News , Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive | 24. Jun. 2020

Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive, no 9: The Difficult Transition From a Scholarly Association to a Research Institution

During the Corona closure of our Munich Institute, the MGH invite you to join us on a trip through 200 years of medieval research history: The series “Treasures of the MGH Library and Archive” presents a treasure trove of rare and fascinating items illustrating key moments of our history. Enjoy discovering!

„Hereafter, [the board of directors] proceeded to the election of the chairman and Herr Waitz was elected with 8 ballots.“ This dry account under §13 in the meeting protocols of the central board of directors from April 7 – 11 1875 belies the long and in part quite dramatic developments leading up to this election.

In 1842, the "Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde" (as the MGH was originally known), moved its seat from Frankfurt to Berlin following its chairman, Georg Heinrich Pertz, who had been appointed to the position of head librarian of the Königliche Bibliothek in Berlin. It was therefore in Berlin that the above mentioned sitting of the central board of directors in April 1875 took place. The meeting was attended by leading German-speaking historians of the day. Beside Pertz himself and Theodor Mommsen, both of whom lived in Berlin, Georg Waitz had come from Göttingen, Karl Friedrich Stumpf-Brentano from Innsbruck, Theodor Sickel from Wien, Wilhelm von Giesebrecht from Munich, Karl von Hegel from Erlangen, and Ludwig Heinrich Euler arrived from Frankfurt am Main to take the minutes of the proceedings.

Shortly before, Georg Heinrich Pertz had celebrated his eightieth birthday and could look back on a long and illustrious career. Having assumed the „literary directorship of the undertaking“ from the founding father, vom Stein, in 1824, he had worked closely with his friend Johann Friedrich Böhmer to make the MGH a success. The duo Pertz-Böhmer was also responsible for organising a stable financial basis for the Monumenta thanks to a well considered plan proposed at the Bundestag in Frankfurt in 1844. In the 1850s, Pertz reached the apex of his academic career, receiving honorary memberships in several German scientific academies, as for example the nomination to the newly formed Historische Kommission at the Munich Akademie der Wissenschaften by Maximilian II of Bavaria in 1858 (Bresslau, p. 337).

Five years later, however, following Böhmer’s death, the negative aspects of Pertz’s increasingly autocratic administration had become unmistakable. The Bundestag complained that the subsidies that the member states were paying were not being put to use to produce editions, as intended, but rather were piling up in the MGH treasury. Pertz was not only hording the finances, but also the research material of the MGH, refusing to make them accessible for scholarly work other than for MGH publications. This caused notable irritations with fellow historians, as did Pertz’s behaviour towards Philipp Jaffé, a highly gifted editor who left the MGH in 1863, and his advancement of his own considerably less talented son, Karl.

Representatives of the Bundesrat and renowned professors began to worry about the direction that the MGH were taking and looked for solutions. Pertz reacted in March 1864 with a lengthy memorandum underlining his absolute claim to running the MGH: „for full forty years now the whole business with all its means and resources has been placed in my hands, and it is I who have brought it into being and I who have made it great, and nobody but me has a claim to influencing its course“ (cited in Bresslau, p. 411). With such high-handedness, Pertz almost caused the dissolution of the MGH. Members of the Bundestag and ministers of state (including the powerful Otto von Bismarck from Prussia) spoke openly about reorganising the institution.

Just in time, political attentions were distracted by the Austro-Prussian war in 1866, leaving Pertz to continue his unchallenged rule of the MGH. In the new political constellation after the war, he was once again able to secure the financial support for the edition enterprise.

Shortly thereafter, however, Pertz was faced with a much more implacable challenge to his position: his age. In a letter written in August 1872 to Theodor Sickel, the director of the Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung (the Austrian institute of historical research) in Vienna, professor Ernst Dümmler from the university in Halle commented the situation: „Pertz has lost his intellectual acumen, but he still holds on to the Monumenta with resolute energy as if it were the property of his family.“ Behind the curtains, negotiations began about the choice of Pertz’s successor. Thanks to the intercession of Georg Waitz, professor of history at the University of Göttingen, this discussion was conducted without derogating Pertz personally. Waitz, who had worked for many years under Pertz and was, in the event, chosen as his successor, responded to an account of the wrangle over the leadership of the MGH in a newspaper article with a statement published in the Hannoverscher Courier on July 13 1872, declaring that he had no intention „of confronting the highly meritorious director of the Monumenta, with whom I have worked for so many years, with any challenge whatsoever“ (cited in Bresslau, p. 491). Pertz himself fought off his forced retirement with all the means at his disposal. Finally, after much negotiation, he was convinced to step down with the promise of a generous compensation. 

Even after this problem had been resolved, the independent status of the MGH remained uncertain. The future of the Monumenta was to be decided in protracted negotiations involving the academies in Berlin, Munich and Vienna and a panel of the leading historians of the German-speaking countries. Despite various conflicting vanities, the commission came to the conclusion that the MGH should continue to operate with the greatest possible autonomy, and presented the Bundestag with a proposal for new statutes that were agreed on and passed in January 1875. The major feature of the new statues was the reform of the central board of directors, giving it clearly delineated rights and obligations. In April 1875, this body met for its inaugural sitting.

The meeting lasted five days; the minutes of the proceedings seem at first glance quite unspectacular, and yet they document a decisive point in the history of the MGH. The election of the 62-year old Georg Waitz as the new chairman of the board marked the final end of the era of Georg Heinrich Pertz after 50 years with him at the head of the Monumenta. Before the backdrop of preceding events, the resolutions of 1875 become appreciable in their true scope.

A. Marquard-Mois

Minutes of the sitting edited in: Mittelalter lesbar machen. Festschrift 200 Jahre Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 2019, pp. 161-176.

Bresslau, Harry: Geschichte der Monumenta Germaniae historica im Auftrage ihrer Zentraldirektion. Hannover 1921

Learn more about this treasure of the MGH archive in: Martina Hartmann: Fünf Tage voller Beschlüsse. Protokoll der konstituierenden Sitzung April 1875, in: Mittelalter lesbar machen. Festschrift 200 Jahre Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 2019, S. 158-176.