Posts Tagged With: west germany

Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit

"The Past that Doesn't Want to Pass Away."

“The Past that Doesn’t Want to Pass Away.”

Evans, Richard J. “The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the West German Historikerstreit,” in The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 59, No. 4 (Dec. 1987): 761:797.

In this article, Richard Evans weighs in on the debate among historians in West Germany over the path of modern German history. Evans begins by showing that this isn’t the first time that historians have quarreled over interpretations of the past, but he reveals that the Historikerstreit (“historians’ quarrel”) of the mid-to-late 1980s spilled over from academia into the public realm as well. The controversy was sparked by historian Ernst Nolte’s article “The Past That Will Not Pass Away” that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemine Zeitung in June 1986. In his article, Nolte argued that it was time to quit viewing Germany’s history in absolute, black-and-white terms, and start painting in shades of grey. By this, Nolte specifically meant that people should not view the Holocaust as a unique atrocity in history, instead arguing that the Soviets had actually done this all before in their Gulags (even if they didn’t use the same method of gas chambers). Similarly, in an earlier book, Nolte argued that Auschwitz could be seen as an attempt to solve problems connected with industrialization (underemployment, racial tensions, etc.) by means of disposing of large numbers of people (767). Evans dismisses both of these arguments (Soviet Gulag as model for the Nazi Final Solution, and Auschwitz as outcome of the problems of industrialization) as a “generalization so extreme as to be virtually meaningless” (768).

Nolte is not the only target of Evans’ critique, though. He then turns to a recent book written by historian Andreas Hillgruber, in which Hillgruber argues that the German catastrophe (the complete and utter destruction of Germany in 1945) belongs alongside the Jewish catastrophe of the Holocaust. Both of these together constitute a “European catastrophe” and an example of a larger resettlement of European populations. “Thus the destruction of Prussian and the German Reich really does appear in Hillgruber’s book as comparable to the destruction of the European Jews” (777). Evans points out that comparing Germany’s military loss at the hands of the Allies with the systematic murder of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis is again a gross oversimplification that does not take motivation into account. Moreover, Evans and others (including Jürgen Habermas) even criticized Hillgruber’s language in his book; Hillgruber speaks of the destruction of Germany, “a violent process enforced against active opposition,” but only of the end of European Jewry, “a term that suggested an almost spontaneous process neither actively willed nor actively resisted” (774).

The last part of Evans’ article deals with why the Historikerstreit of the 1980s resounded so powerfully in German society. He reminds us that history is often not only about the past, but is about the present and future, as well. After German politics and the German historical profession took a conservative turn in the 1980s (CDU Helmut Kohl elected Chancellor in 1982), it’s no wonder that we see historians trying to write a more agreeable national history for Germany, Evans posits. If these conservative historians can downplay the unique nature of the Holocaust by comparing it to other atrocities performed by other nations, West Germany could potentially step out from Hitler’s long shadow (783). Evans then spends pages showing how the Kohl administration, through media campaigns and tours, sought to craft a national history that Germans could be proud of, one in which the role of the Third Reich was not forgotten, certainly, but downplayed (786-792).

Concluding, Evans states, “Unproductive though the Historikerstreit may be in terms of its contribution to historical knowledge, it does provide a stimulus toward reflection on the nature of German historical scholarship, the historian’s role in society, and Germany’s place in the world” (792). Nearly thirty decades after Evans is writing, today we can see the Historikerstreit as an important development in the West German Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

For more works on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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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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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. 

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Die Suche nach Sicherheit

Conze

Conze, Eckart.  Die Suche nach Sicherheit: eine Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland von 1949 bis in die Gegenwart.  Munich: Siedler, 2009. 

In Die Suche nach Sicherheit, Eckart Conze has written a comprehensive history of the Federal Republic of Germany that ranges from its foundation in 1949 to 2009, the year this work was published.  At over one thousand pages and covering topics from politics, society, culture, and the economy, Conze’s book is a Gesamtdarstellung of the history of the Federal Republic.  The book proceeds chronologically, but within this chronological framework, Conze employs a thematic approach, dedicating chapters to particular themes such as “Modernization in the Reconstruction,” “Security and Stability,” and “the Search for Identity and New Optimism.

The leitmotif of Conze’s book – as the title suggests – is the Germans’ search for security, certainty, and safety. “Die Geschichte der Bundesrepublik ist bestimmt von der Suche nach Sicherheit,” he writes (15).  Since the foundation of the Federal Republic, every administration and every political party has taken security as the goal of their politics.  In the Adenauer Era, stretching from 1949 to 1963, the focus was on securing stability for the newly-formed nation.  Political and civilian institutions had to be reestablished, all under the pressures of the Cold War. The American-Soviet binary put the divided Germany right at the center of the tense political climate.  Therefore, the ‘search for security’ during the 1950s was the search for military and physical safety, along with a sense of autonomy.

By 1965, Conze notes, contemporary observers felt that life had finally become more normalized, or at least stabile.  The Cuban missile crisis had subsided and West Germans were able to focus more on family life and their careers. But 1968 revealed that this sense of security and stability was a farce.  Though Conze asserts that the social revolt symbolized by the year 1968 constitutes the second formative stage of the Federal Republic’s history, he shows that the social revolutions of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not specifically a German phenomenon by situating 1968 in an international context (333).  The result of this tumult was that the 1970s was a period focused on internal security for West Germans.

The economic crises of the late 1970s, as well as the increasing importance of international security politics (NATO armament) in the 1980s forced Germans to, yet again, acknowledge that their futures depended on global factors; therefore, they were not the masters of their own destiny.  Conze speaks of a “return of history,” of an increased interest in German history in the late 1970s that was caused by the loss of a sense of certainty for their own future (655).  The reunification of Germany in 1990 gave Germans a new sense of security as a united nation, but revealed internal tensions between “Wessis” and “Ossis.”  The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 revealed that nation states were not the only source of danger, and that nation states could not always protect its citizens from global terror networks.  The book ends with the conclusion that the economic reform package passed in Germany was not just meant to fight off rising unemployment or rising debt. “It’s about the stabilization of commonwealth and the cohesion of the society.  It’s about trust in the government and the promises of protection by the state. It’s about security” (936).

Beyond giving readers a new analytical framework through which to understand the history of the Federal Republic, Conze also offers a warning against viewing its history as a teleological path towards reunification or a “long path towards the West,” as it has often been portrayed after 1990.  He drives this point home by quoting histories from the late 1980s that still portrayed “ratlosigkeit” or having no sense of where German history would go from there (11).

 

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

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Male Homosexuality in West Germany

Whisnant

 

Whisnant, Clayton J.  Male Homosexuality in West Germany: Between Persecution and Freedom, 1945-69.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 

 

Subject: A re-evaluation of male homosexual life in Germany between the end of World War II and the start of the gay liberation movement in the 1970s.

Main Points:  Whisnant argues that historians of German sexuality have too often overlooked the twenty five years after the end of the Second World War in their study of significant moments in homosexual life in Germany.  There is a bourgeoning historiography on homosexuality under the Nazi regime and scholars have given ample attention to the start of Germany’s “second gay rights movement” that began in the arly 1970s.  Indeed, modern gay rights activists have mostly overlooked the 1950s and 1960s and placed their roots with the “first” gay rights movement led by the likes of Magnus Hirschfeld at the turn of the twentieth century.  But in this book, Whisnant shows that homosexuals, homophiles, and gay men (he uses the popular contemporary term for each decade) in the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s actually set the stage for the flashpoint of the “second gay rights movement” that began in the 1970s, even if their movements were less radical than those of the gay rights/liberation movements.

In particular, Whisnant identifies three major contributions that the period between the 1940s-1960s made, which the homosexual movements and gay scenes of the 1970s era (and later) would build:  1) First, the time between the 1940s and 1960s was an era in which gay scenes were re-established after being virtually destroyed by the Nazis during the 1930s and early 1940s (Whisnant talks about “scenes” rather than “sub-cultures” because “scenes” better illustrates how fluid and diverse these spaces were.)  He shows how gay scenes arose in many of West Germany’s larger cities: West Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne.  In the 1950s, Hamburg was able to surpass Berlin as the major gay hot spot in Germany until a renewed police campaign repressed these scenes.  2) Second, this period witnessed a transformation of the concept of homosexuality, allowing for a masculinized vision of same-sex desire to become widespread.  While the effeminate Tunte (fairy) did not disappear, a new “normal” homosexual man (usually referred to himself as a “homophile”) became the dominant stereotype of homosexuality.  This allowed new opportunities for self-identification among same-sex desiring men, but society and the state latched on to this image with negative consequences for gay men: now the state was able to portray the homosexual who preys on the youth as being able to blend in as a “normal” man.  3) Third, this period ended with the reform of Paragraph 175, which signaled the start of Germany’s gay liberation movement.  Whisnant argues that this reform (which decriminalized homosexual acts between men as long as both were 21 or over) should not be seen as the inevitable culmination of a general process of sexual liberation happening over the twentieth century.  Instead, he convincingly shows how a transformation of legal thought (not only about homosexuality in particular) allowed for the reform of Paragraph 175 and the formation of the modern gay rights movement.

My Comments:  Whisnant’s book is incredibly helpful for my research, because it is essentially the “prequel” to my period of study.  It helps contextualize how the West German gay liberation movement was able to emerge so suddenly in 1969-71.  He shows that while knowledge of the Stonewall riots played a role, it was the reform of Paragraph 175 that allowed for the movement in Germany to flourish without fear of legal reprisal.  While his description of the 1940s and 1950s is incredibly interesting (especially the particular importance that homosexual publications held in West Germany), I think Whisnant’s greatest contribution is his chapter on the reform of 175.  He shows that, beginning in the 1950s, a reevaluation of “the homosexual” took place that led to both more repression by moral conservatives, but also the chance for more freedom.  This push for more freedom came from “progressive attorneys, doctors, scientists, Christian theologians, politicians, and other public figures who saw the decriminalization of homosexuality as a key aspect of a much more comprehensive transformation in West Germany’s system of criminal law” (168).  Moreover, this was somewhat of a moderate “project” to redefine Western liberalism in the face of the new radical Left and the Right.  Therefore, this reform was the fruit of policy makers, not from “grass roots” activists.

At least in my mind, this changes the way I contextualize the gay rights movement that erupted in West Germany in the following two years.  According to Whisnant’s view (if I understand it correctly), these activists were more the heir of political reform rather than the instigators of it.   This is a very good book, one which I recommend highly.

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

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