The roll of women at the beginning of the 20th century -- the German feminist movement and the life of Baroness Isa von Bernus in comparison

Extract from the examination paper for social studies written by Steffen Berchtenbreiter

(…) Isa von Bernus is a contemporary witness who is able to provide testimony up to the year of 1933, based on her own personal experience (...) Isa von Bernus was born 21 January 1898 in Berlin as Isolde Oberländer daughter of Alfred Oberländer, a famous Opera Singer in service to the Arch Duke of Karslruhe and his wife Melitta, nee Worms. Soon after, she as well as her older sister Anita, was baptized at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church. The financial and economical situation of the Oberländers is considered that of an upper class family. The family resides at Schlüterstrasse 51 in Berlin-Charlottenburg, a neighborhood where upper class families of that time reside.


After Alfred Oberländers early death, Isa grows up without a father. Her mother, a housewife, raises the children by herself from this time on. After the death of the father and provider, no financial problems arise, because of the families good financial standing. "Uncle Rolf", the fathers brother, who is a patent attorney in Berlin and who later emigrated, provides support to the family during needy times. As of 1904 Isa attends the primary school in Berlin and continues in 1908 with attendance of the local High School. Unfortunately, she cannot recall the names of these Schools. Usually she spends the afternoon hours at a bookstore located along her way back home from school. There she discovers her love for German lyric poetry and spends innumerable hours with reading. In addition, she receives ballet lesson at a ballet school located at Kantstrasse as well as private piano lesson. In 1914 she celebrates her confirmation. 1916 she finishes School with a College Board Exam. After that, she starts with social work which is typical for women during war times and looks after less privileged families in Berlin-Moabit, takes care of their children and simply looks after everything, makes sure families get assistance. She is always accompanied by a Policeman in case problems would arise, or her life would be threatened by any other danger. During the war, her family is better of than most other’s. Uncle Rolf, who meanwhile became a factory owner in Hamburg, helps financially and also sends "food packages" to the capital city. After the war, Isa Oberländer pursues, upon her mothers request, a career as a social welfare nurse at the Pestalozzi-Fröbel house, an orphanage in Berlin. She works there as a nurse and physiotherapist. However, this type of work is not fulfilling to her. In addition, it is very hard for her to adapt to the rigid methods of the senior nursing staff.


From 1921 on, she follows her true vocation and passion, theater and literature, and signs a one year contract at he municipal theater in Cleve. At the same time, she joins the German Theater Organization. From now on she receives acting lessons from her "Aunt" and teacher Auguste Prasch-Grevenberg who herself was a famous actress during that time. She works her way up in Cleve to become a permanent attraction at the local Theater. Soon after, her fame reaches even beyond Cleve and she becomes known for her intuition and identification with each individual character and role that she portrays.


In 1922, on the third anniversary of the Adult Education Center of Cleve, Isa together with other colleagues recites German lyric during the morning celebration. Further reading evenings follow.


In spring of 1923, Isa moves to Berlin. There she appears for the first time on April fourth, under the direction of Dr. Johannes Günther in Berlins premiere performance of Karl Röttgers "Faithful John". The play is put on as a celebration in honor of Bismarck. Further plays were to follow, lyrical plays by Johannes Günther, also short speaking roles. During the same time, Isa has her own lyrical lecture evening reciting selected German poetry. The critics of many German newspapers, like the "Deutschen Allgemeinen Zeitung" or the "Berlin Tagblatts", are enthusiastic about the raw beauty of the event. This carries Isa's fame far beyond the limits of Berlin, predicting her a great future in theater. In March of 1924 Isa Oberländer together with other artists found the "German scene". This association of young Berlin theater artists is aimed against the exorbitantly expensive theater prices and the confusion within the German theater scene.


A misunderstanding proves to become a lucky break at approximately the same time. When Isa picks up the telephone receiver and does not know the person on the other end, she replies briefly " wrong number" ! This sets the foundation for her new employment as a Radio speaker. The caller is one of the radio pioneers of the Berlin Vox House, who, so fascinated by her voice hires her on the spot. Now she reads lyrics from Goethe and Schiller in the mornings and performs at Berlins Theaters in the evenings. The Vox House also gives her the possibility to repeat the success of her first own poetry recitation. Several evenings follow this recitation at Vox Hall, among others under the theme "Woman’s Destiny". As of 1926, she is engaged at the Jadestätte’s new playhouse. Further engagements follow at various German theaters, mostly as Guest Star. She has now developed into a famous German theater Star.


At the age of 31, while visiting her older sister Anita who became a famous opera singer, she met through a mutual friend, Hölderlin-Publisher Erich Lichtenstein, the 18 year older Alexander von Bernus. She falls in love. The couple moves to Vienna for a while. She plays in the theater, he writes. She is his enchantment and inspires him. 1930 a special honor falls to her share: As the first German actress after the war she is invited to read German poetry at the Parisian Sorbonne. For this she gained recognition and fame that reached far beyond Germany.


At the height of her theater career, she decides against the theater and for an unconditional life at the side of the sensitive poet Alexander von Bernus who wanted to write only, if his "Isa" was close by. They move to Stuttgart where von Bernus had built his spagyric laboratory ...


Steffen Berchtenbreiter wrote this essay, from which we present only a short extract, for his examination work in the subject social studies/history at the College Donauwörth. He is now a student of the jurisprudence in Augsburg.