A Conversation with Frank Hirschbach

Frank Hirschbach
Faculty Profile

At the GSD conference in your honor in 2001, people talked about your pioneering scholarship on East German literature.
Yes, it was pioneering, as was my work on exile literature. Starting in the seventies, I was part of a very small community of scholars in America, maybe 40, 50 people altogether, who were interested in East German (GDR) literature. I think most scholars sort of looked down on GDR literature as “socialist realism.” And of course, it had this “leftist” taint—as I do.

What drew you to the subject?
It was a vacuum that needed to be filled. My focus until then was on literature from about 1880 to the present, particularly the history and politics of literature. As GDR literature came into its own in the seventies, I found it interesting as an expression of a Germany we paid no attention to whatsoever. All the attention was on West Germany and the Economic Miracle. But East German literature came to embody subtlety and a lot of interesting experimentation, as did East German art—and it was not all social realism or doctrinaire. In 1974, I took a year’s sabbatical in Berlin reading nothing but GDR authors—I met with many of them. I found that a lot of people were interested in what I had learned—students certainly were.

You met with many GDR writers?
I did meet with many. In East Germany, literature was very much public property, and you could reach people very easily. If you wrote to an East German author, often you would get a letter back saying, “Please come and see me.” They were eager to be part of a public dialogue and happy to talk to an American interested in their work. There were limits—but on the whole, I found the entire society very accessible. I made a lot of good friends.

East Germany became a major interest.
I was fascinated by the GDR as an alternative to the Federal Republic, which in many ways recreated the economic and social conditions of the Weimar Republic. I found East Germany an interesting political and economic experiment. It was founded on admirable principles—antifascism, a classless society, commitment to economic security and education for everybody, other utopian ideals. There were, of course, lots of things wrong with the GDR—it was very autocratic and suppressive. But some things were better realized in East Germany than they would have been within a Western capitalist model. In many ways, I was sorry about the reunification of the two Germanies. I would have liked to have seen the experiment go on.

How did your own history shape your work as a teacher-scholar?
I lived in the Weimar Republic for the first 11 years of my life, and then under Hitler for six years. I left Berlin in 1939 at the age of 17. But in a sense I never left Berlin—I spent my life studying the history and culture of Berlin and Germany—and for a long time, the two Berlins, the two Germanies. My later focus on the work of Germans in exile, particularly Jewish Germans, came naturally to me as well.

What had your life been like in Germany?
I grew up in a middle-class part of Berlin, in a western suburb. My early life was very ordinary, but I did follow politics with lively interest. After school as a boy, I played “Reichstag”—I would deliver the speeches that politicians had made the day before in Parliament, which were reprinted in the newspaper Berliner Tageblatt. My readings were dramatic, with piano flourishes for applause and jeering. I also collected the handbills distributed by the many political parties jockeying for power in the Weimar Republic.

You thus must have clear memories of Hitler’s coming to power.
Yes—on January 30, 1933, the latest of many chancellors had resigned, and everybody was talking about who the next one would be—whom would our increasingly feeble president, Paul von Hindenburg, appoint? When I came home from school, I telephoned the switchboard of a Berlin newspaper and asked, in my probably squeaky 11-year-old voice, if we had a new chancellor yet. The operator gave me a curt answer: “Ja. Hitler.” And with that the course of my life changed, although I didn’t know it yet.

What happened next?
Over supper that night my parents warned me and my three brothers that the rise of Hitler’s National Socialist Party meant that Germany would be divided into Aryans and non-Aryans—and that we would be considered part of the latter category, even though we had been baptized Lutheran. My father was a nonbeliever. My mother was only nominally Jewish. It was quite common in Germany at that time for people of Jewish descent—there were about 600,000 in 1933—to be raised as Protestants.

Wasn’t Germany a magnet of sorts for European and Russian Jews?
Yes, since the mid-18th century. By the Weimar Republic, people of Jewish descent were only 5 percent of the population, but they were woven into German commercial and cultural life in every way. Intermarriage was common. Most Jews were very proud to be German, loyal to the German “fatherland.” I think there was real belief in a German-Jewish symbiosis. But the Nazis came to power with a radical anti-Semitism—Jews were an evil to be rooted out of German life. Both my father and mother had at least one Jewish parent, so from Hitler’s point of view they were Jewish.

Did your parents consider leaving?
My parents took the view, as many did, that the Hitler government might not last any longer than its predecessors. It was thought that what was voted in ultimately could be voted out. Meanwhile, it was widely assumed that more moderate parties would temper the Nazi ideology, as would public opinion and pressure from other governments. My family’s roots in Germany went back two centuries. My father had served in the German army in World War I and considered himself a political conservative.

So you felt no identification as a Jew?
I did feel that it had nothing to do with me. Especially since I was quite happy in school. From 1933 to 1938, I kept going to a gymnasium [high school] in Berlin. I was one of two non-Aryans in a class of 25. My teachers treated me fairly on the whole, and my fellow students were very friendly, or a few no worse than a little cool. I had a lot of good friends.

Did people know you were of Jewish ancestry?
They knew. You were either in the Hitler youth or … Those things were well-known. Most of my classmates were members of the Hitler Youth. Their uniforms and activities seemed very boy-scout-like; I envied the camaraderie and fun they seemed to have. I tagged along with them to see Hitler on the balcony of the chancellery. I recall yelling right along with the frenzied crowd, “Sieben, acht, neun, zehn, wir wollen unseren Führer sehn!” [“Seven, eight, nine, ten, we want to see our leader!”] I loved witnessing what seemed like great events. I remember seeing Hitler and Mussolini in a Mercedes as they drove through Berlin. I was even there when Hermann Göring married his beloved Emmy in the Berlin Cathedral in 1935.

How did things start to change for you and your family?
Not long after Hitler became chancellor, his administration managed to obtain dictatorial powers. Starting that spring you saw storm troopers smearing the word JUDE on windows of Jewish-owned businesses in Berlin. The Nuremberg laws of 1935 outlawed marriage between “Aryans” and Jews. More and more restrictive regulations were passed. You saw signs, “Juden unerwünscht” [“Jews not wanted here”], at cafes, vacation spots. There were separate seats in parks and on buses; eventually, Jews were barred from theatres. My father had lost his job in business in ’37. He was secular, a nonbeliever, his children were Lutheran … but he had the wrong family tree, as did my mother, who lost her teaching job. Luckily, my mother got a job teaching at a Jewish private school. She became the support of my family.

How did all this affect you?
What affected me most were the hateful anti-Jewish stories and illustrations displayed in public squares across Germany. These were taken from Der Stürmer [a weekly filled with anti-Semitic propaganda]— diatribes about Jewish conspiracies, rants about Jewish “cowardice” and “depravity.” All of this naturally had a profound effect on a boy of 14, 15. I was determined not to show any sort of “weakness” that might reflect the caricatures. I pushed myself to excel at swimming tests. I refused to wear glasses, although I was nearsighted, because all the Jews in the pictures wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses. In the end, of course, my efforts to show I was a good German made no difference. I was kicked out of school in November ’38.

After Kristallnacht [“night of broken glass,” a pogrom against Jews]?
Yes. Just months before my graduation. It was very traumatic.

Until Kristallnacht, your family retained hope?
We were kind of sheltered in our Berlin suburb for quite a while. Jews were under 1 percent of the population; if you didn’t stick your neck out, you could live—at least that was true until Kristallnacht. The word Holocaust or even the concept of Holocaust didn’t yet exist; the extermination camps didn’t come until 1941. So in a real sense we didn’t know the full horror of what the Nazis had in mind. We had company—about 450,000 Jews were still in Germany in 1938.There’s a good book out by Walter Laqueur called Generation Exodus. He writes of the many people who felt that there was no need to rush out of the country; that Hitler would soften his politics sooner or later or pressure from foreign countries would temper his excesses. This corresponds to my family’s experience, the view of my parents.

Emigration was not on the table.
The screws were tightening throughout the thirties, yes … but this was our country; our roots in Germany went back generations. And what many Jews experienced wasn’t direct persecution, but many pin pricks. Certainly the sooner you emigrated, the happier the Nazis were. Emigration wasn’t that easy, though. You had to have a country that would take you. My family was lucky—we had what every German Jew needed to have in those days: a rich American uncle.

So Kristallnacht was decisive?
Kristallnacht—which we learned of via radio—was shocking. It was followed by a drastic financial fine levied against all Jews, as well as a new rash of restrictive laws—curfews, identity cards. And then the final blows—German Jews were kicked out of school and deprived of German citizenship. We had to abandon our hope, or our denial after that. There was a surge of Jewish emigration; the government set up offices to speed it up. Still, I think if it had been up to me, I would have stayed. I had been very happy in Germany, had good friends, and so on. It’s a sobering realization. I have thought a thousand times about what might have been—we might have waited too long, we might not have been able to arrange emigration, we might have gone on to endure the yellow stars, been herded into ghettos, sent to Dachau or the other camps.

How was it starting over in a new country?
Leaving our country, our friends, our roots—it’s hard to describe how traumatic it was. My parents, my brother Peter, and I left Berlin for New York in 1939 on the SS Aquitania, each with a single suitcase and 10 marks in our pockets. We moved to New Haven, where my oldest brother was. My mother was fortunate in becoming a German teacher at Yale. My father got a job washing cages for lab mice. I worked at a factory, and then as a clerk at the Yale Library. From 1940 to ’43, I went to Southern Connecticut State College. In 1943, I volunteered for the Army.

Were you at all ambivalent about fighting your former compatriots?
I felt it was my war—that I had an obligation to be part of a militant resistance to Hitler. My resolve intensified with news of the extermination camps—I was shocked, sickened, horrified. Among German exiles, almost all the males of my generation went to war. We knew for what and especially against what we were fighting.

At Yale, after the war, you’re said to have met Thomas Mann.
Several times. The first was in 1950, when I was the Ph.D. student picked to take Mann around an exhibit of his works. I’ve often told a little anecdote about standing with Mann before a glass case where Bildungsromane [novels of development] were exhibited. Mann stroked his chin, and he said, well, there’s Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, there’s Keller’s Der Grüne Heinrich, there’s Raabe’s Der Hungerpastor, … and there’s my Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain).And he paused, and then he said, “Ja, da gehöre ich hin” (“Yes, that’s where I belong”).This was completely matter-of-fact. He was 75 then and he felt, looking back on his life, that he was the successor to Goethe—very much so—and a successor to all these others. He had a high opinion of himself. With some reason. He was a great man.

As a young scholar, you were quite interested in Mann.
I wrote my dissertation on “The Role of Love in the Works of Thomas Mann”—at the time, something that really had not been talked about. That’s what graduate students do—try to find unplowed ground. My colleagues were skeptical—“Is there actually much love in Mann’s works? Is it of any real importance?” Critics up to then had seen Mann mainly as a very sober—and of course famously prolix—novelist. I took the view that Mann wrote with vitality and often with ironic humor about relationships between human beings. I think I can say without undue arrogance that I probably commented upon a few things which since have become very prominent in Mann criticism, but which then had not been much noticed.

Did Mann read your dissertation?
It was published as a book, and he claimed to have read and liked it. I had a little correspondence with Mann; I gave those letters to Yale. You know, Mann was a great correspondent; he answered everyone who wrote to him. I remember he said that he was delighted that I had written about the humor in his works, because everyone thought he was so dreadfully earnest. I will say that if I wrote that dissertation today, I would do it quite differently. Ambitious in its time, definitely, but it is so completely a work of the fifties … a very craftsmanlike “catalog” of the role of love in Mann’s works. This was long before “theory” was the norm.

Your own approach was historical?
The approach I grew up with was historical- political, often biographical, close readings of primary texts. Where and when an author lived and in what economic circumstances— all were seen as highly relevant. If you had done a “theoretical” reading of a text or even talked about “theory of literature” in the fifties and sixties, few would have understood you. Reception theory, deconstruction, feminist scholarship, film scholarship, critical theory—all these things that are so important to intellectual discourse today were completely unknown when I began my career.

What’s gained and what’s lost in the shift away from primary texts?
When I get literary journals today, I find them absolutely astounding—I do think that the new theoretical lenses have made literary analysis much more profound. But scholarship is less accessible than it used to be. And what’s really been lost, I think, is a certain enthusiasm about literature. We used to read every work in German literature we could get our hands on.We felt literature was a matter of life and death—we were that passionate about it, in part because we did not see literature as inseparable from history and life. We would have stimulating conversations with our students about the latest Günter Grass; we would go to lunch and talk excitedly about the latest Martin Walser or Thomas Mann.

In contrast, today…
Nowadays, people talk about theoretical works, not primary texts. Every generation or period needs its own language and way of looking at things, of course. Yet I think today as much as yesterday, undergraduates often are drawn to literary study because they love thinking about the world through literature. They love reading primary texts.

What was the department like in 1958?
There were about 10 faculty, only one woman. We spent a lot more time with students than I think people do nowadays. Of course, we had humongous teaching assignments—four classes four or five days a week were not uncommon. Our office doors were wide open, and students could—and did—come at all times to see us. We were kind of mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts to the students. But the pressure to publish was not as intense as it is today.

You are credited with starting early study abroad programs.
I do think I helped put it on the map. I started a little business, Classrooms Abroad, in 1956. I had started traveling to Germany, and I wanted students to have the same experience—I felt strongly that was the best way to learn about a country and its culture, and to learn a language well. We took 20 or 25 students in the summer to Berlin, Vienna, and Tübingen. When we stopped in 1970, we had 15 branches across Europe. By then, the University had study-abroad programs; I directed several in Bochum, Munich, and Graz. Then I facilitated [student and faculty] exchanges between Minnesota and Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Scores of students must have benefited.
I figured out that I took about 2,000 students abroad. I think that’s what I’m proudest of, in looking back; study abroad has been my great passion, really. Coming back, students often became German majors or otherwise pursued language and cultural studies. My pride in that reflects the dedication I felt as a teacher. I loved teaching. I took it very seriously.

You launched a generation of scholars.
Yes, I think I did.

You also endowed a fund for study abroad?
When I retired, I endowed a GSD scholarship to make it possible for students to travel to Germany to conduct research. I saw that this wasn’t always possible for those of more limited means.

You just returned from Germany, yes?
Yes. I’ve been to Germany 50 or 60 times in the last five decades. I feel very much at home there. While I’m an American, I do feel I live in two worlds. That’s an inevitable consequence of being a refugee—you hover between two cultures, always weighing and comparing.

When did you first see Berlin after the war?
In 1952.That was a shocking experience, because Berlin was still badly damaged. I remember landing at Tempelhof Airport in 1952, a rainy summer night, then taking a bus past fields and fields of ruins. Berlin was in ruins still when I returned in ’54 to study expressionism—one of my more interesting trips, by the way. I met both [Bertolt] Brecht and [ Johannes R.] Becher. I also spent a lot of time at the Berliner Ensemble [Brecht’s theater] and many evenings in smoky cabarets.

In 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up…
I was there, in Berlin, on that day—the 13th of August 1961. I was in a bar the night before— and somebody rushed in to say, “Something’s happening along the border between East and West!” The next day, I drove my VW van to the demarcation line where I saw workers putting up a grotesque-looking barricade. People were standing at both sides of the Brandenburg Gate looking perplexed; I could see Russian trucks along side streets, just sitting there.

As the Cold War unfolded, did your interest in the GDR pose problems?
Well, in time I had both an FBI file and a Stasi file. I had a Stasi file because a good friend in Leipzig had fled under mysterious circumstances; the Stasi apparently speculated that I had had a role in this person’s Republikflucht— flight from the republic— which was not true. For almost a year, I did not enter East Germany; I thought I might get arrested. The interesting thing is that the FBI in Minneapolis warned me about this. Obviously, some kind of cooperation existed between the Stasi and the FBI.

Meanwhile, the FBI kept a file on you?
When I first went to Berlin, in ’52, the FBI investigated my politics and so on. They kept an eye on me over the years. The FBI was interested in anyone who was interested in East Germany, because of course it was an enemy country. I also had made the acquaintance at a Berlin tavern on Augsburger Straße of a shady American from Nebraska who later was convicted of treason against the U.S. My name was in his address book.

Did you ever get your FBI file?
I got both my FBI file and my Stasi file. The FBI file was almost 1,000 pages and very boring. It included pages and pages from the Encyclopedia Britannica about German expressionism, paragraphs copied from books about Bertolt Brecht, and a vast amount of information that was blacked out—galling when you paid by the page.

Are you still teaching?
I’ve taught courses in the Elder Learning Institute. My favorite was one on Mann’s The Magic Mountain, for which I actually had 40 people. I’ve also taken groups of students abroad for SPAN [Student Project for Amity among Nations]. I’m sorry to have had to give up those trips. As you know, I’ve had lung cancer. I completed chemotherapy—not a happy experience. My doctor tells me the tumor has shrunk. So I have a little lease on life, as it were.

Have you done other traveling?
I’ve been to Japan, Guatemala, Ireland, and Hawaii—and many times to Germany. I’m about to go to England and Austria.

What else have you been up to?
I walk around Lake of the Isles daily—as I’ve done probably 5,000 times over the years. My interests are primarily intellectual, as you might expect. I read my New York Times every day, pretty thoroughly, as well as Die Zeit and other German newspapers. And I read a couple of books a week or so—in German, but also important books from English, Russian, and French literature that I’d never got to: Flaubert, Lawrence, Gogol, Joyce, Nabokov, Austen. Sometime in the last 10 years I broke myself of the longstanding habit of holding a pencil between my fingers when I read.

What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading Peter Pan.

Seriously?
I am. Not having grown up in this country, I missed a lot of the books that children read, and Peter Pan was in the news recently—Michael Jackson fancies himself kind of a Peter Pan character. So I decided to see what it was all about. That’s one of the nice things about retirement— you can read very eclectically.

“As my Ph.D. adviser, Frank was an inspiration in the areas of East German literature and culture and the work of Thomas Mann. Frank’s mentoring struck the perfect balance between the assertion of his expertise and insight on my work (and my growth as an intellectual) and allowing me to find my own way. The result was the development of my own critical voice. Frank gave me the confidence that I needed in academia. His support was consistent and steadfast; he never gave up on a student.” —Gary Baker (Ph.D. ‘89, U of Minnesota), professor of German, Denison U

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on March 6, 2009 10:03 AM.

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