Niese, Charlotte (1854–1935)

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Niese, Charlotte (1854–1935)

Prolific German author whose works, now forgotten, were extremely popular with the German middle class for nearly 50 years. Name variations: (pseudonym) Lucian Bürger. Born in Burg, on the island of Fehmarn, on June 7, 1854; died in Altona-Ottensen near Hamburg, on December 8, 1935; daughter of Emil August Niese (mother's name unknown); sister of Benedictus Niese (1849–1910, a noted professor of ancient history).

The vagaries of taste can consign a once-popular artist to oblivion. Such is the case of Charlotte Niese, a prolific German writer whose historical novels, set mostly in Northern Germany, were once immensely popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies over a period of nearly half a century. Like many of her readers, she grew up in a pre-industrial world of peasant traditions and unquestioned adherence to moral, social, and political hierarchies. Although these began to be challenged in the final decades of the 19th century by the rise of cities, an assertive working class, women demanding equality, and intellectuals keen to create a new world order, the forces of tradition remained strong. Niese's many novels presented an idealized view of this older, and apparently more solid Germany. Her characters were morally untainted by modernity. The women were pure, the men instinctively patriotic, and the villages and towns in which they lived were permeated by a German geist of idealism, sacrifice for the greater good of the gemeinschaft (moral community), and belief in the power of a stern Lutheran God. None of these books remain in print today, and their author is essentially unknown, even among literary scholars.

Charlotte Niese was born in 1854 in the town of Burg on the North German island of Fehmarn where her father was a Lutheran pastor and school director. She grew up in Burg, as well as in the towns of Riesebye and Eckernförde. After her father died in 1869, Niese moved to Altona, where she prepared for her teacher-qualification examinations. She passed these with distinction in Schleswig and then worked for some years as a private tutor in aristocratic households, including the von Krogh family in North Schleswig, the Delius family in the Rhine Province, and the prestigious Holstein family (the Brockdorff-Ahlefelds) in Ascheberg. In 1881, Niese moved to Plön to live with her mother and began to write. To gather materials and experiences, she traveled to Italy and Switzerland. She was encouraged in her writing by one of her brothers, Benedictus Niese, a noted professor of ancient history. In 1886, Niese published her first novel, Cajus Rungholt, followed two years later by Auf halbverwischten Spuren (On Half-Obliterated Tracks). Set in places she knew and loved in the north of Germany, these historical novels appealed to readers who wanted to be entertained.

Niese spent two years in the United States with another brother who lived there, and after her return to Germany published a memoir of her trip, Bilder und Skizzen aus Amerika (Pictures and Sketches from America, 1891). This book, mostly unknown and never translated into English, contains observations of an America on the eve of becoming a world power. It also provides insights into the mentality of a conservative woman exposed to ideas that threatened her world. From this time on, Niese was a successful author. Most of her novels and short stories were set in Holstein or in the area around Hamburg, places she knew and loved, and changed relatively little in content or mood over the next decades. To modern readers, these books appear simplistic in plot and moralistic in tone. The system of values in which they are grounded died in the trenches of World War I.

In her 1924 autobiography, Von Gestern und Vorgestern (From Yesterday and the Day before Yesterday), Niese remained convinced of the wisdom of traditional German ideals. Her books are a reflection of the strengths—and to a considerable degree, the illusions—of the German middle classes as they were thrown into a world of rapid change. When they came to power in the early 1930s, the Nazis claimed that they too were defenders of the traditional values of German Kultur. Many of the readers of Niese's books, still attracted to her sentimental, naive plots and characterizations, believed that Adolf Hitler would restore those ideals of Old Germany, purging the land of Jewish materialism and Marxist class hatreds. The simple world of rural Germany depicted in Niese's books could in fact never be restored. Only war resulted from Nazi pseudo-conservatism, and Charlotte Niese, who died in 1935 as an old, respected regional writer, was spared experiencing the destruction by firestorm of her beloved city of Hamburg in 1943. Opportunists to the end, the Nazis reprinted one of Niese's nationalist tales, Das Lagerkind (The Camp Child), in 1940, and reprinted 30,000 copies in 1944, no doubt as an act to restore morale.


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

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Niese, Charlotte (1854–1935)

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