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  • Ambiguities of Assimilation:Silesians and Poles in the Late Nineteenth-Century Berlin Novel
  • David S. Johnson

Berlin as capital of the newly unified German empire in the late nineteenth century had transformed into a multi-ethnic metropolis. Polish and Silesian migrants in particular captured the popular imagination of city residents. Berliners, for instance, upon seeing the trains arrive from the east, filled with Poles, Russians, Czechs, and Silesian Germans, would complain, “Schon wieder n’ Haufen Polacken” (Düspohl 197). The industrialist Walther Rathenau quipped that “die meisten Berliner sind aus Posen und die übrigen aus Breslau” (40). This formulation recalled another common expression of the era, namely that “jeder zweite Berliner stammt aus Schlesien” (Erbe 696). Despite this popular fascination with eastern immigrants, most Berlin novels of the era largely overlook them. Instead, these texts primarily explore the socio-economic and cultural ramifications of the city’s growth for native Berliners and new German residents in the city.

Three late nineteenth-century novels, Julius Rodenberg’s Die Grandidiers. Ein Roman aus der französischen Kolonie (1879), Theodor Fontane’s Irrungen, Wirrungen (1887), and Fritz Mauthner’s Kraft (1894), stand apart from the typical focus of Berlin novels and provide significant depictions of “eastern immigrants,” namely Silesians and Poles. Although only Fontane today remains known to most scholars and readers in general, all three authors were well-known and prolific chroniclers of Berlin’s rapid development in the late nineteenth century. Each migrated as a young adult to Berlin and became engaged in the literary and cultural life of the city. Fontane was both a theatre critic and novelist, and Rodenberg was the long-time editor of the Deutsche Rundschau, the monthly periodical that became under his leadership one of Germany’smost influential publications about culture and literature. Mauthner published multiple Berlin novels and works on the philosophy of language. Together, these authors’ novels offer significant explorations of the complex array of ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic discourses endemic to this era regarding immigration from Germany’s eastern territories and questions about assimilation within the specific context of Berlin.

Germany’s eastern territories pose dilemmas for clear conceptualizations of ethnic identity because of their mixed populations of Germans, Poles, and other groups. Scholars of ethnicity generally define ethnic identity as a social construct [End Page 483] that arises out of a “belief in a putative shared ancestry” that is reinforced by shared stories, rituals, and traditions (Conversi 134). In Germany’s eastern territories, however, ethnic Germans and Poles interacted, intermarried, and shared similar if not the same local traditions, all of which counteracted official efforts to distinguish neatly between Germans and Poles (Traba 42). In addition, as these three novels all make clear, socio-economic factors could contribute significantly to conceptions of ethnic identity. Fontane’s Silesian carriage driver, for example, is presumably an ethnic German, but his economic hardships in Berlin implicitly exacerbate his efforts to self-affiliate with Berlin. Rodenberg’s and Mauthner’s novels, in turn, preserve a middle-class notion of ethnic identity based on key cultural virtues such as hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, and moral beliefs. The Polish Frau Brandt and her ethnically ambiguous husband in Rodenberg’s novel and the Polish characters in Mauthner’s text initially seem to lack such values and thus remain distinct from Germans. In other words, German is as a middle-class German does. Such conflation of ethnicity with cultural values was not uncommon, as Danielle Conversi argues, especially because “culture is necessarily based on tradition and continuity” (134–35). This conceptual convergence, as we shall see in the following, however, unwittingly leaves room for a greater potential for assimilation because immigrants, through demonstration of shared values, can transcend ethnic classification and become like those in the majority society.

Although none of these texts directly reference the word assimilation, each implicitly assesses the prospects for such a process and its outcomes for the eastern immigrant. At this time, popular and literary discourses largely focused on Jewish assimilation. Scholarship by Wolfgang Benz and Henry Remak on Fontane’s Berlin novels and private writings as well as by Katherine Roper and Jörg Thuneke on Mauthner’s Der neue Ahasver (1882), a...


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