Momme Mommsen and Katharina Mommsen

Born in 1907 in Leipzig (Germany), Momme Mommsen first became a musician and pursued a career as a conductor of operas and concerts for twelve years in Dortmund, Trier, Ulm, Wuppertal, and Berlin. Besides being a musician, he passionately studied classical poetry and translated Greek tragedies, particularly those of Euripides. In 1948, he received his PhD in Classics as a student of Wolfgang Schadewaldt at the Humboldt University in Berlin. In 1949, he became a research fellow at the Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften in (East-) Berlin, concentrating on Goethe scholarship.

In this capacity, he laid the foundation for a comprehensive Goethe documentation, Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken in Dokumenten (Documentation of the Genesis of Goethe's Works). The first two volumes, published by Momme Mommsen in collaboration with Katharina Mommsen, appeared in 1958 and were hailed by Goethe scholars all over the world. René Elvin, in an article entitled "The German Bookstore" praised Momme Mommsen's Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken (Akademie Verlag, Berlin) as "monumental" (In Time and Tide - The Independent Weekly, London, 16 January 1960, # 3 p. 63). "Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken in Dokumenten describes in minute detail the creative process underlying each of Goethe's numerous works, with the help of letters and other documents - a workmanlike compilation of useful source material," Prof. Heinrich Meyer stated. (Books Abroad, Summer vol. of 1959.) "The Berlin Academy, which is giving us the magnificent new Goethe edition, is also the publisher of a work of extraordinary value. Around the turn of the century, Gräf undertook a similar work, but he limited his tabulations to the poetic works of Goethe and was not even in a position to use the available sources, since they were then still in the process of being published. As Mommsen points out, Goethe the entire man and all of his works have now become important, and we want to be informed about their genesis as well...It is gratifying to have completeness and to have all of Goethe's own references assembled. German Goethe students of influence were generally university professors who were either too lazy or too busy to use all the sources or too disinterested in Goethe as he was, because they wanted to express their own views. Being in a position of authority as well as protected from criticism, they established a poor tradition of biographical scholarship. It is therefore praiseworthy to find that the Berlin Academy is producing a work infinitely superior to anything done by most professors during the last generation or two. For in addition to Goethe's own utterances, the writings of others who knew about Goethe's work at the time are cited and excerpted. It would have been easy to introduce interpretation, but the Mommsens limit themselves to the work in question and not to its evaluation or discreditation. They have made use of unpublished sources and letters to Goethe when necessary. To undertake a work such as the Mommsens undertook requires objectivity and persistence. But they will have the reward of posterity. Scholars who prepare works that remain useful to later generations far outlive those who merely appeal to their contemporaries. The names of Momme and Katharina Mommsen will thus live on for many years. For I do not see how any Goethe scholar will want, or be able, to do without this magnificent work."

These are but a few examples of dozens of similarly positive reviews from Goethe scholars in European countries and the USA. Shortly before the publication of the next volume, the Berlin Wall was erected on August 13, 1961. As West Berliners living in the American Sector of Berlin, the Mommsens were cut off from their position at the Academy of Sciences and from the sources of their Goethe research in Weimar (GDR) for almost 30 years. Both scholars taught from 1962 to 1970 at the Free University of Berlin as Associate Professors of German Literature and also held visiting professorships at the Universities of Munich and Giessen and the Technical University of Berlin. In 1970, Katharina accepted a full professorship in the German Department of Carleton University Ottawa/Ontario, where Momme became a Research Fellow. In 1973, after a visiting professorship at the University of California in San Diego, Katharina was offered a chair at the Department of German Studies at Stanford University, California. Both Mommsens moved to the USA in 1974. In 1985 the honor of a prestigious Endowed Chair was bestowed on Katharina Mommsen. She was an Albert Guerard Professor of Literature until her retirement in 1992.

After German reunification in 1989, the Mommsens at last regained acess to the source material in Weimar needed for the continuation of their fragmented project, Die Entstehung von Goethes Werken in Dokumenten. However, because of their age, it was too late for them to finish the work. Therefore, they founded the Mommsen Foundation in order to finance its continuation and completion by younger scholars. On January 1, 2001, Momme Mommsen, who had the vision and laid the foundation for this extraordinary work of Goethe scholarship, died - but his intellectual legacy lives on.

Momme Mommsen

980 Palo Alto Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301-2223
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Last Updated: 5 February 2013 Email: Mommsen Foundation