Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned – German Women Writers Under National Socialism

Edda Ziegler’s fantastic book on German women writers under National Socialism Verboten – Verfemt – Vertrieben (Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned) was easily my favourite read this year. I hope that some English language editor will buy the rights to this book and have it translated. It’s an introduction to the most prominent German women writers under National Socialism, a detailed historical account of the times and an analysis of publishing history.

Edda Ziegler is a professor of German Literature and non-fiction writer. Unlike some academics she manages to write in an engaging way and still offers a world of information.

The book is divided into 7 chapters which are dedicated to different aspects of the life of women writers before and after National Socialism. Each chapter contains stories of different writers and at least three more elaborate biographies as examples.

Chapter 1 looks at the so-called Asphaltliteratur, just before 1933. Vicki Baum, Mascha Kaleko and Irmgard Keun are the chosen examples. Asphaltliteratur was a term applied by the Third Reich to denigrate modern literature “without value”, meaning not popular and nationalist enough. The three writers were successful before the Nazis came to power and stayed relatively successful and famous until today. Vicki Baum fled to the US very early where she led quite a glamorous life. These women were considered to write “Unterhaltungsliteratur” – literature of escapism – because they wrote about the life of women. Edda Ziegler shows very well, that it was far more difficult for German women to be taken seriously as writers as for men. The situation was very different in England or the US.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to those writers whose books were burned by the Nazis, like Annette Kolb, Erika Mann and Gertrud Kolmar.

Chapter 3 looks into the ways that lead women into exile. Prominent examples are Else Lasker-Schüler, Grete Weil, Veza Canetti and Hermynia Zur-Mühlen. This was one of the most gripping chapters. Many writers dedicated themselves to help others flee. There are some astonishing acts of heroism mentioned. Varian Fry, an American journalist, is mentioned quite often. Together with German authors, like Lisa Fittko who wrote a memoir about this time, he helped numerous authors to flee from France to unoccupied Morocco and the US and the UK. After 1933, many emigtared to the Netherlands and France but when the war broke out that wasn’t safe anymore. Some emigrated to the UK and the US, Anna Seghers and some other communist writers went to Mexico.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to life in exile. Gina Kaus, Hertha Narthorff and the women around Bertold Brecht (Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin, Ruth Berlau) illustrate this aspect. Some authors like the Manns were able to make the most of life in exile and there were some interesting author’s colonies in the US.

Chapter 5 tells about the trauma for writers to lose their native language. Anna Seghers, the writers in the concentration camp Gurs and Nelly Sachs are mentioned in-depth. Erika Mann was one of the rare examples who started writing in English but many of the others struggled incredibly. And even if they managed after a while, it was hard and the loss was always felt.

Chapter 6 contains examples of women who went into an interior exile. Ricarda Huch and Marieluise Fleisser are the two examples. These women simply withdrew from life around them and lived apart and on their own.

Chapter 7 which is called “estranged” looks into life after 1945. Some women returned to Germany, many stayed abroad. The biographies of Hilde Domin and Rose Ausländer exemplify these two possibilities.

The book is written in an engaging way, many of the biographies are incredibly tragic but most are testimonies of astonishing resilience. Edda Ziegler has managed to get rid of the myth of the helpless German women writers. Most of her biographies show that women did cope far better in exile than men. They were more ingenious than their male colleagues. Contrary to what was generally believed, far less women committed suicide. Even before 1933 women writers were always forced to take care of their families,to assure that everyone was fed and clothed, they were used to survive writing and working in parallel. They even started to sew and type to make a living without making a fuss like so many of their husbands or partners.

The most tragic examples for me were those who were already elderly when the Nazis came to power and those who were incapable of learning another language. Even some women who emigrated to Palestine encountered these difficulties.

Sure, some women didn’t survive, the interior exile could become the last step before madness and a few women committed suicide but, overall, I think this book carries a message of hope. It shows us that women are capable of being active, creative and to survive under the most dreadful circumstances. Needless to say that I ended up with a long list of books I’d like to read. A few have been translated and some of those I’d like to mention here.

Anna Seghers who is famous for The Seventh Cross, wrote a book while she was in transit in the South of France. It is called Transit and seems to be one of the most accomplished accounts of this painful chapter of the life of those who left Germany. Fellow writers like Erich Weiss who tragically committed suicide in Paris when the Germans occupied the city are mentioned. The book had a somewhat turbulent history as Seghers who returned from exile to live in East Germany had added some criticism of communism. Transit will be reissued in May 2013 by the NYRB.

Hilde Spiel’s novel The Darkened Room (Lisas Zimmer) sounds like one of the most interesting ones and I hope to be able to read it soon. Set in New York it tells the story of various immigrants who cannot or do not want to return to Germany. Hilde Spiel was Austrian and spent the war years in London. She has published memoirs which all seem available in English as well.

Before ending this lengthy post I’d like to mention two very interesting parts which were dedicated to the wife of Elias Canetti, Veza Canetti, and the women around Bertold Brecht like Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau. These were very enlightening pieces as they showed those men in a less than favourable light. Brecht really didn’t apply any socialist ideas while he was reigning over his harem. While he had a sexual relationship with all of the women in the beginning of their relationship, he soon abandoned each woman for another one. The weird thing is, that they all stayed and worked for him. A lot of his writings should be attributed to the one or the other woman around him. Exile reinforced this dependency. Brecht preached “non-possession” and equality but this meant, de facto, that they all contributed to his work without any rights or without ever being thanked and mentioned.

I could write much more but I will stop here. I’ve mentioned a few of the important names, those who read German will easily find their books and some may be available in English too. The novels of Irmgard Keun and Vicki Baum, both successful then and now, are still available and highly recommended reading.

44 thoughts on “Forbidden – Ostracized – Banned – German Women Writers Under National Socialism

  1. This sounds amazing and I’ve noted it down just in case it ever gets translated (I hope it does!) I find reading about female authors, especially in difficult circumstances interesting because there is always another dimension to their difficulties (i.e. their gender) which throws a light onto the social arena of that particular period.

    • I agree and in this case I thought it was especially amazing that they were so much more capable than the male writers who were quite helpless. I think a book like this would find many English speaking readers.

  2. I think I would really like this one. I hope you’re right and it does get translated. You don’t hear much about famous women during this time period. Leni Riefenstahl is the only name that comes to mind.

      • I’ve heard her say that she wasn’t political and that she was an artist. Maybe that makes her feel better, but not sure many people actually believe her. Her films for the Nazis were pure propaganda in my book.

          • I would really like to believe that I would have been stronger than that. I know a lot of people turned a blind eye to survive and I can’t fault people for that. But to actively participate in the Nazi propaganda–hopefully that would have been too much for me. I’ll never know of course and thank goodness about that.

            • You know that the German’s call this “Die Gnade der späten Geburt” – “The grace of being born too late” which means not having to test yourself and your convictions. A good way of putting it.

              • I’ll have to remember that one. An excellent way of stating the fact. It is so easy for me to say what I wouldn’t do and such, but I wasn’t there. No one’s convictions should have been tested like that. Such a horrible part of history and unfortunately it isn’t the only time such atrocities were perpetrated by a government. Humans don’t learn from history as much as they should.

                • I certainly agree, that’s why so much of history is repeated.
                  I wish I would have been strong, left the country or joined the resistance but I don’t know it for sure.

  3. I know that I woul really like to read this, so I hope it makes it to translation. I have a couple of Keun novels here and just looked up Vicky Baum. Here’s the synopsis of Hotel Berlin:

    The story takes place circa 1943-1944, Nazi-Gestapo Headquarters.
    “Here is a Berlin luxury hotel, like its famous prototype still crowded with fascinating guests but drastically changed under a war-torn Nazi regime. Headquarters of the Gestapo, home of international parasites, Nazi officials, and the elite of Hitler’s Reich, is a microcosm of the brutality and hysterical fear raging behind the steel walls.”

    Good thing she fled Germany.

    • I have read another of her novels which is also set in a hotel- Grand Hotel, I think Emma is reading it right now. I like her very much, she is a clever writer. Perceptive. She wouldn’t have survived if she hadn’t fled.
      Who knows, a review like this might inspire an editor.

  4. Very interesting (how bland a comment that seems when talking about something as gripping as what you’re discussing!). I hope someday to get the time to do even one-fourth of what you’re reading and reviewing for “Beauty Is A Sleeping Cat.” You must read 24 hours a day!

    • I hope you can find a few of them. Some should be available, some may be out of print meanwhile. I’ve bought quite a few of the books mentioned (in German) and hope to get to them soon. At least it was great to see that most of them are still read and published in Germany and not only the famous ones like Seghers and Keun.

  5. This seems like a very interesting book. Hope it gets translated soon. Your point about certain women unable to learn a new language in a new land brought to mind a poignant story set during the partition of India where a woman, similarly, can only converse with her parrot as the people round her do not understand her dialect.

    Things continue to be tough but here’s a review of Franz Kafka’s America which I found quite interesting.

    http://inkquilletc.blogspot.in/2012/11/the-man-who-disappeared-franz-kafkas.html

    • I think losing your possibility to communicate must be one of the most painful experiences.
      I guess there must have been a lot of painful stories like this after the partition.

  6. Verboten – Verfemt – Vertrieben sounds great. I love history and like many am very interested in this particular time and place and I love literature. The history of literature can be especially fascinating.

    Of course the NAZIs, like many of history’s oppressors, quickly went after writers.

    • I didn’t really write about the reasons why these women had to flee. Mayn were Jewish but a lot were not. It’s just like you said, totalitarian governments erase the artists they cannot instrumentalize.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I hope you can find it and will like it as much as I did. I think it’s very well done, informative but suspenseful too and leads you to so many other books and writers.

  7. It does sound like a fascinating subject. I’ve read Vicki Baum and Irmgard Keun both excellent. I don’t consider ‘Grand Hotel’ escapism only. We will never know what other books would have been written if not for the Nazis.

    • It is, very fascinating. I agree, I don’t consider Vicki to be a writer of escapism at all. It is what they called her novels at the time as anything from a more female perspective was considered minor. There was this comment during last year’s GLM that German literature was dominated by men and this book explains the reasons why very well.

    • Thanks, Patty, I hope you can find it. It’s one of the best books on that time period and so importnat as the women writers are often not mentioned as much as their male colleagues. There were so many talented women writing during those dark times.

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  9. What a wonderful post, Caroline. I did not know about many of these writers, so am glad you called attention to them. I too hope the book will be translated.
    It’s much harder to learn a new language when you’re an adult. What a terrible thing to not be able to communicate when you’re a writer! As if their war experiences weren’t bad enough.

    • Thansk, Carole. Yes, I hope an editor sees this post. It could happen. I think it would find many readers.
      I had never thought about the language aspect. Being multi-lingual myself I didn’t think how horrible it must be . And for a writer especially. Speaking and understanding another language is far easier than writing it.

  10. Wonderful post, Caroline! This looks like quite a fascinating book. As you have written, I hope it gets translated into English. I would like to read it. More new authors for my ‘TBR’ list 🙂

  11. Blast, it’s not available in French. Now I really wish I could read in German.
    I’m keeping your entry for future reference as you listed a lot of women writers there. Perhaps I’ll like female German writers more than I like the male ones I’ve read.
    Vicki Baum is excellent. Billet to come in December I hope.

    • I have no idea whether non-fiction books have good chnaces of being translated? I loved it. It was so well done.
      I’m really glad you like Vicki Baum. Yes, there are a lot of names worth looking up and most of them didn’t even focus on WWII.
      I bought one book which looks really interesting, the memoors of Annette Kolb. I started reading a bit and could imagine that would be something for you too.

  12. This sounds wonderful–pity it isn’t translated, but at least some of the authors the book mentions are available in English. I’ve got a couple of books by Irmgard Keun on my reading pile and really do need to read Vicki Baum (why are women’s books so often considered escapist reading!). My library has a 1944 edition of Transit, so I will have to go grab it and take a look at it. Quite impressive that it is your favorite read of the year (and I totally understand how difficult it is to write about nonfiction reads–impossible to talk about everything but perhaps just give a flavor of the book).

    • I could hardly put it down. I really liked it a lot. I’m absolutely sure you will like Vicki Baum.
      It was quite upsetting to read how all the literature coming from women with female characters was called escapist. Reviewing non-fcition is as tricky as reviewing anthologies.
      I think Transit should be a very good book. I liked her The Seventh Cross a lot.

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