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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Germanic Languages & Literatures

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Jonathan Skolnik

Second Advisor

Ela Gezen

Third Advisor

Rachel Green

Fourth Advisor

Jon Olsen

Subject Categories

German Literature


This dissertation addresses literary representations of empathy and altruism in Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel Gehen, Ging, Gegangen and Bodo Kirchhoff’s 2016 novel Widerfahrnis. These novels demonstrate continuities and discontinuities between German literature of the postwar, reunification and contemporary contexts.Analyzing expressions of empathy by Erpenbeck and Kirchhoff’s protagonists, I locate them in historical and literary contexts, the roots of which can be traced to the first generation of postwar German literature (1945-1968), particularly Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. In both Grass and Böll’s early postwar fiction, German experiences of the war and its aftermath are foregrounded, and focus is placed on German victimhood, while Jewish characters and victimhood in the war and postwar periods are marginalized. Each chapter of this dissertation is structured around several central questions: How do the themes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung appear in postwar literature, with particular focus on narratives of German victimhood and/or guilt, antisemitism and philosemitism? What is the role of gender politics in conceptions of memory and identity? How are personal memory and national memory addressed? How are notions of borders and belonging expressed and enforced? If a narrative of victimhood was formed in postwar Germany, both in the immediate aftermath of the war and the first political and literary generations, what is the impact on expressions of empathy and altruism toward refugees in recent German literature? How did the first generations of postwar authors in Germany represent their own suffering, and in doing so exclude suffering of victims and deemphasize their own guilt and/or shame, and how is this perspective apparent in Kirchhoff and Erpenbeck’s texts? To illustrate how the above-mentioned dynamics of memory, victimhood and empathy appear in literature of the postwar and contemporary periods, I draw on several broad research fields, including memory, trauma, Nachträglichkeit, empathy, and studies of the novel.