If you just played your part professionally, the story could end with a single sentence like this: “The parents of the historian Ewald Frie, who is a professor in Tübingen, were farmers in the Münsterland.” A sentence in the short biography of an established researcher. Mission accomplished, and onward.
But the story doesn’t end there, because Ewald Frie dared to make his own family the subject. He’s one of eleven children, yes: eleven, all from the same mother. During World War II, in 1944, she gave birth to her first child, who later became the heir to the farm, and then became pregnant every two years until the end of the 1960s. Eleven children survived. The mother was “marian and hungry for education at the same time”. All the children except the eldest eventually left the farming world. “We no longer smelled of cows, pigs and silage.”
Ewald Frie, 60 years old, interviewed his many siblings and studied the sources they left behind, and in a wonderful book he now tells of his farewell to farming society. It is a process that, in Germany as well as elsewhere, proceeded slowly or rapidly, depending on how close you are to it. His older siblings weren’t allowed to play football yet, because that contradicted the self-image of the farm owners. If the children had homework to do, then that was “the only alternative to farm and housework that was accepted”. The older siblings still had to organize their advancement through education, parallel to the mechanization of farm work, on their own by taking detours. Ewald Frie, on the other hand, was born in 1962 and was an oddball in the family as an obsessive book reader. This was not actually intended by the tradition of the ancestors.
“Am I a climber?” the author asks himself, sitting in his apartment
The right mixture of factual distance and personal warmth that Ewald Frie finds as a participant and as a scientist in order to understand this story of his family, it sounds as simple as it is natural when you read it. But she is admirable. Sometimes he gives a sober and precise account of social change – from horses to tractors to higher education in just a few decades. Sometimes life balances are drawn up, in haunting passages like this one:
“I can no longer do a lot of things that my father could: read the hereditary qualities of bulls from their external appearance, castrate piglets with a pocket knife, speak fluent Low German, tie a broom, predict the weather from the clouds and the color of the sunset. ” Ewald Frie asks himself: “Am I a climber? My apartment is much smaller than the living area of my parents’ farm. I don’t own any land, no house, no animals, no apple trees and no fireplace. (…) I have one Professor titles and a long list of publications. Doesn’t that amount to a solid draw?”
The farm where Ewald Frie grew up with his siblings (whose first names he changed for the book) is two kilometers from the village called Nottuln and 25 kilometers from Munster. A large farmhouse newly built in 1896. One neighboring farm 150 meters away, the other 300 meters away.
One of the peculiarities of the settlement structure, which city dwellers rarely think about when they think of country life and agriculture, is that farm and village were rather separate worlds, at least in the traditional world of these Munsterland farmers. The courts were “loose communities of unequals,” writes Frie: “The decisive criterion was land ownership.” In that respect, the family wasn’t so badly off, despite all the hard work, and so you used to feel superior to the village.
The village was “the place of the church and the morning pint, the office and the post office. The elementary school was there and the Catholic girls’ secondary school with attached boarding school.” And since 1926 there has even been an outdoor swimming pool and a cinema on weekends. But according to the values of the peasants, there weren’t really any really free people living there. And you rarely had time for such things back when most of the work was still done by hand. “All of that was impressive, but none of it was part of everyday life,” says Frie, describing the attitude towards life on the farm. “In order to drive to the village, there had to be a reason.”
Later came the autobahn, sports fields and a new middle class – and only over time did the older people realize that the more modern way of life in village and town could make a stronger claim to autonomy and freedom than being tied to one’s own soil. The children were gradually lured away from it, becoming teachers, educators, pharmacists and even professors. Although the mother always said when saying goodbye: “Remember, there is always someone at home here.”
And while the mother, according to Ewald Frie, still considered her confinement to the house to be “an achievement of her marriage”, “in contrast to the many crooked women of the peasantry” who still helped out in the fields – her daughters aspired to their own employment and her mother supported her on her new educational path. At least as important were the offers of the Catholic rural youth – from the speech competition to the dance evening – the disco and the money from BAföG, introduced in 1971. And my own experience in teamwork. At the same time, agriculture itself changed, technically and economically.
We don’t just get rid of our heritage
“There is not one decision that separates us from the past,” writes Ewald Frie. He had actually wanted to write a great history of the Pacific next, but the pandemic prevented the necessary research trips. Lucky for this book. How Frie describes on 170 pages of text the gradual solution of a world that was structured through physical work and prayer, without illusions and yet sensitive, with a historical view as an expert and yet full of gratitude, how he analyzes his family in a Westphalian way and at the same time respects him a general, but also tells his story, which leaves a great impression.
This book is also something like a recipe for everyone who wants to find their place in the changing times: We don’t just get rid of our origins; it’s not meant to captivate us, but if we don’t try to grasp it, it becomes too much of a blind spot. Not everyone has to make a book out of it. But talking about it with your family, like Ewald Frie did, is a good idea.