Binkley was chair of the Library Committee at Flora Stone Mather College for most of his time there, and much involved with library development at Western Reserve University. Here is an exchange of letters in which he attempted to get the university library to purchase an expensive set of Austrian parliamentary debates. His justifications show him applying to his own local situation the theories of access to research materials which he was developing in the Joint Committee on Materials for Research. In this posting I’ll try to use the case to open up an interesting intersection of Binkley’s work in documentary reproduction with his professional work as a historian of 19th and 20th century Europe and his interpretation of events in Germany and Central Europe in the mid-1930s.
In February, 1936, the Dutch antiquarian book dealer Martinus Nijhoff advertised a complete (or nearly complete) set of the Stenographische Protokolle of the Austrian parliament from 1848 to 1934 in 542 volumes, for $2,000 (roughly $34,000 in 2013 dollars based on purchasing power). This series is the equivalent to Hansard in Westminster-style parliaments: the verbatim transcripts of debates in the upper and lower houses. The Assistant Director of the Western Reserve University library, George F. Strong, seems to have forwarded the notice to Binkley, with a pencilled note “Probably too expensive for us!” Binkley, however pressed for it to be purchased.
Binkley and Strong had a history of collaboration on purchases of this kind. A few months earlier, Binkley forwarded an offer of a set of the Protokolle of the Deutscher Bund (1816-66) for $240 to Strong, with a note that he had already wired the seller to hold it. A set exists in the Case Western library today, so presumably the purchase went through.1
The Austrian series was a much more expensive proposition. In a letter to Strong, Binkley argued that the set would fill a gap not just in WRU’s collection but in the coordinated acquisition of European government documents between WRU and Cleveland Public Library. Moreover, the revolutionary technology of microfilm which Binkley was promoting in the Joint Committee’s work made this purchase strategically apt:
You know that I am firmly convinced that it is better to buy documentary series now than to buy old periodical files, because the old periodical files are better controlled by bibliographies, and micro-copying will get us the exact excerpts from them that we wish.
Strong’s pencilled response on Binkley’s letter – “Hopeless. Sorry.” – was not the end of the episode, for Binkley raised the matter again with the Director of Libraries Herbert Hirshberg the following year. Coming out of a meeting with Hirshberg in late January 1937, Binkley canvassed other members of the History Department and the Graduate School for support for the purchase. With Dean Benton’s agreement, he reiterated his previous arguments and added a new one:
… the parliamentary records of central European states … constitute a closed series because the parliamentary institution functioned therein for a definite period of time and has now ceased to function, at least in its old and significant way. From the library standpoint this is important, because the value of the material does not depend upon an ability to maintain it as a current periodical purchase. It is an exhaustive record of one phase of a closed era.
In a second, more formal statement requested by Hirshberg a few days later, Binkley put it this way:
The parliamentary age for that part of Europe is over. If it begins again there will be time enough to consider an appropriate library policy.
He is referring to the “Austrofascist” dictatorship that preceded Austria’s absorption into Nazi Germany. In the corporative “May Constitution” of 1934, Chancellor Dolfuss abolished parliament and replaced it with a number of appointed councils with various limited responsibilities. It was widely recognized that by this constitution, “Austria ceases to be a republic and abandons democracy and parliamentarism.”2
Binkley’s emphasis on this moment of closure is interesting for a couple of reasons. It fits with his general interest in historical periodization, influenced by his reading of Spengler. It makes Austria a place where great changes are happening, and therefore worthy of historical study. Moreover, these changes are so catastrophic that they move Austria outside the library’s sphere: he doesn’t raise the possibility of collecting the publications of the fascist government. Of course his purpose was rhetorical, to persuade Hirshberg that the purchase would be a responsible use of library funds, but his persistence was rooted in a sense that Austria was more important to European civilization than it appeared.
In the days after the assassination of Dolfuss in July 1934, Binkley was invited to write a series of columns for the Cleveland News discussing the situation in Central Europe. He took up the differences between the two German dictatorships (“Germany and Austria”, 1934-07-28):
What remains is a conflict of patriotisms, a German patriotism against an Austrian. And what is Austrian patriotism? It is the most interesting of all the nationality cults of Europe.
Austria to the time of her downfall [in 1918, presumably] was an international state. Heir to the international Holy Roman empire, and governed in league with the international Roman Catholic church, it preserved longer than any other European center a non-national point of view. …
The German patriotism of the Nazis is very simple and clear: it has to do with the superiority of German culture and the German race over all others, with the destiny of the German state and so forth.
But Austrian patriotism is not so simple. It also asserts the greatness of German culture, and looks forward to a high destiny for the German race, but at the same time insists that this greatness and high destiny is served by the maintenance of Austria as a separate state and people.
If Europe could be taught the Austrian type of patriotism, by which a people hold to their own culture without repudiating the greater culture of which it is a part, it would begin to get around the impasse of nationalism.
The theme of the Holy Roman Empire as an exemplary trans-national state, whose memory could be a counterweight to the raging nationalisms of Central Europe in the 1930s, was one he would return to in several articles and in his academic work on “federative polity”. His desire for the Austrian parliamentary records therefore was connected with an intention to pursue research into the long transition from the Holy Roman Empire (dismantled by Napoleon in 1806) to the Austria of his day.
Events, of course, moved too quickly for his ideas to be relevant. When German troops entered Vienna in March 1938, it had the effect of bumping Binkley’s article on the Holy Roman Empire from the Summer issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review to make room for Sigmund Neumann’s more topical “The Austrian Republic: An Obituary”. By the time Binkley’s essay appeared in the Autumn issue, its title – “Peace in Our Time” – had gained a lucky resonance with Chamberlain’s words after Munich.3
Binkley’s hopes for the acquisition of the Stenographische Protokolle appear to have been disappointed in the end: Case Western has no copy of the Austrian parliamentary debates although through OhioLink it has access to some of the volumes at OSU in Columbus, including some from after the war: the MARC record notes: “Covers the 1st-4th sessions from Nov. 10, 1920-Apr. 30, 1934; resumes with the 5th session on Dec. 19, 1945”, thereby witnessing the continuation which Binkley thought too distant for the library to plan for. And any HathiTrust member has access to the full set in digital form, showing how far we’ve come from Binkley’s statement that full sets of such documents must be held locally to support research.