Inside Story

“I feared I would never be able to write a book again”

A bestselling author in the early thirties, Irmgard Keun left Nazi Germany in 1936 only to return during the war

Geoff Wilkes 20 October 2011 2945 words

Immediate bestseller: Irmgard Keun in 1932. Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

In October 1931 the Universitas publishing house in Berlin released Gilgi, One of Us, the first novel by an unknown young author called Irmgard Keun. Born in 1905 in Berlin, Keun had grown up in Cologne, where she attended drama school in 1925–27. She held one-year contracts at the well-known Thalia Theatre in Hamburg and the City Theatre in Greifswald before returning to Cologne in 1929. It’s possible that Keun was prompted to begin her writing career by a meeting with Alfred Döblin, author of the monumental novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, and it is certain that she had not published anything, anywhere, before Gilgi, One of Us was accepted by Universitas.

Anyone who is interested in twentieth-century European literature is familiar with the suppression of “undesirable” authors that began in Nazi Germany in 1933 and drove many into exile. But the best-known of the exiled writers are mostly those — like Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht — who had established their reputations before 1933. For lesser-known writers, emigration endangered not only their livelihoods and their lives but also their place in our collective literary memory. These dangers were exemplified in Keun’s career.

Her debut novel, which describes the tensions between the career ambitions and the love life of a fearsomely competent young white-collar worker called Gisela (or Gilgi for short), was an immediate bestseller. It was greeted by the celebrated satirist and literary critic Kurt Tucholsky as “very very promising,” and serialised in the German Social Democratic Party’s newspaper, Forward, where readers conducted a lively correspondence about the realism of Keun’s portrayal of the white-collar milieu and the political implications of Gilgi’s attitudes to work and love. Gilgi’s story was also filmed in 1932 with a cast including Brigitte Helm (the female lead in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), but no copy of the film has survived.

Just seven months after her debut, Keun published The Artificial Silk Girl, which became an even bigger bestseller than Gilgi. The Artificial Silk Girl again describes the fortunes of a young female white-collar worker, this time called Doris, but Doris is not very good at her job and hopes that her looks will secure her future by bringing her a rich husband, or a rich lover, or a career in showbusiness. The novel is narrated by Doris herself, who displays a mixture of shrewdness and naivety in conducting and describing her numerous affaires, but even her naive comments are extremely revealing about the hypocritical elements of conventional sexual morality. The novel was probably influenced by Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which had been serialised in the fashionable Berlin magazine The Lady in 1925.

In October 1932 Keun married Johannes Tralow, a fifty-year-old author and theatre director. About six months later she met Arnold Strauss, a thirty-year-old doctor, and the couple began a relationship, meeting secretly several times before Strauss left Germany to escape anti-Semitic persecution and eventually settled in the United States. Alongside a handful of official papers remaining in German archives, Keun’s letters to Strauss are the most important source of information about her life during the Nazi years. Keun lost contact with Strauss in 1940 (for reasons to which I’ll return), and he married an American in 1941, but Strauss kept a large number of Keun’s letters, and his wife released a selection for publication in 1988, twenty-three years after his death.

Keun’s work attracted conservative and nationalistic censure even before the Nazis came to power. Kurt Herwarth Ball’s 1932 review of The Artificial Silk Girl, for instance, castigated Doris for her unconventional morality and concluded by adjuring Keun to “write in a German spirit, speak in a German spirit, think in a German spirit, and refrain from her sometimes almost vulgar aspersions against German womanhood.” Complaints such as this received official sanction after the Nazi takeover when Gilgi and The Artificial Silk Girl were both withdrawn from circulation.

Keun nevertheless remained in Nazi Germany for more than three years, and applied for membership in the Reich Literary Chamber, without which writers could not publish (with some minor exceptions approved on a case-by-case basis). Although she was never admitted to the Reich Literary Chamber, she did place various short pieces in newspapers and magazines — complaining in a letter to Strauss on 13 June 1934 that editors were now too timid to accept anything more controversial than “what a ninety-year-old canoness would find funny” — but these pieces had not been approved by the Chamber, which fined Keun 200 Reichsmarks.

Keun’s motives for remaining in Nazi Germany as long as she did are not entirely clear. Her application for membership of the Reich Literary Chamber suggests that she believed she could operate within the Nazi cultural system, and her reaction to the banning of her two novels suggests that she believed she could subvert it. She wrote to the Berlin State Court in October 1935 seeking damages for loss of earnings from the Gestapo, which she said had confiscated unsold copies of the novels from her publisher’s premises in July 1933. I interpret this as an ironic gesture, appealing to the Nazi state’s pretensions of legitimacy in pursuing legal redress for its manifest injustice, and the gesture of course failed. (While the Gestapo’s files showed that Keun’s novels had been withdrawn from bookstores and libraries, they did not record any raid on her publisher.)

Whatever Keun’s motives for staying, her years in Nazi Germany clearly cost her psychologically, because her letters to Strauss (on 3 November 1933 and 3 February 1936) report episodes of self-harm by cutting. And those years also cost her creatively. Her correspondence with both Strauss and the Reich Literary Chamber refers to a novel manuscript entitled The Hungry Provider, of which no other trace has survived. But those years also benefited Keun creatively in the limited but nevertheless significant sense that when she eventually wrote about Nazi Germany she did so from considerable direct experience, as those authors who had emigrated in the early months of the regime could not.

Keun left Germany in May 1936. She sent her husband, Tralow (who had remained), a letter complaining about the Reich Literary Chamber’s treatment of her, whereupon Tralow wrote to the president of the Chamber quoting her letter and reporting that he had commenced divorce proceedings against her. The divorce was finalised in June 1937. Keun’s exile took her — sometimes more than once — to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Poland and the United States, and made her part of a constantly changing but culturally influential community of anti-Nazi authors, including Heinrich Mann, Stefan Zweig, Egon Erwin Kisch, Ernst Toller, Hermann Kesten and Joseph Roth (with whom she travelled for about eighteen months).

Viewed from the outside and decades afterwards, such an existence might seem attractively cosmopolitan and bohemian, but Keun’s letters to Strauss and her brief memoir, “Pictures from Emigration” (1947), reveal an unenviable reality. Her travels from one country to another were frequently prompted by financial difficulties or immigration restrictions. The literary exiles were inhibited financially no less than creatively by the limited market that remained once their works were excluded from Germany, as is underlined by Keun’s repeated pleas to Strauss for financial assistance. Keun also noted in “Pictures from Emigration” that the longer they had been away from the country the harder exiles found it to write convincingly about and against Nazi Germany, or to find anything else to write about. She concludes a detailed discussion of this issue by confessing that at one point she herself “feared I would never, in my life, be able to write a book again.”

The insecurity of this existence was reflected in the prepublication history of Keun’s third and powerfully anti-Nazi novel, After Midnight. Allert de Lange, the Amsterdam publishing house which had given Keun a three-book contract before she left Germany, and which had issued her volume of children’s stories (Grown-Ups Don’t Understand) in June 1936, rejected After Midnight in November that same year even before the manuscript was finished, fearing that the novel would damage the firm’s remaining commercial interests in Germany. But Keun was able to place the novel with another Amsterdam publisher, Querido, and to complete the manuscript in time for release early in 1937.

After Midnight is a minor masterpiece of satiric simplicity in which the young female narrator, Sanna, unconsciously shatters Nazism’s aggressive certainties by assimilating them to her unsophisticated frames of reference. When she observes a visit by Nazi leaders to Frankfurt, for example — as Keun did in May 1935 — she likens the bustling preliminaries to the “preparations for the handing out of Christmas presents in a prosperous family with quantities of children”; she compares the Führer saluting from his motorcade with the jester prince in the pre-Lenten carnival procession (“But he wasn’t as funny and cheerful as Prince Carnival, and he wasn’t throwing sweets and nosegays, just raising an empty hand”); and she explains Hitler’s and Goering’s carefully choreographed appearances in public as the same kind of “sacrifice[s] to fame” as she once saw described “in an article about Marlene Dietrich.”

Sanna also has an uncomplicated humanity which contrasts with the self-delusion and despair of her half-brother Algin, a novelist who adopts a Nazified style to save his career, gradually convincing himself that he is producing good work, and of their friend Heini, a journalist who continues his antifascist polemics in private conversations. At the end of the novel, Sanna shows the way that Algin and Heini should have taken — and which the writer herself perhaps should have taken earlier.

After Midnight was followed by Express Train Third Class and Child of All Nations, both published by Querido in 1938. Express Train Third Class, which tells the stories of six passengers travelling on a Berlin–Paris express in June 1937, has received comparatively little attention from scholars, probably because none of the six stories reaches a definite conclusion; one character even stays on the train when it reaches Paris in the last paragraphs of the novel, and is literally shunted off. But this inconclusiveness is a deliberate expression of the fear, which Keun recalled in “Pictures from Emigration,” that the material and psychological pressures of exile could prevent her ever writing a book again. She overcame this fear in Child of All Nations by discussing literary exile itself, employing a child-narrator in the person of Kully, whose father emigrated from Germany when “he couldn’t stand it any more, because he writes books, and for newspapers.” Kully’s naive perspective highlights the inhumane logic of the exile existence, for example when she says:

“A passport is a little booklet with stamps. It proves that you’re alive. If you lose your passport, then the world treats you like you’ve died. There’s no country you can go to. You have to leave one country, but you can’t go to another one… Now I pray secretly every night that [God] will make it so that people can swim around for years in the water, or fly into the air.”

Child of All Nations was Keun’s sixth book after her debut seven years earlier, but it also proved to be her last book for another nine years. She was in the Netherlands when the second world war began in September 1939 and — like many other anti-Nazi exiles in western Europe — could find no way of leaving. After the Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, Keun took the extraordinary step of returning to Nazi Germany, and lived there with her parents until the end of the war. She later gave varying accounts of how she contrived to do this, but it seems that she persuaded a German army officer to secure her a passport in the name of Charlotte Tralow (Charlotte was her middle name, and Tralow was of course her former married name), and that she entered and lived in Germany under that identity. She was probably assisted in these manoeuvres by a report in the British Daily Telegraph in August 1940 that “Fräulein Irmgard Keun, the novelist, is stated to have taken her life at Amsterdam,” and by Arthur Koestler’s dedication of his 1941 book about life as an enemy alien in France, Scum of the Earth, to “the memory of my colleagues, the exiled writers of Germany who took their lives when France fell: Walter Benjamin, Carl Einstein, Walter Hasenclever, Irmgard Keun, Otto Pohl, Ernst Weiss.” It is not known whether Keun initiated the story of her suicide, or whether it arose from others’ inadvertent or deliberate misreporting.

After the war Keun lived with her parents in their bomb-damaged home in Cologne. Her first postwar publication was Pictures and Poems from Emigration (1947), which included her short memoir. She also wrote for the Northwest German Radio Network, having particular success with a series of satirical sketches featuring a middle-aged married couple called Wolfgang and Agathe. The four sketches which have survived in their printed form have titles such as “Germans, Speak German German” and “Erna Has an Englishman,” and show Wolfgang and Agathe vehemently justifying their conformism during the Nazi years, and carefully conforming to what they believe are the wishes of the Allied military government.

Keun expressed her dissatisfaction with what she saw as postwar German hypocrisy and opportunism more bluntly in letters to her former colleagues in exile, for example when she told Heinrich Mann on 23 November 1947 that all of Germany was suffering under “a pestilential wave of bourgeois smugness, smelly neo-religiosity, bovine earnestness, snivelling dishonesty and dripping self-pity.” She was especially scathing about authors who had remained in Germany during the Nazi years and offered themselves as custodians of democratic renewal after the war, as when she wrote to Hermann Kesten on 23 August 1947:

“Here they’re now industriously engaged in setting up a German [PEN] group… Incidentally, my one-time husband, Tralow, has placed himself at the head of this movement. And he divorced me because of my “treasonable behaviour,” to make a good impression on the Reich Literary Chamber… Everyone has such a fortunately constructed memory… But I can see the day coming when Tralow and Frank Thiess and Hans Friedrich Blunck travel to represent PEN in New York, and I’m not even allowed to stroke the airplane they rush off in, because first I have to be denazified by Winifred Wagner.”

Keun also attempted to re-establish her correspondence with Arnold Strauss, which of course had lapsed with her return to Germany in 1940, but Strauss responded to her handful of postwar letters only by sending a food parcel.

In 1950 Keun published Ferdinand, the Man with the Friendly Heart, in which the amiable returned soldier Ferdinand Timpe describes how he attempts to reintegrate into civilian life in Germany, only to fail in a series of increasingly inappropriate and bizarre jobs. Ferdinand’s rambling narrative has routinely been characterised as sad evidence of Keun’s declining artistic powers, but in fact she uses the various phases of Ferdinand’s life after 1933 to conduct a frank examination of her own decisions firstly to remain in Nazi Germany, then to leave it, and finally to return. The novel also continues Keun’s attack on those she perceived as Nazi collaborators who subsequently styled themselves as democrats, most notably in Ferdinand’s farcical account of a new club called “The Society of Those Lauded Alive,” whose members treat each other to extravagant eulogies during mock funerals, heaping praise on each other as they symbolically bury their past and stake their claim to a new and uncompromised life.

This was Keun’s last major work, though she lived until the early 1980s. In 1955–56 she collaborated with fellow Cologne author and future Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll on a satire about the conservative government of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, adopting the form and style of letters exchanged by two nineteenth-century intellectuals, but this was not published until it was collected in Böll’s twenty-seven-volume Works in 2006. In the 1950s and 1960s she also released two collections of short pieces, some of which she had originally written for the Ford Revue, a magazine sponsored by the German arm of the Ford motor company. In the later years of her life Keun underwent extensive medical treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. She also announced on various occasions that she was working on her autobiography, though no trace of this was found when she died in 1982. She was survived by her daughter Martina, who was born in 1951; with her characteristic non-conformism, Keun never stated publicly who Martina’s father was.

The damage that political repression caused to Keun’s literary creativity is evident in the fitful productivity, the self-doubt and the destructive behaviour that characterised her career and her life from 1933 onwards. And the damage caused to Keun’s newly won literary reputation after Hitler’s accession to power is evident in the failure of her work to attract further significant attention from the reading public, the media or literary scholars until the late 1970s, when there was a revival of popular and specialist interest in writing by antifascist exiles, and in writing by women. While it is pleasing to record Keun’s belated return to literary fame (and perhaps even more pleasing to note that she lived to enjoy the first years of it, giving interviews to journalists and public readings of her work), her story nevertheless stands as a reminder of the purely material circumstances which can efface an author from the collective literary memory, as they threatened to efface so many other authors whom the Nazis deemed “undesirable”: Gabriele Tergit, Mascha Kaléko, Anna Gmeyner, Adrienne Thomas, Hermynia Zur Mühlen, Christa Winsloe, Maria Leitner… •