- German Women’s Life Writing and the Holocaust: Complicity and Gender in the Second World War by Elisabeth Krimmer
“Are history and literature strangers or bedfellows?” Ruth Klüger asked provocatively in the late 1990s. As scholarship on the intersections of literature, history, and memory of the Holocaust (including Klüger’s own) has made abundantly clear, a multi-disciplinary inquiry into this intricate relationship not only offers fruitful avenues for untangling and complicating narratives of past and present, but also diversifies our understanding of the scope of modern war and genocide.
A case in point is Elisabeth Krimmer’s thought-provoking new study. Krimmer, whose previous work has centered on representations of gender, war, and warfare in German-language literature from the eighteenth century on, turns her attention exclusively to World War II and the Holocaust and directs the reader towards women’s life writing of and about the period. Generally speaking, she sets out to explore if and how German women reflected in their writing on their own entanglement with a murderous regime. More specifically, by reading diaries, memoirs, docu-novels, and autobiographically-inspired novels by bystanders, and not “heroines or killers” (p. 11), Krimmer endeavors to elucidate female complicity and to recover German women’s multidimensional positions as enablers, supporters, and collaborators, at the same time examining how their complicity may have offset their own victimization (for example, as rape victims or refugees). She explores sensitive and controversial topics (e.g., sexual violence, German suffering), inviting the reader to probe binary approaches and pat dichotomies. Her critical writing is poised and clear, marked by an acute awareness of her own positionality from the vantage point of post-guilt: “with ‘post’ implying both a distance from the guilt of the previous generation and an inextricable involvement with it” (p. 22).
At the heart of Krimmer’s study lies the analysis of a large corpus of mostly unknown women’s voices, whose life writing is marked by what she calls a “grammar of complicity.” Accordingly, the texts’ narrative ruptures, conceptual and visual blind spots, and silences, can all be read as elements of “defensive reactions against the knowledge of belonging to a nation of perpetrators” (p. 18), and express the various ways “in which women supported Hitler’s regime even as they suffered under the war it had started” (p. 11). All six chapters, including the introduction, are meticulously researched, relying on a wealth of German- and English-language sources, which are documented in the detailed chapter endnotes and comprehensive bibliography. Each chapter lays out the respective historical contexts and discursive frameworks, relying “on historical studies but also on a theme-oriented [End Page 444] analysis of a large group of memories” followed by extensive interpretations of select works” (p. 17). The conclusion provides a succinct summary of Krimmer’s insights and the legacy of that grammar of complicity: “in parsing the motivations, rationales, and blind spots evident in these narratives, we become apt to interrogate our own society and lives for niches of complicity and for the nooks and crannies for denial” (p. 242).
While the introduction serves to illustrate themes and define key concepts (e.g., “life writing”), chapters two and three analyze the narrative strategies of women who, as army auxiliaries and nurses, actively participated in different ways and to varying degrees in the war effort. Chapter two, “Ruptured Narratives: German Women and Hitler’s Army,” focuses on five different narratives by Lore Vogt, Hanna Reitsch, Hildegard Gartmann, and Ilse Schmidt; Krimmer detects in their writings “attitudes ranging from blanket denial to remorseful reflection” (p. 60), with narrative ruptures manifesting themselves, for example, “in non-sequiturs and logical contradictions, fragmented thoughts and elisions, abrupt shifts in focus and tone” (p. 39). Chapter three, “Cropped Vision: Nursing in the Second World War,” dismantles the postwar literary glorification of Nazi medicine and of the nurse as “the angel in white” by focusing on army nurses as well as inmate nurses and physicians...