glossen: artikel
  Women Revisit the “Third Reich:” Autobiographical Writings by Melita Maschmann, Christa Wolf, and Eva Zeller
Caroline Schaumann

In 1947, Karl Jaspers idealistically proclaimed that the Holocaust “makes us [Germans] instructive for the others. It concerns all.”{1} My question is whether Germans have indeed taken the opportunity to bear witness to their misdeeds; have their inquiries, in fact, been instructive for other countries and for future generations?

In her work Bilder des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, feminist scholar Sigrid Weigel responds in the negative to my question. According to Weigel, National Socialism has commonly been investigated by intellectuals, experts, and those who were persecuted by the regime, but not by “ordinary” Germans. Whereas the category of Germans as perpetrators has been constructed from the outside, Germans themselves have not yet acknowledged such roles: “So ist die Position der Täter im Gedächtnis des Nationalsozialismus bis heute weitgehend eine Leerstelle geblieben.”{2}

My paper challenges Weigel’s argument by analyzing autobiographical writings by three contemporaries of the Nazi era: Melita Maschmann’s Fazit: Kein Rechtfertigungsversuch, Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster, and Eva Zeller’s Solange ich denken kann and Nein und Amen. Contrary to Weigel’s thesis, these authors attempt to acknowledge their status as perpetrators and struggle with the question of guilt. Although their approaches and perspectives differ immensely, all three women express ambivalence in the encounter with their Nazi pasts and confront a former self they had learned to reject.

Melita Maschmann, who as the former head of the Department for Press and Propaganda of the BDM had been a fairly influential figure in Nazi Germany, dedicated her unusual autobiography to a former Jewish friend and titled it originally Fazit: Kein Rechtfertigungsversuch (1963). And indeed, throughout the text Maschmann continues to assert that her book is not an attempt to justify her role in Nazi Germany. (“Fürchte nicht, daß ich mich rechtfertigen will…”).{3} But Maschmann’s title is revealing as the repeated negations such as kein and nicht leave the impression that she is indeed writing against something, thus in fact defending herself. Thus, Maschmann’s book emerges as an answer to unspoken accusations.

Not only Maschmann’s subtitle, but her main title is disconcerting; even when she later renamed her book Fazit: Mein Weg in der Hitlerjugend, she kept the first part of the original title, Fazit. To make a Fazit, i.e., to draw a conclusion, to sum up results, requires Maschmann to have distance from her subject. With the term Fazit Maschmann implies that she is now speaking from a position of a detached observer who has “mastered” her past and can evaluate her role in Nazi Germany objectively.

In Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster (1976), on the other hand, the narrator makes her own fascination with fascism a central concern. The narrator regards her patterns of obedience as representative of her generation, but rather than accusing others, she confronts Nazi ideology in herself. Wolf’s work also blurs the traditional boundaries between novel and autobiography. While she calls her book “a novel,” and uses the name “Nelly” and the third person singular “sie” to speak of her past self and “du” to interrogate the present self, the book is based on autobiographical material, and the narrator discusses the difficulty of saying I.{4} A character like Nelly had formerly hardly been acknowledged and much less been portrayed in postwar German literature, which contributes to the narrator’s difficulty of accepting her childhood self.

Perhaps inspired by Wolf’s work (in 1979 Kindheitsmuster was published in the FRG) a number of women’s autobiographical reflections on National Socialism were published in West Germany in the 1980s, among them Eva Zeller‘s autobiographical novels Solange ich denken kann: Roman einer Jugend (1981) and Nein und Amen (1986).{5} Zeller’s works take a stand similar to that of Christa Wolf, but her experience with fascism is overshadowed by an abusive father-daughter relationship: she enthusiastically embraced Nazi ideology in order to distance herself from her father. As does Wolf, Zeller calls her book a “novel,” and distinguishes between author, narrator, and character. She also speaks in the third person about her childhood-self, but splits her protagonist into “Eva” and “E-M,” depending on the context. Zeller uses either “das Kind” or her first name “Eva” for her childhood-self, but when speaking from the perspective of her father, she uses his name for her, namely only the abbreviated letters E-M.

By taking responsibility for their actions and their thinking, all three women writers deconstruct the myth of women as passive victims of history, albeit in different ways. Whereas Maschmann reexamines the active role she played in Nazi Germany, Wolf deconstructs the binarisms of public (male) and private (female) sphere and Zeller recounts her past under the influence of an extremely patriarchal father.

Of the three authors, Melita Maschmann was unquestionably the most active participant in Nazi politics. Sigrid Weigel points out that women became perpetrators especially in so-called women’s professions, as caretakers, educators, nurses, and health and social workers.{6} Maschmann helped German families get settled and start a life in the occupied Polish territories. By urging people to speak German, teaching them German culture, instructing them in daily hygiene, and caring for German babies, Maschmann worked in all the professions named above, all the while turning Poles out of their homes. Maschmann remembers these incidents selectively, stressing her (mostly silent) acts of resistance and feelings of unease: “Ich habe mich lange geprüft, aber ich meine sagen zu dürfen, daß ich die Polen nicht gehaßt habe.”{7} Again, Maschmann assumes the position of a neutral analyst who has successfully examined herself. But her conclusion that she did not hate Poles is prefaced by the words “ich meine sagen zu dürfen.” I argue that this extremely careful and cumbersome introduction indicates her own insecurity about this matter.

Although Maschmann does acknowledge her role as a female perpetrator, Wolf’s and Zeller’s works go much further. Characterized by a higher degree of self-reflection, they do not assume a unified, homogeneous subject and by incorporating contemporary feminist approaches, politicizing Alltagsgeschichte, and including sexuality, they provide a woman’s perspective on man’s history.

In Wolf’s novel, a genealogy of mothers—the protagonist’s grandmother, her mother, and the narrator as a mother—are the agents of history. Discontinuing the tradition of men’s exclusive claim to the war experience, Wolf recounts the specific effects of war on women and men with an emphasis on women’s experience. Her work deliberately contributes to women’s history, often contrasting the female narrator’s perspective with that of her brother Lutz. But Wolf does not presume a stereotypical male or female experience: rather she revokes the dichotomy of the male war-at-the front experience and the female experience at home. Far from existing in an apolitical, isolated sphere at home, the protagonist Nelly is confronted by the war on many different levels: at home in conversations among her parents; at school; away from home as a refugee; and, finally, upon the return of her father from the front. These examples reveal that the war experience and war remembrance cannot be divided into a private (female) and public (male) sphere; rather there is a constant interaction between private and public, male and female, past and present.

Eva Zeller specifically illustrates her experiences of growing up female in the “Third Reich,” remembering, for instance, the onset of her period, the unpleasant experience of a visit to a gynecologist, and her fear of a stranger stalking her. Eva lives with her divorced mother, but suffers under endless criticism from her father on her enforced visitations and in his letters addressed to her mother. Eva, belittled about her behavior and appearance, grows up to be someone she does not like: “Der Spiegel im Schrankraum zeigt mir ein Mädchen, das ich nicht sein will.”{8} Her father, though a determined Nazi-opponent, exerts his power as a stern patriarch: “Nichts Dümmeres unter der Sonne als verliebte Weiber! Ein Vatersatz. Und das sagt einer, der auf nicht mehr aus ist als auf verliebte Weiber.”{9} This attitude not only discriminates against women with words, but also literally puts his daughter in danger. When Eva’s father leaves his daughter with an “acquaintance” who is supposed to take her to the ballet, this person locks the 16-year-old into his room and attempts to rape her. To escape such restrictive patriarchal traditions, Eva turns to National Socialism, and she even fantasizes about reporting her hated father to the authorities. The narrator in Zeller is still so involved in the relationship to her father that it becomes all-consuming, dominating her experience of the “Third Reich” and narrowing her perspective.

Whereas Wolf emphasizes the connectedness of private and public sphere, the narrator in Zeller more critically evaluates her own withdrawal into the private sphere. Her focus on Alltagsgeschichte reveals the ignorance of this Alltag:

Ich backe meine Plätzchen ab. Man kann sich getrost vorstellen, das ich das Radio abschalte und beim Weiterbacken Weihnachtslieder singe oder summe. Wenn Frau Schmaus zu Hause ist, läuft der Volksempfänger immer. Am Sonntagmorgen des 7. Dezember meldet der Sprecher, daß Deutschland und Italien den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika den Krieg erklärt haben, wie mein Vater es im Sommer prophezeit hat. Ich backe gehaltvolle Plätzchen…{10}

For Eva, the kitchen becomes a refuge protected from the harsh reality. Linking politics, namely the outbreak of a world war, to the insights of her hated father, she does not contemplate the issue further but dismisses it altogether. But I argue that the narrator’s insistence in a private sphere obscures and covers up her public involvement in the BDM. Perhaps she is upholding the binarisms of private and public precisely in order not to reevaluate her active participation in Nazi politics. Whereas Maschmann attempts to justify her role in Nazi Germany overtly, Zeller does it more on a covert level. Wolf, on the other hand, focuses on breaking down boundaries and oppositions.

It is also revealing to compare dichotomies of self and other in the three texts. As Alice Miller has argued, Germans perceived themselves as good and pure by linking adverse traits to the image of “the Other,” i.e. “the Jew.” Indeed, in Kindheitsmuster, Nelly‘s image of “the Jew” contains all associations that invoke disgust in the child, including an unpleasant encounter with an exhibitionist:

Heikel bis heute, der Verbindung nachzugehen, die sich damals zwischen dem namenlosen Judenjungen, den Nelly durch Leo Siegmann kannte und der weißen Schlange hergestellt haben muß. Was hat der blasse, picklige Junge mit Kröten, Spinnen, und Eidechsen zu tun?{11}

Nelly instinctively connects the face of a Jewish boy with a sexual threat (the “white snake” of an exhibitionist she encountered) and the child’s fright of spiders, lizards, and toads. As the exhibitionist and to some degree also the vermin are invading Nelly’s space and violating her boundaries, she blurs them together with her image of “the Jew” and perceives all four entities as equally threatening. But the narrator intervenes and questions such a dichotomy between self and other.

Although the narrator in Zeller does not disclose much about her encounters with Jews, she recounts an episode from a BDM camp, where the girl was supposed to recite the Baldur-von –Schirach-Spruch “Zerbrecht, was schlecht, / und fremder Art / Nur das bewahrt / was euch entspricht.” Instinctively, Eva omits the words “und fremder Art:”

Ich finde es zwar völlig in Ordnung, alles zerbrechen zu wollen, was schlecht ist. Aber was fremd ist? Habe ich bei dem Wort fremd an jemand Bestimmten gedacht? An Rieke etwa, deren Gestalt im nachhinein alle Verfolgten für mich annehmen?{12}

As a seventeen-year-old, Eva begins to question Nazi ideology that condemns others such as Rieke, her father’s maid and member of the confessing church, as inferior. Her refusal to surrender leads to a fierce power struggle with the Reichsarbeitsdienstführerin and ultimately to her fleeing from the BDM camp.

In Maschmann, however, the dichotomy between self and other is never abolished. Maschmann speaks of a osteuropäische Mentalität{13} and when working in defeated Poland, she observes: “Die Höfe der wenigen deutschen Bauern waren gepflegter.”{14} At another point, Maschmann has to stay overnight at a Polish house, remarking: “sie [die Polin] begriff, daß ich nur auf dem Fußboden ihrer Küche übernachten wollte (die Betten wären mir zu schmutzig gewesen) …”{15} Maschmann only admits her reasoning in parenthesis, as if it is something self-explanatory, a self evident truth. But just as stereotypes are typically only displayed in Nebensätzen, the information in parenthesis reveals Maschmann’s perspective and unconscious ideology. She never begins to question such statements and fails to connect them to Hitler’s propaganda of Poles as dirty and inferior.

Thus it comes at no surprise that Maschmann’s attitude persists into the postwar years:

Von jetzt an suchte ich nach Kontakten mit Ausländern, vor allem mit “rassisch fremden.” … An Gelegenheiten war kein Mangel: Bei Freunden meiner Freunde traf ich zuweilen Negerstudenten und war angerührt von der sachlichen Leidenschaftlichkeit, mit der sie philosophische Fragen diskutierten, und von dem Ernst, mit dem sie sich bemühten, die christliche Toleranzforderung nicht zu einer chauvinistischen Parole im Kampf um ihre rassische Gleichberechtigung zu erniedrigen.{16}

Even when Maschmann intends to part precisely from her Nazi past, she remains trapped in Nazi ideology. By deliberately seeking contact with foreigners of different races only to consolidate existing stereotypes, Maschmann still operates within a racist framework. Whereas Zeller and Wolf question what is “fremd,” Maschmann unquestionably keeps the assumption of an “Other.”

For all three, Melita Maschmann, Eva Zeller, and Christa Wolf, the process of writing one’s memories leads to a crisis. Maschmann describes dreaming about her Jewish friend and facing feelings of guilt. She affirms: “Während ich mich bemühe, meinen chronologischen Bericht fortzusetzen, spüre ich deine Nähe immer noch, und sie macht mir das Herz schwer.”{17} Although feeling distress, Maschmann does not give in to mourning within the text, but feels obliged to continue the chronological form.

While Maschmann’s crisis breaks out in isolated sentences throughout her text but does not affect the structure of the work, in Kindheitsmuster there is constant reflection on the process of writing. This crisis causes language to break down, and the narrator more and more comes to understand that it is impossible to give a coherent, logical, and chronologically structured story. To the narrator, remembering, rather than accessing hidden knowledge, is interacting with the present. Remembering is an uncanny, threatening process, precisely because it questions so many boundaries. For instance, when the narrator begins to deconstruct her supposedly happy childhood, she asserts: “Wer gäbe nicht viel um eine glückliche Kindheit?”{18} With this hypothetical question set in the subjunctive the narrator acknowledges both the longing for and impossibility of a perfect childhood. Mourning for the narrator means accepting the discrepancy between a blessed childhood and her own one, and narrating this contradiction. The narrator experiences this mourning in her body, in the form of headaches, stomachaches, sleeplessness, and nightmares.

Very similarly to Wolf, the narrator in Zeller questions the myth of a happy childhood:

Ich sehe ein dickes Kind, das gerne ißt, Kummerspeck ansetzt. Hat es sich etwa nicht um ein glückliches Kind gehandelt, dessen Geschichte das Gedächtnis bloß lange genug wiederkäuen muß, um sie schmackhaft zu finden? Sind wir gar nicht gewesen, was wir meinen, gewesen zu sein?{19}

The narrator in Zeller like the narrator in Wolf, feels distanced from her childhood self and questions the authenticity of her memories. In contrast to Maschmann, who constantly affirms the truth-value of her work, Zeller and Wolf reflect on the fallible process of remembering and writing about the past.

The three narratives also differ remarkably in their endings. Zeller’s text Solange ich denken kann disintegrates at the end. As Eva becomes severely ill and is confined to a hospital, the words of her father, mother, other relatives, and her own childhood memories form an entangled, indistinguishable mass. Her narrative loses an authoritative voice, structure, and chronology.

Kindheitsmuster ends with a dream-like passage that seems ill fitting with the rest of the text, and resists any conclusive interpretation. The narrator indicates that this is not an end she had imagined, because she perceives that the past cannot be mastered or fully interpreted. The very end of her work affirms the limits of testimony, as Kindheitsmuster has no closure and no happy ending, only an ambiguous and temporary one.

As I have mentioned, Melita Maschmann implies closure already in her title (Fazit). The firm belief that she is completely freed from Nazi influences is revealed in passages such as the following:

Ich habe ein rundes Dutzend Jahre gebraucht, um die innere Ablösung vom Nationalsozialismus zu vollziehen. Andere Menschen aus meinem früheren Freundeskreis stehen noch heute mitten in dem Prozeß. … [Eine österreichische Freundin] hat im Sommer 1945 in jeder freien Minute Goethe und Shakespeare gelesen, und als sie diese geistig-seelische Reinigungskur hinter sich hatte, war sie “geheilt.”{20}

Maschmann’s surprisingly naïve belief grossly underestimates the invasive influences of Nazi ideology. While Wolf negates the possibility of setting a date for coming to terms with the past (“Wer wollte es wagen, ein Datum festzusetzen, neben dem stünde: bewältigt?”){21} Maschmann does exactly that—positing a specific timeframe in which she “mastered” the past—in her case, twelve years. Her choice of words such as Fazit, Ablösung, Reinigungskur, geheilt not only suggests closure to a confrontation with the Holocaust but also implies that one is “infected” by National Socialism and can come clean with the help of Goethe and Shakespeare. Such thinking actually resembles Nazi propaganda, which posited that Germans became “soiled” by Jewish thought.

Maschmann’s work must be considered an exception, with regards to both the time of publication and the author’s perspective. In 1933, Maschmann was fifteen, in contrast to Wolf, who was four years old, and Zeller, who was ten. As the narrator in Wolf points out:

Heute, fast auf den Tag genau vierzig Jahre später, ist es der Zeitpunkt für einige Fragen, deren Schärfe mit bedingt ist durch Nellys Unschuld: Sie war vier Jahre alt. (Du kommst nicht umhin, auf die Tatsache aufmerksam zu machen, daß in diesem Land Unschuld sich fast unfehlbar an Lebensjahren messen läßt.){22}

The narrator here emphasizes both Nelly‘s age and the belatedness of her testimonial inquiry.

Referring back to Weigel, it remains questionable if her call for introspection by the perpetrators has been heeded. Although a plethora of works confront the Nazi past in some way, there are few autobiographical reflections from the perspective of the Täter. Perhaps not surprisingly, most autobiographical attempts have been written by Germans who are not perpetrators in the traditional sense, such as women who experienced National Socialism as children. Although Wolf, Zeller, and even Maschmann may not fully fill the gap of this missing testimony, their texts offer answers to Weigel’s plea, raising the interesting question of why these women in their autobiographies take up the undigested burden of Germany’s Nazi past.


{1} Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (New York: Dial, 1947) 89.

{2} Sigrid Weigel, Bilder des kulturellen Gedächtnisses: Beiträge zur Gegenwartsliteratur (Dülmen-Hiddingsel: tende, 1994) 199.

{3} Melita Maschmann, Fazit: Mein Weg in der Hitler-Jugend (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1979) 15.

{4} See Christa Wolf, Kindheitsmuster (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993) 9-13.

{5} See also Margarete Hannsmann, Der helle Tag bricht an: Ein Kind wird Nazi (Hamburg: Albrecht Knaus, 1982); Carola Stern, In den Netzen der Erinnerung: Lebensgeschichten zweier Menschen (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1986).

{6} See Weigel 205.

{7} Maschmann 27.

{8} Eva Zeller, Solange ich denken kann. Roman einer Jugend (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1981) 308.

{9} Eva Zeller, Nein und Amen. Autobiographischer Roman (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1986) 119.

{10} Zeller, Nein 111.

{11} Wolf 176.

{12} Zeller, Solange 384.

{13} Maschmann 85.

{14} Maschmann 98.

{15} Maschmann 85.

{16} Maschmann 228.

{17} Maschmann 145.

{18} Wolf 36.

{19} Zeller, Solange 9.

{20} Maschmann 214-15.

{21} Wolf 424.

{22} Wolf 73.

zurück zum inhaltsverzeichnis