German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism

GermanLitMy third review for German Literature Month, organised and hosted for the fourth year in a row by Caroline and Lizzy, is a non-fiction book.  In fact, it’s one that I first read about on Caroline’s blog – so many thanks, Caroline, for bringing it to my attention!

verboten_-_verfemt_-_vertrieben-9783423346115Edda Ziegler’s ‘Verboten Verfemt Vertrieben’ (‘Forbidden/Ostracised/Banned’, sadly, only available in German) is a fascinating study of German-speaking women writers (many of them of Jewish origin, as one might expect) of the 1920/30s who were banned in Germany following the rise of the Nazis. I cannot quite do the book justice, as there are so many authors featured in it, as well as a discussion of the German literary scene during the Weimar Republic, WW2 and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it is encyclopedic, very well documented but also written in a lively, accessible manner.

Some of the women were well-known both then and now (Nelly Sachs, Else Lasker-Schüler, Anna Seghers), while others have drifted into obscurity (Mascha Kaléko, Hermynia Zur Mühlen, Rose Ausländer). The author follows their personal and literary journey across borders and oceans, overcoming language barriers, discrimination, prejudice and, in some cases, far too much self-sacrifice for the sake of their male partners.

‘They’ve  burnt my soul, destroyed my life, my youth, my sense of joy, they’ve extinguished my whole identity like a storm extinguishes a flame’ is how Hertha Nathorff, doctor and writer, describes the actions of the Nazis. There were three possible reactions to the persecutions they suffered: direct resistance, going into exile or committing to ‘inner exile’ (silence). Most of the women opted for the flight to another country, but there were few countries willing to accept them, so their life became one of endless waiting, false hopes and transient places.

‘Well, there were the wives…’ is the answer a German writer gave when he was asked how he managed to survive in exile. And the original phrase in German doesn’t sound like a loving testimony of eternal gratitude (‘Nun, man hatte ja eine Frau…’) but a cynical, throwaway statement of entitlement. The wives (or mistresses) were the ones who made the effort to learn the new language, gather together all the necessary paperwork, handle all the day-to-day administrative hassles, find a place to stay, make sure the family were clothed, shod, fed and sent to school, worry about the family members left behind and investigate in which country they could find refuge next, work in low-paid jobs for which they were blatantly overqualified so as to support the husband’s attempts to continue their careers. Under these circumstances, it is surprising that the women kept on writing: a true testament to their resilience, creativity and desire to ‘bear witness’.

This book might be worth a read next...
This book might be worth a read next…

However, many of the individual stories – almost all of them, in fact – are sad. Some women died in concentration camps (Gertrud Kolmar) or barely survived in Gurs, a camp for ‘aliens’ in the French Pyrenees (Adrienne Thomas, Käthe Hirsch). Most of the women were disillusioned, disappointed, felt an acute sense of loss. A few of the women suffered mental breakdowns: Nelly Sachs (paranoia), Irmgard Keun (alcoholism). Bertolt Brecht’s ‘harem’ of seduced, exploited and abandoned women – who collaborated with the playwright but were never acknowledged as co-authors – came as a complete surprise and shock to me.

Even before 1933, women’s literature had been disparaged in Germany, was certainly not quite on equal footing with that of the men. Many of these women had nevertheless enjoyed quite a bit of success with their writing. Yet even the strong, independent women who were committed to making a new creative life for themselves abroad were punished for their audacity. They lost their mother tongue, their most critical artistic tool, as well as the support of the publishing houses. Their ‘European’ writing style was not appreciated in Hollywood, although at least one of them, Vicki Baum, was reasonably successful there. However, she always considered her second career as a scriptwriter to be a ‘temporary breadwinning solution’, of questionable literary merit. Gina Kaus was also able to support her family with her earnings as a scriptwriter, but thought of herself as a ‘sell-out, a failure’, having lost the spark and motivation which led her to become the darling of the Viennese café culture. Even Hilde Spiel, the Austrian writer who became a journalist in Britain and published a number of books in English before returning to Vienna via Germany and becoming a ‘grande dame of German-speaking culture’, felt  that her career had taken a hit in exile and that she was never quite able to build on her earlier successes.

From Uni Potsdam archive.
From Uni Potsdam archive.

Outwardly, at least, Anna Seghers seems to come off lightly. She was active both politically and culturally while in exile in Mexico, producing some of her most poignant work during her years abroad. Moreover, as a committed Communist, she was welcomed with open arms in the GDR after the war (although it transpires that she would have preferred to settle in France, but was refused a visa). She won numerous prizes and honours in the 1960s/70s.  Dig a little deeper and her victories look a little more tarnished. She was the main breadwinner (as well as organiser, administrator, cook, cleaner) for her family throughout those difficult years, her husband having been described by some contemporaries as ‘Anna’s eighth cross’, an allusion to her novel ‘The Seventh Cross’. Although he also worked as a political agitator and teacher at the Workers’ University in Mexico, most of his work was unpaid, and he proved to be completely useless with any practical, everyday matters. He also had countless affairs and left Anna as soon as he established a foothold for himself in Mexico. When Anna returned to Europe after the war, she assumed that her husband would follow. He only came five years later, in 1952, accompanied by an American lover.  They never divorced and she supported his lover after his death, despite the fact that from the mid-60s onwards she herself was fragile and frequently hospitalised.

Aside from the very moving personal stories, Ziegler also discusses the rise of women writers in the rather patriarchal German literary world and makes many interesting observations about publishing then and now. For instance, even back in the 1920s there was much lamenting about a ‘book crisis’: inflation and depression, the fall of the ‘cultured’ bourgeoisie, the lure of the new media meant, according to famous German publisher Fischer, ‘that books have become the most dispensable objects of daily life… People do sports, go dancing, spend their evening hours in front of the radio or at the cinema, are busy with their working life, and never find time to read a book.’

Ziegler also discusses hitherto taboo subjects such as why most of the exiled writers chose to return to the GDR rather than West Germany after the war (if they returned at all). She contrasts the more openly welcoming attitude of East Germany with the suspicions and reservations shown by the Austrians and West Germans for their exiled writers. This only changed after the 1968 generation confronted their parents’ generation about their individual and collective guilt during the war, while the rise of feminism gave a new impetus to read voices which had previously been silenced.

All in all, a fantastic book which really shook me beyond all my expectations, and which provided me with many fresh insights. Plus a lot of new additions to my reading list, although it is doubtful that many of them are easily available, certainly not outside Germany.

 

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15 thoughts on “German Women Writers Fighting Against National Socialism”

    1. I do wish it would get translated into English, but, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it will: it’s far too specialised a book for that. Perhaps some chapters of it? An abridged version? That would be fantastic!

  1. This book sounds absolutely fascinating and very sobering. Having just read Transit, I’m especially interested in Anna Seghers, but I hadn’t appreciated the detail behind her marriage. Many thanks for this review – let’s hope this book gets translated at some point.

    1. There’s a great quote from Seghers in a letter to a comrade, who was asking for more ‘active commitment’ from her: ‘Since you are a famous man, you get your buttons sewed on by women, your children fed, clothed and educated, your letters typed. Nobody does that for me, you have to bear that in mind – unofficially, as a friend…’

  2. I’m so glad you felt the same about this book. It made a huge impression on me. I got quite a few books after havinfg read this. All of those stories are sad, as you write. Some writers were more resilient than others but nonetheless it was a huge blow and life in exile was a nightmare for many. Being a writer and not have language to express yourself anymore must have been twice as hard.
    Thanks for a great review.

  3. This sounds like a fascinsting important book. The detail on Anna Seghers was very interesting. I wish this work and more of Seghers would be translated. Tanks for this excellent post.

    1. It’s quite hard to get hold of the women writers mentioned in this book – even in German, I have to admit. I’ve just spent a bit of time trying to find second-hand editions of their works.

  4. Marina Sofia – This sounds absolutely fantastic! It shines a light on an important consequence of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and this is one aspect that a lot of people may not have been aware of before. I do hope it gets translated soon. My German is pathetic at the very best.

    1. I’d never realised just how dramatic the loss of language and worldview was to these women writers. I think nowadays it’s somewhat easier to reinvent yourself in another country even as a writer (plus the internet makes it easier to reach your home audience anyway).

  5. This is the first I’ve heard of this book, but it will go on top of my wish list. It does sound very interesting and right up my alley. I just finished a book by Irmgard Keun and have a Seghers book waiting for me. Thanks for your review!

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