German scholar Leonard Forster in Königsberg

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The eminent German scholar Leonard Forster (1913-1997) was the fifth Schröder Professor of German from 1961 until 1979. His best-known work is probably the Penguin Book of German Verse (1957.7.3347), first published in 1957. But his main research areas were German baroque literature and Renaissance studies.

Leonard Forster was a very active user of Cambridge University Library. He regularly recommended books for purchase but also donated numerous volumes to the library.  A particularly large donation of his books was received in 1994. The titles of the donated books show his wide interests. They include works on Dadaism, contemporary Austrian experimental poetry and the plays of Roswitha von Gandersheim. In many volumes Leonard Forster noted when and where he had acquired them.

Recently while upgrading the catalogue entry for one of these volumes I came across a very detailed note which read “Leonard Forster, Basel, November 1937 in Erinnerung an Königsberg, November 1935.”  This note can be found in Verpflichtendes Erbe (9004.d.6177) edited by Paul Hankamer.  I was interested to find out why he wanted to remember November 1935. From the entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (R454.1 and online) we learn that Leonard Forster worked as Lektor first in Leipzig (1934-1935) and then Königsberg (1935-1936).

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Inscribed note in Verpflichtendes Erbe (9004.d.6177)

Leonard Forster not only gave books to the library but also some of his personal papers, which are kept by our Manuscripts Department.  Among these papers can be found documents relating to his stay in Königsberg, which allow us to learn of his experience there in more detail.

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Letter to the British Embassy (MS Add.9252/1)

In a letter to the British Embassy from February 1936 Forster described the events at Königsberg University in which he was involved.  He explained that he had chosen to go to Königsberg in the hope of doing his PhD under the supervision of Paul Hankamer, an eminent scholar of German Renaissance literature and Professor of German at Königsberg University.

But instead he witnessed Prof. Hankamer being hounded out of office by the Nazi student organisation NS Studentenbund. This began with a review of one of Prof. Hankamer’s books in the student paper Der Student der Ostmark that accused him of espousing un-German ideas, and continued with organised disruption of his lectures. Forster was appalled by this and wrote on Dec. 13, 1935 to Prof. Hankamer assuring him of his sympathy and offering his help. This letter is now held by Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach.

Forster also signed a declaration in support of Prof.  Hankamer that was organised by his students.  This was a rare occasion of students defending a professor against Nazi accusations. The  NS-Studentenbund got hold of the declaration and denounced it in Der Student der Ostmark . The campaign by the NS-Studentenbund sadly succeeded: Prof. Hankamer was suspended from his lecture duties and the students supporting him were disciplined. Forster had to write to the rector of Königsberg University explaining his position. A copy of this letter is also held by our Manuscripts Dept.

With Prof. Hankamer suspended from duties, Forster’s plan of completing his PhD under Hankamer’s supervision had to be abandoned. He moved to Basel where he obtained his PhD in 1938 with a thesis on Georg Rudolph Weckherlin. But as the note in the Hankamer book (which he purchased in Basel) shows he kept a fond memory of his encounter with  Prof. Hankamer.

Further evidence of his admiration for Prof. Hankamer can be found in his German Poetry, 1944-1948 (9746.c.37) published in 1949 which is dedicated to the memory of Paul Hankamer who died in 1945.

Christian Staufenbiel

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