Posts Tagged With: east germany

Jazz, Rock, and Rebels

Jazz rock and rebels

Poiger, Uta G.  Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics & American Culture in a Divided Germany.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

             In an interesting cultural history, Poiger studies the impact of American culture – specifically American films, music, dance, and fashion – on East and West Germany.  Poiger studies these aspects of culture as artifacts that are imbued with multiple meanings in both East and West Germany as those two nations try to (re)establish a stabile German identity.  Poiger specifically looks at the ways in which the influx of American culture affected German notions of race and gender.

In her introduction, Poiger demonstrates that the 1950s were not the first moment in which American culture entered into German life.  She provides thumbnail sketches of German reactions to American culture in both the Weimar and Nazi periods, showing how the Nazis took an ambivalent, but mostly anti-American stance.  By the 1950s, however, American culture flooded into the two Germanys.  Poiger’s study shows that ironically, despite their differing socio-political stances, East and West Germany both initially had similar reactions against the Americanization of the youth in their respective countries.  “In often vehement rejections of American culture, both sides conflated uncontrolled sexuality, African-American culture, and German lower-class culture, and linked all three to fascism” (6).  West German leaders related Americanization (jazz music and consumer culture) with the emasculation of German men.  At the same time, they also saw rock and roll music and the rebellious lifestyle of movies like The Wild Ones as inspiring hyper-masculinity in its youth, something that many feared mirrored Nazi youth culture. In East Germany, leaders did not have to walk any line between honoring political alliances with the United States and rejecting American culture.  East German authorities were therefore free to reject American-style consumerism as cultural imperialism.

But in the competition for which German state could most successfully provide material goods for its populace, West German authorities ultimately saw American consumer culture as a tool against East Germany’s legitimacy.  So, it depoliticized American cultural artifacts.  Going to a rock and roll concert or wearing Wrangler jeans – while still cause for worry about deviant gender norms – was no longer seen as a political rebellion against the West German socio-political structure; it was “simply” cultural.  Leaders adopted new modes of understanding from American psychologists who deemed such rebellion as a temporary, though perfectly normal, phase of life known as adolescence.  Moreover, the “decadent” jazz music was “whitened” and turned into an acceptable, middle and upper class expression of music.

Her book is full of interesting examples of reactions to American cultural artifacts, but Poiger’s greatest contribution is showing how cultural consumption was a system of power plays in both Germanys.  The youth involved sought to forge their own new identities, a new “Germanness,” even though it did not match their parents’ definition.  The quest of West German authorities to depoliticize rebelliousness as a psychological phase was, itself, a political act to establish authority (136).  Moreover, Poiger reveals that while biological (eugenic) racial hierarchies may have been discredited by the Holocaust, eugenic discourse was still deployed in the Germanys to classify cultural artifacts.  American culture, especially African-American culture, was described as “primitive” and “degenerative,” with the potential to ruin German high culture (104), emasculate German men, and enflame hyper sexuality in German women (168).  By the end of the 1950s, this discourse of racial/cultural degeneracy was replaced by psychological understandings of rebellion.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here

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Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Divided Memory

Herf

Herf, Jeffrey.  Divided Memory: the Nazi Past in the Two Germanys.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Herf has written an in interesting and important study of the formation of official memories of the National Socialist regime in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).  Because it is a study of ‘official’ memory, Herf looks at letters, memos, and other documents written by political leaders in both West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR).  In the fifteen years since this book’s publication, the two official memories adopted by the two nations have become well known to scholars: the East downplayed or completely ignored any non-Communist suffering, while politicians in the West debated the place for differing memories of Nazism in the new democracy.  I think that Herf’s greatest contribution is in showing why these “divided memories” emerged.

In order to demonstrate “the significance of political memories for the construction of democracy and dictatorship in post-1945 German history,” Herf brings politics back into the discussion of memory, a topic that is often studied at the individual or “grass roots” level (2).  That is why he seeks to “illustrate the importance of politics for shaping the way a society thinks about its past while at the same timed drawing attention to the autonomous weight that traditions and interpretive frameworks exert on political life” (9).

Herf demonstrates that in East Germany, the main interpretive framework that the reigning Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) offered to its citizens regarding its Nazi past was one in which communists and socialists had fought against the fascist dictatorship.  Communists were at the center of this narrative in every way: as the leaders of the resistance, as the main victims, and eventually as the liberators (via the Soviet Union).  That is why when Communist Party leader Paul Merker returned from exile in Mexico after the war and began speaking about the persecution of Europe’s Jews, it didn’t sit well with the SED leadership.  Merker’s alternative memory, as well as his assertions that the DDR should make restitution payments to victims of Nazi crimes, directly challenged the official memories that the SED offered to the East Germans.  To acknowledge Jews as the prime target of Hitler’s Holocaust would undermine the SED’s official memory, which was the basis for legitimating the SED’s authority.    By 1950, Merker was pushed out of the Party and later convicted and imprisoned, and this symbolizes the “ascendancy of the universalizing and monopolistic rationality over the particularism, in this instance, of stubborn Jewish otherness” (95).

In West Germany, on the other hand, “multiple restorations” of older German traditions of opposition to Nazism arose after 1945.  Allied pressure (via the Nuremberg trials and de-Nazification processes) allowed for the emergence of different ways of establishing memories of the Nazi past.  Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the CDU, though he established the Restitution Treaty with Israel, saw the establishment of a stabile democracy as more important than hunting out every single ex-Nazi and establishing an official memory of the “Final Solution.”  Others, like the first President Theodor Heuss and SPD leader Kurt Schumacher, wanted to more directly confront the Holocaust and the “frightful tragedy of the Jews” (273).

Ultimately, Herf shows that while the German populace (at least in the West) didn’t begin a larger public discussion of their Nazi past until the 1960s and 1970s, German officials on both sides of the divide established official memories early on.  In fact, East and West German officials saw the establishment of an official memory of the Nazi era as vital to the foundation of their respective states.  Moreover, they didn’t start from scratch; they pulled from their older traditions to help establish these new memories.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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