Academic journal article German Quarterly

History, politics, and the individual: Ingeborg Drewitz's novels Eis auf der Elbe and Gestern war heute

Academic journal article German Quarterly

History, politics, and the individual: Ingeborg Drewitz's novels Eis auf der Elbe and Gestern war heute

Article excerpt

The relationship or the impact of the individual on political, social, and economic history-on the local, the national, and the international level-has always been difficult to illuminate. Nonetheless, the question of where we belong in both today's world and in the future is one we try to answer again and again.1 It is also a question of central importance to the novelistic work of Ingeborg Drewitz (1923-1986). Two novels in particular, Gestern war heute (1978) and Eis auf der Elbe (1982) examine the (self-) positioning of the individual within his or her historical present.2 In these two novels Drewitz approaches this topic with a consistency and intensity not found in either the novels preceding or succeeding these two. Additionally, she does this in works that center on the experiences of women protagonists. Beginning with Oktoberlicht in 1969 Drewitz concentrates on female characters and their experiences, but it is not until Gestern war heute that she systematically and thoroughly treats her characters' perception of their historical present.3

Borrowing a term from Margaret Urban Walker's recent study in feminist ethics, this analysis will argue that Drewitz's novels attempt to illustrate how individuals are placed and place themselves in history and how we use these understandings to map a "geography of responsibility."4 In particular, how we do so in a world in which the boundaries of community-through two world wars, several other global conflicts, and the intervention of the mass media-have effec-tively inflated beyond the ability of most individuals to grasp. How Drewitz fleshes out the intricate relationships between personal and national history, between local and national politics, and between society and the individual represents a central concern of this study. As she lays out the interconnectedness of these various spheres, she begins to fashion a concept of political agency which can respond to the particular texture of historical and political experience that we confront at the beginning of the 21st century. It is an agency that allows us to see our own imbrication in history and politics as well as the limits to individual activism on many levels. Put simply, this article argues that in these two novels Drewitz offers a model for individuals to understand their places within history, and to decide how to act from within those positions on the basis of that understanding.

Drewitz's Characters

A first question to answer would be, however, what kind of individuals Drewitz writes into these two works. Both novels deal with the lives of women born around the same time as Drewitz (1923).5 They represent successful, intelligent, self-assured women, whose professional and personal engagement helped pave the way for the incipient women's movement in Germany of the '60s and '70s. Gabriele, the central character of Gestern war heute, finds herself in 1945 at odds with a professor who is trying to foster her academic future. he urges her to leave Berlin for more stable territories in the West. He suggests that her refusal to leave will prevent her from ever overcoming the educational restrictions of war-time Germany and the physical limitations of a city trying to rebuild itself from the ground up. Part of their interchange draws attention to the way in which the various segments of Drewitz's narrative become inseparable:

*Es ist schade um Sie! Sie reden sich uber etwas hinweg! Warum gehen Sie nicht nach Westen? Sie horen doch BBC. Die Stadt, dieses Berlin wird nie mehr hochkommen. Das konnen Sie sich doch ausrechnen, oder?

*Meine Eltern sind hier, die Familie.

*Eine Frauenantwort! Er nimmt jetzt den Stuhl und stukt ihn auf, da mussen Sie druber hinwegkommen, rucksichtsloser werden, sich durchsetzen wollen.

*Ich bin nicht sicher, ob wir noch das Recht haben, an uns zu denken. (147)

Whereas the professor implies that Gabriele's reaction is driven by some woefully inappropriate feminine solidarity, her response is really more complicated than that. …

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