Arthur Schnitzler, 1912

Saved from destruction by the Nazis and smuggled in secret to Cambridge, the rescue of author Arthur Schnitzler’s archive is as dramatic as any fiction he committed to paper.

Cambridge University Library has always been proud of the role it played in saving the Schnitzler archive from certain destruction.

Anne Jarvis

Now, more than 75 years after it was spirited out of Austria under the noses of Nazis intent on burning and destroying Jewish cultural works, the papers of the man who inspired Freud, Kubrick and many others have been officially signed over into the care of Cambridge University Library.

Following several months of discussions with the writer’s grandsons and surviving heirs to his estate, Michael and Peter Schnitzler, the agreement concludes a handover process that began in the 1930s before being interrupted by the onset of the Second World War.

Cambridge University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “Cambridge University Library has always been proud of the role it played in saving the Schnitzler archive from certain destruction – and we are delighted to have reached agreement with the family to ensure that this unique collection remains in Cambridge and continues to benefit from the expert care and conservation it has received over the last eight decades.

“Arthur Schnitzler’s unique legacy continues to resonate and inspire, just as it has over the last 75 years. As one of the world’s great research libraries we are committed to making this fascinating archive available to as many people as possible.”

The archive is currently being opened up to scholars and other interested readers by major edition projects in Austria, Germany and the UK. The German and UK projects will result in cutting-edge digital editions of works from 1905–1931, to be hosted, with open access, by the University Library.

Andrew Webber, Professor of Modern German and Comparative Culture at the University’s Department of German and Dutch, leads the UK editorial team, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He said: “We are delighted that this agreement has been reached. In the Schnitzler papers, Cambridge has custody of a treasure of Modernist literary culture. The edition projects are already making remarkable discoveries as the teams of scholars decipher and analyse drafts and notes recorded in Schnitzler’s idiosyncratic handwriting. They promise an exciting new view of the works and the creative processes of this key figure.”   

The story of how Schnitzler’s archive came to Cambridge is a remarkable and complex one. Upon Arthur Schnitzler’s death in 1931, his estate remained in his Vienna house with his ex-wife Olga, who was considered his widow even though the couple had divorced in 1921.

By 1933, the works of Schnitzler and other Jewish artists were regularly being consigned to the flames of the Nazis’ book burning rallies across Germany. In March 1938, Germany invaded Austria and many prominent Jews were arrested and dispossessed.

Worried that they would come for Schnitzler’s papers, Olga Schnitzler asked an acquaintance in Vienna, a student from Cambridge called Eric Blackall, if he might be able to help save them.

On March 19, 1938, at her request, Blackall sent an urgent message to Cambridge University Library to ask whether they would accept the more than 40,000 pages of Schnitzler’s literary archive. They agreed immediately, and a diplomatic seal was placed on the material before Blackall organised its shipment from Nazi-occupied Austria. More than a dozen cases and cupboards of manuscripts, sketches, notes, correspondence and even Schnitzler’s death mask made their way across Europe to Cambridge.

The communications between Blackall and Cambridge, preserved in Cambridge University Library, have the character of a spy novel, with Blackall referring to the urgent need to see that ‘mother’ (Olga) and ‘child’ (the archive) are safely dispatched to England.

Once both were safe in Cambridge, a legal document was drawn up and agreed between Olga and the Library in 1939, giving the archive to the University.  However, Olga had neglected to notify the Library that she was not Arthur’s legal heir according to his last will. When her son, Heinrich, who was the sole heir and had emigrated to the United States, asked for the archive to be returned to him, the University Librarian let him know that the papers had been given to the library by Olga and must remain there.

Olga herself left for the United States, taking some of the most personal artefacts (such as diaries and family letters) with her, with the blessing of the University Librarian at the time.

Due to the outbreak of World War II, no further negotiations took place and Heinrich Schnitzler agreed to leave the archive in the custody of the Library, provided that he be given access to the archive and that microfilm copies of the papers were made. 

Over the course of the following decades, the Library maintained a correspondence with Heinrich, who worked on his father’s papers, but the Schnitzler family remained owner of the archive. The agreement between CUL and Arthur Schnitzler’s grandsons puts to an end a legally awkward situation.

Schnitzler’s works provided the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, David Hare’s The Blue Room as well as plays penned by Tom Stoppard. Taking love, death and human sexuality as frequent themes for exploration, Schnitzler’s works were controversial and were even denounced by Hitler as examples of ‘Jewish filth’.

The archive in Cambridge also contains Schnitzler’s only surviving letter to friend and admirer Sigmund Freud as well as his correspondence with Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism and other leading artists and writers of the era – such as Henrik Ibsen, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

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