Living a privileged existence in the wealthiest circles of German cultural society, Ida Dehmel embodies the complex transitional identity in early 20th-century Germany. While assuming a subordinate role in her marriage to the poet Richard Dehmel, she became involved in calls for cultural reform, particularly regarding the inclusion of women in politics and professional recognition for the arts. She was heavily involved in circles of patronage of modern art that raised awareness for feminist issues, including women’s suffrage and equality for women’s artists’ associations. In 1916 she co-founded the Women’s Society for the Advancement of German Art. After the death of her husband and son, Dehmel devoted herself to the preservation of her husband’s estate, eventually committing suicide in 1942 as deportations loomed.
Family & Education
Ida Dehmel (née Coblenz) was born in Bingen am Rhein, the daughter of a prosperous Jewish family, whose genealogy on her father’s maternal side can be traced back to the year 1735. Her father Simon Zacharias (1836–1910) became a partner in the wine merchant firm of Joseph Philip Meyer, marrying Meyer’s daughter, Emilie (1840–1878). The couple had five children: Elise or “Alice” (1864–1935), Julie Hedwig (1865–1935), Cornelius (1866–1922), who died in Worthing, Sussex, Ida (1870–1942), and Marie Louise, or “Lulu” (1877–1892). Emilie’s early death in 1878, six months after a complicated childbirth, meant that the family was raised in a patriarchal milieu that was dominated by firm rituals, decorum, and etiquette. However, their stern upbringing was relieved by the close proximity of their late mother’s parents, the Meyers, who resided nearby in a large family house on the Marktplatz (market square). In the unpublished autobiography of her youth, which she started in 1901 (entitled Urschrift) and which was reworked during the 1920s and in 1940 as a novel (entitled Daja), Ida fondly recalled her grandmother, who was Paris-born and who took a keen interest in her grand-daughter’s well-being (Daja, 7–9, in HH 1970, 3).
Ida’s education was conducted in a private boarding school (Das Pensionat Sobernheim) that catered to Protestant and Jewish children and was run by the Sobernheim sisters, the daughters of a former Rabbi (Urschriften, 53, 55, in HH 1970, 4). Like her older sisters, at the age of sixteen Ida had to abandon the courses she loved—Physics, Chemistry, History and Geography—in favor of training considered more appropriate to her sex and social station, at a so-called “finishing school,” the common path for “höheren Töchtern,” or upper middle-class young ladies, who were destined for marriage. This she did in Brussels while boarding with relatives. In this new environment, Ida’s studies suffered but her accomplishments as a pianist continued to thrive with musical tuition at the Conservatoire. Here Ida was also sharply reminded of her Jewish identity; while her father was unobservant and Ida’s religious experiences were ecumenical, her fellow students treated her “like a pariah” once they learned of her identity (Wegner, 35–36). Her sojourn in Brussels was cut short by the accidental death of the housemaid in Bingen. Since her sister Alice had married the newspaper publisher Julius Bensheimer and resided in Mannheim, and Julie was betrothed to Bernhard August Neumaier in Munich, Ida was called upon to assist her grandmother in running the Coblenz household.
Given the two-fold trauma of the loss of her mother and, in 1892, the death of her younger sister Lulu, Ida’s turn to music, literature, and art has been considered in part as a cathartic process (Wegner, 47). As was characteristic of her generation, Ida was thoroughly taken with the writings of Nietzsche, as well as with the theatrical works of Ibsen and Strindberg. She published articles and book reviews under the pseudonym of either “Coba Lenz” or “I.S.I.” in the Neue Badischen Landeszeitung, a newspaper that was edited by her brother-in-law. During this period, she also forged a strong relationship with the Symbolist poet Stefan George (1868–1933), which has given rise to much speculation as to whether her role went beyond that of muse and promoter of his poetry (Thiel, 1988).
In 1895, due to her father’s pressure, she married a Berlin-based businessman, Leopold Auerbach. Although it appears that the short marriage was one of convenience rather than love, Ida gave birth to her only son, Heinz-Lux (1895–1917), during that year. For a while she led a privileged existence in the salubrious suburbs of West Berlin in a villa at Lennéstraße 5, near the Tiergarten. Since she was already initiated in the “civilizing rituals” of the upper middle classes, she swiftly attracted artists, poets, and critics to her salons. Clearly, life in the city gave her greater independence than in the provincial town of Bingen. Her husband’s aspirations to the aristocracy were more questionable—he purchased an Argentinean title of Consul—and his involvement in risky financial deals led to his being declared bankrupt and receiving a jail sentence.
Marriage to Richard Dehmel
Ida separated from Auerbach and moved to accommodation in Pankow, Berlin, near to the poet couple Richard (1863–1920) and Paula Dehmel (née Oppenheimer 1862–1918). At this time, the bohemian poets were associated with the circle of the Schwarzes Ferkel, the so-called literary café of Christiana, which was frequented by the Scandinavians Edvard Munch and August Strindberg. Greatly attracted to Dehmel, Ida abandoned bourgeois convention and travelled with him until they married in London in 1901 and finally settled in Hamburg in the same year at the urging of Dehmel’s close friend, the poet Detlev von Liliencrom.
Here, Ida was devoted to making their different abodes in the fashionable village of Blankenese, overlooking the shore of the Elbe, the focus of cultural life. A steady pilgrimage of academics, poets, artists and musicians visited them, at first in Parkstraße and from 1913 onwards in their architect-designed Dichterhaus in Westerstraße (today Richard-Dehmel-Straße), a gift from their circle of friends in commemoration of Dehmel’s 50th birthday (Henning, 1995, 76). Evidently, although Dehmel disparaged the merchants of Hamburg who, as he wrote to Stefan Zweig, “preferred attending commercial rather than poetry conferences” (9.5.1907 DA SUBH, No. 497), he felt at home in the city that provided a combination of cosmopolitanism, modernity, and strong regional Hanseatic identity.
Drawn to the reforming elements of Jugendstil (art nouveau), as the Arts and Crafts movement was called in Germany, the Dehmels established contact with Peter Behrens at the Darmstadt colony of Mathildenhöhe. Moreover, through the auspices of the Weimar-based patron and collector Harry Graf Kessler (1868–1937), they were introduced to the Belgian Henry van de Velde. Clearly, in designing the furniture for their house in Parkstraße, Dehmel followed the inspiration of these architect designers in having them hand built. Well known for her elegance and exotic beauty, Ida modelled Richard’s designs for women’s clothing, photographs of which were published in the popular Berliner Illustrierter Zeitung as an example of his “Reformkleidung” (Reform dress, 13.8.1908). Functioning as ornament, Ida’s presence was essential to the omniscient power of male creativity. However, she herself became a member of the Deutsche Werkbund, a German Trade Association that was founded in 1907, exhibiting her pearl-decorated apparel and establishing a profitable business towards the end of World War I.
Feminist Endeavors & Engagement with the Arts
Ida Dehmel became involved in circles of patronage of modern art that raised awareness concerning feminist issues. The founding of women’s clubs in regional centers under the auspices of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein (General German Women’s Association) contributed to the development of the modern woman patron and networking among its members. In 1906, in Hamburg, the notable art collector Bertha Rohlsen (1852–1928) established and became chair of the Frauenklub (Women’s Club) at the Antoine-Feillschehaus (Neuer Jungfernstieg 19). Ida assisted her in this endeavour, responding to a letter of invitation from Luise Schiefler in which she said, “I consider such a club in Hamburg so necessary and beneficial in our foundation for the dignified improvement (‘aufbesserungswürdigen’) of Hamburg ladies” (Nachlaß Gustav Schiefler, SUBH, 8.7.1906). Clearly, the role of the Frauenklub, while conceived in relation to broader progressive feminist concerns, nonetheless referenced the constraining class and gender politics of Wilhelmine bourgeois society. Ida Dehmel herself represents this complex makeup of identity in transition. While assuming a subordinate position in her marriage, she subscribed to notions of cultural reform and called for women to participate in modernizing politics and national renewal.
Like her sister Alice Bensheimer, Ida was a fervent supporter of women’s suffrage, joining the ranks of various pressure groups in the early twentieth century and serving as chief editor, from 1912 to 1916, of the monthly report Frau und Staat, issued by the Deutsche Vereinigung für Frauenstimmrecht (German Union for Women’s Right to Vote). Her political affiliations were somewhat conservative and her membership in the National Liberal Party (NLP) became more complicated after World War I given the political instability of the early Weimar Republic. With the merging of the NLP with the German People’s Party, which was openly chauvinist and antisemitic, Ida’s Jewish identity prevented her from retaining her position on the managing committee, notwithstanding the loss of her son Heinz-Lux to Germany’s war effort in 1917. In 1920, with the death of her husband, whose health deteriorated as a war volunteer, Ida dedicated herself to preserving his literary estate at their house in Blankenese.
Alongside her political endeavours, in 1916 Ida co-founded with Dr. Rosa Schapire the Frauenbund zur Förderung Deutscher Bildenden Kunst (Women’s Society for the Advancement of German Art), which both sponsored exhibitions and donated contemporary art to museums during the privations of war. In the 1920s, recognizing the gender inequities in the professional status of artists, Ida founded both regional and national women artists’ associations. The Gemeinschaft deutscher und österreichischer Künstlerinnenvereine aller Kunstgattungen (Community of German and Austrian women artists’ associations of all artistic genres) or GEDOK, as it is better known, is active to this day (Sorg and Sorg-Rose, 1992).
In April 1933, Ida’s role as chair of the Reich’s GEDOK was usurped in an atmosphere of institutional chaos following the National Socialist enactment of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufbeamtentums (Law for the Reform of the Professional Civil Service). While this provided that “civil servants who are not of Aryan descent are to be retired,” the anti-Semitism it embodied was widely accepted by independent associations. Thus Ida’s sister Alice was also frozen out of public life when she was forced to retire from her position as secretary of the Reichsverband Deutscher Frauenvereine (National Federation of German Women’s Associations). Her death in 1935 forced Ida into further isolation. Though she travelled to the West Indies and America in 1937, she was loath to leave the Richard Dehmel house after the outbreak of World War II. In a letter to Marie Stern, Ida recorded the details of the rounding up and deportations of Hamburg’s Jews (25.10.1941, in HH 1970, 78); her fear of the same fate led her to commit suicide by an overdose of sleeping tablets on September 29, 1942.
Beyond the preservation of her husband’s substantial estate, Ida had the talent for inventing modern institutions that facilitated women’s engagement in politics and professional recognition in the arts. In a letter to Richard in 1915, she connected progress in the realm of women’s emancipation with her deeply felt pride in that which is always conducted efficiently by Jews (“Was immer Tüchtiges von Juden geleistet wird, freut mich doppelt,” Maria Frisé, in Sorg and Sorg-Rose, 22). In her embrace of modernity, Ida Dehmel recognized the interaction between her feminist aspirations and Jewish identity, both of which provided the fertile soil for her creative legacies.
Selected Works by Ida Dehmel
Dehmel-Archiv der Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky (DA SUBH: holdings of Ida Dehmel correspondence and unpublished typescripts of Urschrift and Daja). Lenz, Coba. “Vom Rhein und vom Wein.” Berliner Tageblatt 537 (22.10.1892)
Frau und Staat. Edited by Ida Dehmel. 1912–1916
Dehmel, Richard. Ausgewählte Briefe aus den Jahren 1883 bis 1902. Edited by Ida Dehmel. Berlin: S. Fischer, 1923
Dehmel, Richard. Ausgewählte Briefe 1902 bis 1920. Edited by Ida Dehmel. Berlin: S. Fischer, 1923
“Der junge Stefan George. Unbekanntes aus seiner Frühzeit. Aus meinen Erinnerungen.” Berliner Tageblatt 306 (1.7.1935) and 308 (2.7.1935).
Behr, Shulamith. “Supporters and Collectors of Expressionism.” In German Expressionism: Art and Society, edited by Stephanie Barron and Wolf-Dieter Dube, 45–58. Venice: Bompiani, 1997.
Henning, Sabine et al. WRWlt – Urakkord: Die Welten des Richard Dehmel, Ausstellung in der Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky. Hamburg: T. Bautz, 1995.
Höpker-Herberg, Elisabeth. Ida Dehmel. 1870–1942. Hamburg: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, 1970 (HH 1970).
Idem. “Ida Dehmel. Maklerin in rebus litterarum.” In Liebe, die im Abgrund Anker wirft. Autoren und literarisches Feld im Hamburg des 20.Jahrhunderts, edited by Stephan von Inge and Hans-Gerd Winter, 13–39. Hamburg: Argument, 1989.
Matz, Cornelie. “Die Organisationsgeschichte der Künstlerinnen in Deutschland von 1867 bis 1933.” Ph.D. diss., Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen: 2001.
Schiefler, Gustav. Eine Hamburgische Kulturgeschichte 1890–1920. Hamburg: Verein für Hamburgische Geschichte, 1985.
Stubbe-da Luz, Helmuth. Die Stadtmütter. Ida Dehmel. Emma Ender. Margarete Treuge. Hamburg: Verein f. Hamb. Gesch., 1994
Kontrapunkt GEDOK gestern—heute. Dokumentation der GEDOK RHEIN-MAIN-TAUNUS zum 50. Todesjahr der GEDOK-Gründerin Ida Dehmel (1870–1942), Sorg, Margarete, and Margarete Sorg-Rose, eds. Mainz/Wiesbaden: Rhein-Main-Taunus, 1992.
Thiel, Friedrich. “‘Vier sonntägliche Straßen’: A Study of the Ida Coblenz Problem in the Works of Stefan George.” Utah Studies in Literature and Linguistics 19: (1988).
Wegner, Matthias. Aber die Liebe. Der Lebenstraum der Ida Dehmel. Munich: Claassen, 2000.