Carl and Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell

Carl Schlettwein was an ardent collector. He loved books; their feel, their look, their smell – lying on the shelf or on the table. He enjoyed the many hours he spent with his beloved books, even when not reading. 


Carl Schlettwein : “Collecting is neutral”


Carl Schlettwein enjoyed the company of like-minded individuals who shared his passion for books – people who displayed keen interest and enthusiasm in their work with them. And he knew and appreciated the value of books as repositories of information and transmitters of knowledge, ideas, views and opinions. He knew that knowledge stored in books is not lost, but instead remains for future investigation and analysis. 

Knowledge in books influences the view of a nation
He directly experienced the power of books and their ability to prompt social change while growing up in Germany in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and living in southern Africa for many years after the war. The Third Reich’s book burnings and the politically motivated censorship and acquisition of books by apartheid-era South Africa’s national library, in Pretoria, represented attempts to influence and change people’s frame of reference and political and social opinion. He realised that the internal and external view of a society or a nation is directly shaped by existing knowledge and the information traditionally transmitted in books.


Neutral documentation
The quality of documentations lies in the neutrality of the collection, in the attempt to gather materials free of influence from one’s own political view – in this case regarding Namibia. In this way, Carl Schlettwein collected both pamphlets calling for resistance as well as rationalising texts from the perspective of apartheid supporters. Thus, the holdings of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien today include propaganda writings by all opposing parties in the long-running liberation struggle.

Mutual interest in those around them
It was in 1950 at the international student dormitory of the University of Kiel, Germany, that Carl Schlettwein met his future wife, Daniela Gsell, a medical student from Riehen (near Basel), Switzerland. The love they cemented stood the test of many years between Switzerland and South Africa, and still holds following the death of Carl Schlettwein in 2005.

They were united by a genuine interest in the people around them, the joy of true enthusiasm and total commitment. The knowledge and conviction of supporting such a level of dedication, combined with an infectious conviviality, laid the groundwork for a growing circle of friends and acquaintances which, particularly in southern Africa, proved decisive in enabling access to the wide variety of publications and trouvailles now found in the holdings of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien.

Emigration to South Africa
With his emigration to South Africa in 1952 and a growing interest in his new home, Carl Schlettwein began to collect books and information. In the course of his 12-year stay in South Africa and Namibia, he travelled as salesman to all corners of the country, visiting the remotest areas and getting to know social structures from the inside out. In the early 1960s, Daniela Gsell followed him to southern Africa. She was appalled by the societal and political situation there.

Carl and Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell were married in 1963 and returned to Europe for good in 1964 shortly before the birth of their first of three children; they didn’t want their kids to grow up in the apartheid system. Carl Schlettwein had given up his German citizenship for “human and political reasons” after experiencing the World War II, and he finally left South Africa for similar reasons. Obtaining a residency permit in Switzerland for Carl Schlettwein, then a citizen of South Africa, was eventually made possible thanks to former Director of Tourism Paul Gutzwiller, who hired him within the Tourism Office.

Collecting activities in Switzerland – Basler Afrika Bibliographien
His collecting activities continued in Switzerland, and beginning in 1971 Carl Schlettwein could focus on work in the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, which was founded the same year in the medieval “Tscheggenbürlins Hus” at Klosterberg 21 in Basel, where the Carl Schlettwein Foundation is located today. This was made possible thanks to the work, care and resulting wealth of Margarethe and Rudolf Emil Gsell-Busse, parents of Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell; Mr. Gsell-Busse, who died in 1962, was a member of the General Board of Hoffmann-La Roche AG.

In addition to increasing acquisition and publishing activities and providing ongoing support to students, individuals and institutions in South Africa and Namibia, a good deal of effort was invested in developing scholarly structures focused on Africa. In this way, Carl Schlettwein cofounded the Swiss African Society and initiated the Geomethodological Colloquium with Professor Hartmut Leser. The Basler Afrika Bibliographien evolved into a scholarly archive and a specialty library on Namibia and southern Africa: the “Namibia Resource Centre – Southern Africa Library”.

Collaboration with the University of Basel was just a matter of time. In 1997, Carl Schlettwein was granted an honorary doctorate for his achievements on behalf of academic study of Africa. In 2001, the Carl Schlettwein Foundation initiated and funded the Chair of African Studies under Professor Patrick Harries, thus providing the basis for establishment of today’s African Studies programme at the University of Basel. Since 2005, the Centre for African Studies Basel has held a distinguished “Carl Schlettwein Lecture” each year.

Carl Schlettwein Foundation
The Carl Schlettwein Foundation was established in 1994 by Carl and Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell in consultation with and the blessing of their family, and given the mission of carrying on the Basler Afrika Bibliographien and promoting research on Africa, particularly Namibia. It provided a framework for continuation of the collections and expansion of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien’s role and activities as a scholarly archive, specialist library and documentation centre.

The original idea to name it the “Carl and Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell Foundation” was abandoned at the request of Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell. The Carl Schlettwein Foundation spans operation of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, fostering of academic engagement with southern Africa – both in Basel and internationally – and provision of support to students in southern Africa, bringing them together in a single institutional framework and thus making them independent of individuals.

In 2010, Dr. med. Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell stepped down from her post on the Board of Trustees. However, she continues to accompany and follow the activities of the Carl Schlettwein Foundation and the Basler Afrika Bibliographien with great dedication and keen interest.