Affairs in Berlin: Harold in Germany, Vita in Love

Kathryn Batchelor, Professor of Translation Studies and Director of UCL Centre for Translation Studies, highlights a new exhibition at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, which brings British-German friendship to life using selected books from Sissinghurst’s 11,000 volume library.

The exhibition is a collaboration between UCL and the National Trust and takes place at Sissinghurst Castle Garden from 26 September 2022 to 17 February 2023.

Escaping the Nazi Bombers, one exhibition at a time

In Britain, the appetite for stories set during the Second World War seems to be insatiable. Films and books set in World War Two Britain abound. On a single shelf of my children’s bookcase, I can pick out five books set in the Blitz, all written in the last five years. Rarely does a year go by that a new World War Two film is not released. The further away from the war we get, the faster the books and films seem to proliferate. British victory, German defeat, Nazi bombers over London.

Britain and Germany – old friendships

With this tireless repetition, I sometimes worry that we are moving towards a collective forgetting of the intertwined histories and old friendships of Britain and Germany. Any British school child could tell you about the Nazi bombers, but how many would know about the rich history of cultural contact and friendship between our two countries? Would any school child know that the House of Windsor used to be the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, that London’s Wigmore Hall was once the Bechstein Hall? How many would know that the Berlin of the 1920s was not just an ‘interwar’ city, but the ‘new Paris’, the home to innovative theatre and cinema and architecture? Or that the Germany of the 1920s was a popular tourist destination for the growing class of British people able to afford foreign travel?

A New Exhibition – ‘Affairs in Berlin’

In a new exhibition at a National Trust property in a hidden corner of Kent, we hope to evoke some of this less well-remembered part of British history. ‘Affairs in Berlin: Harold in Germany, Vita in Love’ was developed as a collaboration between UCL and the National Trust and takes place at Sissinghurst Castle Garden from 26 September 2022 to 17 February 2023.  

Sissinghurst Castle Garden – not just a garden

Sissinghurst is one of the National Trust’s most popular gardens, associated in most people’s minds with roses and honeysuckle, colour-themed borders, the sun catching on a statue at the end of a tree-lined avenue. Few people realise, however, that Sissinghurst contains the most significant twentieth century book collection in the National Trust, with around 11,000 volumes. The book collection is multilingual: there are over a thousand French books and almost five hundred German ones, as well as books in Italian, Spanish and Persian. The library is a tangible trace of the lives of its owners, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, both of whom were multilingual and extremely well travelled. 

Tracing German-English friendships through library books

The exhibition uses the library holdings to build a picture of Harold and Vita’s German connections and friendships, showcasing German books and translations from the collection. Many of the books – often inscribed – were gifts from the German authors or were purchased in Germany by Harold and Vita. Harold, in particular, was a prolific reader of German books, often reviewing them for publishers and the press. One of the focal points for the exhibition is Harold’s diplomatic posting to Berlin in 1927-1929. As second-in-charge at the Embassy, he found the politics ‘enthralling’ and enjoyed a busy social life, playing host to British visitors who were drawn to Berlin’s innovative cultural scene.  Vita – who felt like a ‘fish out of water’ as a diplomat’s wife – stayed in England but made several visits to Berlin. There, she swiftly made friends with a group of liberated, creative women and embarked on a short-lived affair with another writer, the American-German Margaret Goldsmith. Together with her cousin Eddy Sackville-West, she also produced the first ever English translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies. It was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1931.

Friendship in conflict

Throughout the research and planning for the exhibition, we have been guided by the holdings of the library. We have deciphered inscriptions and annotations, each one a tangible sign of long-lasting friendship or mutual appreciation of German and English culture. This has allowed us to trace different stories, away from the relentless focus on the Second World War. In some respects, though, the library holdings have brought both world wars directly back into view: it was Harold Nicolson who delivered the declaration of war to the German Ambassador in London in 1914; he was the author of Peacemaking 1919, a frank account of the Paris Peace process in 1919-20; he took a prominent stand against appeasement in the 1930s; and in the 1940s wrote books explaining why Britain was at war.

A return to standard fare, then: British victory, German defeat, Nazi bombers over London. Well – yes and no. Although it is impossible not to include the two world wars and rise of Hitler in an exhibition that is built on the contents of Harold Nicolson’s library, the library holdings also remind us that friendships and sympathies never divided along national lines.

The best illustration of this is found in Harold’s collection of books and essays by Thomas Mann. Mann was a friend of Harold’s from his Berlin days and in the 1930s, like Harold, he spoke out powerfully against appeasement. In the Sissinghurst library we see that Harold annotated Thomas Mann’s books heavily, the underlined ideas often making their way into Harold’s own arguments. Even the declaration of war in 1914 does not happen without a reminder of long-standing British-German friendship: ‘remember me to your father’, the German Ambassador tells Harold on 4 August 1914, bringing the decades-old friendship between an Englishman (Sir Arthur Nicolson) and a German (Prince Max von Lichnowsky) right back into view.

Affairs in Berlin: Harold in Germany, Vita in Love’, Sissinghurst Castle Garden, 26 September 2022 to 17 February 2023. The exhibition was made possible by the UCL Centre for Critical Heritage Studies Small Grant scheme with additional sponsorship by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London and the Austrian Cultural Forum.

Kathryn Batchelor is Professor of Translation Studies and Director of UCL Centre for Translation Studies.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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