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Troisième partie. Perspectives étrangères

The child murderer in Emmy Hennings’ novels Gefängnis (Prison, 1919) and Das Haus im Schatten (The House in Shadow, 1929/30)

L’enfant meurtrier dans les romans d’Emmy Hennings Gefängnis (Prison, 1919) et Das Haus im Schatten (La maison dans l'ombre, 1929/30)
Lorella Bosco
p. 79-91


Cet article mettra en lumière l’attitude de Hennings à l’égard de la maternité et des attentes sociales concernant les devoirs féminins et l’appel naturel des femmes en analysant ses portraits de femmes tueuses d’enfants dans Gefängnis (Prison) et Das Haus im Schatten (La maison dans l'ombre).

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1The singer, cabaret performer, actress and poet Emmy Hennings, a multitalented and highly fascinating, though still underrated, figure of the German avantgarde, often mentioned in the same breath with her partner Hugo Ball, the founder of the Dada movement, is still less known to a wider public. Both her and her husband Hugo Ball’s legacy, including an extensive array of unpublished documents and works as well as many different versions of the books she had published during her lifetime, is kept at the Schweizerisches Literaturarchiv (sla) in Bern. Some of her most relevant novels, like Gefängnis (Prison, 1919) or Das Brandmal (The Brand, 1920) have been republished over the last three decades (mostly by the Suhrkamp Publishing-House); a complete edition of her works is now in preparation at the sla.

  • 1 On Emmy Hennings’ life see the biography written by B. Reetz, Emmy Ball-Hennings. Ein Leben im Viel (...)

2Emmy Hennings (born Emma Maria Cordsen, 1885-1948)1 came from a lower middle-class family in Flensburg (Northern Germany). Although young Emmy read voraciously, was a passionate theatregoer and dreamed of an acting career, she would not continue her education beyond primary school (Volksschule), unlike better-off girls from respectable families. Because of her family’s limited means, she was forced to drop out at fourteen to help with work, to earn money for her dowry and trousseau and to get married, as she finally did in 1904. With her husband, Joseph Paul Hennings, she shared a passion for theatre. In 1905, after the birth of their first child, they joined a travelling theatre, touring the German provinces. As her husband deserted her, Emmy suddenly found herself completely left to her own devices. She was again with child (presumably by her colleague, the actor Wilhelm Vio); her first baby was by that time already dead. Emmy gave birth to a daughter, Annemarie, who was soon to be left in her mother’s care. Only in 1916, almost nine years later, when her grandmother died in Flensburg, would Annemarie (called Annemie) join her mother and her partner and later husband Hugo Ball in Zürich. Hennings’ search for individual freedom and self-fulfilment as both a woman and an artist explains her highly controversial relationship with the issues of marriage and motherhood. However, whereas the bourgeois institution of marriage (Hennings calls it “prison” and “grave of all youth and beauty”) was frequently called into question at the beginning of the twentieth century, motherhood was still regarded as the fundamental experience of a woman’s life and her true natural vocation. It is in this respect not surprising that some of Hennings’works, as we will see below, address the issue of the child murder by presenting female characters who have committed this crime. They express in a paradoxical form the ambiguities and contradictions which made up the bourgeois as well the avant-gardistic discourse on the ultimate vocation of women. They also give voice to Hennings’anxiety about losing the freedom of constantly reinventing herself beyond any social and moral constraints which played a major role in her choice of a theatrical career. My contribution will therefore highlight Hennings’ attitude towards motherhood and social expectations about female duties and the natural call of women by analysing her portraits of child murdering women in Gefängnis (Prison) and Das Haus im Schatten (The House in Shadow).

  • 2 E. Hennings, The Brand. Ein Tagebuch, with an afterword by E. Süllwold, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, (...)

3Since 1905 Emmy Hennings had been travelling endlessly through Germany and Europe because of her numerous engagements in theatres, cabarets and varietés. She also occasionally worked as a prostitute and a bar girl when she did not obtain any employment, which was quite a common practice among actresses at that time (“We are a complimentary dish offered with sparkling wine”, as she puts it in The Brand)2. Between 1909 and 1913 she gradually rose to become a star in the expressionistic circles in Berlin and Munich and had numerous affairs with famous members of the German bohemia such as the writer and journalist Ferdinand Hardekopf (with whom she had a liason which, though not exclusive, lasted many years until the outbreak of the war), the poets Georg Heym, Johannes Becher and Jakob von Hoddis, the anarchistic writer Erich Mühsam and the painters Ernst Moritz Engert und Reinhold Rudolf Junghanns, for whom she posed as a model in a series of sketches, published in 1913 by the reknowned Kurt-Wolff Verlag with the title Variationen über ein weibliches Thema (Variations on a female theme). However, even in the years preceding the First World War, the role of Emmy Hennings was not to be confined merely to that of a Muse, inspiring male creativity. Her poems had appeared in well-known expressionist cultural journals and publications: Pan, Die Aktion and Der Revoluzzer; in 1913 a short poetry collection entitled Die letzte Freude (The Last Joy) was published by the Kurt-Wolff-Publishing House.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 149.

4It is remarkable that most of Emmy Hennings’ works contain biographical and autobiographical insights, presenting the author’s life story through a personal and extremely creative narrative which interweaves facts and fictions, avoiding to trace a sharp demarcation line between both terms. The traditionally male (auto)biographical genre thus becomes an experimental ground for a radical avant-garde project which dissolves the boundaries between art and life, with a subversive strategy which applies also to other female artists of the time like Else Lasker-Schüler. “My only profession is that of learning what I am”3 as Hennings puts it in The Brand. Identity constitutes itself over a dynamic staging process of the self which never comes to an end. Former, too fixed traditional models of subjectivity are replaced by situationally adapted interaction and communication patterns, while the self has to continuously work on and re-create itself to meet the ever changing requirements. The only (auto)biographical “truth” which emerges from Emmy Hennings’ works is therefore the commitment to an aesthetic of the playful transformation of the own unstable subjectivity. For these reasons Hennings’ works often focus on the life on stage. Since the self is constantly reinventing itself, identity constitues itself over the dynamic process of writing and rewriting the own story in a variety of different, never definitive versions.

5In 1911 Hennings had converted to Catholicism, a step which provoked a sharp reaction from her bohemian friends, but seemed at first not to affect her public behavior, though it was destined to have important consequences on her later existence, especially after the outbreak of the war, during her lifelong relationship to Hugo Ball (they would eventually marry in 1920). The overtly catholic commitment especially of her late work would in fact play a major role in the neglection and incomprehension which greeted her literary endeavours. With Hugo Ball she would leave Germany in 1915 and move to Switzerland. In Zurich, they founded a year later the Cabaret Voltaire together, an experience that only lasted until 1917. Hugo Ball left then Zurich and did not again actively participate in Dada activities, dedicating himself instead to what he believed his ultimate vocation: being a catholic writer who follows the ascetic ideal of the monks and the saints. He encouraged Emmy Hennings to put down in writing the experiences derived from her tumultuous life. In 1919 she therefore published her first autobiographical novel Prison, a first person account which treats in literary form some of the author’s experiences in jail in Munich at the outbreak of the First World War.

In Prison

  • 4 See on this point S. Werner-Birkenbach, “Emmy Hennings. Eine Frau schreibt Gefängnisliteratur”, Hug (...)

6Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War Emmy Hennings spent August in pre-trial detention on account of alleged theft from a customer; she was then sentenced to four week imprisonment from September, 20th until October, 19th 1914; over Christmas she was imprisoned again for alleged forgery of documents in order to help the writer Franz Jung to desert. In her book Prison, however, as in the later unpublished versions Das graue Haus (The Grey House, 1924) and Das Haus im Schatten (1929/30), the main character, the “I” who never entireley coincides with the author, is rather elusive about the reasons for her imprisonment; there are only hints at what may have happened, the crime is never explicitly mentioned and the narrating voice neither overtly proclaims her innocence nor her guilt4. Not surprisingly Henning wrote three versions of her prison-story, which differ on a number of substantial points, not to mention the poems she had dedicated to this topic during the war. On the one hand this shows how relevant the issues of prison and imprisonment were for the author who later in the thirties would also work as a court reporter, especially of cases of female delinquency. On the other hand writing and rewriting texts, even the own life story (“Let us rewrite life every day” as Hugo Ball puts it in Flight out of time) both before and after publishing the work, without ever coming to an ultimate version, complied, as we have seen, with the dynamic, performative understanding of art and literature promoted by the Avant-garde.

  • 5 This is one of the distinctive features of “autobiographical novels” which breaks the so-called “au (...)
  • 6 See M. Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, in N. Leach (ed.), Rethinking Archite (...)

7Prison provides a unique, unconventional glimpse of the daily routine of the inmates, offering deep insights into the individual lives of the imprisoned women from a female point of view. The protagonist, called Emma, almost like the author of the book5, criticizes bourgeois society and debunks the inconsistencies and contradictions of its male-focused patriarchal structures and courts of justice which claim the right to determine at which moment a woman is to be deemed a criminal. Prisons are in fact, in Foucaltian terms, heterotopias, spaces of otherness, in this case “of deviation”, which are neither here nor there. Moreover, they articulate multilayered mirror-like functional relationships with the society system in which they are placed in6. Individuals detained in prisons are deviant in relation to the norms required by the bourgeoisie and patriarchal institutions. That also implies that nowhere but in prison can one effectively measure the state of a social system. Bourgeois double moral standards are therefore particularly clear in the case of prostitutes: women alone are convicted of a crime in which male customers are also involved with no lesser degree of guilt. As the narrating voice remarks, not without sarcasm:

  • 7 E. Hennings, Prison, with an afterword by Heinz Ohff, Frankfurt a. M. / Berlin / Wien, 1985, p. 105 (...)

The bias is evident. One should punish seducers and seduced: the open door and the saints. (…) Take the most unprotected creature, a street girl. If it is forbidden to ask for payment for love by the hour, then it must also be forbidden to buy love by the hour. The experience shows however that human beings cannot live without hours of love. Therefore, love should be organised differently. But “organised love” sounds extremely embarrassing. However, there is no way out of this. The court of justice consists of men and it requires less effort to punish the weak sex than to hold those men accountable who wish to keep their strongest drives secret. I would like those raped men sometimes to see the contemptuously smiling faces of their seductresses, who, quietly chatting in the jail hallway, reveal the secrets of their accusers. In the courtyard of the remand prison I saw the smiling superiority on the faces of women and girls who sell themselves on the street; of women who are winners and are gracious enough to declare themselves losers. This complaisance seems to be dangerous, since they have been locked inside mighty walls7.

  • 8 See H. Siebenpfeiffer, “Böse Lust”: Gewaltverbrechen in Diskursen der Weimarer Republik, Köln / Wei (...)
  • 9 Ibid., p. 156.

8The scene in which the narrator comes across Else, a twenty-four year old woman who killed her child, is even more striking with regard to the presumptuousness and double standards of patriarchal society towards women. The Reichsstrafgesetzbuch (National Code of Criminal Law, RStGB), which had become effective in the German Empire since 1871, recognized the child murder (Kindstötung) as a paradigmatic violent crime perpetrated by women, thus strongly determined by their biological sex. Furthermore, §217 regarded infanticide as a criminal offence exclusively perpetrated by a mother who had intentionally killed her illegitimate child during or soon after birth8. According to the definition of this offence, a man who had killed a child was merely persecuted as a murderer, not as a child murderer. The close connection established between the moment of birth and the murder itself thus contributed to define infanticide as a specific female crime. For this reason (the distinctive feature of gender in the murderer), the National Code of Criminal Law also regarded infanticide as a delictum sui generis (separate crime) which could be as such, in contrast to what happened until the beginning of the 19th century, when the law still provided for the death penalty, relatively mildly sentenced (from a minimum of three up to fifteen years imprisonment). The reason for this reduced sentence was a gender-determined as well as a psychopathological one: birth was considered a “state of bodily emergency (Ausnahmezustand)”9, since the woman in childbirth found herself in an abnormal bodily and psychological condition which inhibited or even paralyzed her self-control. That was for instance the opinion of Magnus Hirschfeld and Jakob R. Spinner who in their pivotal criminological book Geschlecht und Verbrechen (Sex and Crime, 1930) would emphasise the abnormity of birth and understand therefore infanticide as a sex crime, due to a poisoned metabolism. During the pregnancy the body could produce poisons which affected the nervous system, thus lowering the physical and mental toughness of the women. Birth was therefore a state verging on the pathological. In their criminological theories Hirschfeld and Spinner referred to a widespread medical discourse which ascribed female delinquency to the sexual cycle with its hormone related alterations. The female conduct on the whole was reduced to nature and explained on the grounds of a supposed natural call to motherhood which – as we will see – every woman had to fulfil. Moreover, since female behavior was bound to gender-specific bodily processes, women were deemed less accountable at certain circumstances of their lives, such as the childbirth. When a woman gave birth to a child, a bodily and mental disturbance led to a temporary loss of responsibility of her actions. For this reason the law provided for a lighter sentence than for a murder. Another substantial factor in the definition of the crime of infanticide as well as an extenuating circumstance in its punishment was that the perpetrator had to be an unmarried woman. Fallen women and “corrupted” young girls were believed to possess a peculiar pathological constitution which made them particularly receptive for bodily and mental disturbances during their childbirth and easily lead them to kill their own child (since the murdered children were born out of wedlock, fathers were never mentioned). Besides, they were haunted by economic and social worries about their lives and their social status after the birth of an illegitimate child whom they could not properly bring up. The medical and legal discourse on infanticide merged also psychopathological, sexual and sociological elements. In this respect, Hennings’ representation of life in prison and of the female inmates unmasks the assumed gender neutral administration of justice as an indeed very gender specific. The child-murdering mother takes on a special role within this framework.

  • 10 E. Hennings, Prison, p. 64. Translation mine.
  • 11 Ibid. Translation mine.
  • 12 Ibid. Translation mine.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 65. Translation mine.
  • 14 Ibid. Translation mine.
  • 15 On this topic Ch. Baumberger, « Die Literarisierung von Gefängnis-Erfahrungen in der Avantgarde. Em (...)

9Shortly before Else’s appearance, by describing the dreariness of the prison court, the narrating voice of Prison had mentioned children, as a symbol of the lost innocence of the first stage of life, and expressed the hope that they would never come to see the jail. If that were to happen, the children would stare at the prisoners and laugh at them, at how they look in captivity. Emmy, the narrating voice, would not be able to bear the shame of being laughed at by them. In actual fact, there are children in the penitentiary, the children of the director: sometimes the inmates hear their voices and start wondering about the family life unfolding so very close to them, yet so unattainable. Prison, the narrating voice remarks in this passage, is indeed the place where the commandment of love is not respected and “life is destroyed every day”10, “the sense of freedom eradicated”11, “the sense of human dignity”12 degraded. Immediately after these accusations, the narrator’s attention switches to Else, thus suggesting a hidden, specular analogy between the consequences of the use of violence by the auhorities on the body and souls of the prisoners and those affecting the child murderer after her dreadful crime. She speaks seldom and “with an empty hopeless voice”13. She is still wearing her pregnancy clothes, which are now too big for her, as if she were irreducibly bound to the experience she tried to eliminate from her life by killing her child. The baggy, empty dresses, hanging from her body like from a puppet, simultaneously hide and mark the part of her body where once her child was carried but now is no longer to be seen, with the result that the loss of the child she herself has caused becomes even more evident. She looks apathetic and hopeless. Lost in her thoughts, she does not give the impression of noticing what is going on around her, as if she had lost interest in life. Moreover, she is losing her hair, traditionally a distinctive feature of femininity. When one inmate, a faith-healer who is significantly pregnant and acts as a counter-figure to Else (her eyes are dark and vivid, full of life, whereas Else’s appear light blue and almost dead) observes that the child-murderer takes life too seriously, Else answers with a joke: “I don’t take it at all. I would rather hand it down unseen; but I feel no desire even to do that”14. However, as the adjective “unseen” (unbesehen) suggests, she is well aware of being exposed to the avid gazes of all the inmates because of the enigmatic inexplicability of the murder she committed. The reason for her crime is indeed not stated in the novel. But precisely because of her awareness of the stares of the other women, she then expresses the thought, shocking at that time, of completely shaving her head, thus openly renouncing her femininity, as she had already done by killing her child. Emmy Hennings was, by the way, one of the first women to wear her hair short in the pre-war period. She also – due to her theatrical career – knew how to play at seeing and being seen and how to skillfully present herself on the stage and in life. This should be regarded as a major aspect of her autobiographical oeuvre, deeply influencing her writing strategies, also in Prison, where the question of identity, concerning the autobiographical “I” as well as her inmates, constitutes one of the central issues of the book. Each woman shapes her identity anew once in prison and she develops it in a mutual relational way, through the daily contact and the conversations with the others in the given circumstances. That again explains the reason why so much room in the book is devoted to the presentation or self-presentation of the prisoners. This process of shaping and reshaping the self in what could be called role-playing leads to the construction of a multiple, flexible identity, a switching from the previous identity, chronologically and spatially located in the outside world, and the new, chamaleon-like one acquired behind bars15. However, one gets the impression that the child murderer, who appears irreducibly tied to the moment of the murder, does not (and cannot) take part in this role playing, reinventing herself in prison. She is also fully aware of her crime and willing to confess it, even if the law supposed a momentary mental alteration in women in her state. With her crime she has lost the ultimate vocation of a woman, according to the medical, legal and cultural discourses of the time: the motherhood. She has become the eye-catcher of the prison, exposed to the gazes of the other prisoners, therefore a monster, since monstrosity, as its Latin etymology suggests, means putting the extraordinary on display.

Modernism, Mothernism

10In order to better understand the role that the infanticide as specific female crime plays in Prison and successively in The House of Shadow I shall briefely sketch out the relevance of the concept of motherhood in the discourse on modernism in Germany and then link it with its dark side, the topic of a monstrous motherhood, as it emerges in the figure of the child murderer in The House in Shadow.

  • 16 Ch. Kanz, Maternale Moderne. Männliche Gebärphantasien zwischen Kultur und Wissenschaft (1890-1933)(...)
  • 17 E. Wolff, Die jüngste deutsche Literaturströmung und das Princip der Moderne, Berlin, Eckstein, 188 (...)
  • 18 Ibid., p. 47.
  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 On the effectiveness of this cultural paradigm and on the differentiation traced between a female c (...)

11At the starting point of Modernism (and subsequently of the avantgarde movements) in Germany there is a striking image that can be considered a kind of hallmark of the new era16. It goes back to Eugen Wolffs’ pivotal essay on the definition and manifesto of the so called “Klassische Moderne”, Die jüngste deutsche Literaturströmung und das Princip der Moderne (On Recent German Literature and the Principle of Modernism, 1888, a redacted broader version of the conference the author had held two years before in Berlin)17. It depicts a new ideal of woman, almost anticipating in its iconography the nympha-type Aby Warburg would develop in the following decade: a young woman of “wild beauty”18 with loose hair and flattering clothes, moving forward. The female figure embodying the very notion of modernism is thus a transitional figure cutting across two different and partly conflicting discourses and concepts of femaleness: on the one hand she is still bound to the traditionally female obligation to beauty, on the other, a strong energetic aura and self-confidence spread from her, which means that she is also endowed with qualities that are usually attributed to men. She is a working woman; even if her job is not an intellectual one, she is nevertheless forced to leave the protection of her domestic space to earn her living. But, what is even more striking with regard to Emmy Hennings’ work, is that she is a mother, coming home every evening after work to attend to her duties to her child (this part of her daily routine is defined in the text as the realm of beauty and nobility)19. A maiden and a mother at the same time, this new female ideal still remains mired in the realm of materiality, for her work is not an intellectual one, as is explicitly mentioned in the essay. Building on the traditional notion of the woman as a mere “vessel” of male creative power, Modernism is therefore embodied by a woman, “filled with modern spirit” (in other words: with modern male creativity)20. At this point there is a clear reference to the Immaculate Conception. Modernism is in fact at the same time “a knowing” as well as “a pure woman”, well aware of her noble and high destiny as a mother (the latter term implying that she is not unaware of sexuality, even in the sublimated form of motherhood). Men are however still described as to a larger extent provided with “superiority”, “spirit” and “culture”. Though Naturalism had called into question the traditional understanding of male roles, it had not however threatened men’s supremacy in intellectual matters. This remained a male domain21.

12The discourse on motherhood becomes increasingly functionalised from a theoretical, cultural, aesthetic, anthropological and medical point of view by Modernism. That was of course by no means a distinctive feature of the German-speaking area, since even British suffragettes did not reject motherhood, rather its misuse as a justification for the suppression of women’s political rights. However, what strikes most about the German discourse on motherhood is its complexity, as reflected by a number of different and partly conflicting cultural and theoretical constructs. In this respect a fundamental point of reference is provided by Bachofen’s theory of a primeval Mother Right stage, overlaid by later developments, with its narratives on family, gender role-models and female genealogies, not to mention competing or complementary concepts on the origin of society and of the patriarchal gender order, as elaborated in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Otto Weininger. The discursive articulation of different patterns of motherhood is closely associated with issues concerning female authorship and art production, which are reflected in the works of female writers and artists between 19th and 20th century – though each with its own emphasis. Emmy Hennings repeatedly addressed those questions in her writings and took her own remarkably original stand with regard to the contemporary debate on feminism and emancipation.

  • 22 O. Weininger, Sex and Character, London, Heinemann, 1906 (“Motherhood and Prostitution” is chapter (...)
  • 23 Diary entry, 10th Mai 1911. In E. Mühsam, Tagebücher, vol. 1 : 1910-1911, ed. by Ch. Hirte and C. P (...)
  • 24 Quoted by R. J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany: 1894-1933, Beverly Hills, ca, sage, 1976, (...)

13Erich Mühsam, Hennings’ occasional lover, who in his diary accurately records her erotic affairs, describes the impression she left on her male observers in a way that reveals how deeply he was influenced by expressionist appreciation of the prostitute as a counter-image to the repressive bourgeois system of values. Not surprisingly, therefore, Mühsam follows Otto Weininger’s misogynistic analysis of the idealisation of motherhood at the turn of the 20th century, as especially outlined in the chapter “Mutterschaft und Prostitution” (“Motherhood and Prostitution”) of the book Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character)22. In order to oppose current concepts of motherhood, Weininger had deepened the traditional division between the pure mother and the corrupted prostitute, by affirming that mother and prostitute were ideal types, characters, like Man and Woman. Like individuals, who in Weininger’s view can be partly male and partly female, every woman is a mother as well as a prostitute to differing degrees, though he admits modern women are more likely to come closer to the absolute Prostitute than to the absolute Mother. Stating that all women, as pervasively sexual beings, are to a certain extent predisposed to prostitution, he firmly denied that such a thing as the asexual, innocent maiden idealised by bourgeois morality could possibly exist. In Weininger’s view, even maternal love was deeply sexualised, in spite of what was commonly assumed at his time, since the prostitute and the mother only differ in the expression of their own pervasive sexuality. Intellectual women were characterologically prostitutes and as such biologically sterile; for this reason they could serve as muses to creative men who for their part found biological fatherhood less appealing than spiritual creation. The work, inspired by the muse and created by the male artist would be the final product of this relationship. Mühsam’s description of Emmy Hennings has to be read within this framework, since he calls her “an erotic genius”, declaring that what he likes about her is her “naive harlotness”, which “knows nothing other than loving and being loved”23. Further descriptions of her performances involve stereotypical categorisations like diva, madonna, muse and femme fatale. In most of these accounts, insisting on her small, delicate, almost boyish physical frame, Emmy Hennings seems to switch between the roles of playful, innocent, childlike girl and the lascivious, seductive woman. Besides, the anarchistic writer Erich Mühsam generally shares Bachofen’s almost mystical exaltation of mother-love as well as his doubts about a supposed superiority of primeval matriarchy to the later patriarchy. This is particularly evident in a number of diary entries on Emmy Hennings and other women who were part of the bohemian scene in Schwabing as well as in his remarks on emancipatory issues. Not unlike intellectuals belonging at that time in Munich to the Kosmiker circle such as Ludwig Klages and Karl Wolfskehl, Mühsam tended to reduce women to their biological child-bearing function, extolling the ideal of motherhood as it was embodied by Franziska von Reventlow, who, though she was sexually promiscuous and occasionally sold herself to provide for basic needs, enthusiastically advocated a single life and the value of motherhood claiming that her son’s birthdate had represented the very beginning of her life. Reventlow’s views on motherhood were endorsed, though not entirely approved of, by leading feminists such as Helene Stöcker, the founder of the Bund für Mutterschutz (League for the Protection of Motherhood, an organisation working for the protection of unmarried mothers and the betterment of their conditions). She proclaimed in 1908 that motherhood “should no longer be forced on women by threats of imprisonment, but consciously and responsibly chosen24. The League attempted to reconcile sexual freedom (and the consequent choice of a single life) with the traditional comfort of motherhood, acknowledging both as constitutive, “natural” elements of what was called “the female essence”. It also pointed out the importance of a proper education for women. As it is evident from this brief outline, motherhood was generally seen by feminists as well by male modernist authors as a timeless principle whose importance in shaping even the image of the New Woman could hardly be underestimated, though it merged with new issues like the women’s right to sexual pleasure and to secondary education. Women tried to reconcile their struggle for freedom and – in the artistic field – for autonomous creation with their biological destiny, developing various responses to these cultural patterns. The repressive political system of the German Kaiserreich however handicapped women’s efforts to achieve equal political rights with men. Defeat in the First World War would – for about a decade – favour the women’s movement, by replacing the Kaiser’s rule with the democratic Weimar Republic.

Das Haus im Schatten (The House in Shadow)

  • 25 E. Hennings, Das flüchtige Spiel. Wege und Umwege einer Frau, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, p. 58.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 56.

14The theme of the child-murdering mother and the related ambivalent attitude to the experience of motherhood haunts Emmy Hennings throughout her work. Her leaving both her children in her mother’s care in order to pursue her dream of self-fulfilment as an actress conflicted, as we have already seen, with widespread fin de siècle-notions about the association of womanhood, motherhood and Modernism / the Avant-garde, as formulated not only by male authors, but also by “feminist” writers such as Lou Salomé, Franziska zu Reventlow and Ellen Key. Like several feminists, Emmy Hennings advocates for a single life, since marriage requires women to subordinate their desires and aspirations to their husbands, as well as to the task of running an efficient household. Her attitude is nevertheless more ambivalent. In a later autobiographical novel, Das flüchtige Spiel (The Fleeting Game), the protagonist Helga remarks, after her marriage : “I did not want to be the private property of a man, and what many women crave for, giving themselves completely and exclusively to a man, was not – I felt more and more – my cup of tea”25. When she gives birth to her first child, the happiness she feels cannot overcome her desire for a life which does not entirely coincide with her maternity : “Now I had my eagerly awaited child and it was – to tell the truth – literally the only satisfying thing in my marriage, but this alone was not enough for me”26. Later in the book, at the point where she leaves her daughter to her mother in order to be able to continue her theatrical career, she writes, appealing to a higher calling than motherhood :

  • 27 Ibid., p. 131.

My mother urged me to stay, but I could not. (...) Obsessed as I was with my longing for acting, with my addiction to wandering and melodies, even my child could not withhold me. The uncertainty in which I was involved was stronger than the love for my child. However, one ought not to believe that I had little motherlove. (...) It was as if I were driven by a demon I could not resist27.

  • 28 The House in Shadow is a later unpublished version of Prison. Schweizerisches Literaturarchiv Bern, (...)
  • 29 On this point compare also O. Weininger, Sex and Character, p. 226.

15Not surprisingly then, in Das Haus im Schatten28, the narrator lays aside Else, who is however still mentioned in the typescript, and gives more room to another child murderer Stella, by whom she is clearly fascinated; she thus surrenders to the inexplicable, enigmatic charm of this prisoner and particularly to her charismatic eyes and beautiful voice. There is almost a witchcraft in her, which goes beyond the nature of the subjects she touches upon; it derives from the sound of her words and transfixes Emma. This fascination, together with the seduction of the voice and the realm of the non-verbal and non-rational, penetrates deep into the narrator’s unconscious (Emmy Hennings was, and all the sources agree on this, a gifted singer). But Stella is no longer an object of discursive ascriptions, she articulates herself and speaks up her mind. Stella shows no sign of repentance for the crime she committed in full awareness of the consequences. When asked by one of the inmates, why she did not love her child, why she did not have the “natural” feeling of a mother (even a single one) for her baby, like every animal does, Stella goes so far as to contest the assumed “naturalness” of motherhood, which had proved itself, as we have seen, a keynotion in the definition and self-definition of female role-models as well as in the legal theories on infanticide at the turn of the century. Human beings, unlike animals, have the choice to follow different paths than those dictated by instinct or by custom29. For Stella emancipation may in other words also imply an abnormality of behavior and contemplate the denial of all existent life designs and role-models in the pursuit of an absolute freedom without any object and any scope where self-affirmation verges on self-destruction. The child murderer herself attempts to explain the reasons for her crime as a way out of a reparatory marriage with a man whom she no longer wanted to be bound to (whether she loved him or not is not mentioned, since she abruptly stops talking, without ending the sentence). She is therefore unmarried, according to the legal definition of the infanticide crime, but unlike Goethe’s Gretchen or Brecht’s Marie Farrar, her fiancé was willing to marry her. Her crime was a choice of freedom beyond any social constraints and expectations about women’s duties and roles, even if it eventually leads to a blind spot: not to the utopia of the absolute freedom, but to the heterotopia of prison. Carrying out the crime was a necessity, a dreadful one, indeed, but unavoidable in its tragic fatality. Of course she was not driven by temporary hormone related alterations which were so crucial for the definition of infanticide in contemporary legal discourse. Stella takes on an active, though nihilistic, role in her life, showing, by doing so, a resoluteness which was traditionally held to be a male prerogative. In the narrator’s eyes she thus turns almost into a supernatural figure, a revelation lost in the world, announcing the coming of a golden age of harmony, unity and love among all the natural elements. With this unexpected turn the author calls into question common definitions of naturalness, suggesting a paradoxical understanding of what might be considered “nature”. Even the child murderer with her appalling, monstrous crime belongs to nature, whose wide range of phenomena may encompass contrasting drives and seemingly paradoxical gestures of denial or of affirmation, of destruction and creation. Stella is also one of the few prisoners who openly admit their crime and its deep necessity, without searching for excuses. Not surprisingly, then, as a last consequence of her relentless vindication of the infanticide, she tries to commit suicide by swallowing a needle (piercing the fetus with a knitting needle was a widespread method of performing abortion). This gesture, if accomplished, would have meant a radical rejection of anything that might have infringed upon her freedom, even at the cost of death. Unlike the other prisoners and the narrator herself, who, against the backdrop of oppressive patriarchal structures, negotiate their position every day by using strategies of elusion, subversion and apparent submission, Stella places herself outside, in an uncompromised otherness from which there is no way back to a supposed normality. For his reason she fascinates the narrator who resorts instead to a continuous role and identity playing in order to shape an autonomous sphere of action. It should be taken into account that, precisely because of the absoluteness of the act she committed, the child murderer finds herself irreducibly bound to her crime, which turns into the sole distinctive feature of her identity. In other words, in her case a maximum of freedom coincides with a minimum of freedom, since with her action she has definitively put an end to any possibility of further individual development, like an actor, who in dying on the stage brings about the ultimate fusion of life and profession.

16Emmy Hennings’ autobiographical work struggles for exactly this form of supreme legitimation in an attempt to achieve the goal of the integration of art with life and bodily experience, which was so crucial for the Avant-garde. However she rather puts the stress on the process of this search for absolute authenticity, which never comes to an end, always articulating itself in strategies of enactment or selfenactment of the (auto)biographical material. Herein lies the subversive and liberatory potential of her writing and of her life choices, which attempted to create a space for free individual development by refusing to entirely commit itself to any bourgeois institution, to any previously devised role model, by vindicating the right to switch between different places and alternatives, to be, like a nomad, simultaneously at home everywhere and nowhere. Hennings is clearly fascinated by the child murderers because they reflect a deep need for unrestricted freedom, which radically questions the notion of a “natural” call to motherhood in women. For this reason Hennings’ child-murderers are fully aware of their crime and never pathologised for that. However, her own personal artistic calling along with her conviction that the highest freedom – of constantly reshaping the own identity – could be achieved only through art, brought Hennings to ultimately regard infanticide as an extreme gesture which had in the end – paradoxically – significantly limited freedom – by irrevocably defining the identity of a woman through her own crime.

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1 On Emmy Hennings’ life see the biography written by B. Reetz, Emmy Ball-Hennings. Ein Leben im Vielleicht. Eine Biographie, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 2001, as well as B. Echte (ed.), « Ich bin so vielfach … » Texte, Bilder, Dokumente, Frankfurt a. M., Basel, Stroemfeld Verlag, 1999.

2 E. Hennings, The Brand. Ein Tagebuch, with an afterword by E. Süllwold, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, 1999 [1920], p. 196 (Translation mine). On this point see also A. Helleis, Faszination Schauspielerin: von der Antike bis Hollywood. Eine Sozialgeschichte, Wien, Braumüller, 2006, p. 23 ff.

3 Ibid., p. 149.

4 See on this point S. Werner-Birkenbach, “Emmy Hennings. Eine Frau schreibt Gefängnisliteratur”, Hugo Ball-Almanach, 20, 1996, p. 119-175.

5 This is one of the distinctive features of “autobiographical novels” which breaks the so-called “autobiographical pact” (Lejeune), making clear, since the author’s and the main character’s name are not the same, that autobiographical and fictive elements are merged together, without any pretense of factual truth.

6 See M. Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, in N. Leach (ed.), Rethinking Architecture. A Reader in Cultural Theory, New York, Routledge, p. 330-336, here 333.

7 E. Hennings, Prison, with an afterword by Heinz Ohff, Frankfurt a. M. / Berlin / Wien, 1985, p. 105. Translation mine.

8 See H. Siebenpfeiffer, “Böse Lust”: Gewaltverbrechen in Diskursen der Weimarer Republik, Köln / Weimar, Böhlau, 2005, p. 150.

9 Ibid., p. 156.

10 E. Hennings, Prison, p. 64. Translation mine.

11 Ibid. Translation mine.

12 Ibid. Translation mine.

13 Ibid., p. 65. Translation mine.

14 Ibid. Translation mine.

15 On this topic Ch. Baumberger, « Die Literarisierung von Gefängnis-Erfahrungen in der Avantgarde. Emmy Hennings’ Gefängnis-Texte », in S. Guddat and S. Hastedt (eds.), Geschlechterbilder im Wandel? Das Werk deutschsprachiger Schriftstellerinnen 1894-1945, Frankfurt a. M. / Berlin / Bern, Peter Lang, 2011, p. 207-224, especially 219 ff.

16 Ch. Kanz, Maternale Moderne. Männliche Gebärphantasien zwischen Kultur und Wissenschaft (1890-1933), München, Fink, 2009, p. 75.

17 E. Wolff, Die jüngste deutsche Literaturströmung und das Princip der Moderne, Berlin, Eckstein, 1888.

18 Ibid., p. 47.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 On the effectiveness of this cultural paradigm and on the differentiation traced between a female coded notion of a mere physical “birth” and the male encoded issue of spiritual “creation”, see the extensive study by Ch. Kanz, Maternale Moderne (see above, footnote 4).

22 O. Weininger, Sex and Character, London, Heinemann, 1906 (“Motherhood and Prostitution” is chapter X of Part II).

23 Diary entry, 10th Mai 1911. In E. Mühsam, Tagebücher, vol. 1 : 1910-1911, ed. by Ch. Hirte and C. Piens, Berlin, Verbrecher Verlag, 2011, p. 108. Translation mine.

24 Quoted by R. J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany: 1894-1933, Beverly Hills, ca, sage, 1976, p. 132. On this topic see also S. Hastedt, « Die große Bedeutung der Frau für die Menschheit liegt in der Mutterschaft. Mutterrollen bei Helene Stöcker und Emmy Ball-Hennings », in S. Guddat and S. Hastedt (eds.), Geschlechterbilder im Wandel?, p. 187-206.

25 E. Hennings, Das flüchtige Spiel. Wege und Umwege einer Frau, Frankfurt a. M., Suhrkamp, p. 58.

26 Ibid., p. 56.

27 Ibid., p. 131.

28 The House in Shadow is a later unpublished version of Prison. Schweizerisches Literaturarchiv Bern, HEN-02-b-02.

29 On this point compare also O. Weininger, Sex and Character, p. 226.

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Lorella Bosco, « The child murderer in Emmy Hennings’ novels Gefängnis (Prison, 1919) and Das Haus im Schatten (The House in Shadow, 1929/30) »Sextant, 32 | 2015, 79-91.

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Lorella Bosco, « The child murderer in Emmy Hennings’ novels Gefängnis (Prison, 1919) and Das Haus im Schatten (The House in Shadow, 1929/30) »Sextant [En ligne], 32 | 2015, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2015, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lorella Bosco

Lorella Bosco, Dr. Phil. Habil., is Assistant Professor of German Literature at the University of Bari (Italy). In 2010 she was awarded an Alexander-von-Humboldt-Fellowship for experienced researches for her research project about the modernist author and performer Emmy Hennings. Among her publications: “Das furchtbar-schöne Gorgonenhaupt des Klassischen”. Deutsche Antikebilder (1755-1875), Würzburg, Königshausen&Neumann, 2004; Tra Babilonia e Gerusalemme. Scrittori ebreo-tedeschi e il “terzo spazio”, Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2012; (with Anke Gilleir), Schmerz. Lust. Künstlerinnen und Autorinnen der deutschen Avantgarde, Bielefeld, Aisthesis, 2015.

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