Rebellious Girls and Pitiable Women; Abortion Narratives in Weimar Popular Culture

Cornelie Usborne. German History. Volume 23, Issue 3. August 2005.

In Weimar Germany the debate about the abortion law (§218 of the penal code) and, by implication, women’s right to control their sexuality and fertility was not confined to political spaces; it also took place before large audiences on screen, on stage, in bestselling novels, on posters and in graphic images in mass market journals. Indeed, the number of works of popular culture which featured the dilemma of abortion either as a central issue or one of several issues was legion. Surprisingly, with some exceptions historians have left the exploration of this important source material largely to literary, art and film scholars. I will argue below, however, that we historians should take popular culture seriously for its own sake but also whenever we set out to research attitudes to topical issues of the past. If we go beyond plot analysis and attend to artistic style, production and consumption, cultural productions can yield a richly varied picture of the way discursive meanings were con-structed, mediated and received. Popular culture is important for an exploration of the impact of the abortion dilemma in Weimar Germany because of its own textual merit, because of its proliferation, and because attitudes to and the experience of §218 figure large in so many cultural products. A great number of films, novels, and plays were not just popular; many of them were highly innovative works of art benefiting from the array of creative talent available at the time and attracted to the new Weimar popular culture. Germany of the 1920s and early 1930s is especially fruitful for an investigation of popular culture because longer leisure hours, reasonably high wages and women’s increasing participation in the work force and public life supported a flowering of popular culture, which was now enjoyed by all social strata. Moreover, it was of course no coincidence that abortion featured so prominently in many films, novels and plays; it was after all the self-confessed aim of many avant-garde directors and writers to dismantle the demarcations between art and politics. Culture was, they postulated, to be inclusive and it was to address topical issues. The playwright Bertolt Brecht and the theatre director Erwin Piscator, both inspired by communist ideals, set out to politicize spectators by breaking down the barriers between the performer and the audience and by making plays relevant to contemporary political life. What better issue around which to mobilize the poorer social strata than the suffering caused by §218? This was after all one of the discursive obsessions of the time, having featured in numerous Reichstag motions by the parties of the Left and in subsequent newspaper articles and been contested by the Right and the Churches. It had been at the centre of debates on gender identity and reproductive rights among feminists and sex reformers since the First World War. Naturally it attracted many committed poets, playwrights and novelists. In the following I will examine how some of these artistic works contributed to the perception of abortion and female sexuality in the Weimar Republic. I will make brief comparisons to the official discourse (constructed by doctors, lawyers, government officials, and churchmen) and also to women’s own testimony gleaned from, amongst other sources, depositions in criminal court cases. The different fictional narratives need to be carefully situated to reveal their specific historical context and the prevailing aesthetic, cinematic and literary conventions. But this does not of course mean that cultural representations are merely a passive reflection of the ‘real’ world. As a number of commentators have pointed out, reflection theory, so powerfully expressed in the works of Weimar film critics Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, is misleading as it assumes a simplistic pattern of cause and effect according to which an artistic production is judged as a more-or-less truthful reflection of an already existing social reality, or by the way it is meant to fit historical interpretations. Cultural products also do not simply convey official ideology; they are not neutral vehicles ‘expressing’ social meaning. Rather cultural representations function to transform and mediate the world through their own specific codes and the artistic institutions of which they are a part. Thus, in a study of the social construction of women’s sexual and reproductive roles the relationship between artistic representations and dominant and popular discourses needs to be understood as a dynamic one.

Taking an example each from screen and literature, I want to explore how far fictional abortion narratives supported or subverted the dominant views, and whether they diverged from those of ordinary men and women as they emerged in my research. The latter are particularly pertinent since the issue of abortion and sexuality had moved from being a medico-moral and political to a popular concern. This development was accompanied by a shift in gender and class: away from a discussion among academic and professional men to one among the ordinary public, particularly women of the lower classes. This entailed a change in the means of communication and the language used since women were taken more seriously as the new consumers of popular culture, especially of the moving image and illustrated journals. Thus, part of my concern is to speculate on how women spectators and readers might have reacted to abortion stories, especially if these contradicted their own experience. It is here that the ‘second voice’ becomes significant, that the hidden meaning of the story is discovered by reading between the lines or, in the case of silent film, by trusting images more than the text of the subtitles.

It was the new medium of film which provided the earliest popular platform to air the dilemma of §218. Film treatments spoke to thousands, sometimes millions of viewers because of the allure of the moving image but also because the topic was presented in a personalized and therefore more poignant and emotive manner than abstract arguments for women’s reproductive and sexual rights put forward by campaigners in speeches or articles. A good example is the film Kreuzzug des Weibes (Woman’s Crusade) by Martin Berger, which was released in 1926 by UFA, Germany’s leading film company, as a major silent film. With a hefty budget and a cast of no fewer than four UFA stars (Maly Delschaft, Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss and Harry Liedtke), the film dramatized the drawbacks of §218, such as class discrimination and unfit offspring, in the contrasting stories of three women. These women are linked by their experience of having terminated an unwanted pregnancy and by their address: two women live in bourgeois comfort in the elegant building facing the street, one in squalor in the tenement block at the back, facing the yard. But they are divided by social background and the outcome of their abortion experience. The first story is about the fate of a proletarian mother of four who dies as the result of a bungled illegal operation after a young doctor (Harry Liedtke) refuses to help even though he believes her child will be ‘sickly.’ To add insult to injury, the public prosecutor (Conrad Veidt) has the woman’s husband arrested for aiding and abetting the abortion and thus deprives his four children of their surviving parent. The second story concerns a ‘modern wife’ who requests a termination from her family doctor ostensibly on grounds of ill health but really to preserve her figure; she secures the operation by virtue of her money and her charm. The public prosecutor also hears about this case but decides against pressing charges. The third story is about the dramatic turn in the life of the heroine, a young teacher (Maly Delschaft) who is engaged to the prosecutor. Once she has witnessed the death of the proletarian woman she pleads with her fiancé to leave the woman’s husband in peace. When he refuses her relationship with him cools; it is in real crisis after she is raped by the caretaker’s mentally retarded son (Werner Krauss) leaving her pregnant and with her personal and professional life in tatters. In desperation she turns to the same young doctor who had refused the request of the proletarian woman and thus had indirectly caused her death. He is now full of remorse and determined to make amends by helping the teacher and saving her from the clutches of a quack abortionist. Afterwards he is honourable enough to give himself up to the police and the prosecutor. When the latter learns that this case concerns his own fiancée he suffers a nightmarish vision of the ghosts of many abortion victims, the woman’s crusade of the title. This hallucination brings about his conversion: he forgives his fiancée for having undergone an abortion and realises the injustice of §218; he resigns from his position since he can no longer serve a state whose laws he does not support.

How should we rate the contribution of this film, and others like it, to the debate about abortion? We can either dismiss it as a commercial enterprise that played on and bought into received opinions; or we can regard it, as I will argue below, as a work of artistic value and one which dramatized the effects of §218 on women but also celebrated women’s agency and sexual autonomy. The film did rely on stereotypes; but it also subverted conventional attitudes through cinematic means. In what follows, I will consider each interpretation in turn.

There is certainly an argument to be made that the director and producer may have been motivated by money. Any reasonably well-made film about §218 was bound to be a money spinner. They had invested heavily in this production and made every effort to guarantee a good reception. The film was premiered on 1 October 1926, unusually in two of Berlin’s largest cinemas simultaneously, the Alhambra on the Kurfürstendamm and the Primus Palast. The timing was judicious, coming as it did after six years of vociferous campaigns inside and outside the Reichstag to liberalize §218, culminating in the new law just five months earlier. This was in fact the first of only two reforms of the abortion regulation during the Weimar years; it commuted simple abortion from a crime to a misdemeanour, which greatly reduced the penalties for the aborting woman. Thus, the film benefited from the topicality of a discourse which affected many diverse interest groups—juxtaposing, as it did aspects of health, morality, women’s rights, class discrimination, culture and gender in a complex set of relationships. The publicity material suggests that this cash nexus was consciously planned; it referred to the ‘hotly disputed subject’ and ‘the many tragedies which are caused by it. Must a woman become a mother? Or may a hard-pressed woman … ?’ Certainly, critics were aware that the choice of abortion as subject matter was ‘good business.’ Kreuzzug was indeed both a box office and a critical success in Germany and abroad. According to the influential journal Film-Kurier, it was the eighth most popular film of the 1926/7 season and such was its impact that it secured US distribution and ushered in a whole host of other German abortion films.

Siegfried Kracauer, the Weimar emigré socialist film critic, accused topical films like Kreuzzug of shallowness and political insignificance; they hindered revolutionary change, Kracauer argued, by concentrating on issues of little importance and by overemphasizing ‘sex matters,’ thereby lulling audiences into a false complacency. While I disagree with Kracauer’s rejection of this film genre, I concede that Berger’s message was both cautious and conformist in several ways. It was cautious because the socio-moral crisis which has befallen the female protagonists is resolved by a conciliation between two bourgeois professionals rather than by class struggle to institute radical change. It was conformist in adopting wholesale the dominant medico-political opinion about the meaning of abortion (always represented as a disaster) and female sexuality (always dangerous). The most striking aspect of this is how uncritically Kreuzzug, like many other films and novels, internalized the stance of the medical profession. Despite evidence to the contrary the skills and ethical superiority of doctors (always depicted as male despite the large and increasing number of women in the profession) are never questioned: they alone were to arbitrate who deserved a termination and they alone were regarded as safe executors of the operation. Kreuzzug in fact celebrates the profession by presenting a young doctor as the saviour of the female lead and by casting the heart-throb Harry Liedtke in this role. He is young and glamorous and one of the few characters who is allowed to develop into a humane and courageous individual. His changing attitude to §218 neatly mirrors the whole gamut of opinions within the medical profession at the time: the Liedtke character’s early anti-abortion stance corresponds to the contemporary conservative camp within the profession who resisted any but the most circumscribed reform of the law; his subsequent chastened stance is typical of progressive doctors at the time who advocated legal termination on medical, social and/or eugenic grounds.

There were similar critiques of Irmgard Keun’s bestselling novel Gilgi, eine von uns (‘Gilgi, One of Us’) (1931), about a young New Woman who fails in her search for a termination. The book was criticized by the political Left for creating a protagonist who betrayed the proletarian struggle. This was despite the fact that it was supported by the SPD organ, Vorwdrts, which serialized it daily between 24 August and 25 October 1932. On 18 October the Vorwdrts editorial board asked for readers’ reactions to this novel which, as they put it, ‘acts as an educator; it challenges criticism, it makes us engage with a problem which concerns us all and thus becomes a creative force.’ The editors were seeking to establish ‘a link between artist and public’ made possible by ‘the proletarian, the socialist cultural policies’ and in keeping with ‘a democratic age.’ Readers’ letters came flooding in, filling the pages of Vorwdrts for ten days or so. While some were sympathetic to Keun’s heroine, most were critical: Gilgi, one woman reader wrote, ‘is not one of us, not one of the millions who fight courageously for the rise of their class and for the creation of a new society.’ Other letters expressed dislike for Gilgi’s ‘contempt’ for and her ‘lack of empathy’ with other, especially lower-class women. Criticism in the communist Weg der Frau went much further: in February 1933 an article by a woman journalist, Ingeborg Franke, accused Keun’s protagonist of fascist tendencies. The real Gilgis who lived through the Depression, she argued, had more important worries than a love affair; they lacked work and bread; what was needed was not ‘social climbing but a struggle of all Gilgis against the existing economic circumstances …’ She called on ‘all Gilgis of the real world—to defend themselves!’ This invective was hardly surprising, given that Communists had taken to calling Social Democrats ‘social fascists’ by that time and that the article appeared after Hitler’s assumption of power. Furthermore, the article was part of a special issue on white-collar workers and Gilgi, who worked as a typist at a wholesaler’s, had by that time become synonymous with this social group, which was much maligned by the Left for their apolitical stance. Franke’s views are indeed reminiscent of Kracauer’s Marxist critique of the ‘false consciousness’ of the white-collar workers who failed to appreciate the problems of the real world of work, social status and class adherence because they had fallen for the illusions created by entertainment film and advertising. His tendency to accuse especially the young female spectator of passivity and gullibility has been challenged by a number of feminist scholars. It is of course particularly unconvincing to accuse women watching films like Kreuzzug of merely looking for an easy escape from reality when they were watching precisely the problems they encountered in everyday life. But, as we know, Kracauer was not the only one who viewed the rise of mass culture with alarm, as is shown in the widespread debates about Kitsch, Trivialliteratur, Schund und Schmutz throughout the 1920s and the various articles by Walter Benjamin and Georg Simmel before him.

Most works of popular culture also perpetuated the myth of the dangerous and greedy lay abortionist, a construct of the medical profession who had campaigned for some time against the nineteenth-century liberal trade regulation which declared medicine a trade open to all (Kurierfreiheit). While the medical press vilified ‘quack abortionists’ openly, Kreuzzug condemns them more indirectly: it is left open whether the concierge merely encourages the proletarian couple to practise self-help or whether she actually provides the necessary means. At any rate, her persona is unmistakably associated cine-matically with darkness by her physical surroundings, with degeneration by her imbecile son and finally with murder by the death of the proletarian woman who has followed her advice. This stereotypical portrait is also noticeable in literary works. For example, Keun in Gilgi does not criticize lay abortionists outright but damns them by her total silence. The pregnant Gilgi goes straight to the nearest physician and even after he has rejected her request, she still does not consult a ‘quack.’ Even more surprisingly, Hertha, the pregnant wife of Gilgi’s destitute friend Hans, also only mentions medical help. When Gilgi exclaims in horror: ‘Hertha, my God, how can you think of having this child,’ she replies resignedly: ‘What else can I do, Gilgi? Or do you really think I could go along to the local health insurance fund?’ a reference to the well-known fact that sick funds usually paid for medical terminations on health grounds.

My own research in criminal court records, letters and medical diaries, however, suggests that in general women, particularly of the lower classes, preferred to turn to lay, especially women, abortionists rather than doctors. This was partly because lay operators were considerably cheaper but also because they shared with their clients the same language and the same attitudes. ‘Wise women’ in popular culture are usually pejoratively called ‘Madame,’ like a procuress, and their appearance suggests the disreputable, exotic ‘other.’ For example, Madame Heye in Friedrich Wolf’s stage play Cyankali (1929), as well as in its 1930 screen version, is the undisputed villain of the plot; even before Hete, pregnant, single and destitute, meets her, the audience is prepared for her dirty, unscrupulous and deadly business by the doctor’s warning to Hete: ‘Don’t go!’ he says, ‘where you will be injured by unclean instruments, where you will be given cyanide … both will lead to a certain death!’ In the film Mme Heye appears superficially respectable (neatly dressed in a white blouse and dark skirt and wearing a homely apron) but she soon reveals her coarseness by her rude and abrupt gestures, ungrammatical speech and the merciless way she strikes a hard bargain: in return for a sum which Hete can ill afford and which is considerably more than was usual in such cases in the 1920s, Heye offers an operation (in fact with dirty instruments) and poison (the very cyanide of the title) which then causes Hete’s agonizing death. This procedure does not tally with that of wise women in the archival files I consulted who never used poison but injected only lukewarm water or a solution of alum into their patients’ uterus. I have yet to find an example in film or fiction with a neutral, let alone positive, image of commercial abortionists. This reflects the aim of academic medicine to ‘stamp out’ the malpractice of lay operators or renegade doctors officially blamed for the rise of maternal morbidity and mortality. Yet women’s own stories and judicial investigations often offer a more complex picture: while there is certainly evidence of a number of lay abortionists who did cause injuries and even deaths, there is also a surprising wealth of evidence that a good many operators possessed considerable skills and medical knowledge and helped women efficiently Consequently, they were often regarded by their clients with gratitude rather than disdain.

The influence of the medical discourse is also evident in artistic abortion narratives which adopted eugenic arguments: these argued for abortion to be legalized in order to prevent ‘degenerate’ offspring. In Kreuzzug this is an issue with the young teacher’s pregnancy resulting from her rape by the ‘feeble-minded’ caretaker’s son, whose progeny would inherit his ‘dysgenic’ traits. During the Weimar Republic doctors frequently sounded the alarm bells of danger to the Volkskörper, the social body, from sex crimes perpetrated by the mentally ill who were deemed to be growing in number and to possess abnormal sexual appetites. This fuelled the arguments in favour of marriage prohibition and eugenic sterilization. In the fourth act of the film, eugenics are invoked explicitly in the rather didactic discussion between the young doctor and his friend the prosecutor, about the merits of a qualitative population policy. The doctor declares that ‘the removal of a sick foetus serves the good of the Volk and is no murder.’ But the danger of dysgenic reproduction is also powerfully implied in purely cinematic terms; the camera zooms in and dwells on the concierge’s imbecile son at the very moment when she talks the proletarian couple into an abortion. By this device the spectator is persuaded that the current law is to blame for the central drama of the film: had the concierge been allowed to practise what she preaches she would have been spared an abnormal son and the teacher her rape. Finally, Werner Krauss’s acting brings out the ‘feeble-mindedness’ of the caretaker’s son by translating it physically into a person who cannot control his libido or his appetite. As soon as he sets eyes on something he desires, he touches and devours it. Aided by his infantile hairstyle and ghostlike facial expression Krauss gives an extravagant performance of mental deficiency made more powerful by the use of close-up shots.

Left-wing abortion reformers argued consistently that the existing law was discriminatory—that lower class women had the least chance of obtaining proper medical help and that they were also numerically overrepresented as defendants. Most abortion narratives in fiction and film also took this line. The plot of Kreuzzug pleads the case for the social indication very clearly by showing the injustice of the current system: the society lady can easily persuade the doctor to furnish her with a medical certificate on dubious therapeutic grounds but the proletarian woman is rebuffed, resorts to risky self-help or back-street abortion and dies as a result. The same scenario was presented in Gilgi, Wolf’s Cyankali, and numerous other works. Like socialist politicians, Kreuzzug portrays the law enforcement agencies as anti-working-class: the public prosecutor has no qualms having the proletarian couple arrested while he dismisses the case against the wealthy woman. Only at the denouement of the film is the unjust law dismissed as irrelevant by the professional classes: the teacher seeks a termination, the doctor aborts and the prosecutor ceases to prosecute.

However, this overt socialist perspective was undermined and even contradicted in the film by its narrative structure and characterizations. The central focus on the story of the middle-class teacher and the marginal treatment of the proletarian tragedy reinforces the very class inequality the plot appears to criticize. Although contemporary evidence from surveys of proletarian family life suggests that the fear of unplanned pregnancies meant that even among married proletarian women there were many who dreaded rather than enjoyed sex, the exaggerated portrayal of pitiable womanhood in popular culture perpetuates the stereotype of the woman as victim. The suffering of the working-class family in Kreuzzug is evident in their worn faces and unfashionable clothes, and in their children’s beseeching looks. There is also an unspoken assumption, established entirely through cinematic means, that the pregnancy of this proletarian woman is as unwelcome to society at large as it is to the individual concerned. This is in keeping with the contemporary medico/eugenic notion that the offspring of women exhausted by deprivation and multiple births were potentially ‘unfit.’ Kreuzzug anticipated many similar tragic abortion narratives. Even during her courtship in the film Cyankali, for example Hete’s overriding characteristic is not sexual attraction but filial duty and a desire to be a home-maker (under impossible circumstances)— both soon replaced by resignation and denigration. Despite being only fifty, Hete’s mother is an example of wasted proletarian womanhood, acting as a warning of what the future might hold for Hete. In Keun’s Gilgi, we find a caricature of working-class passive victimhood in the protagonist’s old friend, Hans, and his wife Hertha. During the Depression Hans has slipped down the social ladder and finds himself amongst the down and out, facing imprisonment unless he can repay his debts. Having failed to prevent a further conception, Hertha has resigned herself to a third child although they are already destitute. Although she still loves her husband, ‘illness, tiredness and the constant fear of a child’ has turned sex into ‘torture, a terrible torture’ and she contemplates sending Hans to a prostitute. When Gilgi fails to deliver the money she has obtained to pay off their debt, Hans and Hertha end in the most pathetic way possible: they gas themselves and their children. Their lack of resolve and their death provides a poignant backdrop to Gilgi’s own fate: while her friends have given up, the reader cannot but admire the heroine’s courage as she moves to the capital and fights on as a single mother.

Despite such vivid sketches of suffering, lower-class life plays only a marginal role in the novel. Like the film Kreuzzug and in common with similar novels and films, Gilgi preferred to dwell on the fate of a more upwardly mobile heroine; only left-wing authors dared to focus firmly on the reproductive plight of a working-class protagonist. Amongst the best-known examples are Wolf’s Cyankali (1929), which was followed shortly afterwards by ‘§ 218.’ Gequdlte Menschen (Tortured People) by another socialist doctor, Carl Credé. Like Cyankali, Credé’s play was a Kampfstiick, a campaigning drama; like Cyankali it was staged by Piscator, who toured with it throughout Germany to full houses, and caused considerable controversy. Typical of a socialist novel aimed at working-class readers is Maria und der Paragraph (Maria and the law) by the young communist Franz Krey, published in 1931 in the KPD’s Red-One-Mark-Series and also serialized in the communist Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung. Strangely, the heroine of the title is a typist rather than a blue-collar worker, but because of her allegiance to organized labour she figures as an honorary proletarian.

The decision by the director of Kreuzzug and the author of Gilgi to concentrate on middle- rather than working-class heroines was probably connected to the anticipated audience. We know from contemporary studies that women comprised a large number, if not the majority, of the cinema-going public and the same was true of the serialized novel. Patrice Petro has convincingly argued that if we look at different textual practices we can deduce that ‘a female spectatorship was indeed assumed and addressed’ by the cinema and the illustrated press, and that both exploited the existence of a female spectator and reader ‘for mobilizing her desires and unconscious fantasies.’ It may be reasonable to assume that the portrayal of upwardly mobile middle-class or lower-middle-class heroines attracted proletarian as well as bourgeois women spectators and was therefore eagerly pursued by film distributors as well as publishers. The young teacher in Kreuzzug fitted the new model of the emancipated Weimar woman whose higher education afforded her a profession, and enough self-confidence and economic inde-pendence to control her own fate (until she found she had little control over her own body). New Woman narratives were extremely popular. The fortune of the illustrated press was much boosted by printing in instalments a novel which conformed to the new vision of women’s modernity. The white-collar heroine Gilgi, striving to advance through a tough régime of self-improvement, body culture and work discipline and a fashionably sober attitude to life and love at the beginning of the book, must have spoken to thousands of other young women with similar worldly aspirations. Gilgi’s modernity was perfectly conveyed in Keun’s idiosyncratic style. As Barbara Kosta has formulated it, ‘both Gilgi’s tempo and time schedule, punctuated by Keun’s rapid scene changes, fragmented writing and abrupt sentences replicate the pulse of the city’ of the 1920s. Sentimentality in sexual relations is spurned by Gilgi from the outset and she criticizes her own unexpected feelings for Martin, her bon-vivant lover, as a Betriebsstörung (operational difficulties). This was very much in keeping with the atmosphere of sexual cynicism among the younger generation and the notion of rationalized sexuality discussed by sex reformers and population strategists alike.

So far, I have concentrated on a rather negative interpretation of my examples of abortion narratives, stressing the commercial and conformist aspects of Kreuzzug and Gilgi. But let me now consider the possibilities of a more positive assessment. Business considerations in the making of Kreuzzug should not detract from the director’s genuine conviction that §218 needed further reform; they should also not diminish his artistic achievements. Contemporary reviews testify to the positive reception of both content and style. One critic praised the film for its ‘extraordinarily subdued and refined’ style and the ‘love and care’ with which the notion of ‘compulsory motherhood’ had been ‘formed into a great work of art.’ Another commended the seriousness with which the film portrayed ‘the sanctity of motherhood’ and a third especially liked Martin Berger’s ‘sparse, restrained and dispassionate’ directorial approach which ‘breaks with all cinematic convention. No car passes by, no cigarette is being smoked, there are no love scenes …,’ offering us ‘a film of hard facts, narrated with intentional matter-of-factness and because of it, especially impressive.’ Keun’s novel Gilgi, too, was much lauded.

Tucholsky praised the author as a ‘woman with humour,’ while conservative critics liked the protagonist’s courage. The novel was also enormously successful, no doubt riding on the wave of the huge public protests against the arrest in early 1931 of the two doctors Else Kienle and Friedrich Wolf for illegal terminations. But Keun’s book also tapped into other favourite topics of the contemporary scene. For example, it dealt deftly with one of the key conflicts of the New Woman, the difficulty of overcoming the apparent incompatibility of work, love and motherhood. In 1932 Gilgi was filmed by the German Paramount film company, but proved a disappointment. Both as book and serial it was a popular and critical success, however. Within a year of publication it was reprinted five times, having sold no fewer than 30,000 copies.

Dealing with hot issues was not the only reason why this novel or films like Kreuzzug proved so popular. Despite adopting the dominant medical discourse concerning abortion, both made a plea for abortion reform. And the very fact that they portrayed women’s biological fate so openly undermined traditional gender and class relationships. The exposure of the abortion issue in literary and cinematic representations probably did more to raise awareness of women’s reproductive problems and thereby of female sexuality than debates in the Reichstag, amongst doctors or in newspapers had ever managed to do. What is more, the subject was in both these (and many other similar) works explored from the woman’s point of view even if an explicit feminist line was rare. This was less surprising with novels like Gilgi and Helene Willfüer, written as they were by authors who were New Women themselves and naturally put their heroines’ plight centre stage. Although the narrative voice in Gilgi is not the protagonist’s, hers are the only thoughts and feelings we are told about, so we necessarily see things through her own eyes, especially when we are let it on Gilgi’s secret thoughts and emotions, often in the form of a stream of consciousness. Even male film directors (such as Martin Berger in Kreuzzug) who argued for eugenic rather than women’s rights could not but elicit spectators’ sympathy for their women protagonists by revealing such an extraordinary keyhole view of their intimate fears and desires. Especially the part of Maly Delschaft as the young teacher is central to the whole film thanks to the narrative structure, the use of montage and thoughtful intertitles. She is the sole mediator between the classes, between the state (in the guise of the doctor and the public prosecutor) and ordinary women, and she alone possesses the moral authority to change the inhumane stance of the representatives of medicine and law. When she obtains the promise of a termination, she appears to redeem the tragic death of the proletarian mother, she reasserts her role as a professional woman, and gains at least some measure of reproductive self-determination. Finally, through the use of montage her sensual desire is favourably compared to her fiancé’s coolness. At the very beginning of the film, the camera switches from the tête-à-tête between them in his office to the first signs of the impending storm outside which also prepare the spectator for the coming sexual crisis. While her admiration for the wildness of nature suggests passion, his warning to beware of unrestrained drives indicates timidity. And throughout the film, Berger endows his heroine with agency and strength which is grounded in an awareness of her body and her sexuality.

The full extent of the emancipatory or subversive messages is not immediately obvious and has to be detected outside the explicit storyline. In films it has to be sought in directing, acting, cinematography and montage, such as the unexpected juxtaposition of disparate images. In fact the meaning of gestures, facial expressions, close angles or montage is frequently more daring than the text in sub- or intertitles. This may well be connected to censorship but also to the way good directors played the medium. In silent films the visual image was particularly powerful and could be endowed with potent meanings. Similarly, the tone of a passage in fiction could twist the meaning in subtle yet powerful ways. In Keun’s Gilgi the boundaries of acceptable female behaviour are frequently transgressed even if the impact is muted by the use of irony and the distancing effect of inner monologue. For example, the description of Gilgi’s visit to the doctor to have her pregnancy confirmed and to obtain a termination (in which she fails), is a bravura piece of blunt criticism of official medicine and the law. The vehemence of Gilgi’s attack on the smugness of this particular doctor and thereby on the whole profession and the patriarchal character of the existing regulation of reproduction control is unparalleled. It was probably acceptable because it was rendered not as speech but as an inner monologue by a very young rebel who was also in dire straits. In this highly subversive encounter Gilgi fights so fervently for her rights that she experiences, and the reader through her, the exhilarating sense of a reversal of the usual doctor/patient power relationship. This is of course a clever trick. We know, and she knows, that the doctor has the upper hand by refusing her request, and that there is nothing she can do about it. But such is the force of her conviction that she appears as the clear victor: in her argument she occupies the moral high ground believing it immoral to bring a child into the world when she is unable to care for it. Throughout this scene the ambiguity of her status is felt: on the one hand she is the outraged customer and her behaviour is appropriately abrasive; on the other hand she is also vulnerable because her biological fate seems to depend on the goodwill of a professional man. Dressed androgynously with a tie tightly knotted round her neck, she orders the doctor to come to the point and tell her straight—and without recourse to Latin—whether she is pregnant or not. Taken aback by her verbal onslaught the doctor replies condescendingly that the ‘little miss’ is ‘sound as a bell’ and possesses ‘a wonderful pelvis,’ whereupon she explodes. Again the reader is privy to her thoughts: ‘One needs a strong shot of street urchin to protect oneself. No fear of words, no fear of concepts—German to be spoken. Right or wrong, she’s furious with the harmless little doctor. Stop being so pompous, you miserable Micky Mouse dipped in carbolic acid you … what do you mean by a splendid pelvis! I don’t want a child!’ The scene ends with the doctor giving her a reassuring but oblique hint that help might still be available if she would only stick to the rules of the game. She should return in three weeks since sometimes these things ‘put themselves to rights—and yes—in that case one could possibly help it along.’ This is a splendid example of the kind of unsatisfactory medical encounter which many women in the records I consulted had actually experienced; but it also gives voice to the gutsy New-Woman-speak using a Neue Sachlichkeit style of short, sharp, ironic sentences.

The matter-of-factness of the style notwithstanding, Gilgi and the other abortion narratives discussed above were also highly popular because they managed to engage their women readers and spectators emotionally. This was because they employed the medium of melodrama so much maligned by cultural commentators, but recently rescued from our disdain as a banal art form. Inspired by Peter Brook’s text, The Melodramatic Imagination, Patrice Petro has argued that melodramatic narratives should be re-evaluated for a number of reasons to do with their ability to portray everyday drama through an ‘aesthetic which combined abstraction and stylisation.’ As we have seen, typical abortion narratives in films and novels featured the melodramatic juxtaposition of the innocent woman at the mercy of the wicked abortionist. Such melodrama created character types and intimate situations which were immediately recognizable and therefore particularly useful for silent films and women’s fiction. It was also a genre which suited the female spectator and reader in that it addressed, even if in a stylized form, the drama of the real, the ordinary and the private life, mediating women’s own experiences of the everyday in a post-First World War society.

But how do we explain the striking contrast between the official view of abortion as always tragic and the wise woman as always greedy and dangerous, as portrayed in the abortion narratives in films and fiction, and ordinary women’s own quite different testimony in court cases? Were they not influenced in their views of the dangers of sexuality and abortion by what they saw on screen or stage and read in popular novels? This question is as important as it is difficult to answer. It is of course impossible to know for sure whether the consumers of popular culture and the women who feature in the judicial files I consulted actually overlapped, although many of the latter are likely to have gone to the movies or read bestsellers like Gilgi. There is also the difficulty of knowing how women spectators and readers reacted to the texts discussed above. Were they too captivated by them to think critically, especially when it concerned the dream factory of film? Feminist film scholars like Hansen, Schlüpmann and Petro agree with the 1914 analysis of Emilie Altenloh that German women of all classes were ‘addicted’ to the cinema, particularly when it concerned romances and social dramas. Given the extraordinary sales of women’s fiction quoted above and the popular successes of realist drama about §218 it seems reasonable to suggest that we can include in this interpretation the other genres of popular culture, fiction and plays. But these feminist scholars have disputed the charge by Kracauer and others that women’s addiction and therefore distraction from important political participation was a consequence solely of the strategies of mass cultural domination; rather they have argued that women’s eager involvement was due to gender inequalities, that is to say women’s relative deprivation within the economy and society of the time. For women, it is argued, the cinema (and other forms of popular culture) provided the chance, in Altenloh’s words, ‘to live in another world, a world of luxury and extravagance which makes them forget the monotony of the everyday.’

Even if this were the case, however, we cannot simply assume that female spectators or readers concurred with the overt message of a plot or behaved like the social viewer or reader who is assumed ‘to be manipulated’ into certain views, to use Miriam Hansen’s words. Given the often very sophisticated responses from ordinary women to their interrogators in the police station or in a court of law when they managed the extraordinary balancing act of appearing to conform to the dominant discourse while holding on to their own quite different experiences, it might indeed be safer to assume that even women from relatively deprived educational and social backgrounds were well able to immerse themselves in a work of art, even identify with fictional stories and characters, without losing a sense of their own everyday reality and to appropriate texts, or aspects of them, for their own use. And the ability of works like Kreuzzug and Gilgi to convey a thrillingly rebellious meaning hidden in images and between the lines no doubt reinforced this sense of independence.