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Helene Stöcker's Pacifism in the Weimar Republic: Between Ideal and Reality
Kurt Hiller's description of Helene Stöcker on her sixtieth birthday aptly summarized the markers along her intellectual path and alluded to the complexity of her thought: "Helene Stöcker stands, generally speaking, at the point where a radical liberalism whose path was prepared by the eighteenth century, by the Romanticists, by Nietzsche, and modified by Tolstoy-Gandhi-Rolland collides with Marxism just before it turns off toward anarchism." 1 While her reputation has been revised in recent decades, this important German women's rights and peace activist continues to challenge us to understand her work and locate her influence. Early studies that rediscovered Stöcker focused on her biography, while later attempts to locate her work in the spectrum of political activism during the Weimar Republic debated whether she ought to be counted among the radicals. Still other studies suggested that her work with eugenicists was not without later consequence. Controversial assessments of Stöcker's work for women's reproductive rights and sex reform have undergone revision, and recent studies have begun to examine her pacifist positions more closely. 2 What motivated her pacifism? She collaborated with activists from a wide spectrum, and her own positions seem to have shifted. Her most fundamental pacifist convictions were those of the tiny group of absolutist pacifists, and because these stood little chance of general acceptance in the Weimar Republic, she found herself in a space of "discrepancy between ideal and reality." 3
Helene Stöcker's Biography
As the eldest of eight children, Helene Stöcker was born into a pious, middle-class family on 13 November 1869, in Elberfeld, Germany. Her father, Peter Heinrich Ludwig Stöcker, had given up his desire to be a missionary to take over the family textile business. Bible readings and daily prayers were routine in the Stöcker household, and this pietistic influence led Stöcker finally to reject her religion. Unable to give an honest public affirmation of faith at her religious confirmation, she stood by her convictions and remained silent. Yet there remained in Stöcker a remnant of her father's religious integrity that influenced her personal religious decisions and later defined her most deeply held values. Though she questioned her parents' orthodoxy, she attributed her strong sense of charity and justice to their early influence. 4 [End Page 70]
Family expectations and conditions affected Stöcker as well. Her mother, Hulda Bergmann Stöcker, came from a peasant family, and, with eight children (five of whom reached adulthood), she had little time to develop a close nurturing relationship with them. When complications related to the birth of her only son required bed rest, Helene's mother passed essential household responsibilities to her eldest daughter. This responsibility, along with Stöcker's generally tense relationship with her mother, prompted her to think about the constraints reproduction placed on women and their development as individuals. 5 She also cited Gretchen's tragedy in German dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust as leaving a deep impression on her and influencing her later activism in opposition to the traditional double standard of sexual mores for women and men, and in support of women's sexual enlightenment. 6 A voracious reader, she developed a sense of independent thought and action, which led her to attend a teacher's seminary in 1890. It was at this time that she had her first introduction to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which gave her the intellectual support for her ultimate break with her family's dogmatism, leading her to move to Berlin despite her father's objections. 7
Once in Berlin, Stöcker joined the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft (German Peace Society, DFG) at its founding meeting in 1892, and heard Austrian baroness and writer Bertha von Suttner give a public reading from her novel, Die Waffen nieder. Having read the baroness' anti-war novel, this event was...