Between Germans and Americans: Gender and Antisemitism in Contemporary German Literature
Agnes C. Mueller (University of South Carolina)
Susanne Riedel’s novel Eine Frau aus Amerika (2003) recollects the scenes of a dispute between the first-person narrator Hannes, a German who has lived in Philadelphia for over 30 years, and Sharon, his American partner. Sharon and Hannes’s relationship deteriorates as these arguments continue, and Hannes is repeatedly disillusioned about Sharon’s (American) appearance and identity.
As critics in German feuilletons observed, the mutual accusations in the text refer to unoriginal stereotypes of both the German position vis-à-vis America (superficiality, appearances over truth, striving for power as the only goal in life), and of the Americans towards Germany (pseudo-intellectualism and closed-mindedness, guilty of the Holocaust and an incapacity to deal with that guilt). At the pinnacle of the arguments, Sharon suddenly dies from a heart attack. At this point, we could say that the U.S., embodied by Sharon, now weakened by the events of 9/11, literally cease to exist as a global power for a Germany now striving to emancipate itself from its former role and image as an occupied and divided nation. Returning to Berlin after Sharon’s death, however, Hannes learns that Sharon had been a German Jew, whose parents had died in a concentration camp, and who had been adopted by Americans at the age of six.
In addition to the charged German-American imagery, and the antisemitic notion evoked by Hannes’ discovery, the inscription of gender roles where the German is represented as male, and the Jewish American as female, begs a thorough interrogation of the performances of Germany’s unresolved, and insufficiently reflected past as it affects the future of German national identity and gender. This is especially true, since Peter Schneider’s well-known novel Eduard’s Heimkehr (1999) presents similar imagery of a German male and a Jewish-American female. While there is no actual death of a Jewish woman, Eduard learns in the course of recovering his Berlin inheritance, that he has never managed to bring his Jewish and American wife Jenny to an orgasm. This text is less blatantly invoking anti-Semitic notions, but, here, too, the German protagonist is only able to resolve the crisis concerning his German history and identity via a Jewish female, an elderly woman who appears as a deus-ex-machina. Consequently, he can now also resolve his sexual problems with Jenny.
In both texts, Germany seems on the one hand positively reinforced in its national and cultural identity, but on the other, Germans do not seem to have productively “worked through” (Dominick LaCapra) their issues of guilt and shame over the Holocaust. Germany’s attempts at self-liberation from an America perceived as a dominating and colonizing force especially in the latter half of the 20th century cannot succeed as long as the U.S., Jews, and women still serve as sites for projections of German guilt and shame.