Truth to Tell: German Women's Autobiographies and Turn-of-the-Century Culture

By Eigler, Friederike | German Quarterly, July 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Truth to Tell: German Women's Autobiographies and Turn-of-the-Century Culture


Eigler, Friederike, German Quarterly


Gerstenberger, Katherine. Truth to Tell: German Women's Autobiographies and Turn-of-the-Century Culture. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. 208 pp. $52.30 hardcover.

Truth to Tell examines the cultural and social situation in turn-of-the-century Germany and Austria through the prism of four autobiographies penned by diverse women authors: the writer and scholar of Judaism Nahida Ruth Lazarus, the colonial woman Margarethe von Eckenbrecher, the Austrian socialist and feminist Adelheid Popp, and the fiction writer Wanda von Sacher-Masoch. Katharina Gerstenberger draws upon a broad range of critical theories and offers close textual analyses that are attentive to the historical and social conditions from which these texts emerged. This approach results in an engaging and highly informative study that makes an important contribution to turn-of-the-century studies and to the analysis of discourses on gender and sexuality around 1900 (cf. Felski, 1995; Showalter, 1990; Dijkstra, 1986; Wagner, 1982).

Gerstenberger contextualizes her readings of these women's life stories by exploring the status and role of autobiographies around 1900. The popularity of the autobiographical genre was closely linked to the social and political shifts of modernity that brought into question not only stable gender oppositions but also delineations between high and popular culture, the individual and the masses, etc. In public responses to the upsurge of popular autobiographies around 1900, these texts were alternately appropriated for various political or social agendas or dismissed as threatening German high culture. Quoting the historian Joan Scott, Gerstenberger sees the special significance of these autobiographies in the insights they produce in "processes of identity production" at a time when questions of gender roles and sexuality were intimately related to issues of race, class, and the nation (4).

The introduction to Truth to Tell lays out the historical, social and genre-related parameters of this study. The four main chapters that follow are each devoted to one of the women's autobiographies. The brief conclusion highlights the interconnectedness of these seemingly very different texts. Blending conservatism and progressiveness, each in her own way, these women responded to the ills and the opportunities of modernity while creating spaces and claiming voices within a fast-changing society. The book would have been even stronger had Gerstenberger devoted more room to exploring the relationship between these four life stories. A comprehensive bibliography and a detailed index add to the user-friendliness of this study.

Chapter one contrasts Nahida Lazarus's discontinuous life story with the model autobiography, i.e., the continuous and meaningful life story of a male individual. Aspects of Lazarus's life are represented not only in her autobiography but also in her study The Jewish Woman and in her intellectual biography of her Jewish husband. Gerstenberger explores the ways in which the Protestant-born Lazarus's intellectual and personal preoccupation with Judaism allowed her to negotiate two contravening tendencies: on the one hand, her critique of the effects of modernity, e.g., the dissolution of the traditional family, which she considered to be less pronounced among Jews, and, on the other hand, her critique of patriarchy, which she saw as intricately linked with the dominant Christian society. Gerstenberger provides a careful analysis of Lazarus's idealized image of the Jewish woman as a "bulwark" against the ills of modern society-an idealization representing the (potentially problematic) flipside of the growing anti-Semitism that projected precisely the flaws of modernity on the Jews (56).

Chapter two provides a brief introduction to the role of white women in German colonialism in Africa and looks at the colonial memoir of Margarethe von Eckenbrecher as one example of how women's changing gender roles around 1900 played out in this particular genre. …

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