Miegel, Agnes (1879–1964)
Miegel, Agnes (1879–1964)
German poet and short-story writer whose books, set in East Prussia and written in the spirit of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) Romanticism, were popular with a nationalistic and conservative readership before, during, and after the Third Reich. Born in Königsberg, East Prussia (modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia), on March 9, 1879; died in Bad Salzuflen on October 26, 1964; daughter of Gustav Adolf Miegel and Helene Wilhelmine Miegel.
Agnes Miegel was born an only child in Königsberg, East Prussia, the city whose most illustrious inhabitant was the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). The daughter of a merchant, she grew up in a socially stable and culturally conservative environment and spent her childhood primarily among solidly middle-class adults. When she was 15, her parents sent her off to a boarding school in Weimar, the city of Goethe and Schiller, where she was impressed by the profusion of theater and concert performances that were offered virtually every day and evening. After a year in Weimar, she returned to Königsberg where her ambitious parents enrolled her in painting classes, believing that their daughter had an artist's soul. Although Miegel had little talent as a painter, the classes did sharpen her already considerable powers of observation. During this period, she wrote poems constantly, experiencing an emotional life largely through her pen. When she found enough courage, Miegel sent a batch of her best verses to a noted author and critic of the day, Carl Busse, who responded positively.
In 1901, she saw her first publication, in an issue of the venerable Göttinger Musenalmanach which contained 17 of her ballads and 13 of her lyric poems. The same year, having completed a course that qualified her to work as a pediatric nurse, she became seriously ill after contracting scarlet fever while working in a children's ward. Also in 1901, she celebrated the release of her first book of poems, Gedichte (Poems), which boasted the imprint of Cotta, one of Germany's most respected publishing houses. Several highly original works were among the 27 ballads and 63 poems included in Gedichte. In "The Prayer of a Young Maiden," a young woman prays for God to take the life of her lover if he should ever marry someone else. Many of the poems reveal an intense love of Königsberg, the stark landscape of Ostpreussen (East Prussia) with its hauntingly beautiful Bernsteinküste (amber coast), the region from Pillau to Cranz where fossilized resin often washes up on the beaches. The book's ballads tell of historical personalities, fascinating individuals such as Cleopatra (VII) and Mary Stuart .
In the fall of 1902, Miegel went to England to accept the invitation of a friend who taught at a boarding school in Bristol. She worked as a housemother and spent her spare hours writing a number of ballads that would stand the test of time as some of her best work, including "Jane," "Lady Gwen" and "Die Nibelungen."
In 1904, after having returned to Germany, she went to Berlin to study for a teaching degree. Once again, Miegel became seriously ill and was forced to break off her studies. Her mother suffered a mental breakdown in 1906 and had to be institutionalized. Miegel remained home to be with her father, who was going blind. Although sometimes depressed by her situation and the narrow provincialism of Königsberg, she accepted her situation and found some comfort in writing on a regular and disciplined basis. In 1907, her Balladen und Lieder (Ballads and Songs) was published to high critical acclaim, with some going so far as to state that several of the ballads had attained something close to perfection. Readers seeking Neo-Romantic moods were more than pleased by those ballads that conjured up the world of pre-Christian nature spirits, and other ballads in the work recalled a world of medieval chivalry that enabled readers to forget, at least for awhile, the troubled, industrialized 20th century, a world that had been entzaubert (stripped of magic). As if battling forces hostile to the spirit, Miegel's ballads are suffused with recurring references to supernatural and mysterious essences.
For a few days at the start of World War I, she and other East Prussians feared that their frontier province would be conquered by Russian armies. But a decisive victory by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg at the battle of Tannenberg crushed the Russians, raising nationalistic spirits throughout Germany. Years later in 1936, when Germany was already under Nazi rule, Miegel would recall the "glories" of these days in her book Deutsche Balladen (German Ballads), depicting in verse Paul von Hindenburg and his solders as veritable Teutonic heroes. In 1916, at a mid-point in the exhausting war, she received the Kleist Prize, which effectively proclaimed her Germany's most eminent poet of the day. Miegel's father died during the war, and another traumatic loss took place in 1919 when East Prussia was cut off from the remainder of the German Reich by a Polish Corridor and the newly created Free City of Danzig, both of which were imposed on a defeated Germany in the harsh Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28. In 1920, Miegel began covering cultural events for the long-established conservative Königsberg newspaper, the Ostpreussische Zeitung. Her journalism was popular in nationalist circles and with the older generation of East Prussians. In 1924, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Königsberg. By 1926, her recurring bad health made it necessary for her to resign her newspaper post.
That year, Miegel published what was to be her longest prose work, Geschichten aus Alt-Preussen (Stories from Old Prussia), a collection of four stories which was a skillful mixture of history and myth. One of the tales, the novella "Die Fahrt der sieben Ordensbrüder" (The Journey of the Seven Knights of the Teutonic Order), was quickly embraced by cultural traditionalists as a classic work embodying undying German virtues of honor and courage. Set in the 1280s, the story tells of the self-annihilation of a noble Prussian family upon the death of the last pagan Prussian prince. Miegel emphasizes the deep differences between the Weltanschauungen of the leader of the Christian knights, Friedrich von Wolfenbüttel, and the leader of the pagan Prussians, Skurdas. Representing the ideal Christian knight, Friedrich is of mixed race, the son of a noble German father and a Saracen mother. Called "Salomo" because of profound wisdom, he is presented as a man free of religious or racial intolerance, who is a great leader with a chivalrous, compassionate, and disciplined nature. His Christian compassion is contrasted with the pagan stubbornness of Skurdas, whose heroism cannot disguise the doom that hangs over his way of life which is fated to be replaced by a "higher" culture and ethos, that of the German Christians. The new order Miegel depicted emerging in the 13th century was part of what she—and her readers—held to be the inevitable mission of Germans in the eastern frontier of Europe where Teutons and Slavs had clashed for almost a millennium. For Miegel, the Germans had brought, and would continue to bring, a higher civilization to the lands of the east, turning a formless, shapeless "wilderness" into a cultivated and well-disciplined landscape.
With the publication of Geschichten aus Alt-Preussen, Miegel was turned into an unofficial spokesperson for East Prussia's history and traditions. A great commercial success, particularly in East Prussia and the largely Lutheran
northern regions of eastern and northern Germany, the book was chiefly ignored by literary critics, many of whom regarded Miegel's prose as being too conservative and sentimental for modern taste. Those attuned to new literary currents dismissed the author as a hopeless reactionary, not only in artistic but also in social and political terms. To a large extent, although they revealed their liberal and radical biases, these assessments were generally correct. Both she and her readers were uncomfortable with, and indeed often hostile to, such modern trends as democracy, mass culture, women's rights, and cultural innovation. Miegel was greatly conservative in most areas, and her love of East Prussia's traditions, history, and pre-industrial life was in fact linked to a literary tradition called Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil), which regarded individuals as having a genuine identity only to the extent that they were part of a larger historical, ethnic and racial chain of continuity.
Miegel's Romantic views of a German way of life threatened by alien forces paralleled the ideology of the political extreme right, which was led by the German National People's Party, and the newly created radical right, best exemplified by Adolf Hitler's NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker's Party; Nazis). Like most conservative Germans, Miegel threw her support to the Nazis when they seized power in 1933. Her own career benefited considerably from Hitler's new dictatorship. That same year, she was elected to a Prussian Academy of the Arts which had been ruthlessly purged of its democratic, liberal, and Jewish members. Also in 1933, she was appointed to serve as a senator in a thoroughly Nazified German Academy of Poetry, a body which also included such notorious Nazi "literary artists" as Hanns Johst and Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer. Her books were universally praised in Nazi newspapers and magazines, and Miegel often gave poetry readings on the now-regimented radio system. In 1936, she received one of Nazi Germany's most prestigious cultural awards, the Herder Prize.
Miegel joined the Nazi Party in 1937. Her personal devotion to Adolf Hitler was expressed in a hymn that appeared in her 1940 verse collection Ostland: Gedichte (Land in the East: Poems). On the eve of war in March 1939, she celebrated her 60th birthday by authorizing the publication of a revised and enlarged edition of her first poetry collection, which by that time had gone through an astonishing 19 editions and printings. The German press now customarily referred to her as Mutter Ostpreussen (Mother East Prussia). With the start of World War II in September 1939, she felt it her duty to support the war effort of the Reich by giving poetry readings throughout Germany. These poetry readings, some of which were recorded and broadcast on the Reich radio network, continued for the next several years even as the war turned against Nazi Germany. Her literary prestige continued to soar. Some of her poems were included in the 1940 anthology of war verse entitled Vom wehrhaften Geiste (On the Valiant Spirit), and in the same year she was awarded the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt am Main.
In August 1944, large areas of Miegel's beloved city of Königsberg were reduced to smoking rubble when the Soviet Air Force mounted a successful aerial attack. In December, she held her last public reading in her hometown, and a number of weeks after this she was evacuated from the city just before its surrender. Along with more than two million Germans from East Prussia, she was now a penniless displaced person. Miegel lived in a refugee camp in Denmark until October 1946, when she was evacuated to the Western sector of Germany. Eventually, she resided in two furnished rooms in Bad Nenndorf, near Hannover. Published in 1949, her first postwar book, a small verse collection entitled Du aber bleibst in mir (But You Remain in Me) brought together poems written since she had left Königsberg. Not surprisingly, the book began with a poem entitled "Farewell to Königsberg." The same year, she also published a collection of five stories entitled Die Blume der Götter (The Flower of the Gods). Only one of the five is set in Germany, and the tone of the stories lacks the mythical and irrational overtones found in her Geschichten aus Alt-Preussen. After publishing one more story collection in 1951, Miegel concentrated her energies on editing her collected works, of which six volumes appeared in print from 1952 through 1955 (a seventh volume appeared posthumously in 1965).
As West Germany's economic miracle gave that new state's citizens prosperity and leisure, many of them, particularly expatriates from East Prussia, found solace from their wartime suffering by reading Miegel's ballads and poems. A political force to be reckoned with, the Flüchtlinge (refugees) played a significant role in the public life of the Federal Republic of Germany for more than three decades. As the years passed, contact with the writings of Agnes Miegel helped them to recapture the spirit if not the reality of a way of life that had been lost. She died in Bad Salzuflen on October 26, 1964. Miegel was depicted on a postage stamp issued on February 14, 1979, by the post office of the German Federal Republic to commemorate the centennial of her birth.
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Miegel, Agnes. Das Bernsteinherz: Erzählungen. Leipzig: P. Reclam jun., 1944.
——. Es war ein Land: Gedichte und Geschichten aus Ostpreussen. Cologne: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1983.
——. Die Fahrt der sieben Ordensbrüder. Jena: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1939.
——. Kirchen im Ordensland. Königsberg: Gräfe und Unzer Verlag, 1933.
——. Mein Bernsteinland und meine Stadt. Königsberg: Gräfe und Unzer Verlag, 1944.
——. Die Meinen: Erinnerungen. Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1951.
——. Ostland: Gedichte. Jena: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1940.
——. Die Schlacht von Rudau. 3rd ed. Königsberg: Gräfe und Unzer Verlag, 1944.
——. Spaziergänge einer Ostpreussin: Feuilletons aud den zwanziger Jahren. Edited by Anni Piorreck. 3rd ed. Munich: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1989.
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"Heimatland Ostpreussen: Agnes Miegel liest aus eigenen Dichtungen" (Philips LP recording 843 959 PY).
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia