|A portrait of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (1837).|
I wrote the following in the Fall of 2014 for a course at Brigham Young University on Deutsche Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts.
The specter of anti-Semitism in German history looms large in today's post-Holocaust world. The great past works of German literature, ranging from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan der Weise to Annette von Droste-Hülshoff Die Judenbuche to Heinrich Heine's Hebräische Melodien, that have touched on themes of Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and religious pluralism in Germany have since the end of the Second World War enjoyed renewed critical attention. Recent critics have emphasized the significance of anti-Semitism in German culture and the role these works played in shaping or (re)defining Jewish "Otherness" in German consciousness.
Much of the criticism of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's 1842 novella Die Judenbuche has focused on the depiction of anti-Semitism in the text. As we will see, this literature has largely ignored what I believe is an example of the depiction of an arguably hypocritical Christian character. I believe the opening scene of Frederick Mergel and his seemingly pious mother taking shelter from a winter storm is ambiguous enough in the narrative to suggest religious hypocrisy on the part of Frau Mergel without explicitly depicting such. This ambiguity in turn brings more nuance to the portrayal of at least one non-Jewish character in the text.
Review of Literature – Anti-Semitism in Die Judenbuche?
Before we turn to Die Judenbuche itself, let us examine a few of the more important secondary sources on the topic of anti-Semitism in the text. One aspect of the text that scholars have especially latched onto is the apparently blatant anti-Semitism in the narrative. Karin Doerr's 1994 article on anti-Semitism in Die Judenbuche was something of a watershed. Fed up with previous scholarship that "obfuscated" the issue of Droste-Hülshoff's anti-Semitism, Doerr explicitly characterized Droste-Hülshoff as anti-Jewish. "Droste too draws a clear distinction between Jews and Christians," Doerr argued. "The latter represent the established group and therefore warrant no specific definition. The Jew, by contrast, is collectively marked as a type; he is the 'Other' which means by definition, inferior" (Doerr 1994, 454). Doerr examined instances of "the Christians' hatred of Jews" in the text that encouraged "a biased attitude toward the Jewish characters" on the part of the reader (449).
That being said, Doerr is careful to place Droste-Hülshoff in "the sociohistorical background" of her time "in order to explore notions of myth and truth about Jews" (Doerr 1994, 448). This, however, only compounds the problem, as Doerr recognizes that this approach blurs the line between the author and the narrator. "This anti-Jewish bias is also underscored in the narrative perspective [that makes it] difficult to establish a clear distinction between narrator and author because the former is not a fictional character within the story" (451–52). Doerr was thus one of the first to critique Die Judenbuche for its anti-Semitism. However, in so doing Doerr did not include a discussion of the moral failures of the Christian characters. Notwithstanding, her initial discussion has in many ways set the pattern that has been followed by subsequent commentators.
In his 1997 article, Jefferson Chase agreed with Doerr that the silence by critics on the anti-Semitism in Die Judenbuche "is a shame" (Chase 1997, 127). That being said, Chase tempers his criticism somewhat by insisting that Droste-Hülshoff herself isn't so much intrinsically anti-Semitic as the "images she uses can be better comprehended with reference to contemporary stereotypes" about Jews (129). He sees Die Judenbuche as indicative of the rise of "a super-regional German identity" that cast Jews as "Other" (130). As such, Chase argues that it is best to read Die Judenbuche strictly within the confines of the historical and cultural forces acting upon Droste-Hülshoff during her life, as should be done with the aspects of the narrative (such as the wood-poaching) that seem to clearly reflect the circumstances of her life situation (132–133). Chase therefore suggests that the anti-Jewish stereotypes, while indeed present in the text, are not insidious or reflective of any anti-Jewish malice on the part of Droste-Hülshoff. Instead, these stereotypes were simply the result of the popularized stereotypical image of Jews in the 19th century.
A year after Chase's article was published, Martha Helfer also picked up the discussion of anti-Semitism in the text. Helfer acknowledges the anti-Semitism, but downplays her criticism by insisting this anti-Semitism serves a bigger purpose than mere anti-Jewish polemic. "To be sure, Droste did not valorize the corrupt Christian society she depicted in her novella, yet she also did not temper the text's systemic anti-Semitism. . . . Instead she crafted a tale of indeterminacy that would resonate subliminally within the context of the debate about the 'Jewish question' for decades to come" (Helfer 1998, 247). Thus for Helfer, Die Judenbuche is indeed anti-Semitic, but it can still be mined for value in seeing how the "Jewish question" has been debated in Germany's cultural history. "There can be no doubt that Droste was anti-Semitic," Helfer subsequently concludes (230). She attributes this to the historical context of 19th century German anti-Semitism and, as such, somewhat excuses Droste-Hülshoff's anti-Semitism in the text as a product of her cultural environment (230-231).
Another critic who has recently discussed the anti-Semitism in Die Judenbuche is William Donahue, who in 1999 was more forceful with his criticisms of Droste-Hülshoff's anti-Semitism. "In point of fact," Donahue insists, "the story is structured by an anti-Judaic polemic which, for a number of reasons . . . remains largely unacknowledged in the secondary literature" (Donahue 1999, 44). That being said, Donahue is careful not to launch into an ad hominem attack against Droste-Hülshoff, and instead insists we confine our criticism to the text and the social forces that produced it. "Careful attention to the anti-Judaic polemic should instead illuminate the novella's complex ideological dynamic, and above all tell us something about how readers have received, suppressed and 're-written' certain aspects of the story (and the author) at various times in history" (65).
One aspect of Donahue's article that I found especially useful is the fact that the closest I have come to finding any secondary source that approaches the text the same way I do is with Donahue's observation that despite her anti-Semitism, "[Droste-Hülshoff] does not assume the full victory of Ecclesia; indeed, the drama of this narrative derives from the failure of the Christian community to live up to its particular religious calling" (Donahue 1999, 45). Donahue thus acknowledges that the text (if only passively) indicts the Christian characters for their moral failings, even if other critics have not carefully paid attention this. However, Donahue and I part ways in the fact that he sees Christian moral failings in how the Christian characters interact poorly with Jewish characters, whereas I see the Christian moral failing primarily in Frau Mergel neglecting to save her husband (or so it seems) from the storm, as I'll explain later.
Richard Gray's 2003 essay examined the anti-Semitism in Die Judenbuche in the light of economic critique of German nationalism in the 19th century. Specifically, Gray argues that the text portrays Jews (especially the Jew Aaron) as "the corrupting impact of an ethnic group non-native to Westphalia" (Gray 2003, 536). In other words, Gray argues that "the Jewish community in general" had "become the overcharged representatives of the economic and moral ills that plague Westphalian society" in Die Judenbuche as well as other contemporary German works (536).
These scholars argue that Die Judenbuche has clear anti-Semitic elements that reflect Droste-Hülshoff's socio-historical situation. This anti-Semitism, according to these critics, while certainly present in the text, should not be viewed as hateful or malicious in the same way later Nazi anti-Semitism was. Rather, it should be understood as a manifestation of the kind of literary anti-Semitism also used stereotypically by other authors contemporary to Droste-Hülshoff. Not that this excuses Droste-Hülshoff per se, but rather to provide nuance and context to how anti-Semitism is deployed in the text.
Of the scholars examined above, only one (Donahue) in any real way touches on the moral failings of the Christian characters in the text. But even then Donahue does not approach this moral failing the same way I shall below. Notwithstanding, I feel this review of secondary literature has been helpful in defining the parameters of the current scholarly discussion, as it evinces a focus on analyzing anti-Semitism and a neglect on analyzing the religious hypocrisy of the Christian characters independent of their relationships with the Jewish characters.
"[K]ommt der Vater heute nicht?" – The Ambiguous Hypocrisy of Frau Mergel
Perhaps the best place to see this type of religious hypocrisy at play in Die Judenbuche is the opening scene with Friedrich Mergel and his mother. Droste-Hülshoff, characteristically, adds a level of ambiguity in the scene, which only reinforces the mystery and sense of apprehension. Nevertheless, I believe that a potentially discernable hypocrisy is arguably present in this scene, specifically in the actions of Frau Mergel.
The scene begins with some narrative exposition explaining the circumstances of Frau Mergel and her abusive husband. Margret (Frau Mergel) is described as "eine brave, anständige Person, so in den Vierzigen, in ihrer Jugend eine Dorfschönheit" (Droste-Hülshoff 1997, 12), whereas her husband is revealed to be a sloppy drunk. "Anfangs imponierte sie ihrem Manne; er kam nicht nach Haus oder kroch in die Scheune, wenn er sich übernommen hatte; aber das Joch war zu drückend, um lange getragen zu werden, und bald sah man ihn oft genug quer über die Gasse ins Haus taumeln, hörte drinnen sein wüstes Lärmen und sah Margret eilends Tür und Fenster schließen" (12–13). Eventually Herr Mergel's drunkenness led to rumors of abuse. "Es hieß, an diesem Tage habe Mergel zuerst Hand an sie gelegt, obwohl das Bekenntnis nie über ihre Lippen kam" (13).
On the evening of "das Fest der heiligen drei Könige" there suddenly arose "eine harte, stürmische Winternacht" (13). Herr Mergel was out drinking at a wedding when he was caught in the storm. "Mutter," young Friedrich inquired, "kommt der Vater heute nicht?" (13) Frau Mergel instantly answers, "Nein, Kind, morgen," and prepares for bed (13). It is at this point where the narrative takes an ambiguous turn. Friedrich and his mother "hatten sich kaum niedergelegt, so erhob sich eine Windsbraut, als ob sie das Haus mitnehmen wollte. Die Bettstatt bebte, und im Schornstein rasselte es wie ein Kobold" (14). Friedrich appears to believe that it is the father knocking, and exclaims, "Mutter — es pocht draußen!" (14) Frau Mergel, however, insists it is the wind. "Still, Fritzchen, das ist das lockere Brett im Giebel, das der Wind jagt" (14). Friedrich and his mother debate this for a few lines. Eventually Frau Mergel cries, "Den hält der Teufel fest genug!" (14) Friedrich is incredulous, and asks, "Wo ist der Teufel, Mutter?" to which she hastily replies, "Wart, du Unrast! er steht vor der Tür und will dich holen, wenn du nicht ruhig bist!" (14)
The knocking/howling continues for some time, and it isn't long until Friedrich notices his mother praying. "Nach einer Weile bemerkte er, daß die Mutter auch nicht schlief. Er hörte sie weinen und mitunter: 'Gegrüßt seist du, Maria!' und 'Bitte für uns arme Sünder!' Die Kügelchen des Rosenkranzes glitten an seinem Gesicht hin" (15). When his mother notices him, she invites Friedrich to pray with her. "Kind, bete ein wenig — du kannst ja schon das halbe Vaterunser —, daß Gott uns bewahre vor Wasser- und Feuersnot" (15). After praying they hear a distinct voice call outside the door. "Der Rosenkranz flog klappernd auf den Brettstuhl, die Kleider wurden herbeigerissen" (15). The door opens to reveal a group of people who had discovered the frozen corpse of Herr Mergel. The last lines of the scene are from Friedrich's uncle, who says, "Margret, zieh dir das nicht zu Gemüt; wir wollen jeder drei Messen lesen lassen, und um Ostern gehen wir zusammen eine Bittfahrt zur Mutter Gottes von Werl" (16).
This remarkable scene deserves close attention. First, the plight of poor Frau Mergel and Friedrich are explained with narrative exposition that instantly generates sympathy on the part of the reader. Then the narrative wastes no time in setting up an ambiguous situation: is it really just the wind outside, or has Frau Mergel deliberately not opened the door for her husband because she can't handle more abuse? With this ambiguity Frau Mergel is neither unilaterally condemned nor completely exonerated for the death of her husband: either he froze to death outside because of her deliberate choice not to open the door or she innocently believed it was merely the wind. But this raises the question of why, then, was she praying? For forgiveness of her soul for indirectly murdering her husband? Or because she was genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of herself and her child in the storm? Why too did she stop Friedrich from opening the door, saying that the devil will take him like he had his father? Was this a cynical ploy to scare her child into complacency or because of her genuine belief in the supernatural? The narrative never actually gives the reader any clear answers to these questions.
Regardless, we can still somewhat fault Frau Mergel for her failing to uphold her professed Christian morality. Regardless of whether her husband was at the door or not, Frau Mergel arguably failed as a Christian to do the "Christian" thing of opening her house for someone possibly in need, even if that someone was an abusive husband. In what is a potentially ironic twist on classical Christian imagery, it is Herr Mergel who is presented as something of a Christ figure, standing at the door and knocking for entrance: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me" (Revelation 3:20; cf. Matthew 7:7; Luke 13:25). Thus, an ostensibly "Christian" character fails to do exactly what a Christian should've done in this situation. In all of her supposed piety, which included praying the rosary and Lord's Prayer and warning her child of the devil, Frau Mergel fails to do the quintessential Christ-like thing and take mercy or pity on a suffering individual, even if that individual does not necessarily deserve mercy or pity. We thus read what appears to be an act of sheer hypocrisy on the part of an ostensibly pious Christian.
However, one important caveat still remains. I say this appears to be an act of hypocrisy because the ambiguous narrative actually doesn't tell us if it was the father at the door or merely the wind all along. For all we know, Frau Mergel was fully justified in not opening the door, which may have simply led to her and her child being exposed to the cold. Furthermore, the reader may reasonably infer that Herr Mergel would've abused Friedrich in addition to his wife. Does the added dynamic of Friedrich potentially being abused excuse Frau Mergel from allowing her husband to freeze, assuming she did know it was him at the door and purposely left him outside? One might argue in the affirmative. But there is no positive narrative evidence for this reading, and this line of thinking must remain speculative. As such, the fact that she won't even bother to check the door, in addition to her perplexing admission that her husband has been claimed by the devil, makes one at least suspicious that Frau Mergel is at fault here, and is in fact acting hypocritically.
How this this significant? In two ways. First, this ambiguity grabs the reader's attention and compels one to continue reading to try and find some kind of resolution to Herr Mergel's death. This ambiguity likewise establishes what the reader can expect for the rest of the story, which is fraught with ambiguity up until (and even after) the climactic ending. Second, this apparent hypocrisy on the part of a Christian character adds a level of nuance to the religious dynamic in the plot. Said another way, this potential depiction of a hypocritical Christian somewhat tempers the apparent anti-Semitic depiction of the Jewish characters in Die Judenbuche. It's not just Jews, but also at least one Christian character that is portrayed somewhat negatively (if also with a thick layer of ambiguity). In other words, the text can be read as an equal opportunity critic of the religious characters–––both Jewish and Christian. One might even go so far as to argue that this subverts the anti-Semitism in the text, as it isn't just the Jews who receive some kind of negative portrayal, although this seems like overreach in my opinion. In any event, this scene adds a rich layer of narrative sophistication that forces the careful reader to reconsider what has just transpired, which reinforces the mystery of the plot.
It was Helfer who observed that "interpretative ambiguity is at stake in [Die Judenbuche]" (Helfer 1998, 232). This is also true for how I interpret the opening scene with Friedrich and his mother. The narrative is ambiguous enough to snatch the reader's attention while at the same time warning against any sort of dogmatic reading of the text. Nevertheless, I feel my reading of the text above is reasonable. It is not just Jewish characters who are depicted negatively in the text. Christian characters, particularly Frau Mergel, are also depicted in a negative light. In this case, Frau Mergel is depicted as a religious hypocrite who, justified or not due to the years of abuse, failed to live up to her professed Christian morals. With this reading of the text we can appreciate better the religious dynamic of the characters, while at the same time ponder further questions of what kind of commentary Droste-Hülshoff was making on 19th century German religious identity.
:Another possible reading is that not Jews per se but anti-Semitism itself is being portrayed negatively. Said another way, one might read the text as depicting anti-Semitism from the perspective of the Christian characters, and not necessarily from the perspective of the author herself. If this is the case, then the reader is encountering anti-Semitism within the narrative, and not externally from the author. This is an important distinction.
Chase, Jefferson S. "Part of the Story: The Significance of the Jews in Annette von Droste Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche." Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 71.1 (January 1997): 127–145.
Doerr, Karin. "The Specter of Anti-Semitism in and around Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche." German Studies Review 17.3 (October 1994): 447–471.
Donahue, William Collins. "Ist er kein Jude, so verdiente er einer zu sein": Droste- Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche and Religious Anti-Semitism." The German Quarterly 72.1 (Winter 1999): 44–73.
Droste-Hülshoff, Annette von. Die Judenbuche. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. 1997.
Gray, Richard T. "Red Herrings and Blue Smocks: Ecological Destruction, Commercialism, and Anti-Semitism in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche." German Studies Review 26.3 (October 2003): 515–42.
Helfer, Martha B. "'Wer wagt es, eitlen Blutes Drang zu messen?': Reading Blood in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff's Die Judenbuche." The German Quarterly 71.3 (Summer 1998): 228–253.