05th May 2021

Featured Review

Three German Women

Personal Histories from the Twentieth Century

By Erika Esau

Review by Dr Prue Ahrens, Queensland, Australia

In 1927, Vossische Zeitung, an influential German newspaper, published an essay titled ‘Die Entwicklungstragö der Mädchen’ or ‘The developmental tragedy of girls’. The article states:

“At some point every girl, even today, learns that she belongs to that half of humanity whose greatest and most significant accomplishments are deemed unsuitable…”

Almost a century later, Erika Esau has uncovered three German women who defied the ‘developmental tragedy of girls’. In the face of what Esau calls ‘the calamitous circumstances of twentieth-century Germany,’ these women thrived.

The book orders their stories into chronological order, but a good place to start, I think, is at the end, with the third biography of Maria Weber Steinberg (1919-2013). It was after meeting Steinberg that Esau had the idea to tell the stories of the German women she’d encountered throughout her life.

Esau, herself an esteemed American art historian and curator, met Maria Steinberg, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where Steinberg was working as a volunteer in her retirement. It was there that Esau came to know Steinberg’s story: how Steinberg came to the United States to study a PhD in mathematics at Cornell, how she’d worked on advanced projects at the prestigious Caltech and UCLA, and how she’d been a crucial team member in the renowned mathematics department at California State University at Northbridge.

A few years older than Steinberg, Irmgard Rexroth-Kern (1907-1983) was equally accomplished, completing a PhD in philosophy at the University of Frankfurt. Dr Anna Von Spitzmüller (1903-2001), a few years older than Frau Kern, was a celebrated Viennese art historian who helped to hide objects from the Nazis during the war.

Esau heralds the work of these courageous and pioneering women and any reader would be rightly impressed by their achievements. However, what makes Esau’s book so engaging, I think, are the anecdotes—the details and personal insights that are woven into the stories to make these formidable women so human, relatable and likeable.

In Esau’s telling of her story, Dr Anna Von Spitzmüller becomes ‘Spitzi’. She was a beloved teacher and guide to sixteen impressionable American girls, Esau among them, on a Junior Year Abroad in the 1960s. Spitzi took the girls on a bus tour of Austria, sharing her country with abundant love and generosity of spirit. This remarkable woman, who worked alongside the legendary ‘Monuments Men’, regaled a busload of teenage American girls with hundreds of stories from her Austrian childhood, she sang to them, she laughed with them and she brought them dinner in bed after an exhausting day.

In the telling of Frau Kern’s story, Esau recalls how they met on a morning walk. A friendly young American, Esau greeted ‘Guten morgen’ to an elderly women passing by with an Airedale terrier. The woman was so taken by Esau’s gregarious charm that she stopped and started a friendship that would last a lifetime. From Esau’s affectionate memories we learn that Frau Kern, a highly educated, intelligent, even intimidating woman for many, loved romance novels.

Maria Steinberg was 14 when the Nazis came to power, and, as Esau says, ‘was a personal witness to Germany’s descent into fascism’. Her story recalls how her parents hosted summer parties in Löpten for friends and associates from Berlin, and how, in the early 1930s, her father had to remove a relative who arrived in a Nazi uniform.

Throughout the book, Esau adds details that bring colour to the cultures the women inhabited, like the fact that the Nazi party preferred to write in a Gothic font, or that the sighting of storks in Austria heralded better days.

Each biography contains vignettes on important people in the three protagonists’ lives, and the book concludes with excerpts from Irmgard Kern’s Autobiographie einer Jungen Frau (1934) and Jan Webber’s Unpublished Memoirs: Reminiscences of Growing up in Löpten.

As the title says, these are ‘personal’ histories that make for engaging stories. These women brought history to life for Esau, who has brought it to life for her readers.

Three German Women: Personal Histories from the Twentieth Century is available to borrow from the library of the German Club or for purchase from Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Dr Prue Ahrens writes about art history. Earlier this year, she co-edited two special issues on ‘Early Pacific Photography’ for The Journal of New Zealand and Pacific Studies. In 2015, she guest edited the special issue, ‘American Photography in the Asia-Pacific’ for History of Photography. She is co-author of Across the World with the Johnsons (2013) and co-editor of Coast to Coast: Case Histories of Modern Pacific Crossings (2010). She has curated and co-curated two international photography exhibitions: Tour of Paradise (2006) and Arthur Lavine’s Pacific Inspiration (2008).

Three German Women: Personal Histories from the Twentieth Century is available now. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.