Langgässer, Elisabeth (1899–1950)

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Langgässer, Elisabeth (1899–1950)

German author whose posthumously published novel The Quest (1950) is regarded by many critics as one of the finest German works dealing with the moral burden of Nazi inhumanity . Name variations: Elisabeth Langgasser; Elisabeth Langgaesser. Born on February 23, 1899, in Alzey; died in Karlsruhe on July 25, 1950; daughter of Eduard Langgässer and Eugenie (Dienst) Langgässer; had one brother; married Wilhelm Hoffmann (1899–1967), in 1935; children: (with Herman Heller) Cordielia (later, Cordelia Edvardson, a writer); (with Wilhelm Hoffmann) Annette and Franziska.

Elisabeth Langgässer died during the summer of 1950 in a West Germany that had barely begun the process of physical and moral reconstruction after the devastations of World War II. At the time of her death, she had just completed the manuscript of her novel, Märkische Argonautenfahrt (The Quest). Although her work, which explored difficult moral choices, was highly praised by postwar critics, it faded from memory by the mid-1950s in a Germany more interested in appreciating its newfound prosperity than probing the troubling issues of individual and collective moral responsibility. By the 1990s, her writings were finally being rediscovered by scholars and readers alike. As her reputation soars to new heights, her work is now recognized as a major contribution to modern German literature. Influenced by Christian beliefs, Langgässer explores through her writings the persistent motifs of sin, grace, salvation and the dualistic nature of the world.

Elisabeth Langgässer was born in the Rhenish Hessian town of Alzey in 1899. Her mother Eugenie was Roman Catholic; her father Eduard, born Jewish, had converted to Catholicism at the time of his marriage. Eduard Langgässer had achieved success as a builder, and the family lived in middle-class comfort. Raised in a Roman Catholic environment, Elisabeth nevertheless soon became aware that the larger society often looked upon her as being different because of her half-Jewish parentage. By 1920, Langgässer was writing poems of merit, and in 1924 she published her first volume of verse, Der Wendekreis des Lammes: Ein Hymnus der Erlösung (The Changing Circle of the Lamb: A Hymn of Redemption). Throughout her writing career, her poetic vision would deepen and expand, and she published two more lyric cycles, Die Tierkreisgedichte (Poems of the Zodiac, 1935) and Der Laubmann und die Rose (The Leaf Man and the Rose, 1947). In totality, her poems reflect a belief in a divine geometry that leads to the ultimate truth of human existence, which Langgässer believed to be Christ or the Logos.

Langgässer grew up in the city of Darmstadt to which she had moved at age ten following her father's death, and she received her education at the prestigious Viktoriaschule. Unlike in nearby Frankfurt am Main, which was dedicated to commerce, the arts flourished in Darmstadt, and the young writer looked forward to a literary career. In the meantime, she earned a teaching degree and worked as a primary-school teacher in the Darmstadt area, including service at a school in the nearby village of Griesheim in the rural Oppenheim district. Determined to make her mark in the world of letters, she wrote in every spare minute. Langgässer also became one of the most enthusiastic members of a circle of writers that was linked to the literary journal Die Kolonne. The group included Günter Eich and Peter Huchel, and believed that literature could flourish in a realm beyond the tensions of daily political existence. This notion would result in a considerable degree of naïveté when the Nazi movement began to dominate the public life of Germany in the early 1930s. For years after the National Socialist party came to power, Langgässer would retain her belief that, because it was so patently a force for evil, the duration of the Nazi dictatorship would be a brief one.

The late 1920s were exciting, turbulent years for Langgässer. An unsuccessful love affair with Hermann Heller, a Jewish political scientist, resulted in the birth of a daughter Cordielia. Finding it difficult to achieve a balance between the multiple demands of her teaching career, motherhood, and a strong need to write, at times she found herself in despair, as when she confessed in a letter, "Yesterday I simply burst into tears. I couldn't stand the noise any more…. One thing is certain, if you have a child then your day is completely full. Or a profession—then you have to have somebody else care for the child. Both our fathers ('women belong in the home') and Soviet Russia did absolutely the correct thing." Despite these difficulties, Langgässer was able to organize her energies successfully. In 1929, soon after the birth of her daughter, she had moved to Berlin where she continued to write and produced a successful series of dramatic scripts that were broadcast over Berlin Radio. In 1932, on the eve of the Nazi takeover, Langgässer received validation of her literary efforts when she was given the Deutsche Staatsbürgerinnenpreis (German Citizen's Prize) for her novella Triptychon des Teufels (The Devil's Triptych), which some critics compared to the classic prose of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff . In 1933, the year the Nazi dictatorship was established, Langgässer published her first novel, the finely crafted Proserpina, Welt eines Kindes (Proserpina, A Child's World).

The Nazi grip on Germany increased with each passing year, and by 1935, when the infamous Nuremberg Laws were enacted to define German Jews as little more than barely tolerated aliens in the Reich, Langgässer had to accept the fact that the conditions of her life were becoming harsher with each passing day. One beacon of hope was her 1935 marriage to Wilhelm Hoffmann, with whom she raised Cordielia and had two more daughters, Annette and Franziska. In 1936, Langgässer published her second novel, Der Gang durch das Ried (The Path Through the Marsh), which clearly echoes her own predicament in a Nazi Germany that was becoming increasingly hostile to both practicing "full-blooded" Jews and Jewish "hybrids" who were Christian in religion but "alien in blood." The novel concerns a former soldier of the French army that had occupied the German Rhineland until 1930. Calling himself Jean-Marie Aladin, he is released from an insane asylum having lost all memory of his real name and past life. As he wanders aimlessly through the Rhenish region, his memory gradually returns. He is in fact Peter Schaffner, the runaway son of a German butcher. Years before, frightened by his father's threats to dismember and kill him, he had fled to France and there joined the French Foreign Legion. By way of a protagonist with a French-Arab name, Langgässer deflects a number of associations regarding Jews and German-Jewish Mischlinge (hybrids), like herself, onto Arabs and the French.

Only two months after the publication of Der Gang druch das Ried, it was banned by the Nazi state. Reviews had been largely negative, with one characterizing the book in the following terms: "Everything is musty, grey, it smells of decay, it wallows in desire." Since the Nuremberg Laws had gone into effect in 1935, Langgässer had been trying to substantiate her claim that she was a full-blooded Aryan—an attempt that proved futile in view of the fact that her father had been born a Jew. Unable to prove her racial purity, she now found herself legally defined as a German-Jewish hybrid, a first-degree Mischling. On May 20, 1936, Langgässer was excluded from the Reichsschrifttumskammer (Reich Literature Chamber), a fatal blow to her literary ambitions because it meant she could no longer be published in Nazi Germany.

Over the next several years, while helping to support her family by anonymously writing advertising copy, she attempted to persuade Nazi authorities to reverse their decision. In a letter of August 1937 to Hans Hinkel, a leading Nazi cultural administrator, Langgässer argued that her artistic traits were in no way to be seen as Semitic and could in fact be traced back several generations on her mother's (Aryan) side. She also noted that not only had her career been assisted by the novelist Ina Seidel , who enjoyed the full support of the Third Reich's literary establishment, but her writings had been rejected on several occasions by Jewish publishing firms and authors like Alfred Döblin. Furthermore, she informed Hinkel, "I would like to add that I am married to a man of pure Aryan background."

Despite the increasingly demoralizing blows that she endured over the next years, Langgässer refused to succumb to despair. Supported by her husband, she raised her three daughters in as normal an environment as possible under the inhumane conditions of Nazi Germany. Although her status as a first-degree Mischling placed her in a relatively secure position under the racist system of the Nuremberg Laws (at least when compared to those Germans now defined as full-blooded Jews), the future was at best uncertain. Particularly vulnerable was her oldest daughter Cordielia, who, because her father was Jewish, was defined as a full-blooded Jewess. Langgässer began work on a new novel even though she knew that it could never be published in Germany as long as the Nazis were in power. She wrote in secret, under danger of discovery, and was motivated to continue work on the manuscript by what she called "the gentle madness of artistic compulsion." It would be published in 1946 as Der unauslöschliche Siegel (The Indelible Seal).

Langgässer kept her threatened family intact during almost five years of war and destruction. By 1942, for Jews under German rule both inside the Reich and in the occupied territories of Europe, discrimination and hatred turned into systematic annihilation, the Holocaust. The year 1944 was catastrophic for Langgässer and her family, for in that year Cordielia was taken first to the "model" ghetto Theresienstadt-Terezin near Prague, and then to Auschwitz. Langgässer was conscripted to work in a cable factory in Berlin, despite the fact that her health was declining (she would later be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis). Although Langgässer, her husband and her two youngest daughters survived the bombing of Berlin in the closing months of the war, she was tormented, wondering if Cordielia was still alive.

Cordielia did survive Auschwitz, in part by chance and also possibly because she had worked as a secretary for the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Taken to Sweden after her liberation from the camp, she suffered from tuberculosis and was hospitalized for a long period. Langgässer did not receive word that her daughter was alive until 1946. Mother and daughter were not able to meet, however, until the fall of 1949, less than a year before Langgässer's death. Cordielia remained in Sweden, where she changed her name to Cordelia (Edvardson) . Their relationship was scarred by their mutual trauma, and in her powerful memoir, Burned Child Seeks the Fire, Cordelia analyzes the complex nature of her often angry feelings toward a mother whom she loved but also hated for being "blind" and "stupid."

As one of the very few writers of quality to have remained in Nazi Germany, Elisabeth Langgässer enjoyed considerable fame in the first years after the war. Several of her poems appeared in the first postwar anthology of verse published under the imprimatur of the U.S. Information Control Division. When in 1946 the novel she had written secretly during the Nazi era, Der unauslöschliche Siegel (The Indelible Seal) was published, most reviews were enthusiastic. Although she had written the novel as a believing Christian and her themes—central to explaining the existence of evil in modern times—were in many ways as old as humanity, Langgässer's literary techniques were modern, experimental, and unconventional. The book's representation of lesbian love, and what were termed other "erotic liberties," outraged some Catholic, and other conservative, literary critics, and the novel was effectively blacklisted by the Catholic Church.

Encouraged by the publication of this novel, Langgässer continued to write, concentrating for the next several years on short stories; many are of the highest quality. These stories deal with ordinary women and men in the Third Reich, individuals whose small and often thoughtlessly opportunistic deeds (and failure to act) made it possible for the Nazi regime to function and carry out much of its murderous agenda. Some, such as "Untergetaucht" (In Hiding) and "Saisonbeginn" (Start of the Season), recount the persecution of Jews. Possibly written under the influence of the American short story, which served to inspire many writers in postwar Germany, "Saisonbeginn" has a shocking ending, which depicts average and apparently "normal" Germans at a holiday resort all acting like Nazi travelers. Others, such as "Der Erstkommunionstag" (First Communion Day) and "Jetzt geht die Welt unter" (The World is Now Ending), portray the terrors experienced by civilians during air raids. Additional short stories from this period include such memorable works as "An der Nähmaschine" (At the Sewing Machine), which portrays the life of slave laborers under the Nazis, and "Lydia," about a Russian woman slave laborer in Germany.

In October 1947, Langgässer participated in the First Congress of German Writers, which for the first and last time before the full onset of the Cold War brought together writers from all the zones of a defeated and occupied Germany. The grand old lady of German letters, 83-year-old Ricarda Huch , was chosen to be the honorary president of the congress, and, along with Communist writer Anna Seghers (who had recently returned to Germany from exile in Mexico), Elisabeth Langgässer was celebrated as one of the "triumvirate of great contemporary women novelists." In her address to the congress, one of the high points of the entire meeting, Langgässer sharply criticized those writers who had remained in Nazi Germany and continued to publish during the years of dictatorship. These authors, who argued that they were part of an "inner emigration" were, she asserted, no more than part of an "enormous self-deception." She believed that the horrors unleashed by the Nazi regime demanded that writers be aware of their great moral responsibilities in the postwar world. For Langgässer, such responsibilities included a radical scrutiny of all aspects of a German language that had been profoundly debased by the Nazis and their accomplices, "terrible criminals and horrifying idiots [who had made possible] the destruction and demise of our continent."

Over the next several years, Langgässer was profoundly affected by her continuing struggle to renew her relationship with her daughter in Sweden, as well as by the rapidly deteriorating political situation of the Cold War. Although she rejected the philosophical underpinnings of Marxism, her relations with individual Communist writers and intellectuals remained cordial. She worked as an editor for the Communist-oriented Aufbau and for Die Wandlung, which leaned toward Western ideals. During this period, Langgässer had a particularly strong intellectual partnership with Ernst Niekisch. A strong-willed writer who had been an advocate of National Bolshevism during the Weimar Republic, Niekisch had been blinded and crippled as a result of his imprisonment and mistreatment by the Nazis. Despite her declining state of health from multiple sclerosis, Langgässer continued to write and was her family's sole means of support. In a letter written in January 1947, she described a situation of "Hunger, no shoes for the children or myself, a wearisome struggle from one day to the next … the temperature in the room where we lived ten degrees centigrade. In spite of this I started a new piece of work." In the summer of the same year, among her strategies to keep her family fed was Langgässer's

transaction with a Catholic priest: she traded a copy of her novel for the book's weight in flour.

In 1948, she left Berlin and returned to her home area of Rhenish Hesse. Although her health continued to deteriorate, she was determined to write at least one more novel. Langgässer completed her last manuscript in late June 1950 and wrote to a friend: "The novel is finished. But, alas, so am I." She died in the next month, on July 25, 1950, in Karlsruhe. Her novel, Märkische Argonautenfahrt (Argonauts of the Mark Brandenburg, known in America as The Quest), was published posthumously. In 1951, she was posthumously awarded the Georg Büchner Prize, West Germany's most prestigious literary award.

In The Quest, Langgässer adapted the classical story of the Argonauts to the situation in a shattered postwar Germany. This powerful work tells of seven pilgrims who set out from a still-smoldering Berlin to reflect on their existences at a Benedictine nunnery. In its narrative consciousness, rather than literal time sequence, The Quest is a highly complex work that relies on a kind of synchronicity in which the texts of the Old Testament of the Jews and the Christian New Testament, as well as the myths of the ancient Greeks and the Indian subcontinent, coexist in harmony, complementing and illuminating one another. As Sodom, Gethsemane, the epic story of Achilles at Troy, and Hiroshima pass before the reader, "everything was simultaneous, of equal importance, and wore before its face a mask which (apart from slight nuance) made one suspect that its lacquered, hastily painted canvas concealed identical features."

Writing of Langgässer's literary achievements, critic Peter Demetz points out that, in her later novels:

the mystical impulse, or the drive to ask questions of religious import, clashes with her awareness of the historical moment she experienced; the timeless and the actual are fused in an irresistible language of sibylline fervor…. Her chapters on the sufferings of the last Berlin Jews huddled in the Kleiderkammer (clothes closet) of the Jewish Center before being sent east, her merciless view of life in a small Brandenburg village after the Soviet Army came, and her concluding story about the black marketeers hidden in the cellars have not been equaled in her time.

Although a small band of her contemporaries appreciated both the intensity and depth of her art, and she was briefly popular in the last few years of her life, Langgässer was arguably never fully understood at that time either by critics or by many of her readers. A difficult writer who wrote about the great moral dilemmas that arose during a terrible era in human history, she herself noted the reason why many of her contemporaries found it difficult to understand her message: "I was dismissed as a 'Christian writer'—which, of course, I am, but I would prefer 'Christian writer' without the connotations of literary triviality. And because I am dismissed in this way, I have attracted the aversion of liberals for who I am an emetic."

On the occasion of her premature death in 1950, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung lamented that Langgässer's passing represented a major blow to German letters, and called it "the most important loss to our literature since the death of Ricarda Huch." For a generation, neither Germany nor the rest of the Western world appeared capable of grasping the difficult and painful themes touched by this writer. Material prosperity and the morally simplistic dichotomy growing out of the Cold War made her work seem irrelevant or too convoluted for modern readers. This situation started to change in the 1980s, when her work began to be rediscovered in both Germany and the United States. Scholarship then uncovered a remarkable life lived in the face of countless terrors, and a body of literature of the highest quality.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Langgässer, Elisabeth (1899–1950)

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