Christian Hypocrisy in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s “Die Judenbuche”

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.
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
to Annette von Droste-Hülshoff Die
to Heinrich Heine’s Hebräische
, 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.

of Literature – Anti-Semitism in Die
Before we turn to Die
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
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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
[K]ommt der Vater heute nicht?” – The Ambiguous Hypocrisy of Frau Mergel
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.[1] 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.
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. 

[1]: 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.

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