At the end of the Weimar Republic the writing of Irmgard Keun gained a fair amount of attention. Her novels about the lives of young women trying to make a go of it in the wild Berlin of the 1920s heralded an authentic new voice in German literature. She often wrote from the perspective and in the voice of her protagonists.
Keun at first stayed in Germany after 1933, but in 1936 fled Germany and spent a couple of years in a relationship with Joseph Roth, a famous Austrian-Jewish columnist and novelist in his own right. They spent some years wandering through European exile, and it was during this time that her novel A Child of All Nations came into being. Roth committed suicide in 1939, and in 1940 Keun snuck back into Germany; the authorities believed that she had committed suicide, so she was able to assume a false identity.
We’re reading Keun’s novel because it gives us a first-hand account, albeit through the eyes of a young girl, of the strain that exile placed on those who were living in it.
- Read the novel A Child of All Nations.
- Read this review of the novel: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/66288-child-of-all-nations-by-irmgard-keun/
Your task: In the review, Ashton-Smith writes: “Child of All Nations is a text to be valued for what it reveals about the emigrant situation during the Third Reich, and beyond this, for how it historically contextualises the emigrant experience.” How would you characterize the contextualization of the emigrant (or, to be more precise, exile) experience that the novel portrays?
Child of All Nations – Consequences
In this post I want to speak to some general themes in the book.
I chose this book for the course for a very specific reason: I wanted to find a way to make clear that there are consequences when one takes an unpopular political stance. And I wanted to make sure that students understood that this was especially the case in Nazi Germany: there were dire consequences for resisting or contradicting or speaking out against the regime. It’s one thing to know that a few thousand authors, intellectuals, etc. left Germany during the Nazi period and ended up throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. But it is quite another when you realize that, for most of these individuals, and especially those who made their living to some extent through (German) language, being deprived of Germany meant being deprived of your livelihood, and that it was not easy to replace the lost income.
The figure of Peter, Kully’s father, I find especially intriguing. He must do whatever he can to keep his family afloat, but he can’t give up his occupation. It strikes me that he doesn’t want to give up being a writer: he can’t let go of his intellectual pretensions – it’s perhaps too much a source of his self-worth and identity, which is perhaps why he never seriously considers doing any other kind of work to support his family – and he can’t stop being a writer because doing so would mean that the Nazis had succeeded in silencing him.
But the flirtation, the trickery, the begging, all the things that Peter must do in order to keep the family afloat – it’s really rather depressing when you think about it. But I don’t think it’s all that much exaggerated. Certainly it’s heightened because of the way it is portrayed through the naive eyes of a child, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. Keun wrote the novel in exile when she was the companion of the writer Joseph Roth, and she saw his health decline through the stress of exile (and the excessive drinking, another sign of stress, I suppose). The hardships brought on by exile very significant, and for so many thousands of people to enter into exile underscores their feelings about the Nazi regime, for as hard as exile was, it was for most of them preferable to living in the Third Reich. The irony here, of course, is that Keun herself returned to Germany and entered into self-imposed silence.
Your task: What toll does exile take on Kully’s parents?
Child of All Nations – ProfComment
A couple of things stood out for me in A Child of All Nations:
This character Kully is a clever invention. A lot of Keun’s novels have female narrator’s telling the story in the first person, but they’re usually older, in their early 20s. The narrator of The Artificial Silk Girl (a more comprehensible translation title would be The Rayon Girl), for example, is a young woman who goes from secretary to a sort of starlet (well, actually she’s just very pretty and flirtatious, and she’s looking for a rich fellow to keep her happy) and along the way records her impressions of the world around her. She narrates the novel the way the young woman character would. With that novel and this one I got a bit tired of that voice – I prefer less character-oriented narration – but I nevertheless find the character of Kully striking. At times she can be very much the naive young girl. For example the scene in the States when she sees couples in cars getting “tangled up” trying to kill each other: that’s a hilarious way for the narrator to tell the reader that she saw couples making out in their cars. By using a small girl’s voice to record the scene Keun is able to turn an every observation into something fresh for the reader. The other advantage to this kind of narration is that when Kully makes a very astute and insightful observation – for example on page 177 (in my version) when she explains why her father sighed when viewing the landing spot of the English – that observation has more impact: it’s no longer really in the girl’s voice, but in a more adult narrator’s voice, and that surprises the reader and makes the observation more memorable.
I’ve also been thinking about the ending. In his afterword the translator Michael Hoffmann criticizes the ending as being “tacked on” and ruining the claustrophobia of the book. He’s right: America seems so much more open than the scenes in Europe, probably because so much of the America portion of the story is played outdoors. But there’s another problem with the ending, and that lies with us. We read this novel in the full knowledge of the singular horror that was the Nazi regime. Keun wrote the novel, however, in the late 1930s before the war began, and as such had no idea of just how bad that regime could be, how vilified this era of German history would become. But we know how everything turns out. And so when Kully returns to Europe we become scared (well, at least I do), because we think that no good can come of that. We think, perhaps, that she will be picked up by the SS or end up in a concentration camp. Keun’s ending is also odd because it seems to sound an optimistic note (or at least not a dreadfully pessimistic one). From our vantage point we know that there are no grounds for optimism.
Moreover, the ending is so personal: Kully’s biggest hope is to be with her parents, that the three of them form a normal family. I found this a bit off-putting, probably because I was reading the novel as a treatise on political exile, yet of course for the character Kully her story isn’t about the lack of freedom in Germany, but rather the troubles her family has (because of that lack of freedom). I guess I was expecting at the end some huge commentary about the political events of the day, yet the story ends on such a small, domestic note. In a way, though, that is appropriate: while exile may well be the result of large political events, its effects are on the lives of individual people.
One last comment: Hoffmann writes that Keun really captured the ambience of Nazism. This is so true. He points out that so many writers who went into exile (both inner and external) turned to historical fiction to state their feelings. This makes sense for those remaining in Germany, for to criticize the regime openly meant hardship. Those outside of Germany could have written contemporary stories about the situation in Europe, but very few did. The other point that Hoffmann made in his afterword deserves quotation in full: “Something about her [Keun’s] honesty, her spark, her refusal of indoctrination, her subversiveness . . . riled them more than political opposition” (187). Can you come up with a reason as to why this might be so?
Your task: What’s your opinion of Kully? Does experiencing the story through her eyes help or hinder your understanding of the issues surrounding exile?
Child of All Nations – YourComment
Your task: Select a quotation from the book that really captures the essence of the novel. Explain why the quotation works so well to illustrate the message of the novel.
At the end of the war in May 1945, Germany was in shambles. The Nazi regime was completely discredited, the country was occupied, and the country’s citizens faced a very uncertain future.
After the war disputes arose that centred on responsibility: who was responsible for the rise of the Nazis? Did all Germans bear responsibility? Did those Germans who considered themselves alienated or opposed to the regime yet remained in Germany during the Third Reich share responsibility with those who actively supported the regime? Some Germans who had gone into exile thought that all Germans who had remained had to shoulder the responsibility for this murderous period in German history, others weren’t so sure.
These questions became particularly heated in literary-cultural circles. The most famous German writer to leave Germany during the Third Reich was Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature. He had been a staunch opponent of the regime, and he had continued to write and make propaganda broadcasts for the allies from his exile in California. When the war ended, two writers who had remained in Germany during the war, Walter von Molo and Frank Thiess, became involved in a public discussion and debate with Thomas Mann that revolved around the issue of suffering. Both von Molo and Thiess thought that those writers who had remained behind had been less fortunate than those who had gone into exile. From their point of view, remaining in Germany and remaining opposed to Nazism had been much harder than going into exile. Those who had left Germany had been free to express their views whereas those who had stayed behind either had to conform to Nazism or enter into what was called “inner emigration” by either remaining silent (and therefore uncritical of the Nazis) or by producing apolitical literature.
After the war, as these questions about responsibility were circulating, Thomas Mann wrote an article declaring that he would not be returning to Germany. He also stated, in response to an earlier article by von Molo, that those who claimed that their “inner emigration” excused them of any responsibility for the Nazi regime and its crimes were being disingenuous; any cultural act that did not try to undermine the regime was, in Mann’s view, actually supporting the regime. Moreover, Mann took exception to the notion that those in exile did not suffer.
For another take on this, read this article from The New York Times written less than two years after the end of the war:
Your task: The interesting thing about Irmgard Keun is that she experienced both real exile (Child of All Nations draws inspiration from her own exile and time spent with the writer Joseph Roth) and a sort of inner emigration (she returned to Germany and lived under a pseudonym). Having read her novel, and now knowing a little bit about the issue of inner emigration, what do you make of the debate between those writers and intellectuals who left Germany before the war and those who stayed behind?
Resistance to the Nazi regime was difficult – the state apparatus controlled all aspects of civilian life, and there was real fear of retribution from the repressive regime. Many Germans heeded the call to remain vigilant agains enemies of the state, and neighbours would report on neighbours. Read these two brief entries from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on resistance in Third Reich:
One of the most famous instances of resistance was that of the Scholls, a sister and brother studying at university in Munich who led a movement that came to be known as the White Rose. They distributed a series of pamphlets that attempted to alert Germans to the lies their government was feeding them. Read this excerpt from one of the pamphlets that was widely distributed:
Your task: Very few people acted on the advice of the White Rose group to resist. Nevertheles, the pamphlet describes a new Germany and Europe that has largely been realized some 70+ years later. What would make it difficult for people to resist their government?
Specific Instructions for this Review: German Resistance
In her review of Irmgard Keun’s novel Child of All Nations, Jenni Diski writes the following:
It is the sole task of children to find out what is going on . . . . their job is to piece together incomprehensible signs and whispers, to learn to interpret them in order to reveal secrets. The overt stuff is one thing, useful obviously, but also excellent cover to keep the adults happy: learning to talk, to walk, to put a spoon to your mouth. The real work is to find out what is going on. Not why – that doesn’t really matter to spies or children – just what is happening and how it happens. (Jenni Diski, “Extreme Understanding,” London Review of Books, 10 April 2008. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n07/jenny-diski/extreme-understanding )
Your task: Does Kully in Child of All Nations figure out what is going on? To what extent does she understand the political background to her story? And how might that affect how readers in the 1930s would have responded to the novel?
Feel free to make use of the content items in the module and the postings of your classmates when composing your answer. (For example, perhaps someone else mentioned the point you’re making in a posting – you can cite that and expand on it.)
General Instructions for the Module Reviews
Please keep the following in mind, and please note the elaborations that have been added (in red):
- your answer should be uploaded as a PDF document – if it isn’t, it will be graded, but you’ll receive no comments.
- your answer should be double-spaced.
- no title page, but there should be a title, your name should appear at the top, and there should be page numbers.
- answers should be within the specified word range.
- good essays have the following: grammatically-correct sentences; coherent paragraphs; no spelling mistakes; a clear argument or point; titles that capture, directly or indirectly, a point being made in your essay.
- if you refer to a reading in this unit, you don’t have to give full bibliographical information, but when you first mention it, give the full title and author’s name. If you refer to material not read in class, provide a full bibliographical citation at the end of your essay (it will not count as part of the word count).
Please note: the question may ask you to make use of the discussions that occurred in the module. There are two modes for viewing the discussion forums, GRID VIEW and READING VIEW. (You can change which you view by clicking on the settings – the gear icon – in the upper right-hand corner of your screen when you’re in the Discussions area of the course.) Play around with the two views to find the setting that works best for you. For example, when I’m reading your discussions during the week and commenting on some of them, I use the READING VIEW, but if I have to read and grade a lot of postings I use the GRID VIEW.