Otto Frank and the editing of Anne Frank’s diary

A picture of a young Anne Frank sitting at an old-fashioned desk with an inkwellAn online women’s publication called “The Establishment” last year published an article attacking the editing of Anne Frank’s diary by her father, Otto Frank, for publication in the 1940s after the death of the author and several members of their family in the Nazi concentration camps. The article by one Stephanie Watson (of whom they give no biographical details) was written more than a year ago (November 2016) but the magazine has been re-publicising it on Twitter and has attracted a lot of quite justifiable criticism that it is offensive and in effect anti-Semitic. The final published work combined material from two versions Anne Frank wrote, one of them a personal diary and one of them a novelised version of the same that was intended for publication; the bits that were edited out consisted of unflattering remarks about her parents and comments on sexuality, menstruation and her own vulva. Watson considers the removal of this material ‘sexist’ and an invasion of Anne Frank’s privacy and says she turned off the audiobook version of the diary, read by Helena Bonham-Carter, before she had even heard the whole of the preface!

Watson gives a few examples of what was edited out, before complaining:

I already worried that heavy editing of Anne’s diary was disrespectful to her memory. But seeing the content of the changes, it seemed that the edits were also an act of misogyny. The redacted sections dealt with love, sex, and body changes, all topics that women were discouraged from talking about in the 1940s and are still discouraged from talking about today. If Anne had been a boy, would the publication house have deleted sections on discovering his body? On his thoughts about a girl? Would his thoughts about his parents be written off as just a “boy being a boy”?

There are many good reasons why this material was edited out of a book that was published in the 1940s with a view to children reading it. In the 1940s, published literature was heavily censored; I am not sure what the situation was in the Netherlands but in the UK writing on sexuality was particularly restricted and, for example, swearing was not allowed, nor even the impression thereof. The Netherlands was a quite conservative country then, heavily divided along religous (Catholic/Protestant) lines. It was not the aggressively liberal country we know today. As to the question of whether similar material by a boy on discovering one’s body would have been edited out, the answer would surely be ‘yes’ — boys certainly were not encouraged to openly talk about their private parts or about erections or nocturnal emissions in public in the 1980s, let alone the 1940s; it’s a ludicrous complaint.

Advertisement from ActionAid featuring a young African girl with the words 'She's lost her home, she's lost her family; will you help her keep her dignity?'And yes, some of the girls reading the book will be going through the same process as Anne Frank was at the time of writing, but should any girl need Anne Frank to tell her about periods or about the fact that she doesn’t urinate through her clitoris (a common enough misconception), or for that matter should a boy need to learn about girls’ bodies or their feelings about them from a diary written in the 1940s? Should any teenager learn these things when learning about the Nazis or Holocaust? Surely not. There are better books (fiction and non-fiction) that teach these things, although with a slightly older audience it could be appropriate, particularly given increased awareness of such things as the needs of women refugees (see advert on left and this related articlefor example). And her complaints about her parents were quite appropriately edited out as they were published at a time when some of the people featured were still living, and some were dead. Of course Otto Frank would not have wanted disparaging material about his wife, who had died only a few years earlier in Auschwitz while his two daughters (Anne and Margot) died from typhus in Bergen-Belsen, in the public domain, and one suspects that had Anne survived but her mother Edith had not, she might well have made similar decisions. The circumstances of publication were different from those of the book’s writing.

The fact that Anne Frank was only in her early teens when she wrote the diary also justifies a certain amount of adult editing. Many of us wrote diaries at that age which we would not like to see revealed to our families, much less anyone else, as adults. A lot of us wrote diaries after being inspired by Frank, or the Adrian Mole books (whose content on sex and sexuality was much less explicit than what was edited out of Anne Frank’s diary), The Color Purple or (in my case) Helen Cresswell’s book Dear Shrink (a book about a boy in care in the 1980s) but we didn’t keep them up for long and didn’t share them (or tried to avoid doing so). A lot of people write blogs, both as teens and as adults, and later delete them. Even diaries written by adults cannot always be published immediately as they contain sensitive material about people who are still alive; the novelist Margaret Forster wrote a diary which she kept secret, but her husband Hunter Davies, the journalist, has secreted them in the British Library with a 10-year embargo as mentioned in yesterday’s Guardian:

/> The precise contents are rather too interesting: her thoughts on her children, her husband, her relations, her health, her work and her experience as a Booker-prize judge contain “disobliging remarks about famous people”.

Forster’s schoolgirl diaries have been published, however.

The cover of a book, reading 'The Diary of Anne Frank [picture of author] The Critical Edition, prepared by the Netherlands State Institution for War DocumentationWatson says she consulted with various Jewish writers about the censorship of the original Frank diaries and one of them said that the diary is too important as a record of Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation and Holocaust to just not read. She suggests, however, that what should be taught is the Critical Edition, which consists of a “comparison” of the three editions of the diary as well as some other written material by Frank. However, this version is out of print; the original “Critical Edition” starts at £50 each on Amazon and the more recent “revised Critical Edition” starts at £190. I agree that it’s quite right that the full version was published after Otto Frank’s death, but this still does not make it appropriate to teach this version to children as the material edited out is not relevant to the reason children should read it.

As Louise Pennington (from whose Twitter feed I was alerted to this article) commented, “combatting antisemitism is more important than having tantrums about a grieving father editing his daughter’s diary” (her thread starts here and ends here and I recommend reading all of it). Books like this are important for educating young people about the dangers of racial and religious prejudice and the consequences it can have; children do not need to know intimate details about Anne Frank’s developing body to appreciate this. There was nothing misogynist about editing these things out of the original publication; the decision guarded several women’s privacy when they had not long died in the concentration camps and some of their friends and relations were still alive. It was quite appropriate in a much more conservative time than today.

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