- Women and National Socialism in Postwar German Literature: Gender, Memory, and Subjectivity by Katherine Stone
By Katherine Stone. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2017. ix + 242 pages. $90 hardcover, $24.99 e-book.
The post-World War II discourse often seems to have assumed the perpetrators of the Holocaust to be male. Women were generally seen as “die Opferfrau” (138) and the moral compass that the men ignored. Katherine Stone seeks to challenge this stereotype with her historical literary study. She is not the first to contest this myth. Along with Claudia Koonz’s “Mothers in the Fatherland” (1987) and Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies (2013), others (Hirsch, Hoffmann-Curtius, Heineman, Herzog) analyzed the role of women during the Third Reich from a historiographical perspective.
In her volume, Stone juxtaposes readings of three literary works by women that reproduce the “myth about women’s lesser culpability during the Third Reich” (139) with three feminist novels that challenge this attempt to create “non-Nazi spaces” [End Page 750] (ibid., Georgina Paul). She does approach the literary works “as reflections on the emotional and political stakes involved in confronting the full extent of women’s support for National Socialism and the Holocaust” (4). She does not treat them as historical sources; her aim is to show the importance of gender in Holocaust memory. In doing so, she aptly combines historiographical and literary analysis.
Stone divides her six chapters, framed by an introduction and an epilogue, into two parts. In the first, “The Gender of Fascism,” she analyses seminal feminist novels, Bachmann’s Malina (1971), Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster (1976), and Elisabeth Plessen’s Mitteilung an den Adel (1976), as examples of the—sometimes involuntary—perpetuation of the gendered accountability myth.
In investigating Bachmann, Stone outlines the author’s interest in antiauthoritarian politics and the incipient women’s movement, which led her to explore with her novel the atmosphere of repression in postwar Germany and Austria. She suggests that the ambiguous aesthetic of Bachmann’s prose encourages the reader to rethink the straightforward alignment of gender relations and fascism, but also notes that literature as a vehicle of cultural memory depends on the social context of its reception. While the first wave of feminist scholarship on Bachmann’s novel revealed the destructive male-female relationships in Bachmann’s novel, Stone concludes that this notion of women’s subordination overlooks their roles as Nazi perpetrators.
Christa Wolf, in her Frankfurt poetics lectures (1982), quotes Bachmann’s famous statement “Faschismus ist ein Wort für ein privates Verhalten.” Wolf was one of several East German authors in the 1970s who turned their view away from the state-sanctioned politico-economic structures of fascism to “der gewöhnliche Faschismus” (Heiner Müller). The narrow focus on societal structures, so Wolf, had obscured questions of individual agency (49). While Kindheitsmuster is an influential example of this turn, Stone notes the complicated configuration of gender. “Wolf explores the banality of good through the female characters” (50). Women perform private acts of resistance (e.g., seeing a Jewish doctor), which makes them the keepers of the moral high ground, and are additionally identified with the tropes of loss and victimhood.
Stone uses Plessen’s novel as an example of the androcentric Väterliteratur that sheds light on the ways in which the Third Reich was remediated in the 1960s and 1970s. Their authors drew connections between the punitive family milieu and the Nazi past. Mothers are almost always absent. Many were sympathetic to the 1968 student protests, as was Plessen. Despite their opposition to traditional family structures, none of the authors question the role of women during the Third Reich. In this, they are reflecting the societal reality of Germany in the 1960s.
In the second part, “Challenging the Victim–Perpetrator Binary,” Stone investigates more recent perspectives on women’s complicity in the Third Reich. One chapter each is dedicated to Gisela Elsner’s Fliegeralarm (1989), Tanja Dückers’s Himmelskörper (2003), and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung (2007).
Stone starts out with the enfant terrible of the 1980s West-German literary scene...