Student and headstrong pioneer
Departure from Germany and career
The pinnacle of her career: Chair of Low German Philology
Born in Berlin in 1879, Luise Sara Agathe Lasch – these three first names appear on the form she filled out herself, which is enclosed with the second curriculum vitae – came from a Jewish family that was not wealthy but open to education, for they did not prevent their gifted daughter from attending the teacher training seminar after graduating from a secondary girls’ school and preparing for the external school-leaving examination. Lasch thus belonged to the small group of headstrong pioneering women who, against all odds and obstacles, gained access to a university education and ultimately a doctorate, only to discover that for women an academic career at a German university was not an option. A generation earlier, Ilse Frapan, a Hamburg woman who, like Lasch, came from a Jewish family and was actually named Elise Levien, had recounted the depressing experiences she had made as a student in Zurich in her novel Wir Frauen haben kein Vaterland [We Women Have no Fatherland] (1899). At that time, liberal Zurich was an academic refuge for intellectual women from all over Europe – among them a great many Jews – who could not study in their home countries, but who were by no means always welcome in Zurich either. The prejudices against women studying began to dissipate only very slowly throughout Europe. As late as 1908, when women were first admitted to study at Friedrich Wilhelms-University in Berlin, there was a bitter struggle by professors who feared the “decline of the West” if women were allowed to study at universities and militantly denied female students access to their lectures. An echo of the heated debates can still be felt in the speech “Über das Frauenstudium” [“On Women Studying at University”], in which the physician Ernst Bumm gave a cautiously positive assessment in 1917 and at the same time warned that women studying could become “a fashion.”
Agathe Lasch was wise enough not to begin her studies in Berlin. Her choice of Heidelberg, where women had been admitted to the university since 1891 and could even earn a doctorate, is evidence of foresight. After graduating, she made a courageous decision: In 1910, she left Germany shortly after defending her doctoral thesis on the history of “Written Language in Berlin up to the Mid-16th Century,” earning a summa cum laude. For a learned woman like her, there was obviously no place at German universities, which were just beginning to open up to women. She found employment as an associate professor in Pennsylvania, USA, where she is still remembered today – among many other notables – in the annals of Bryn Mawr College. In her work at this renowned women’s university, she was certainly helped by the fact that she had a profound knowledge not only of Germanic and Indo-Germanic languages, but was also interested in related subjects and especially in the historical placement of language in cultural contexts. In her curriculum vitae, she writes that language and history are inseparable, and that in all her work she was concerned “to link linguistic history most closely with cultural history and political history.” The high esteem in which she was held at Bryn Mawr College is evidenced by the fact that she was appointed head of the German Studies Department of the German Faculty and represented the subject of “Teutonic Philology” in all its breadth in her teaching.
In contrast, the scope of her research was limited. She was not concerned with grand theoretical designs, but with securing basic knowledge upon which later generations of researchers could build. The question “how Middle Low German changed into New Low German” may seem strange in an American context, but for Lasch, answering it became her life’s work, to which she devoted herself with the greatest dedication, regardless of time and place. Her Middle Low German grammar, completed in the U. S. and published as a book in Germany in 1914, was a first attempt to systematize her research results and to “tear down the outdated views of Low German that still dominate German philology,” as she wrote in her curriculum vitae (1921 / 1926), not without pride. In a certain sense, she saw herself as a revolutionary, even if she formulated her criticism of the grand masters of the subject, such as Jakob Grimm, diplomatically. In other respects, too, she did not appear as a subversive in her entire habitus. Always high-necked and dressed in black, her hair unadorned and tightly combed back, a monocle in her right eye, she represented a facet of the New Woman in that she strove for scientific knowledge as an independent, ascetic scholar.
Her time in the United States remained only a brief interlude. “Due to the political circumstances,” as Lasch writes in her curriculum vitae, she resigned from her teaching position in 1916 and, being an “enemy alien,” returned to Germany. To what extent patriotic attitudes on her part may have played a role in this decision cannot be verified from the sources. In any case, she was not welcomed back with open arms in her homeland. Bryn Mawr College was not a household name in Germany, and Lasch’s explicit references to comparable elite universities such as Princeton and Harvard were obviously necessary to explain that she had worked at a renowned institution in the United States. In Germany, she initially had to start all over again. She found employment as a “research assistant” at the German Faculty in Hamburg, which was still under construction, as her curriculum vitae and her handwritten “biographical form” in the files show. She was lucky in this respect. As a young, up-and-coming academic institution that first had to earn its reputation among the old, venerable universities, the University of Hamburg could not be choosy and was even willing to give women a chance during wartime, on the one hand, and on the other, it could benefit from the international reputation and institutional experience that Lasch brought with her from the United States.
However, Lasch was not satisfied with the subordinate assistant position and – as her first curriculum vitae indicates – unerringly strove to earn her habilitation. As early as the summer semester of 1919, she was hired to give lectures and entrusted with the preparatory work for the Hamburgisches Wörterbuch, which was in the process of being compiled. The title of her inaugural lecture, “Der Anteil des Plattdeutschen am niederelbischen Geistesleben im 17. Jahrhundert” [“The Role of Low German in the Intellectual Life of Lower Elbe in the 17th Century”], shows that she chose niche topics that, from today’s perspective, seem to have fallen somewhat out of time. In these niches, she was able to develop her scholarship and become a recognized authority whom her colleagues returning from the war could not easily push aside. Nevertheless, it was to take several more years before she finally received an appropriate position at the University of Hamburg. It was not until 1926, when she was appointed to the chair of Low German philology, that she found a framework that suited her qualifications and opened up opportunities for further research. She played a leading role in two large dictionary projects and devoted herself intensely to the systematic development of the language vocabulary of the Hanseatic period and the Hamburg dialect. Despite her concentration on Low German and Hamburg dialect, she did not lose sight of the subject of her dissertation even in her new position in Hamburg. Her book Berlinisch (1928) continued her studies of the history of the Berlin dialect and reaffirmed her continuing interest in the regional characteristics of the German language. The Hamburg and Berlin dialects were the two coordinates that shaped her scholarly life; meanwhile, the Jewish dialect, with which she does not seem to have had any close connection, only determined her life after 1933 in a way that must still inspire shame and anger in those of us born later.
There are hardly any documents about her further life, but the few known facts must be mentioned. A “Jewess” as a “Germanist,” especially in such a prominent position, was no longer acceptable in state service after 1933. In 1934, Agathe Lasch lost her chair, moved back to Berlin in 1937, was banned from publishing, and had to endure all the harassment and humiliation reported by Viktor Klemperer in his posthumously published diaries (1933–1945). Lasch does not seem to have considered escape; calls to foreign universities failed due to the resistance of the National Socialists. In July 1942 her private library was confiscated, and in August 1942 Agathe Lasch was deported to Riga with her two sisters and shot on the way to the camp. Today, she is commemorated by a number of memorial plaques, street names and stumbling stones in Hamburg and Berlin, a memorial stone in the Women’s Garden at Ohlsdorf cemetery, a lecture hall at Hamburg University and the Agathe Lasch Prize, awarded since 1992 by the Senate of the city of Hamburg for outstanding achievements in the field of Low German language research.
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Prof. Dr. Inge Stephan, formerly assistant and then professor at the Department of Literary Studies at the University of Hamburg, co-founder and director of the Center for Feminist Literary Studies there and co-editor of the newsletter "Frauen in der Literaturwissenschaft" ("Women in Literary Studies"), later appointed to the Humboldt University in Berlin, where she was involved in establishing the interdisciplinary gender studies program. Numerous publications in the field of women's studies, feminist literary studies and gender studies. Since retirement, active as a freelance author in the field of cultural history of gender.
Inge Stephan, “tear down outdated […] views”. Agathe Lasch, an academic revolutionary (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, April 25, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-278.en.v1> [May 29, 2023].