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Ingeborg Drewitz: Gestern war heute [Yesterday Was Today]

This is a family saga about a German family who have a working-class background but move up the social classes during the course of the book. We follow their story over the years in twenty chapters, each chapter covering one specific year. The book opens in 1923 with the birth of the key character, Gabriele. They are living in a house in Moabit, a suburb of Berlin. Once Gabriele is born there are four generations of the family there. The focus on this book is on the women of the family though, of course, the men play a role.

The unnamed great-grandmother (a widow) reminisces, going back to the Franco-Prussian War while her granddaughter is in labour. This book is clearly written by a woman as the labour agonies of Gabriele are described in a full detail. This is no birth where the baby cleanly pops out but one where giving birth is no fun. While Susanne is struggling, her unnamed husband is out walking the streets, imagining taking his son for walks and talking manly things with him. He will be disappointed.

Susanne is an only childas her father, Gustav only wanted one child as having too many children often meant a life of misery and poverty. Her mother, Lieschen/Alice wanted more and was very worried when Susanne got ill.

Gabriele is born and we jump three years. She can already say I and today. These two words are key showing her self-absorption and her living only in the present. In this chapter we tend to see the world from the perspective of the three-year old Gabriele. By 1929 she is more difficult, not least because she wants to be a boy. She also initially resents Ulrike, her younger sister. However, we see more of the outside world. We have already seen a certain amount of poverty in the earlier parts but now there is more. The Christmas tree sellers, for example, cannot sell their trees, because no-one can afford them.

More important is the rise of the Nazis. Uncle Bruno has joined the Nazi party and is very anti-Semitic. We will later move on to the burning of the Reichstag, at which Gabriele’s father is very upset. Gabriele herself tries to draw a swastika at school but cannot and is mocked by a fellow pupil. However, even she is aware of the various arrests and emigrations.

Susanne had been the first woman in her family to think of having some sort of career – as a piano teacher – but that was given up when she got married and had a difficult child. Her marriage is not happy. Her husband, a draughtsman, seems to be almost permanently unemployed.

We follow the war years. What is interesting is that this extended family reacts in different ways to the Nazis. Uncle Bruno is a Nazi, with the uniform and the anti-Semitic views. Most of the family are seemingly indifferent or, perhaps more accurately, keep their views to themselves to avoid trouble. Gabriele’s father is opposed to the Nazis but this is as much out of general bitterness towards the world. He does not belong to any group, just generally complains. This gets him into trouble more than once. He will also be in trouble with the Russians when they finally occupy Berlin, also for being somewhat cantankerous. Gabriele, however, joins a religious group which helps those who are victimised under the Nazis, including, of course, the Jews. Gabriele had belonged to the League of German Girls but had resigned. Ulrike, however, is a member.

The key event for Gabriele before the war had been the untimely death of her grandfather, Gustav. As Drewitz comments Nothing changed. Everything changed. It was the key event that made her grow up. Gabrielle also has what we might now call teenage angst. Who am I? she asks and, later Drewitz comments that she belongs nowhere. She does have a boyfriend – as with many of the men in this book, we do not know his name – but he has to serve on the Russian front and is later missing in action.

The war gets worse as we learn about Stalingrad, the bombing of Dresden and other key events of the war but, finally, the Russians arrive. The great-grandmother dies soon after.

Gabriele continues her political activities after the war, getting involved in a political magazine. The book continues with her life. She meets Jörg and marries him. They will have children. However, when her own mother dies, she starts to think about what sort of life she has and is she going to have the same life as her mother, i.e. merely as a wife and mother?

Ulrike leaves Berlin but soon has a car crash and ends up in hospital. All of this – motherhood, her sister, her mother’s death – has her consciously moving away from the idea that all that counts is her and becoming more aware that she has to care about others. However, she leaves her husband and moves in with the now recovered Ulrike living in the Lüneburg Heath area where she takes up doll-making. But Gabriele keeps on moving. We follow her career – finishing her studies, working as a broadcaster, but also her personal relationships and personal tragedies. Her own daughter, like Gabriele herself, also seeks her own freedom and her own way. We are also following what is happening in Germany and the world. The book ends with her becoming a grandmother.

While we, of course, following events in Germany for fifty-five years and how they affect our main characters, Gabriele in particular but certainly not only Gabriele, we also see how primarily the women struggle to determine who they are and what their role is. Gabriele has been somewhat critical of her mother. Indeed, Susanne and her mother and grandmother accepted, perhaps mildly reluctantly but only mildly, their roles as simply, wives and mothers. Gabriele very much wants to break away from this mould and this means not just being her own woman, and not somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother, but also moving away from the conventional views of the family, in particular, as in her case, as regards the Nazis.

However, Gabriele gets married and has three daughters and this changes her. She struggles to be a good mother (less so a good wife) but still, unlike her mother and grandmother, she still wants something more. How to reconcile the two, particularly when her daughters seek to spread their wings and assert their independence? There isn’t an easy answer, of course. Why are we helpless? her daughter Renate asks.

Drewitz is clearly writing in part an autobiographical novel but equally clearly is writing about the modern German woman and her role in he modern world, which she does very well. There are no easy answers. Interestingly, this book has been translated into four languages but not English or French.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Claassen Verlag
No English translation
Translated into Croatian, Danish, Dutch and Swedish