The Purchase of Stefan Zweig's Collection by Martin Bodmer

One March morning, 1936, the already-famous Zurich bibliophile Martin Bodmer received by post a catalogue from Vienna detailing the sale of an extraordinary collection of autograph German manuscripts. Though he’d been largely uninterested in authorial manuscripts, he decided to purchase virtually all of the lots which had been individually and meticulously described in the brochure.

The title page of the catalogue referred to a “famous collection of autograph manuscripts,” but Bodmer knew the identity of a collector desperate to part with what was considered at the time one of the world’s most important collections, and to do so quietly. It was none other than the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who described his own collection as “more deserving of surviving me than my own works” (The World of Yesterday, 1942). Forced to leave Austria in the face of the Nazi rise to power and the corresponding threat of pillage looming at his doorstep, Zweig had contracted with a Viennese bookseller, Heinrich Hinterberger, to manage the sale of his precious manuscripts.

An extended correspondence between the seller and Martin Bodmer has been recently curated at the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Cologny. Their letters, copies of letters and telegrams allow us to document, step by step, the transfer of the majority of this collection from the hands of Zweig to Bodmer, even though the two men were never in direct contact.

From these various archival pieces, it becomes clear that Martin Bodmer knew quite well that he was coming into possession of a unique trove, and sought from the beginning to keep the collection intact. To this end, the bookseller Hinterberger sent him, six months after the sale of the first lot, a typed list, prepared and annotated by Zweig himself, detailing 185 manuscripts written in languages other than German (of which by far the most were in French). Clearly, this second set could also suit his project of establishing a library of world literature. Here too, Martin Bodmer stood ready to acquire nearly all of the lots up for sale.

So formed the heart of the modern autograph manuscripts currently maintained by the Martin Bodmer Foundation. It was a true act of transplantation, with the collection removed from one host and grafted onto another. The collection built up by Zweig became the seed from which Bodmer’s own would develop: the collection would transfer its vitally, its energies, and if one should be so inclined, its soul. Stefan Zweig held his collection, on which he wrote extensively, to be “a living organism,” which would continue to live and grow according to the governing principles which he had set down.

In this respect, Martin Bodmer was able to reap Zweig’s method and expertise, notably by maintaining the filing folders in which each document hand been stored and on which Zweig had written his own annotations and commentaries.  Following in the footsteps of the master, he carried on the project of which he had become the guardian without ever deviating from its mission: over the thirty-five years of targeted acquisitions that began with this initial purchase, Martin Bodmer nearly tripled the number of modern manuscripts in his possession.

Marc A. Kolakowski
Université de Lausanne