Monday, January 31, 2005

Schickele and the Alsatian Mission: Germany

René Schickele was the most archetypical Alsatian of the twentieth century. His life and his work embodied the struggle to understand the opposition between French-German heritage and French-German conflict. I am spending a lot of time writing about him, although not specifically on his fiction. Rather I have been looking at his aesthetic environmentalism as it pertains to his politics. Nonetheless, it is interesting that he was at the center of the European avant-garde in the 1900s and 1910s, a commitment that began with his dedication to the artistic rejuvenation of Alsace.

Schickele's involvement in the avant-garde began with the founding of a circle of artists in poets in 1902. Jüngste Elsaß, in their name and words, allied themselves with art nouveau and Jugendstil movements. But it was more than an artistic movement. At the center of their manifestos was a mission to use Alsace as a vehicle for change in Wilhelmine Germany. Because of the dual heritage (French-German) Alsatians were in a position to introduce the French artistic spirit and republicanism. The province could be a base from which the struggle against Prussianization could be waged, militarism abolished, and the decline of democracy reversed.

Jüngste Elsaß also set itself against provincial culture. By calling itself the "youngest generation of Alsatians", they criticized the theater in dialect that had emerged in the previous decade. Speaking in Alemannisch, they were isolating Alsace from the rest of Germany. As much as the annexation in 1871 was a catastrophe, Alsatians had to live with the reality of belonging to the Kaiserreich. The Alsatian mission was to use that positioning to bring rapprochement between the two great powers. (However, some contributed Mundart poetry to a number of journals.)

The group broke up within a short time. However, many of the writers, especially Schickele, Ernst Stadler, and Otto Flake found themselves at the center of expressionist literature. Indeed, their poems appeared in the first anthologies of the movement. Many of them met up and constituted a new literary circle – in Berlin, of all places. Their interest in Alsace remained, but the ideology that connected art, revolution, rejuvenation, and province was less apparent.

Schickele's writings tended to place mixed identities at the center of internal, psychological struggles for artistic realization. The novel Der Fremde (The Stranger) follows a young man of mixed identity (French mother, Alsatian father) from personal conflict to symbiosis in an artistic humanism. Other writings were critical of bourgeois culture. Schrei auf den Boulevard (which Schickele initially wanted to call "Cris de Paris", until Flake talked him out of it) is a collection of journalistic essays that idealizes Paris as a radical utopia as a means of criticizing the German bourgeoisie. In spite of his propensity to put Alsatians at the center of his works, audiences ignored that dimension of his work; his reputation was based on the experimental qualities of his writing.

Schickele was deeply involved in politics as well. He was always critical of Alsatian figures, like Emile Wetterle and (Uncle) Hansi, who stirred up the emotions of French audiences. There emotional diatribes against Germany did nothing to improve the situation in Alsace and everything to increase the likelihood of war. In fact, he was close to Jean Jaurès, accepting his position that France would not likely regain Alsace through war.

In 1911 he became the editor of a Strasbourg newspaper. In that role, he recommended that Alsatians accept the new provincial constitution because even though it was far from perfect, it was the first step toward democracy in Germany – the Alsatian Mission. He also articulated a necessary pacifism of Alsatians, who could not choose between two masters.

When war broke out in 1914, Schickele fled. Like many other Alsatians, he did not want to be conscripted, he did not want to choose sides, and moreover, he opposed the war because he fear it would destroy province. Schickele made his way to Zurich which, with some of his friends from the Jüngste Elsaß-days, they were involved in the Cabaret Voltaire, meeting the younger Alsatian artists like Jean (Hans) Arp and Yvan Goll, who would be more closely associated with Dada and surrealism. Schickele, because of his publication history and editorial experience, served as an unofficial editor for the works of the Dada poets.

His expressionist masterpiece from this era was Hans im Schnackenloch, a reconsideration of the position of Alsace in the context of war. Hans is another bi-cultural progeny who is confronted with a series of choices between two loves, human and nationalist. His brother, who is an assimilated German, joins the Prussian army. He is torn between a woman who is pro-German, another who is a socialist pacifist. However, it is his pacifism that is tested most. Through the series of calamities Hans is forced to conclude that to fight the war he must fight its ultimate purveyor – the Prussian military machine. Reluctantly, he joins the French army, and fights on the side against his brother.

Schickele greeted the November Revolution both with hope and disease. It was the opportunity for social change, but he was afraid of the consequences of the violence and conformity that characterized Bolshevism. He rushed back to Germany to participate, but was disappointed in the direction it took. He was also disappointed that Alsatians hid behind the entry of the French army and the eventual re-annexation as a counter-revolution.

To be continued (Schickele and the Alsatian Mission: Europe).


At 4:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, Nathanel! No doubt Schickele et al could have had some really fruitful discussions with the Ossies of today (similar predicaments, no?).


At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am delighted to see I am not alone in my interest in René Schickele. I have recently completed a study on selected works of this author, including Hans im Schnakenloch. Your particular approach to his work sounds very interesting.
All the best with it!

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

If you would like to talk about Schickele, e-mail me at rhineriver--at--earthlink--dot--net (making the appropriate changes, of course.)

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