Hans-Wilhelm Kelling presented the story of German writer Margarethe von Eckenbrecher, an early 20th century proponent of well-traveled women, in a Women’s Studies Colloquium.
PROVO, Utah (September 24, 2015)—For centuries, travelogues allowed readers to learn about faraway lands and the adventures to be had there. And sometimes those travelogues became invitations to share in those adventures. Margarethe von Eckenbrecher was one such author whose memoirs were more both a call to action and an account of her experiences.
In a time when female writers were still considered less talented than their male colleagues and consigned to the sidelines of literature, Eckenbrecher authored two widely popular accounts of her time spent in the former German colony of Southwest Africa and encouraged other women to independent action. German studies professor Hans-Wilhelm Kelling presented her story in his Women’s Studies Colloquium address, “Margarthe von Eckenbrecher, A Settler in the Former Southwest African Colony.”
Eckenbrecher was born in Germany in 1875. Over the course of her life, she saw her country develop from a fledgling nation state into a world power. In her memoirs she repeatedly affirmed her loyalty to her homeland, but it was Africa that she loved.
In 1902, Eckenbrecher married her cousin – an officer in the German colonial forces – and the two left Germany for the Southwest African colony and settled in Okambahe. They had only been living there for two years when an uprising compelled her to return to Berlin. In 1907 she published the first volume of her book, What Africa Gave Me, What It Took from Me: Remembrances from the Life of a German Pioneer in Southwest Africa. The second volume would not be published until 1940, long after she had divorced her husband and returned to Africa.
Though she was not the only female colonial biographer of her time, Eckenbrecher’s memoirs stand out for the level of critical thinking and evaluation displayed. “Von Eckenbrecher’s critical comments are extensive,” Kelling said. “It seems to be her intention to both educate her German readers at home about the situation in the Southwest and at the same time assure them of her and her compatriots’ loyalty to their German cultural heritage and the German nation.”
Her second volume was published during the height of Hitler’s power in Germany and echoed many propaganda materials of the time in declaring the superiority of German culture. Much of her writing is devoted to critiquing what she saw as inherent inferiorities in African cultures and knowledge. Germany, she always maintained, was the superior land.
Regardless, she sincerely believed in the importance of German women moving to Africa, and actively encouraged them in her writing. Kelling explained that by moving to Africa, “German women, she believed, would indeed find opportunities for sacrifice, for growth, and for supporting the cause of the homeland.” It was a chance to produce stronger, more independent women, vital to securing Germany’s future.
Kelling told the assembly that whatever her prejudices, Eckenbrecher’s writing still hold importance for modern readers. He said, “Her writings are a combination of literary, critical autobiography and travel literature, carefully composed, entertaining, and thus well worth reading.”
—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)