Remembering World War II and after with Christa Wolf

Hitler's Arch, Munich 1951
Hitler’s Arch, Munich 1951
Christa Wolf
Christa Wolf
Memorial Day brings tangled memories of wars and their aftermaths. Wars have defined the last hundred years of America’s history—of the whole world’s history. Every generation has its defining war, and those of us who have lived through them never completely forget.

Christa Wolf, one of the best known novelists of postwar East Germany, died in 2011, but her voice is still alive. I have been reading her last book, City of Angels: Or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud, a novel, more of a memoir really, of a year spent in Los Angeles in 1993 as a Getty fellow. Wolf was struggling to come to terms with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany. During that year the German authorities released a file documenting some interviews she had with the Stasi thirty years earlier. Her friends, her readers, and she herself were devastated by the revelation that she had been interviewed by the secret police and had apparently cooperated with them and talked to them about other writers.

My attitude toward Wolf was shaped by her earlier books documenting her childhood in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. She and I share a birthday, March 18, although not in the same year. She was born in 1929, close to me in age, and while she and her family lived through WWII in Germany, I was living through it in New York City. Her 1976 book Patterns of Childhood brought a jolt of recognition when I read it because for the first time I felt what a different person I could have become if I had grown up in Germany rather than America.

The first time I went to Europe, on a student trip in 1951, several countries, and especially Germany, still showed many traces of war. To our group of American students, the war seemed long in the past, but we saw some of its reality then in the broken buildings, the armed guards at the border of the Eastern Zone, and the rationing that still lingered in the UK. As I looked at the faces of people in the streets of Germany I wondered what they thought of us and whether they would ever forget the bitter hatred that divided us from them for so many years.

Now, reading City of Angels, I am more conscious than ever of how long wars linger in memories and attitudes. No one ever leaves a war behind even though we do not remember exactly how we felt or even what we did during different times. How did I feel about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war? I am sure I never questioned it, neither did my parents. We believed our government was always right and Japan and Germany were always wrong. Yet people who lived through that internment will never forget. And most Americans agree now that it was unnecessary and cruel.

On this Memorial Day, the idea that stays in my mind and keeps me from enjoying a holiday is knowing that during the years since World War II, America has fought so many wars and created so many bitter memories for new generations. War has become our permanent state. Children who have grown up with drone attacks killing their families and friends and with sudden outbursts of gunfire on streets they walk down to school, will never forget. Seventy years from now the memories will still be there poisoning their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Sometimes it is good to go back and look at a war through the eyes of someone on the other side. Were they really so different? Were all the bombings and the imprisonments and the frenzy of anti-Communist rhetoric really necessary? The world goes on just about the same as ever—no better and probably no worse. There are evil deeds that must be punished, and individuals who should be kept out of society, but is mass killing ever the answer? We need to spend more time listening to the people who suffer and are displaced because of our endless, often pointless, quarrels. Those are the voices we need this Memorial Day, not the speeches of glib politicians.

Christa Wolf’s books, City of Angels, Patterns of Childhood, and several others are available in most libraries, a few bookstores, and of course on Amazon. Another book I highly recommend is a collection of poetry by German women called After Every War, translated by the Irish-born poet Eavan Boland, who teaches at Stanford University. You will find some unforgettable voices of people who lived through the turmoil of two world wars and commemorate the losses those brought. I can’t forget the words of Rose Auslander, “My key/has lost its house.” (I can’t quote the whole poem, because of Copyright rules, but it is worth searching out and reading.)

Today we remember the losses that all wars bring. Let’s try to put an end to the continuing losses we are causing year after year after year.

Queen Victoria and Angelina Jolie–two courageous women

Queen Victoria's family
Queen Victoria’s family
Angelina Jolie, the beautiful film star who has been at the center of so many media stories, has reached new fame with her decision to have a double mastectomy as a way to avoid breast cancer. Her decision has sparked some controversy, but also an outpouring of informative stories describing different types of the breast cancer and different options for treatment. Ms. Jolie’s candid explanation of her choice in a N.Y. Times op-ed piece has encouraged more discussion about the risks women face. She joins a long line of prominent women who have had the courage to try new solutions to women’s enduring health issues. One of the most surprising of them was Queen Victoria, the ultra-proper ruler who presided over the stringent rules of the Victorian era, showed courage in taking the initiative in her own healthcare.

More than 150 years ago Victorian women endured an often painful and sometimes dangerous succession of childbirths. Even Queen Victoria, despite her position as monarch of the British empire and the most powerful woman in the world, went through the same pains of childbirth as she bore nine children in fairly quick order. Having many children and enduring the struggle of their births without complaining was a demonstration of her status as a virtuous wife. But eventually even Victoria felt rebellious, it seems, and her loving husband Prince Albert, agreed with her that she deserved some help in easing the pain of childbirth.

Although women had been seeking relief from the pain of childbirth for centuries, when anesthesia finally became available during Victorian times, many people condemned its use. Men of religion proclaimed that if God had wanted childbirth to be painless, He would have designed it that way, so using anesthesia was against God’s wishes. The pain of childbirth was described by at least one English minister as suffering that women owed to God. There were few women ministers at that time to argue against that. Finally women began to demand some easing of their pain. We can imagine the arguments in homes across the Western world as women began to demand relief.

When Queen Victoria led the way by having chloroform administered during the birth of Prince Leopold, she gave courage to many women across England. Just like Angelina Jolie today, her decision was reported in the news and started conversations and discussions. Nowadays some women choose to have childbirth without anesthesia while others prefer the medication. Either decision is accepted as a woman’s right. In just the same way, Angelina Jolie’s decision to choose preemptive mastectomy will broaden the choices that women in her situation feel empowered to make.

Three cheers for the powerful women who have the courage to set an example that gives other, less well-known women, more choice in their lives!

No fairytale life at the palace for Fanny Burney

Many a young girl, I suspect, has dreamed of being a lady-in-waiting to a queen. The words conjure up a life of glamour and excitement, and the possibility of meeting Prince Charming. But when Fanny Burney was asked to serve Queen Charlotte as Second Keeper of the Robes, she had a feeling it would be a disaster. Instead of having time for her writing, she would be required to wait on the queen at least three times a day, to help her get dressed, to choose her ornaments and fan, and to help dress her hair. Charles Burney, Fanny’s father, was proud to have his daughter serve in the Court and strongly encouraged her to take the position. She would receive an apartment of her own and 200 pounds a year, a nice supplement to the family income.

The court of George III was not known for its culture or style. Fanny went there in 1786 and served almost five years, but she found Court life stifling. Fanny admired Queen Charlotte because of her high moral standards, but the queen was not a well-educated woman and was not interested in books or intellectual discussion. After Fanny’s life at home associating with artists, musicians and writers, the endless rules and formality of court life were hard to accept. Everyone was required to back out of the presence of the King and walking backwards in a long skirt was a difficult skill to master. Fanny knew that it was her success as an author that led to her appointment at the Court, but she found the monarchs knew little about her books. In her diary she recorded this conversation with the king:

“How came you—how happened it—what?—what?”
“I-I only wrote, Sir, for my own amusement,–only in some odd, idle hours.”
“But your publishing—your printing,–how was that?
“That was only, sir, –only because—“
I hesitated most abominably, not knowing how to tell him a long story, and growing terribly confused at these questions;….
The What! was then repeated, with so earnest a look, that, forced to say something, I stammeringly answered—
“I thought-sir-it would look very well in print.”

Fanny found her life at Court far from a fairytale. Much of it was a series of difficult conversations with people who shared neither her interests nor her talents. To make matters worse, while she was still in this post, King George became ill and suffered bouts of manic energy and feverish behavior. No one knew the cause of his illness and no doctor could cure it; it wasn’t until the 20th century that his rare illness, porphyria, was determined to be the cause of his attacks of madness. Living through the attacks was difficult for the Queen and for Fanny who had to report to her on the condition of the king each morning.

It is no wonder that Fanny grew increasingly unhappy in her service to the Queen, and yet it was not easy to find a way out. She found it difficult to eat and lost weight, her anxiety made her breathless and dizzy. She tried several times to resign from her post, and her friends urged the Queen to let her go, but it took months before her wish was granted and she could return to live with her family again.

Fanny Burney's tombstone
Fanny Burney’s tombstone
From that time on, Fanny Burney’s efforts to make money were all turned toward writing, and she was successful with her novels. It is nice to think that he life was made happier by a late marriage to a French aristocrat, Alexandre d’Arblay, a refugee from the French revolution. The marriage was a happy one and the couple had one son. Fanny continued to write to support her family; she endured a mastectomy without anesthesia, and lived to be 88 years old. Her books are still available online and in many libraries as well several biographies of her. One of the more recent ones is Fanny Burney by Claire Harman, a fascinating introduction to a woman worth knowing.