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Sämtliche Schriften - Band IV: 1927-1928

Carl von Ossietzky: Sämtliche Schriften - Band IV: 1927-1928 - Kapitel 140
authorCarl von Ossietzky
titleSämtliche Schriften ? Band IV: 1927?1928
seriesSämtliche Schriften
volumeBand IV
printrun1. Auflage
editorWerner Boldt, Renke Siems



The Revolt of German Women

Much has changed in Germany in the last ten years, but still more, despite new trappings, remains the same at heart. The politicians are not much cleverer than they used to be. The tradespeople have a somewhat larger spirit and feel injured when one charges them, even in jest, with respectability. They adopt a pose of refined and lax business morals. They consider that international and, if you will excuse my saying so, American. But behind this frivolous attitude one occasionally catches a glimpse of a good old-fashioned German donkey's ear. All this is not new. Even the high military officers are just the same as they used to be, and if they were not so weak they would repeat the old stupidities. The only thing in Germany which has fundamentally changed is the German woman. I am aware that there is a certain exaggeration in so summary a judgment. I know that there is a great working-class Stratum, a sort of sub-humanity, whose conditions of life have not changed since Pharaoh's day. There woman is the traditional beast of burden for men and children; feminity dies in the endless march from stove to washtub. And I do not deny that in the bourgeoisie there is a type which preserves its morals, prejudices, and clothes unchanged from a vanished age, which wears its hair as the Crown Princess did in 1905, as a sort of shibboleth against the madness of today, or twists it into a thin knot at the back of the neck as an expression of the protest of the German spirit against those forces which have taken away from us not only the Kaiser but the holiness of matrimony and the sacred shimmer of virginity. I am thinking, however, of the vast army of women who have been forced by modern progress into industrial life, who are working in every conceivable profession, and have even created new professions for themselves. They make the picture of the great cities. They determine the forces of our outer life wherever industry, business activity, and production are at hand. The independent working woman is the representative of her sex in Germany today, not the woman whose activity is confined to the domestic circle.

Berlin reporters are always happy when distinguished foreigners inform them that Berlin women are the chicest and most elegant whom they have seen upon their travels. I do not take that very seriously and I am convinced that the gentlemen would make the same comment in San Luis Potosi or in Vladivostok. But I should like to emphasize the fact that the Berlin streets are never more charming than in the afternoon between five o'clock and eight when the women are Coming home from business. There is a breath of serenity, of freedom in these armies of women, some of whom are going home, not for the rest or pleasure, but to more work and domestic duties, and almost all of whom are overburdened with financial worries. In the old days the streets were at their brightest in the promenade hours, at Shopping time, when the ladies of the virtuous middle class took their clothes out on display, when their daughters promenaded with their intendeds, and the daring married woman with her cicisbeo. But that is all gone.

The type of the German woman today is precisely the same as everywhere else in the world – short hair, short skirts, fleshcolored stockings. The current lines of fashion are strictly adhered to; gymnastics determine the figure, Coty the perfume and color. The articles of clothing which are not usually visible are the empire of the new silk industry in Germany. It is the same as everywhere else – equalization, standardization. Class distinctions are being erased. Caste characteristics are disappearing.

Perhaps the change was sharper and more violent in Germany than elsewhere. The war took the women out of their protected homes and heaped upon them a burden of responsibilities. The revolution bestowed upon them civil rights for which they had never fought a mass battle. The high priestesses of women's rights never had much volume in their voices. The struggle of the individual woman who had become conscious of the narrowness of her bourgeois existence was always directed rather to social and human than to political emancipation. She was fighting for self-determination against the dominance of her family, for the right to win or lose a living; fighting, in sum, to make her own choice of a husband or to share her life with the man of her choice without a wedding certificate. This is the classical theme of emancipation literature from George Sand on. In 1914 the case of women's freedom in Germany was still desperately bad. The women and girls who espoused such ideas were considered either outlawed or insane. Ten years later the battle had been won along the entire front, and today anyone bothering to discuss the right of a woman to her own social and erotic existence would make himself absurd. Freedom has conquered.

As often occurs, the battle was won quite accidentally without a conscious struggle or a program. None of the old apostles of women's rights dreamed of such a dizzy victory for their ideals. The great magician who accomplished the change was inflation. Inflation disappropriated the old bourgeoisie which had lived upon its income more radically than any German Lenin could have done. The war destroyed the conventional sex morality, and love emerged, stripped of imported romance, as an imperative physical necessity. The public liquidation occurred in the winter of 1919 when the men came back from the war; it arrived in Berlin, and later in all the big cities, in the form of costume balls at which all the avidity of a long-suppressed vitality broke out with orgiastic vehemence. That winter the old morality was strangled by confetti streamers to an accompaniment of fiddles and clarinets. The new principles were simple enough: we want to live, and life is short ...

Then came the three years of depreciation when money lost its value. Poverty, instead of skirmishing about the upper and lower borders of society, struck straight at its heart and dispossessed the strata which for a century had been the bearers of German civilization and had crystallized their ethical standards into law. Fortunes exploded between morning and evening. Property which had been nursed and increased through generations turned into mere handfuls of bank notes which at a telephone call from the Stock Exchange degenerated into a matter of pennies. Then a new and shameful army of parvenus marched upon this ruin as into a conquered city and dragged the women of the conquered houses with them like camp-followers. There was an unprecedented clearance sale of the moral accumulations of a century. Good solid married women who had had to carry the burden of keeping the family going sold themselves for hard cash, and their husbands looked in the other direction when they did not themselves take over the management of the business. Sheltered girls in whose presence no improper word had ever been spoken sold themselves; their parents kept silence when they did not act as intermediaries. Sexual morality does not drop upon us out of the ether, but is very primitively related to the general economic circumstances. The year 1923 was an impressive demonstration for those who would derive morality from an inborn instinct for the noble and beautiful.

We are back in a period of calm today. The bacchanal reached its end, and the maenads looked about for work, and when they found it, it seemed as if they had always had it. The matter-of-course manner in which they went into purgatory and came out of it is perhaps the most important characteristic of these years. No emotion, no pathos. Many sank into the lost army of street prostitution, which in Germany as elsewhere recruits its members from the unemployed in times of crisis. Today the new status has established itself. Women are an intimate part of industrial life and even those who do not need it seek a profession. The good, do-nothing, home girl who was led about by a holy alliance of aunts and relatives and had to wait for a husband chosen by her parents has entirely disappeared. The number of wives who are so dependent upon their husbands that they have to put up with their ill humors has markedly decreased. There has been a vast increase in the number of free unions which can be dissolved without great external difficulty. The trend to erotic self-determination has won the day with the women; and thus a new element has come into society, which cannot be described in traditional terms. The forms of the new feminine society are still uncertain. This at least is sure: the women are constantly evolving toward a new class predestined by the possibilities of their sex. They have one common trait: they have broken the solidarity of the old classes. The ex-aristocrat is attracted by bourgeois life, and the daughter of a common laborer, as salesgirl or stenographer, is striving toward the same goal. The middle-class girl throws herself into art and literature, enlarges the population of Bohemia, and popularizes the ideas of her friends.

It would take too long to go into the tragedies and comedies of this still undeveloped movement. But I may add a few words about the men, who, after all, are not quite indifferent. They have shown a certain talent in adaptation, but certain types formerly common have suffered a pretty complete defeat: the Philistine and the Don Juan. The first has lost his market value. His virtues no longer seem impressive, and his domestic constancy contradicts the desire for breadth and tempo. And what is there left for Don Juan? His melting eyes seem ludicrous, for they are no longer turned upon women who never look up without blushing. The lady killer can find no subjects to work upon. When women talk freely upon intimate subjects, openly stress the amusingness of love, and no longer load it down with the bad conscience and dark problematics of Ibsen's day – what is there left for the seducer? Poor Don Juan! Self-determination, and self-control; freedom, but renunciation of distant and cloudy Utopias – that is the unwritten but deeply felt program of our women of today. I should like to add as a postscript a document which once landed upon my editorial table and which shows how a clever woman who has much esprit and little money faces reality:

»The trouble with modern men is their neuroses. Learn to understand their worries and juggle before their eyes a paradise of possible methods of escape. If you are yourself weak, for heaven's sake do not turn to your lover but go to a clever nerve specialist; he will advise you how to get along with neurotic men. Have nothing to do with men who dominate you. Sex docility may create a short and stormy joy, but you will buy it at the expense of your own personality. Never delude yourself with the dream of 100 per cent happiness. That is a criminal speculation. Content yourself meanwhile with 20 to 70 per cent cases; in the end they will add up into a stately total, and the time is short. And always remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive! Amen.«


The Nation, 7. November 1928

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