Weber, Helene (1881–1962)
Weber, Helene (1881–1962)
Pioneering German social worker who was also a leading political figure in Germany's Catholic Center Party during the 1920s and in its successor, the Christian Democratic Party, after World War II . Pronunciation: Hell-EEN VEHB-err. Born on March 17, 1881, in Elberfeld, Germany; died in a hospital in Bonn, Germany, on July 25, 1962; second of six children of Wilhelm Weber (a schoolteacher) and Agnes Christiane (van Gent) Weber; attended grade school and women's school in Elberfeld; had teacher-education training in Aachen and Elberfeld; studied history, French, philosophy, and sociology at universities in Bonn, Germany, and Grenoble, France.
Passed the qualifying examination to become a schoolteacher (1900); taught at schools in Aachen and Elberfeld (1900–05); studied at the universities of Bonn and Grenoble (1905–10); taught at women's secondary schools in Bochum (1909); became principal of the Kaiserina Augusta School in Cologne (1911); assumed the leadership of the new social welfare school of the German Catholic Women's Federation (1916); became editor of the Federation journal (1917); was elected to the constitution-writing convention for the Weimar Republic (1919); was appointed to ministerial rank in the Prussian Ministry for Social Welfare (1919); was a member of the Prussian Landtag (1922–24); traveled to the United States as a representative of the German Catholic Women's Federation (1923); served as a deputy in the Reichstag (1924–33); received an honorary doctorate from the University of Münster (1930); released from her ministerial position by the new Nazi government of Germany on the grounds of "political unreliability" (June 1933); moved to her sister's home in Marburg after her home in Berlin was destroyed by bombing (1945); served as a member of the Landtag of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (1946); served as a member of the German Bundestag in West Germany (1949–62); served as president of the women's branch of the Christian Democratic Party (1949–58); became president of the women's committee of the Bundestag (1957); attended the World Eucharistic Congress in Rio de Janiero (1955); received the West German government's highest civilian award, the Grosse Bundeverdienstyrenz (1957).
Helene Weber's interests combined two areas not often found together: politics and social work. Although she was active in a German political party which for a long time opposed the right to vote for women, Weber played a role in convincing party leaders eventually to accept suffrage for women. But she insisted that the emancipation of women also meant that women should assume more responsibilities, and she split her own career between political service and efforts to expand and professionalize social work in Germany. Her path was unusual enough that fellow Germans coined a new term—"social politics"—to describe her work.
Born in Elberfeld, Germany, in 1881, the daughter of a schoolteacher, Weber originally trained for elementary school teaching. After instructing at that level for five years at Aachen and Elberfeld, she took advantage of new opportunities for women to study in universities by taking courses in history, French, philosophy, and sociology at the universities of Bonn, Germany, and Grenoble, France. She then worked as a school administrator. In 1911, she was appointed principal of the Kaiserina Augusta school in Cologne. In 1916, she was named the head of the first social welfare school of the German Catholic Women's Federation, first in Cologne and then in Aachen, where she had a heavy influence in shaping a curriculum that included theology, medicine, economics, and the basics of law. She later served as president of the Federation.
World War I altered the course of her life and career. During the war, the German government urged women to be part of "citizen service." Weber responded by immersing herself in social work, helping found a series of organizations and activities to aid the families of soldiers who were at the front. Born in the heavily industrialized Rhineland area of Germany, she was well aware of working conditions in German factories. She worried especially about women who assumed dangerous homefront jobs during the war, particularly in factories (she was especially concerned for munitions workers), as well as women who worked on farms and in hospitals.
A devout Catholic, Weber came to see social work as a religious imperative. Speaking in the Reichstag building in Berlin in 1916, she told a general meeting of the German Catholic Women's Federation that young women, in particular, should be motivated by "a Christian impulse" to join in social work.
This woman has a better sense of politics in her little finger than most people have in their entire hand.
The collapse of the imperial German government at the end of the war, and the flight to Holland of the German emperor, opened the way for the establishment of a democracy in Germany. Weber, although active in the leadership circles of the Catholic Center Party since 1903, found herself at odds with the leadership of the party, which had traditionally opposed women's suffrage. Elected in 1919 to the body which wrote a new constitution for Germany, in effect creating the Weimar Republic, Weber proved to be an influential political figure. Of the more than 420 delegates, 36 were women. Weber was one of the six women representing the Catholic Center Party. When it became apparent that the new constitution would grant the right to vote to women aged 21 and older, conservative commentators in Germany noted the extent to the which Catholic women, including Weber, had influenced their party to accept women's suffrage.
Appointed to a ministerial position in the newly created Prussian Ministry of Social Welfare in 1920 (changed in 1932 to the Prussian Ministry for Science, Art, and Education), Weber also served in the Landtag, the lower legislative house of Prussia, during the 1920s. She frequently proved to be an independent figure politically. She was in the minority of Center Party leaders opposing the German signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, because she believed that it was unnecessarily harsh on Germany.
Weber's ideas on social work were also iconoclastic. She pledged that her goals within the Prussian Ministry of Social Welfare were to find "new ways to achieve the renewal" of German women and create "helpful guidance" for German youth. During the decade of the 1920s, she continued to argue that the goals of the German women's movement had to comprise not only emancipation but also social concern. Equality, she said, "is not the same thing as making everyone act alike or be alike. Equality recognizes the differences between the sexes, as well as the intrinsic worth of both sexes." She added that social work should help women workers without ignoring women who had "stayed at home." "We are," she insisted, "beyond the first period of securing legal rights for women. Now we are in the second period, when we expect that promises made will be fulfilled."
Weber's political work brought her into contact with social workers in other countries. When she visited Jane Addams ' Hull House settlement in Chicago in 1923 as part of a Federation delegation to the United States, she noted the "wide influence" of Addams' social work ideas in Germany. She was instrumental in the merger, in 1925, of 20 schools of social work, in Europe and the United States, into the Union Catholique Internationale de Service Social (UCISS). In recognition of her efforts to promote social work and provide women's leadership in politics, the University of Munster awarded her an honorary doctorate of politics in 1930.
In March 1933, Weber was one of the prominent Center Party members who opposed the Enabling Act. This law, which much of the Center Party leadership was tricked into approving, eventually allowed Adolf Hitler to assume dictatorial powers in Germany. In the aftermath, she realized, "My tenure in the ministry was no longer possible for political reasons." She was "summarily dismissed" from the Prussian Ministry on June 3, 1933, and was given 24 hours to remove her belongings from her office. She chose to regard her firing as a "liberation from work"—a kind of "blessing," because her work in the ministry could no longer be in accord with "Christian principles to help youth and provide a social education for them."
But she later observed, "I did not go into hiding" from the summer of 1933 through the end of World War II. For awhile, she remained in Berlin and immersed herself in the "social, cultural, and religious work" of the German Catholic Women's Federation. Her colleague Josef Schmitt declared that by the mid-1930s, "people of resistance to the Nazi regime" were gathering in her home for frequent meetings.
The social work organizations that she headed were never banned by the government, although the Nazi regime attempted to limit participation by legal threats and the searches of some social workers' homes. Weber tried to stay in touch with Catholic social workers by frequent tours throughout the country, concentrating on the German cities. She reported discovering that the racial discrimination laws of the Nazi regime, plus the pressure for sterilization of some ill or handicapped children, caused great anxiety in some social workers. When Catholic social workers were forced by the Nazi government into German "work fronts," her influence as "supervisor" and "teacher" of those social workers who were associated with the Federation was greatly diminished.
When, in 1939, the journal of the Federation was banned by the Nazi government, Weber contributed a poem to its last issue which read:
All that we bear
Will be suffered in private
Only in Silence will the great Love be fulfilled
All that we have
Will be lost in death
Only in death is the great Love to be understood.
Remaining in Berlin during World War II, Weber worried about a brother, who was in a Russian prison camp and would, in fact, die in the camp at the end of the war. When her home in Berlin was destroyed by bombing in 1945, she moved in with a sister in Marburg.
At the end of the war, she once again entered the political arena. During the years 1946–48, she was a member of the citizens advisory council to the British occupation forces in West Germany, which had the goals of normalizing life in Germany and laying a basis for a non-Nazi government. During 1946, she served as a member of the Landtag, or parliamentary body, of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. During the 1950s, Weber was a German delegate to what eventually became the European Community.
Weber was a member of the group which wrote the constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany, the government of non-Communist West Germany during the Cold War years. She assumed a prominent role as party secretary when the Christian Democratic Party was founded after World War II as a successor to the Center Party. It became the dominant party in West Germany during the 1950s and 1960s. During the years 1949 through 1962, Weber sat in the Bundestag, the popularly elected lower house of West Germany's Parliament, as part of the Christian Democratic government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. She served as chair of the women's committee of the Bundestag and president of the women's branch of the Christian Democratic Party.
Weber continued her social work. At the end of World War II, speaking to a Düsseldorf meeting of social workers, she tied the fate of Germany with the peace of Europe and "Christian responsibility." She became president of the Maternity Care Service. She helped revive the Union Catholique Internationale de Service Social and served on the organization's steering committee from 1950 to 1958. In 1950, she was a representative of the UCISS to a Eucharistic Congress in Brazil.
Upon her death in 1962, one of Germany's leading politicians said, "Those of us who have worked closely with Helene Weber know that our country will miss not only her intelligence and iron will in politics, but also her maternal way of doing political business." After her death, her contributions to German life were
recognized in two different ways. A school was named after her in Berlin—the Helene Weber Academy—and she was one of several women honored in a special series of German postage stamps, issued in 1969, under the motif of "50 years of Women's Suffrage."
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Niles Holt , Professor of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois