools on our portal to let users know about our holdings,” says Rainer Falk.

Fontane has Tourism Value for Brandenburg 

 “Along with Kleist, Fontane is the most important author for Brandenburg,” explains von Wolzogen. Yet while Kleist was more of a stranger to the Mark, Fontane really was at home here. “By writing about Brandenburg in literature, he gave the state a gift.” Fontane’s love of Brandenburg’s landed gentry and the passion with which he described Brandenburg’s landscape shaped the region. Today, hiking paths follow Fontane’s trail through the Mark and attract tourists. Fontane did not appreciate Potsdam or Neuruppin, the city where he was born. “Fontane thought Potsdam was provincial,” says von Wolzogen. His opinion of Potsdam, a capital city strongly influenced by the military, fell over time. “Fontane was also a chronicler of the ascendant metropolis of Berlin,” explains Falk. Fontane was ambivalent towards Berlin and Brandenburg; at times his descriptions of Berliners and Brandenburgers were scathing.

The Threads for Fontane.200 Come Together in the Fontane Office

 Hajo Cornel has been the project coordinator for “Fontane.200” at the University of Potsdam and the Brandenburg Society for Culture and History for one year now. His office is located in the newly built “Fontane.Office” in Potsdam’s IT center. The fifth-floor view takes in the city’s roofs, domes and church towers. Yet Cornel can only concur to Fontane’s opinion: “Fontane didn’t like Neuruppin, but he positively hated Potsdam.” Fontane’s wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer, in a letter to Theodor Storm’s wife Lucie, once expressed her wish to move to Potsdam, partially because rents were so cheap. Yet her request fell on her husband’s deaf ears. “In the ‘Rambles in Brandenburg’ (‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’) there are two paths through the Havelland: one heads left, another to the right, heading past Potsdam.” Fontane only dedicates three pages of his ‘Rambles’ to the city, and all of it to the Garnisonkirche.

In spite of these trials and tribulations in Fontane’s depiction of Potsdam, there will be several events throughout the entire state in this festival year. The House of Brandenburg-Prussian History (HBPG) is planning a Fontane exhibition. “Our institution’s task is not just to present state history; it is also to reflect on the process of identity formation,” says Dr. Kurt Winkler, director of the HBPG. “Fontane is a central figure for our state’s identity. In the face of dawning modernity and accelerating industrialization, he built and constituted Brandenburg as a historical space with his literature.” According to Hajo Cornel, Fontane managed to create a coherent cultural space out of a place that was, at the time, extraordinarily heterogeneous: people still spoke the Low German (Plattdeutsch) dialect, and Sorbian was still prevalent in the forests of the Spreewald. “Fontane’s historical image of Brandenburg has stuck in many people’s heads,” says Cornel. “That’s a blessing and a curse at the same time."

All of Brandenburg becomes Fontane Land

Of course the festivities are not just limited to Potsdam; Neuruppin was Fontane’s birthplace, after all. His parents had moved to Neuruppin on March 27, 1819, where his father owned the “Löwen Apotheke” pharmacies until Fontane was seven years old. The city of Fontane will be the center of the festivities: The Neuruppin Museum is planning a central exhibition called “Fontane.Author.” The exhibition will run nine months and will end punctually on Fontane’s 200th birthday on December 30, 2019. A Fontane camp for young people from all over Germany will explore Fontane’s life and work on Neuruppin’s Braschplatz square this summer. There has never been a forum of this kind before, says Cornel. “And the revival of the city of Neuruppin is a desirable side-effect.”

Fontane’s books are no longer mandatory reading in Brandenburg schools. Yet school students are able to develop Fontane projects in class for the 200th birthday that they will then bring together in a form as a kind of “Fontane slam.” After all, the title of this theme year – “Fontane.200” – contains a clear media reference. Can our contemporary media, such as text messages, chats or emails, also be related to Fontane’s media? “Fontane often made authorial decisions that resulted in an admixture of forms of historical research, journalism and literature,” says Kurt Winkler. “This ambiguity, complexity and processuality, when related to today’s forms of communication, open up new perspectives on, and questions about, Fontane.”

Brigitte Faber-Schmidt from “Kulturland Brandenburg” wants to connect with the exhibitions at the HBPG and the Neuruppin Museum. “We want to work together with other Brandenburg institutions, on the basis of Fontane exhibitions, to create a program with artistic, musical, theatrical and literary components,” explains Faber-Schmidt. She is, together with Kurt Winkler, the Managing Director of the Brandenburg Society for Culture and History, and has long supervised thematic year festivities in the region from her position at the umbrella organization, “Kulturland Brandenburg.” “Our thematic years have given us a lot of experience with projects at authentic sites.” Events in public space are also conceivable for the Fontane year. What is truly impressive is an onsite encounter. “Interventions” could be a way to position artistic projects about Fontane throughout everyday life.

All of the threads come together in the Fontane Office. When Hajo Cornel was asked whether he wanted to be the Fontane Coordinator, he was initially surprised. “If you had asked me to do the same for Thomas Mann, I wouldn’t have had to think twice,” says Cornel. “But Fontane, this older gentleman who enjoyed walking through evergreen forests, was a stranger to me.” Yet this initial distance had a positive effect: “I had to find my own way to Fontane.” For Cornel, the use of the period in the names associated with the Fontane anniversary year is an ironic “point of irritation” for the seemingly well-known, conservative Fontane, suggesting that there is more to him than people think. For Kurt Winkler, the period presents a modern bridge to today’s Internet addresses, which use periods to separate names and domains. For Brigitte Faber-Schmidt, there is a dialogue that ends emphatically: “Fontane?“ – “Yes, Fontane. Period.”


Theodor-Fontane-Archiv | Universität Potsdam
Villa Quandt, Große Weinmeisterstr. 46/47
14469 Potsdam
Email: fontanearchivuni-potsdamde

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Dr. Lee Holt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde


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