Nadine Zimmerli: Teaching German History Through Novels

Fifteen years ago, I started my academic career as a George L. Mosse Distinguished Graduate Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout graduate school, I pursued two career tracks—one oriented toward the professoriate, doing all the usual things, taking seminars on modern European history, researching, TAing, writing a dissertation; the other looked toward academic publishing by volunteering for and then working at the University of Wisconsin Press. I always expected to eventually decide on one over the other, and on paper, I did. I’m now employed in what the AHA terms an alternate academic (alt-ac) career as an acquisitions and developmental editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, located in Williamsburg, Va. The OI publishes a small and select number of books on early American topics each year and is the home of the distinguished William and Mary Quarterly, in whose pages George L. Mosse contemplated “Puritanism and Reason of State in Old and New England” in 1952.

As the associate editor for the books program, I collaborate closely with the editor of books on all acquisitions tasks and have developed a good number of titles of my own. This is a career that I owe largely to former Mosse Program director John Tortorice’s support and generosity. John took me on as the project assistant for the George L. Mosse Series in 2006, a position that taught me the ins and outs of university press publishing. Given that George Mosse himself had placed an article in the Quarterly, and that the OI’s director at my time of hire, Ronald Hoffman, had earned his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and had known George there socially (watching the Beverly Hillbillies at his house, apparently), my own leap from graduate work on modern Europe to scouting manuscripts on early America didn’t appear too daunting.

Yet—to my own surprise and likely that of my mentors, who knew early on about my interest in editorial work—I continued teaching as well. I work on the campus of William & Mary, the OI’s founding sponsor, and I’ve been fortunate to find a warm reception among its history and European Studies faculty and to offer one course a year for the history department. Thus far, I’ve taught the European survey, German history to 1918 and since 1918, and a course on Americans in Europe that I developed and that blends my European and American history interests (and links into my own book project on Americans in the German city of Dresden as an added bonus).

As an editor, I think about the shape of books a lot, and it’s part of my job to assess whether manuscripts have potential for classroom adoption. It’s helpful to have offered courses of my own and to test drive various kinds of books to get a feeling as to what does and doesn’t work. I always tell my students that I am committed to the monograph since I help publish monographs, and I usually assign a good number of academic titles. Classroom adoptions matter, both to disseminate knowledge and to sustain non-profit academic publishers since university presses can no longer rely on guaranteed library sales. (As the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found in a comprehensive study of “Monograph Output” between 2009 and 2013, released in early 2017, the average sales number for a monograph in its first five years after publication stands at just 643.[1])

This spring, however, I broke protocol. I offered “The History of Germany since 1918” again and decided to mix up my reading assignments. I’d successfully taught this course through monographs and memoirs before, but this time, given the societal tensions and fraught political atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic, I wanted to teach my students empathy as much as the usual critical thinking skills. I wanted them to gain a working understanding of twentieth-century ideologies and the developments they animated in German society through stories and characters as much as arguments and statistics. The latter I can easily supply in lecture. By reading about diametrically opposed causes, such as fascism, liberal democracy, or socialism and their impact on individual lives on a small, intimate scale, I hoped that my students would be better able to think through ideological rhetoric and its consequences writ large, and to apply these lessons to developments today. In other words, I wanted to teach my students to approach German history with the “passionate detachment” George Mosse himself advocated and modeled.[2]

As I was mulling this approach last September, when book orders were due, I attended the German Studies Association’s annual meeting, and the Mosse Program once more came to my aid. Its director Skye Doney had convened a Mosse meet-and-greet at the conference, and I used this chance to poll all in attendance about the viability of my idea and suggestions for appropriate novels—one per decade since 1918, or per pivotal event, available in English translation. This brainstorming session proved incredibly productive, and in all, I assigned nine novels of varying length (from 144 to 544 pp.). To ensure participation, I had students present on one novel in groups and then review another novel in writing, with papers due ahead of class. As a bonus, students were able to earn extra credit by comparing the novels to their respective movie adaptations (when available). Now that the course has concluded, I am happy to share my selections and the results of this approach with the Mosse family at large:


1920s: Erich Maria Remarque, The Black Obelisk (1956)

(film not available)

Black ObeliskI first read Remarque as a teenager and love his writing style, but All Quiet on the Western Front seemed too obvious a choice, and likely a work the students had read before. The Black Obelisk also revolves around a disillusioned veteran but centers on the inflation of 1923. Pictures of wheelbarrows full of cash only go so far in explaining how people got by, and Remarque captures the absurdity of the moment, individual survival strategies, rival political leanings, and the long shadow of World War I in a fictionalized Osnabrück incredibly well. The novel’s themes tie into all common topics associated with the Weimar Republic: legacy of World War I; unstable democracy; rise of right-wing ideologues; the New Woman; economic desperation; class conflict. It’s also quite humorous and contains a myriad of memorable characters with which students can grapple. Given that Remarque wrote it in the 1950s, with the benefit of hindsight, it also lends itself to a discussion about the author’s views on the rise of Nazism.


1930s: Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

(various film adaptations available)

Goodbye to BerlinA classic that captures Weimar culture in Berlin, sexual liberation, rising anti-Semitism and the Nazi takeover, class antagonisms and street fights, and the Great Depression’s political and economic havoc in its vignettes. Isherwood, a British-born novelist, also provides a different voice from the German authors on the list and embodies the cosmopolitan nature of Weimar Berlin. This is why I assigned his work over, say, Erich Kästner’s Going to the Dogs. As an added bonus, Goodbye to Berlin contrasts nicely with The Black Obelisk since both novels chart the demise of the Republic and comment on the rise of the Nazis, but Isherwood provides a much more situational answer as to why they secured power than Remarque.


1940s (wartime): Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone (1947)

(film available)

Fallada’s more famous Little Man, What Now? also ranked high on my list, but with a plethora of Weimar-era titles to chose from, I decided to instead assign his last novel about working-class resisters in wartime Berlin. Fallada brings characters from all backgrounds to life with just a few sentences and masterfully captures the paranoia that suffused Nazi-coordinated society from top to bottom. Although by far the longest novel on the list at over 500 pages, my students found it the most compelling for its chilling, unflinching insights into the workings of ultra-nationalist, fascist ideology in every aspect of civilian life. (Novels I contemplated but discarded were Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was On Time, since I assigned another Böll novel for the 1970s, and Stefan Heym’s The Crusaders, since it deals more with the Allied advance into Germany than German society itself.)


1940s (postwar): Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath (2013)

(film available)

I wanted to assign a second novel about the 1940s as well, to capture German society after 1945. The Aftermath speaks to Allied occupation, the fraught process of de-Nazification, and rising Cold War tensions. As an added bonus, it also takes place in Hamburg, for some geographical diversity, where the author’s grandfather served as district governor tasked with administering and rebuilding the city. The film also models the central plot device of an English family cohabitating with the German owners instead of evicting them. This novel represents an outlier given that its author is a contemporary British writer, and that it has ‘screen adaptation potential’ written all over it. Nonetheless, this was one of the only fictional accounts I could find that deals with de-Nazification.


1950s: Hans-Ulrich Treichel, Lost (1998)

(film not available)

Going into the second half of the twentieth century, I had to decide whether novels would cover East or West German developments, and I tried to find a good mix. Lost, a West German boy’s stream-of-consciousness account of his parents’ search for his long-lost brother, captures a number of pivotal experiences: flight of refugees from the east ahead of the Soviets; rape; the economic miracle and rise of consumer culture intermixed with paternalistic conservatism; and the long, unshakeable shadow of Nazism. The child narrator also presented a very different voice and vantage point from the omniscient or third-person narrators in previous books. (Another novel I contemplated for the 1950s was Stefan Heym’s The Architects on de-Stalinization in the East after 1956, but it replicates Christa Wolf’s work—assigned next—to some degree.)


1960s: Christa Wolf, They Divided the Sky (1963)

(film available)

Capturing the division of Germany made manifest by the Berlin Wall from an East German perspective seemed pivotal to me, and Christa Wolf’s debut novel captures the moment like no other work, on top of walking readers through a socialist mindset. I was also very conscious of having few women writers on my list, so Wolf was a natural choice. The book is now available in a new, much better translation, and my students found its mix of a coming-of-age story and political commentary absolutely fascinating. This novel induced them to think through the ideals, implications, and limitations of Communist ideology and opened up for them an entirely different way of conceiving of society without sugarcoating the shortfalls of socialism and its potential for abuse of the individual. As an East German myself, I wanted them to take seriously my country of birth, and absorbing Wolf’s saga of Rita (who stays) and Manfred (who leaves) did the trick. What is less obvious is that it also ties in nicely with the themes of The Aftermath on incomplete and halting de-Nazification (despite the East’s claims to be the anti-fascist Germany) and Lost on eastern refugees/expellees (of which the lead character is one).


1970s: Heinrich Böll, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1974)

(film available)

Böll’s indictment of what we now call ‘fake news’ in this slim yet powerful account of the exploits and power of the tabloid press actually prompted my idea to teach German history through novels. Lost Honor also ties in beautifully with the 68ers, left-wing terrorism, the perceived authoritarian nature of West Germany, class hierarchies, and, once more, the legacies of Nazism. Following Böll’s Katharina right after Wolf’s Rita also allowed students to compare and contrast the changing roles of women in private and public life in East and West Germany.


1980s: Sven Regener, Berlin Blues (2001)

(film available)

Much like 1961 for the 1960s, 1989 is too pivotal a year to be ignored for the 1980s, so I knew I wanted to assign a novel that would culminate in the events of the very last months of that decade. Unfortunately, some novels, such as Erich Loest’s Nikolaikirche, have not been translated (as far as I could find), and others, such as Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower are much too long, with the translation clocking in at 1,024 pages. (Even William & Mary students won’t read that.) Given that discussing 1989 fell toward the end of the semester, I decided to assign something a little more fun in the form of Sven Regener’s debut novel. His tale of the bumbling bartender Herr Lehmann and his eccentric circle of friends drifting through life in West Berlin is an uproarious and slightly subversive one with a telling message – maybe the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t matter all that much? At least not to the average West German? The book also features telling scenes highlighting West Germans vs. West Berliners’ differing attitudes toward the Wall, East German state authorities clinging to the vestiges of a dying regime, the increasing diversity of West German society, LGBTQ culture, and of course November 9, 1989 itself. The novel builds a nice bridge between the two different German regimes and the unified Berlin Republic to come (esp. since Regener released it in the very early 2000s), but also harkens back to Christopher Isherwood’s depiction of Weimar Berlin’s bar culture, nightlife, and characters from all walks of life.


(1920s-) 1990s: Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation (2008)

(film not available)

Erpenbeck is one of the most exciting contemporary German novelists, and her elegant and elegiac biography of a plot of land and house in Brandenburg, which sees various occupants as German political fortunes ebb and wane throughout the twentieth century, nicely ties together the history of Germany since 1918 and ends with lawsuits centering on restitution in the 1990s and the house’s eventual demolition. Unfortunately, the vagaries of the semester meant that I couldn’t discuss this novel in class, but several students still reviewed it positively for extra credit.


All of these novels led to interesting, engaged, and wide-ranging classroom discussions, more so than the monographs, or even the memoirs I assigned previously had. I am not a literature scholar, and I didn’t set out to dissect these works’ various layers, meanings, and literary merits. My much more basic hope was to use novels to get students reading and to inspire a deep engagement with the ideologies and pivotal events that animated German politics, society, and economy since 1918. On that front, I can happily say, “mission accomplished.” At our end-of-semester debrief, some students admitted that they don’t always read assigned monographs, but they did read every novel (which their active participation proved to be true) and absorbed German historical developments in more detail and learned how to think through cause, effect, and contingencies much better than if I had assigned academic titles. Some were even moved to recommend the novels to their friends but then found they didn’t want to part with their copies.

When I polled them on their favorites, various students championed different novels, so in the end, everyone found one that spoke to them, but Fallada’s Every Man, followed by Remarque’s Obelisk, seemed to resonate most strongly. Overall, Böll prompted students to draw the most obvious parallels to contemporary developments, but Remarque did as well, while Wolf opened up a whole different way of thinking, and Fallada inspired vigilance. I don’t think students would have engaged as seriously with the German Democratic Republic had it not been for Wolf’s novel; nor would they have realized the depth of fear, related societal breakdown, and sheer naked brutality of life under Nazism—even for regular Germans—without Fallada. There were shortcomings as well. I wish I had assigned more women authors. I wish I could have been more disciplined and only assigned novels written in the moment, or close to a moment, for they seemed to work slightly better than the historical fiction accounts as such, but the current list is 45 vs. 55 percent on that score. (Then again, Remarque’s Obelisk, which was released some thirty years after the events it depicts, worked incredibly well for thinking through the inflation of 1923 and its aftereffects.) Overall, I do think teaching twentieth-century German history through novels generated something akin to George Mosse’s passionate detachment in classroom discussions and hopefully inspired students to bring lessons from German history to bear on their assessment of contemporary society and political movements.[3]

[1] For anyone who would like to read the full report on the state of the monograph and scholarly publishing in the humanities after 2009—out of curiosity and/or because monographs continue to be the historian’s bread and butter—here it is in full.
[2] Karel Plessini, “The ‘Art of Passionate Detachment’: George L. Mosse, History and Politics.”
[3] On a personal note, I also realized that I am not immune to a good story told well either. Reading They Divided the Sky with my students made me realize that I am more East German than I thought I was (as a third-generation one who grew up in a unified Germany and emigrated in my late teens).

Nadine Zimmerli is the associate editor of books at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, an independent research organization sponsored by William & Mary. In addition, she offers courses on modern Europe—especially on Germany, and on Americans who traveled to Europe between 1492 and the Cold War—as an adjunct assistant professor of history at William & Mary. She trained as a modern European historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2011, and is at present completing a book manuscript tentatively titled “Cheaper than Paris: American Dresden before World War I.”

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