Ilse Aichinger

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 3,012 words

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About this Person
Born: November 01, 1921 in Vienna, Austria
Died: November 11, 2016 in Vienna, Austria
Nationality: Austrian
Occupation: Writer



  • Die größere Hoffnung: Roman (Vienna & Amsterdam: Bermann-Fischer, 1948); translated by Cornelia Schaeffer as Herod's Children (New York: Atheneum, 1963).
  • Rede unter dem Galgen: Erzählungen (Vienna: Jungbrunnen, 1952); republished as Der Gefesselte: Erzählungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1953); translated by Eric Mosbacher as The Bound Man and Other Stories (London: Secker & Warburg, 1955; New York: Noonday Press, 1956).
  • Wo ich wohne: Erzählungen, Gedichte, Dialoge (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1954).
  • Knöpfe: Hörspiel (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1955).
  • Zu keiner Stunde (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1957); enlarged as Zu keiner Stunde: Szenen und Dialoge (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1980).
  • Seegeister (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).
  • Besuch im Pfarrhaus: Ein Hörspiel; Drei Dialoge (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1961).
  • Eliza, Eliza: Erzählungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1965).
  • Auckland: 4 Hörspiele (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1969).
  • Nachricht vom Tag: Erzählungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1970).
  • Dialoge, Erzählungen, Gedichte, edited by Heinz F. Schafroth (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1971).
  • Schlechte Wörter (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1976).
  • Verschenkter Rat: Gedichte (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1978).
  • Meine Sprache und ich: Erzählungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1978).
  • Spiegelgeschichte: Erzählungen und Dialoge (Leipzig: Kiepenheuer, 1979).
  • Werke in einem Band (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1986).
  • Kleist, Moos, Fasane (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1987).
  • Der Gefesselte. Erzählungen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1989).
  • Aufzeichnungen, 1950-1985, edited by Albert Kapr and Roland Opitz (Leipzig: Reclam, 1991).
  • Werke, 8 volumes, edited by Richard Reichensperger (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1991)--comprises Die größere Hoffnung: Roman; Der Gefesselte (1948-1952): Erzählungen 1; Eliza Eliza (1958-1968): Erzählungen 2; Schlechte Wörter; Kleist, Moos, Fasane; Auckland: Hörspiele; Zu keiner Stunde: Szenen und Dialoge; and Verschenkter Rat.
  • Das Verhalten auf sinkenden Schiffen: Reden zum Erich-Fried-Preis 1997, by Aichinger and Gert Jonke (Salzburg: Residenz, 1997).
  • Film und Verhängnis: Blitzlichter auf ein Leben (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2001).
  • Kurzschlusse: Wien, edited by Simone Fässler (Vienna: Edition Korrespondenzen, 2001).

Editions in English

  • Ilse Aichinger: Selected Stories and Dialogues, edited and translated by James C. Alldridge (Oxford & New York: Pergamon Press, 1966).
  • Ilse Aichinger: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited and translated by Allen H. Chappel (Durango, Colo.: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1983).


  • "Knöpfe," radio, Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk/Süddeutscher Rundfunk, 16 December 1953.
  • "Französische Botschaft," radio, Bayerischer Rundfunk, 20 May 1960.
  • "Weiße Chrysanthemen," radio, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, 4 January 1961.
  • "Besuch im Pfarrhaus," radio, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, 16 March 1962.
  • "Die größere Hoffnung," by Aichinger and Hans-Bernd Müller, radio, Saarländischer Rundfunk, 16 March 1966.
  • "Nachmittag in Ostende," radio, Norddeutscher Rundfunk/Süddeutscher Rundfunk, 31 March 1968.
  • "Die Schwestern Jouet," radio, Bayerischer Rundfunk, 18 July 1969.
  • "Auckland," radio, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, 19 April 1970.
  • "Gare Maritime," radio, Österreichischer Rundfunk, 1976; Süddeutscher Rundfunk/Westdeutscher Rundfunk, 23 January 1977.


  • Behutsam kämpfen. Das Hörspiel "Knöpfe," Prosa und Gedichte, read by Aichinger, Munich, Der Hörverlag, 1996.


  • "Knöpfe," in Hörspiele, edited by Ernst Schnabel (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1961), pp. 43-79.
  • "Kleist, Moos, Fasane," in Atlas: Zusammengestellt von deutschen Autoren, edited by Johannes Bobrowski (Berlin: Wagenbach, 1965), pp. 273-280.
  • "Unser Kaminkehrer," in Portraits: 28 Erzählungen über ein Thema, edited by Walther Karsch (Berlin: Herbig, 1967), pp. 155-158.
  • "Wien 1945," in Städte 1945, edited by Ingeborg Drewitz (Düsseldorf & Cologne: Diederichs, 1970), pp. 175-176.
  • "Der letzte Tag," by Aichinger and Günter Eich, in Eich, Gesammelte Werke, volume 3 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973), pp. 851-896.
  • Günter Eich, Gedichte, edited by Aichinger (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).
  • "Zum Gegenstand," in Glückliches Österreich, edited by Jochen Jung (Salzburg & Vienna: Residenz, 1978), pp. 12-16.


  • "Aufruf zum Mißtrauen," Plan, 7 (July 1946): 588.
  • "Die Vögel beginnen zu singen, wenn es noch finster ist," Freude an Büchern, 3-4 (1952): 39-40.
  • "Über das Erzählen in dieser Zeit," Blätter für Literatur, Funk und Bühne, 1 (1952): 1.
  • "Plätze und Straßen," Jahresring (1954): 19-24.
  • "Adalbert Stifter: Erzählungen," Adalbert Stifter Institut Vierteljahresschrift, 28 (1979): 93-94.
  • "Briefwechsel," by Aichinger and Gertrud Fünegger, Frankfurter Anthologie, 5 (1980): 231-233.
  • "Die unmüden Schläfer. Szene aus einem Theaterstück," Neue Rundschau, 23 (1980): 218-228.
  • "Die Zumutung des Atmens. Dankrede anläßlich der Verleihung des Franz-Kafka-Preises," Neue Rundschau, 94 (1983): 59-63.
  • "Rede an die Jugend," Weilheimer Hefte zur Literatur, 23 (1988).


The work of contemporary Austrian Jewish writer Ilse Aichinger was once called by her husband, Günter Eich , an "artifact of life." Aichinger's writings are imaginative, experimental, and often hermetic in nature. Yet, although her fictional and lyrical work includes few direct references to reality, her poetic search for a language that resists power and manipulation and lends the force of the imagination to the helpless and the victimized is closely linked to her own Holocaust experiences.

Aichinger and her twin sister, Helga, were born in Vienna on 1 November 1921 to Ludwig Aichinger, a Gentile schoolteacher from Upper Austria, and Berta Kremer Aichinger, a Jewish doctor whose father served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian imperial army; Ilse's grandfather was an engineer who participated in the construction of the railway station in the Polish village Oswieciem (Auschwitz) years before the Germans built the camp that traumatically marked Ilse Aichinger's life and work. Berta Kremer had a Christian education and attended a convent school near Sarajevo before studying medicine in a heavily anti-Semitic atmosphere. Soon after Ilse and Helga were born, Ludwig Aichinger abandoned his wife and daughters for the sake of his career. The girls were brought up mainly by their mother's parents and were educated at Catholic boarding schools in Vienna (Sacré Coeur and Ursulinen) until 1938. As a Mischling (person of mixed racial ancestry), Ilse was able to matriculate from the Öffentliches Gymnasium, Vienna, in 1939, but she was barred from university admission.

The family tried to immigrate to England, but Berta Kremer was refused both a visa and a work permit. Soon after the Nazis entered Vienna in 1938, the family was forced to move to a small apartment near Gestapo headquarters. Aichinger's mother had to give up her job as a doctor and was forced to perform unskilled labor in a factory. Helga (who later became the artist Helga Michie) managed to immigrate to England on 4 July 1939, but Ilse stayed behind with her Jewish grandmother and her mother who, as guardian of a half-Gentile minor, was protected from persecution and deportation. Ilse Aichinger's coming of age in 1942, however, meant the end of this protection, and, together with her mother, she lived in danger. Aichinger was forced to labor in a pharmacy, while her mother continued to work in a factory. Her grandmother was deported in 1942 to the death camp of Maly Trostenets, on the outskirts of the Belorussian capital Minsk, where she died along with many of her Jewish relatives. Aichinger's reluctance to talk about this period makes it unclear exactly how she survived until the end of the war in 1945.

After the war, Aichinger and her mother were refused restitution for their house, expropriated by the Nazis, and they suffered from the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Viennese bureaucracy. Until 1947 they continued to live in a friend's kitchen and study, where Aichinger began to write a novel at the kitchen table. In the 9 January 1945 issue of Wiener Kurier (Vienna Courier) Aichinger published a short essay, "Das vierte Tor" (The Fourth Gate), which is considered to be the first text from Austria to refer to the deportation and extermination of Viennese Jews. A year later she attracted public attention with her 1946 article in Der Plan, "Aufruf zum Mißtrauen" (Call for Distrust), in which, addressing a society that had participated in terrible crimes, she called for introspection and self-examination. In 1947 Aichinger enrolled in medical school at the University of Vienna but eventually discontinued her studies in order to finish the book she had begun writing in the last years of the war. Called Die größere Hoffnung (The Great Hope, 1948; translated as Herod's Children , 1963), it was her only novel.

Traces of the terror Aichinger witnessed under the Nazi regime run through her entire body of work. While her short, experimental prose texts, her enigmatic poems, and her radio plays carry only coded allusions to these traumatic events, Die größere Hoffnung is largely inspired by Aichinger's experiences as a girl in Vienna between 1938 and 1945. Published in 1948, this novel is one of the first literary accounts of the persecution of the Jews to emerge from a country that had participated in Nazi crimes. The novel is a highly complex and multilayered, lyrical tale written in an elliptic language that evokes a magical, at times uncanny atmosphere in which nightmare visions, phantasmagoric escapes, and references to the oppressive historical reality intertwine.

Nevertheless, despite its imaginative breadth, Die größere Hoffnung is unmistakably autobiographical. Like Aichinger, the central character, Ellen, has one "wrong" set of grandparents and lives with her grandmother, who is led away by the Nazis in the girl's presence. Aichinger conveys the fate of Viennese Jews after the Anschluß (the political union of Austria with Germany in 1938) through the narrative perspective of her young protagonist, whose child-like trust and courage run up against the incomprehensibly cruel reality around her. In loosely connected episodes, Die größere Hoffnung evokes the last years of Ellen's childhood in Vienna during the Nazi occupation.

The book opens with Ellen's failed attempt to follow her Jewish mother to the United States and then depicts her repudiation by her Gentile father, who becomes an active collaborator with the Nazi regime. After resigning herself to the loss of her great hope ("große Hoffnung") of following her mother to America, Ellen eventually succeeds in gaining the trust and friendship of a group of Jewish children, whose lives are increasingly in danger. She shows her solidarity by sewing a yellow star on her clothes, although she is not required to do so. She plays with the children on the riverbanks, between the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery, and in the narrow rooms and attics of their hiding places. In dreams, play, and conversations the children try to create an imaginary space of hope, friendship, and safety, encouraging one another to resist despair. As the story develops, the space where they can dwell keeps shrinking. The children try to deal with daily humiliations, the fear of being deported to Poland, and horror at discovering children in the group are missing. The children's anxiety reaches its climax during the enactment of a Christmas play, at the end of which they are arrested. Ellen, because she is considered only "half Jewish," is released.

In one of the most poignant scenes, Ellen helps her grandmother commit suicide because the girl understands that it is the only way the old woman can escape the humiliation of being deported by the Gestapo. The chapter "Der Tod der Großmutter" (The Grandmother's Death) marks a turning point in the story, since from then on Ellen lives completely isolated from anyone she trusts. Continuously on the run, she becomes increasingly detached from reality. Finally, surrounded by smoke, fire, and screams, she is killed by a shell exploding near a bridge she is trying to cross. Her last words evoke the vision of a metaphorical bridge that, she believes, should be named "the greater hope, our hope." These words, which are taken up in the German title of the novel (and missing in the English title, which refers to the biblical mass murder of children that the emperor Herod organized in order to kill Jesus), indicate the subtle, if questionable, ambiguity of the representation of the Holocaust in the novel.

The child's narrative viewpoint, along with Ellen's fate, suggests spiritual growth through suffering, martyrdom of an innocent youngster, and the resistance to reality through play, dream, and magic. The ambiguous style of Aichinger's novel is enhanced by a richly metaphorical language that occasionally invokes a Christian iconography and by the seemingly timeless setting that dilutes the historical setting. Die größere Hoffnung does not refer explicitly to the Holocaust itself and, arguably, does not do justice to the physical destruction of European Jewry. Yet, its suggestive, if idiosyncratic, narrative of the persecution of a group of Jewish children in wartime Vienna is a powerful literary testimony to the Holocaust.

The novel registers in modernist mode both the power and the defeat of poetic language in the face of extreme terror and destruction. The complex structure of Die größere Hoffnung and its diversity of styles and linguistic registers undermine the conventions of the realist novel. A soothing lullaby is brutally interrupted by military orders, and biblical quotes are dislocated from their original context and inserted into everyday language. Similar incongruities illustrate the constant failure of habitual communication. The narrative point of view and the temporal mode in the novel shift continuously and unexpectedly. This formal instability becomes increasingly manifest toward the end and reflects the increasing chaos and unsettlement of Ellen's precarious existence. An anonymous, chorus-like voice emerges during a game the children play at the Jewish cemetery. Toward the end of the novel, this voice takes over from the personal narrator Ellen, while past, present, and future seem to merge into a mystical and ahistorical time.

Initially, Die größere Hoffnung was received with enthusiastic praise. Some critics expressed the hope that it would provide the postwar generation with the quintessential war novel for which they had all been waiting. However, with the growing theoretical reflection on the limits of representation of the Holocaust, the novel was attacked by critics who approached it from the tradition of German Ideologiekritik (assessment of the ideological assumptions and power relations underlying a discourse). These critics addressed the vague and indirect ways in which the novel conveys the Jewish experience under Nazi terror and its lack of emphasis on the difficulties of adequately representing the Holocaust in language, especially in the German language. More particularly, these responses consider the lyrical qualities of the novel as a source of mystification and false embellishment. Other critics also argue that the use of mythical images and the abstract designation of perpetrators and victims dehistoricize the narrative, leading to unjustified comparisons of the destruction of European Jewry with Herod's murder of children, World War II with a medieval plague, and Vienna's liberation by the Allies with the Christian Apocalypse. Aichinger has occasionally been accused of complicity with the political restoration that dominated the postwar period in Austria and Germany. In response, it has been argued that the inappropriateness of Christian references, mystifying images, and lyricism in the circumstances suggested by the novel could itself be read as a sign of the fundamental instability of the world. Defenders of the novel point out that it does include clear signs of protest and rebellion.

The ending of the novel, in particular, has been much discussed because it has been read to refer to the Christian Apocalypse. The emergence of the morning star over the burning bridges of the city of Vienna links Ellen's death to the presence of the star, which, as a sign of hope, points to a new beginning: "Über den umkämpften Brücken stand der Morgenstern" (Above the embattled bridges stood the morning star). However, it has alternately been understood as a metaphor that opens up a literally unbridgeable space between the last moments of Ellen's life and the appearance of the star, between the horrid event on Earth of a child "in Stücke gerissen" (torn into pieces) and an indifferent universe.

Aichinger's novel is an example of Holocaust literature that resists neat placement within the stereotypical opposition between politically committed, realist writing, on the one hand, and artistic, ahistorical experimentation, on the other. In its reflections about the transformative power of language, the book shows how the tools of poetry can manipulate and mystify, but also how they can convey that which cannot be spelled out. Critics tend to distinguish sharply between what they consider to be the romantic, lush, and mystifying poetics of this novel and the resistant, often hermetic, and subversive character of Aichinger's later short prose, poems, and plays, but Die größere Hoffnung repeatedly exhibits linguistic and narrative complexity that clearly links it to Aichinger's later work.

Although Die größere Hoffnung remains her most famous work, Aichinger owes her recognition as a major innovative writer to experimental short stories, intriguing prose texts, and radio plays that she published beginning in the 1950s. Between 1949 and 1951 Aichinger worked in a publishing house, Fischer Verlag, and assisted Inge Aicher-Scholl, the sister of the Catholic resistance fighters Hans and Sophie Scholl, in setting up the Hochschule für Gestaltung (School for Design) in Ulm. In 1952 she won the Austrian State Prize for literature; that same year, she received a literary award from Gruppe 47, a prominent West German authors' society, for her novella "Die Spiegelgeschichte" (The Mirror Story). On this occasion she met the poet and radio playwright Eich. They married a year later, traveled extensively, worked together, and raised their two children, Clemens (born in 1954) and Mirjam (born in 1957), in various villages close to the border between Austria and southern Germany and, after 1963, in Gross-Gmein near Salzburg.

Following Eich's death in 1972, Aichinger gradually retreated from public life. In 1984 she moved to Frankfurt, returning to Vienna in 1988 when her son, a writer, died in an accident. In 2001, at the age of eighty, Aichinger published Film und Verhängnis: Blitzlichter auf ein Leben (Film and Fate: Flashlights on a Life), a collection of movie reviews she had written since 1999 for a weekly column in Der Standard, along with several autobiographical sketches in which she returned to the war years more explicitly than ever before.

Although Aichinger's fame does not rest primarily on her novel, Die größere Hoffnung nevertheless remains an important achievement. The novel was published before the critical discourse about poetic and fictional representations of the Holocaust; yet, it foreshadows many of the fundamental aesthetic, philosophical, theological, and psychological questions central to that discourse. It is a work of lasting relevance not only because of its unusual language and perspective, or the power of the clash between reality and the imagination, but also because it opens up some of the major issues discussed in criticism of Holocaust literature.




  • "Sich nicht anpassen lassen . . . Gespräch mit der Schriftstellerin Ilse Aichinger über Sophie-Scholl," in Hermann Vinke, Das kurze Leben der Sophie Scholl (Ravensburg: Mair, 1980), pp. 179-186.


  • Ingrid Gomboz, "Bibliographie Ilse Aichinger," in Ilse Aichinger, edited by Kurt Bartsch and Gerhard Melzer (Graz: Droschl, 1993), pp. 249-293.


  • Dagmar C. Lorenz, Ilse Aichinger (Kronberg: Athenäum, 1981).
  • Carine Kleiber, Ilse Aichinger. Leben und Werk (Bern & Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1984).
  • Gisela Lindemann, Ilse Aichinger (Munich: Beck, 1988).
  • Samuel Moser, ed., Ilse Aichinger: Materialien zu Leben und Werk (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990; revised and enlarged, 1995).
  • Richard Reichensperger, Die Bergung der Opfer in der Sprache. Ilse Aichinger-Leben und Werk (Beiheft) (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1991).


  • Henry U. Gerlach, "The Reception of the Works of Ilse Aichinger in the United States," Modern Austrian Literature, 20 (1987): 95-106.
  • Britta Herrmann, "Gegenworte, Sprachwiderstände. Ilse Aichingers Roman Die größere Hoffnung," in "Was wir einsetzen können, ist Nüchternheit": Zum Werk Ilse Aichingers, edited by Herrmann and Barbara Thums (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2001), pp. 61-78.
  • Henriette Herwig, "'Entsetzt floh der Sinn aus den Worten': Sprache und Dichtungsverständnis in Ilse Aichingers Roman Die größere Hoffnung," Sprachkunst, 28 (1997): 55-69.
  • Hedi Kaiser, "Ilse Aichinger: Die größere Hoffnung," in Erzählen, erinnern: Deutsche Prosa der Gegenwart, Interpretationen, edited by Herbert Kaiser and Gerhard Köpf (Frankfurt: Diesterweg Verlag, 1993), pp. 18-37.
  • Manfred Karnick, "Die größere Hoffnung: Über 'jüdisches Schicksal' in deutscher Nachkriegsliteratur," in Juden in der deutschen Nachkriegsliteratur: Ein deutsch-israelisches Symposion, edited by Stéphane Moses and Albrecht Schöne (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), pp. 365-385.
  • Ruth Klüger, "The Theme of Anti-Semitism in the Work of Austrian Jews," in Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Steven T. Katz (New York: New York University Press, 1991), pp. 173-187.
  • John Margetts, "Hope Unfilled: Observations on the Impact of Ilse Aichinger's Novel Die größere Hoffnung," Neophilologus, 74 (1990): 408-425.
  • Heidy Margrit Müller, ed., Verschwiegenes Wortspiel: Kommentare zu den Werken Ilse Aichingers (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 1999), pp. 157-186.
  • Andreas Puff-Trojan, "Die Chiffren des Krieges und die Welt als Kryptogramm. Ilse Aichingers Roman Die größere Hoffnung," Etudes Germaniques, 50, no. 2 (1995): 261-282.
  • Andrea Reiter, "Die Erfahrung des Holocausts und ihre sprachliche Bewältigung: Zu Ilse Aichingers Die größere Hoffnung," German Life and Letters, 49, no. 2 (1996): 236-242.
  • Hans Werner Richter, "Im Etablissement der Schmetterlinge. Ilse Aichinger," in his Im Etablissement der Schmetterlinge: Einundzwanzig Porträts aus der Gruppe 47 (Munich: Hanser, 1986), pp. 7-19.
  • Nicole Rosenberger, "Das Prinzip des Ungefügten: Zum geschichtskritischen Potential von Ilse Aichingers Roman Die größere Hoffnung," Weimarer Beiträge, 46, no. 1 (2000): 121-128.
  • Heinz F. Schafroth, "Ilse Aichinger," in Kritisches Lexikon zur deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur, edited by Heinz Ludwig Arnold (Munich: Richard Boorberg, 1999).
  • Katrien Vloeberghs, "Widerstände der Kreatur: Dialektik der Aufklärung in Ilse Aichingers Roman Die größere Hoffnung," Germanistische Mitteilungen. Zeitschrift für deutsche Sprache, Literatur und Kultur, 53 (2001): 7-20.
  • Sigrid Weigel, "Schreibarbeit und Phantasie: Ilse Aichinger," in Frauenliteratur ohne Tradition? Neun Autorinnenporträts, edited by Inge Stephan, Regula Venske, and Weigel (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1987), pp. 11-27.


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200011920