Hermann Borchardt – Edition of Works

Since 2021, the works of German-Jewish writer Hermann Borchardt (1888–1951) are being published by Wallstein as an annotated edition in five volumes. This edition contains unpublished works from Borchardt’s papers, some of which were thought to be lost. At the ZfL, the editors work on the third volume, which will introduce Borchardt’s second novel Geschichte einer Edelfrau (Tale of a Noblewoman) for the very first time.

Bertolt Brecht once introduced Borchardt as the “greatest German-language satirist alive.” He could have also described him as the least fortunate German writer in exile. In Germany, Borchardt had published three plays while also working together with Brecht on works such as Saint Joan of the Stockyards. However, after emigrating, he soon fell into oblivion. Having been overlooked in the research on exile for decades, the author was only recently rediscovered. His novel Die Verschwörung der Zimmerleute (published in English in 1943 as The Conspiracy of the Carpenters), was the only work by Borchardt published in Germany since the author’s emigration. In 2005, Uta Beiküfner published an edition from Borchardt’s papers. In contrast to his significantly more famous friend Brecht, with whom he grew apart politically in exile, Borchardt was not only an opponent of German Nazi fascism, but also of Soviet communism. He already spoke of a totalitarian rule in the late 1930s, long before Hannah Arendt came forward with her systematic critique of totalitarianism.

Borchardt, who was born in Berlin in 1888 as Hermann Joelsohn, took on his mother’s name due to the palpable rise of antisemitism even before 1933. In the Weimar Republic, he worked as a high school teacher. His first plays, which he wrote alongside his bread job, were published by S. Fischer’s theater section. However, they were never staged. In April 1933, after being denounced by a colleague, he was forced to leave Germany. He first fled to Paris before leaving for Minsk in the Soviet Union in 1934, where he accepted a chair for German language. When he refused to assume Soviet citizenship, he was expelled from the country in 1936. He returned to Berlin where he was soon arrested. Following a one-year imprisonment at the concentration camps Esterwegen, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau that left him almost deaf and with a disabled hand due to severe torture and mistreatment, he was able to emigrate to the United States in 1937 thanks to the financial aid of Eva and George Grosz.

In New York, Borchardt led a shadowy existence as a writer. He managed to publish an abridged version of The Conspiracy of the Carpenters (with a foreword by Franz Werfel) with Simon and Schuster in 1943. Other than that, he only published a number of essays and brochures in which he particularly dealt with the threat of totalitarian rule. The plays he wrote in the US were neither printed nor staged, with the exception of Pastor Hall (1939). Despite being published under Ernst Toller’s name, the original version was originally ghost-written by Hermann Borchardt. Two of the works which he left behind almost unnoticed are Geschichte einer Edelfrau. Liebesroman aus deutscher Vergangenheit (Tale of a Noblewoman. A Romantic Novel from the German Past) and the unfinished Traktat über die Unsterblichkeit (A Treatise on Immortality).

Bochardt’s papers, which are by far the greatest part of his œuvre, are one of the last barely touched treasures of German exile literature from 1933 to 1945. It is the work of an author who went from sympathizing with communism to becoming a conservative critic, who denounced a world which broke its greatest promises of happiness. However, unfavorable historical circumstances have denied this versatile and highly original writer the appreciation he deserves. Among the Germans émigrés to the US who favorably looked upon the Soviet Union from afar, Borchardt, a writer who had experienced both Bolshevism and National Socialism up close before becoming a staunch opponent of any form of totalitarian rule, never stood a chance.

This edition of works contains a representative selection of texts from four decades that reflect Borchardt’s intellectual and political development. Work on this edition began in 2019 at the Freie Universität Berlin with funding by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Since August 2023, this work is being continued at the ZfL, with funding by the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture.

 

Fig. above: Hermann Borchardt’s passport, from the papers of Hermann Borchardt, Source: German Exile Archive 1933–1945 of the German National Library, Frankfurt am Main

funded by the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture 2023–2024
Head researcher(s): Christoph Hesse
Associate Researcher(s): Lukas Laier

Publications

Edition schedule

Prosa [Prose]
Hermann Borchardt: Works, vol. 3
Edited by Hermann Haarmann, Christoph Hesse, and Lukas Laier
Göttingen: Wallstein (expected in 2024)

Next to short stories, only two of which Borchardt could publish during his lifetime, the largest part of this volume consists of Geschichte einer Edelfrau. Liebesroman aus deutscher Vergangenheit (Tale of a Noblewoman. A Romantic Novel from the German Past), a novel he completed in 1944 but which was never published—a bitterly funny novel from the seemingly distant prehistory to German fascism. Borchardt began working on this novel, which “is actually about the rendering of the world into rubbish” (from a letter to George Grosz, 27 Oct 1933), before his flight from Germany. After pausing his work on the novel during his time in Minsk in 1934/35, he finally continued in New York in the 1940s. In addition to the novel in its entirety, the volume will also feature chapters and fragments that provide insight into the work’s genesis.

Politische Schriften [Political writings]
Hermann Borchardt: Works, Vol. 4
Edited by Hermann Haarmann, Christoph Hesse, and Lukas Laier
Göttingen: Wallstein (expected in 2025)

Borchardt’s political writings span the broadest part of his lifetime. These include articles from his college time before the First World War, pamphlets from the time of the November Revolution and the Weimar Republic, and finally the essays and brochures he wrote in American exile. An especially interesting contribution is Borchardt’s reflection on the “totalitarian state” which he already described as such in the late 1930s. From that point onward, the former socialist and anarchist became not only an advocate for individual freedom, but also a Christian author with an ironic take on the popular vilification as “reactionary.” Already in 1919, Borchardt criticized the leaders of the Communist Party as power-hungry demagogues. During his time in the Soviet Union, at the latest, he realized that Communism does not abolish inequality, but freedom; not poverty, but wealth. After the end of World War II, Borchardt appeared as a “German teacher,” addressing not only the American public, but also the Germans—whom his appeal most certainly did not reach. These political-educational works include numerous manuscripts of speeches and radio features on the “reeducation” of Germany.

Philosophische Schriften [Philosophical writings]
Hermann Borchardt: Works, vol. 5
Edited by Hermann Haarmann, Christoph Hesse und Lukas Laier
Göttingen: Wallstein (expected in 2026)

This volume centers on the Traktat über die Unsterblichkeit (A Treatise on Immortality), an unfinished work that Borchardt began in 1946 and which can be viewed as the author’s legacy. “As authors did in medieval times,” he sent the “consoling 9th chapter” of his tract to his good acquaintance Hermann Hesse. Other than him, however, this work had almost no readers to this day. In his philosophical-literary opus magnum spanning over 700 typewritten pages, Borchardt, applying both a didactic as well as a sarcastic, but always an upbeat narrative tone, tackles the ideological framework of the modern world: materialism, scepticism, relativism, to name only a few key concepts. Additionally, the volume will include shorter philosophical essays as well as manuscripts for lectures Borchardt was meant to give at the Université Laval in Québec in 1950, an endeavor which his deteriorating health would no longer allow for.

 

Previously released volumes of the edition

Autobiographische Schriften [Autobiographical writings]
Hermann Borchardt: Works, vol. 1
Edited by Hermann Haarmann, Christoph Hesse, and Lukas Laier
Göttingen: Wallstein 2021, ISBN 978-3-8353-3864-7, 359 pages.

Among the personal testimonies collected here, this volume centers on the so-called “Lagerbuch” (camp book) in which Borchardt describes experiences and observations he made during his imprisonment in German concentration camps. This work, which was written in 1938 in the USA and only passed on in fragments, was at best heard of by hearsay. Now, as these chapters and fragments are published for the very first time, they offer an early historical document of a “camp literature” that was only just emerging at the time. With his uncompromising account, Borchardt counters the idea of prisoners joined in solidarity, a widespread notion among political journalists of the time.

Furthermore, this volume features notes on Bochardt’s years in the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1936. Early on, the material misery he witnessed there as well as the omnipresent fear of denunciation and arrest, including reports he received of the current famine resulting from “collectivization,” led the former socialist to write an outrageously radical critique of Soviet “state slavery.” It is a macabre feat of irony that Borchardt escaped Stalin’s terror in 1936 by “fleeing into German concentration camps.” Nevertheless, the volume is opened by a somewhat cheerful if occasionally melancholic text: Der Club der Harmlosen (The Club of the Harmless), a novel introduced as a “true story” from Borchardt’s life which he began writing in the mid-1940s. In it, he looks back on his childhood in Wilhelmine Berlin.

Stücke [Plays]
Hermann Borchardt: Works, vol. 2
Edited by Hermann Haarmann, Christoph Hesse, and Lukas Laier
Göttingen: Wallstein 2022, ISBN 978-3-8353-5134-9, 687 pages.

Borchardt’s dramatic works include the plays published by S. Fischer’s theater section in the years 1928/29 which were not available since as well as the plays written during Borchard’s exile in the USA which he was never able to publish himself. Most of these works edited from his estate deal with the Christian resistance against National Socialism with a special focus on the imprisonment in a concentration camp. This includes Befreiung des Pfarrers Müller (Pastor Müller’s Redemption) from 1938, an unfinished play passed down in three acts. A year later, Ernst Toller based his famous drama Pastor Hall (1939) on Borchardt’s play. The “Urschrift” (original script), as Borchardt himself called it, is published in this volume for the very first time. It proves the scope in which Toller adapted elements from this original source without ever mentioning it.

 

Lukas Laier