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Helmut Rötzsch (1923–2017) – In memoriam

Prof. Dr. Helmut Rötzsch passed away on 28 March 2017 at the age of 93. For almost 30 years, from 1961 to 1990, he was principal director and director general of the Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig, the cradle institution of the German National Library.
Born on 17 December 1923 into a working-class family in Leipzig, Helmut Rötzsch began an apprenticeship as a bookseller in 1938 with the Leipzig book wholesaler Koehler & Volckmar, where he worked as a bookselling assistant until 1941. After completing his Reich Labour Service he was conscripted into the Luftwaffe in 1942. He was taken as a prisoner of war by the Americans, but released in 1946. After the war, he studied cultural policy at the Social Science Faculty of the University of Leipzig before joining the Deutsche Bücherei in October 1950. Starting as a personnel officer, in 1953 he was made administration director, from 1953 to 1955 he was head of the reading rooms, until 1961 head of the procurement department before being appointed deputy director in 1959 and finally principal director in 1961. In 1964 the title of his position was changed to director general. Helmut Rötzsch held numerous posts, including that of chairman of the advisory board for the scientific library system of the German Democratic Republic. He was a member of the university and technical college council, president of the German Library Association, a city councillor in Leipzig, and more besides. He also served in various international organisations such as UNESCO and the IFLA, the umbrella organisation for libraries. He was active in the SED and its institutions from 1947 and was presented with numerous awards.
Helmut Rötzsch was instrumental in developing the Deutsche Bücherei during the period of German division, with all the challenges this involved. He successfully campaigned to continue the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie as a pan-German directory of publications in accordance with the original mandate. From the 1950s he regularly attended the book fair in Frankfurt am Main and convinced most of the West German publishers to continue sending copies of their publications to Leipzig. He did this with the support of the East German government, which prided itself on the recognition accorded to the Deutsche Bücherei in the West. Even if, for ideological reasons, not all the books in the collection were made publicly available, Helmut Rötzsch is to be credited with the fact that the books actually came to Leipzig, where they were bibliographically indexed and where they are still available to this day. In the late 1980s he intensified the cooperation with the Deutsche Bibliothek in Frankfurt am Main, up to and including reciprocal working visits and liaising on library cataloguing codes. The good relations which Helmut Rötzsch enjoyed with the directors general of the sister library in Frankfurt form the basis of his enduring legacy. Together with Prof. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann he drew up the plans for merging the two institutions upon the reunification of Germany in 1990, thereby ensuring the preservation of both sites.

Helmut Rötzsch was not averse to deploying unconventional methods when it came to obtaining the best results for "his" library. For the staff of the Deutsche Bücherei, their "professor" was an "approachable" director. When more stack space was needed in the 1970s, he succeeded in getting the construction work started on the Book Tower on the Deutscher Platz in Leipzig despite the general shortage of money and resources. He achieved this through his personal connections and despite the work not being included in the five-year plans of the GDR. The legitimising party congress resolution followed shortly after construction began. There are also stories of Helmut Rötzsch returning from his travels to "capitalist countries" not only with boxes of books, but occasionally also with less official souvenirs such as photocopiers, which would have been impossible to obtain through the regular channels. From 1955 he was also an unofficial employee of the Ministry of State Security and reported on his foreign travels. According to the research of a journalist published in 2012, only positive assessments of employees of the Deutsche Bücherei can be found in his reports. This, too, was probably attributable to the political and professional pragmatism which Rötzsch adopted in the service of the founding mandate of the Deutsche Bücherei. He honoured this mandate consistently even during the period of German division, before finally passing it on – with a sense of passion – to his successors in 1990.

The results of his services to the Deutsche Bücherei will long be felt in the German National Library which honours his memory.

On behalf of the German National Library and its staff

Dr. Elisabeth Niggemann, Director General
Michael Fernau, Director in Leipzig

Last update: 10.4.2017

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