Astrid Mignon Kirchhof. Das Dienstfräulein auf dem Bahnhof: Frauen im öffentlichen Raum im Blick der Berliner Bahnhofsmission 1894-1939. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011. 274 pp. $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-515-09776-5.
Reviewed by Margaret E. Menninger (Texas State University)
Published on H-German (May, 2014)
Commissioned by Chad Ross
Mission in Berlin
Germany's train station missions are on Facebook these days. Originally begun in the 1890s as a means to reach out to those newly arrived in the big city, the missions continue to offer help and shelter in that most transitional and transformative of locations. Das Dienstfräulein auf dem Bahnhof focuses on the first forty years of the missions' existence. Interweaving concepts of space, gender, and professionalization and melding the current sociological ideas of "space" and gendered conceptions of "public," Astrid Mignon Kirchhof's evocative study uses these broader concepts to show that the women working in these missions were able to carve out places of real significance for themselves and their clients before losing most of their former control under the Nazis.
After a lengthy and wide-ranging introduction, the body of the study is constructed of four chapters. The first of these focuses on the "problem" of the women the railway missions were founded to protect. Kirchof shows how the cultural norms of late nineteenth-century society which often sorted women into the category of "sexualized and dangerous (or potentially endangered)" and "sexless and worthy" were strongly in play in the work of the Bahnhofmissionarinnen. In particular, Kirchhof suggests that, in contrast to the some of the women helped by the missions, the women working in the missions benefited (at least insofar as their work was concerned) from appearing chaste, supported by the moral and religious framework of the mission itself.
The second investigative section considers how the railway station itself could be turned to use as a legitimate professional space by missionaries as they went about their work in what is essentially the liminal "ground zero" for modernity--the railway station. The affect of chaste, unapproachable, and spiritual motherliness coupled with the mission workers' clear visibility (armbands, special rooms, etc.) helped to constitute a symbolic space which telegraphed particular meaning (help and refuge for those who sought assistance and professional relevance for those who assisted).
The third substantive chapter focuses on the professional space of charitable works, looking back at the historical origins earlier in the nineteenth century and considering the way in which bourgeois women's involvement with charitable concerns shaped their development into the 1930s and, more importantly, showing that the delineation of spaces into male and public versus female and private was never quite so neat as advertised.
The final chapter relates the way in which all of these spaces were forcibly shrunk after 1933. The Berlin missions were closed at the end of 1939 after a period in which rival Nazi-sponsored mission groups at first worked in parallel and then eventually overwhelmed the older church-based organizations. Naturally, this correspondingly cut off options for women's professional spaces in mission work just as other professional spaces for women were curtailed in the 1930s.
While the wide variety of theory and method is intriguing, the study does not seem to deliver any clear conclusions. If anything, there are too many beginning points to be neatly concluded and in the end the theory almost smothers the history. The solidly researched stories of the variety of women using and working in these missions get lost in the larger theoretical space of the work.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Margaret E. Menninger. Review of Kirchhof, Astrid Mignon, Das Dienstfräulein auf dem Bahnhof: Frauen im öffentlichen Raum im Blick der Berliner Bahnhofsmission 1894-1939.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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