Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships

Assimilation was key to surviving a succession of Nazi and Communist regimes, as Hester Vaizey finds

July 28, 2011

Imagine living through not just one but two dictatorships, right wing followed by left wing, and then being there to tell the tale after both regimes had collapsed. Citizens of East Germany between 1949 and 1989 were in such a position in 1990 when East and West Germany were formally reunited. But how did these East Germans put their experiences into words, either at the time or subsequently? How did they make sense of what they had been through? These questions are answered in Mary Fulbrook's latest book Dissonant Lives.

Both the Nazi dictatorship between 1933 and 1945 and the communist dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) between 1949 and 1989 had very particular ideas about how their inhabitants should think and behave. Given the severe penalties for deviance from these acceptable norms, most Germans showed chameleon-like qualities as they adapted at least their outward behaviour to the demands of the regime. But since Fascism and Communism are polar opposites on the political spectrum, there was a strong onus on Germans living in the communist GDR to justify their actions under the previous right-wing government. A great deal could rest on how convincing these explanations were. To "get on" socially, politically and professionally in East Germany, particularly as the scale of the Nazi mass murder of the Jews came to light, it was imperative to emphasise one's personal distance from the Third Reich.

In accounting for the disparity between loyalty to the GDR and former actions under Nazism, Germans opted for various explanations. Many East Germans, it seems, claimed to have been "taken in" by the Nazis, remaining unaware of their terrible crimes until very late on, at which point they renounced support for the regime. Others claimed consistency, stating that they had always been against Nazism internally. Germans also emphasised their lack of agency along with the imperatives to conform to Nazi dictates. Fundamentally, however, it was a challenge for East Germans to present a coherent picture of their actions during the Third Reich, for the attitudes and activities encouraged by the Nazis were no longer acceptable in the GDR.

Using first-hand accounts from interviews, diaries, letters and memoirs, Dissonant Lives focuses on the point at which the historical grand narrative meets the lives of individuals. The book delves into the experiences of ordinary people, whose personal accounts give the past a real immediacy. Showing the hallmark of an experienced historian, Fulbrook never exaggerates what her sources can tell us. Indeed, as she acknowledges, "contemporaries are often not the best guides to their own societies and often have little insight into the wider structures within which they live". And yet she is supremely persuasive in showing that, analysed carefully, people's stories reveal changing attitudes and perceptions, as well as shifts in the way people wanted to represent themselves and their actions.

If subjective sources can tease out the ways in which ordinary Germans assimilated the values of the dictatorship in power, and the extent to which people's views were "informed and infused" by the politics of the time, they also underline the fact that people were not just passive pawns of the regime or empty vessels to be filled with propaganda - they were living, thinking, breathing individuals who faced moral choices. Fulbrook gives short shrift to those Germans who later claimed they had no choice in their actions during the dictatorships. Individuals living in either regime, she insists, made active choices about their routes through life. Cutting to the heart of the postmodernist debate about individual agency, Fulbrook addresses the tension between how far people's lives were shaped by big historical events out of their control and how far they were active in shaping that history.

Alongside social and cultural differentiations, Fulbrook convincingly argues that the age at which people experience key historical moments, such as the transitions within German society in 1933, 1945 and 1989, can be a crucial explanatory factor behind an individual or group's "availability for mobilization" by a political party.

The "First War youth generation" for example, the group just too young to fight in the Great War, were particularly driven to restore German pride after the humiliation of Versailles, and were consequently disproportionately involved in the Nazi violence of the early 1930s. The "Second War youth generation", or the so-called "1929ers" or "the generation who built anew", who were only just too young to fight in the Second World War, rejected the Nazi legacy in 1945 and were disproportionately involved in supporting and sustaining the GDR, coming of age as they did with the establishment of the East German state.

Examining experiences of life both in Nazi Germany and in the GDR naturally leads to comparisons between the two regimes. If there were similarities in terms of the high penalties for failing to fall in line with either regime's dictates, there were also significant differences. Dissonant Lives highlights three important distinctions, beginning with the respective longevity of the two regimes' period in power. Fulbrook effectively conveys the process by which German society was fractured by the intrusion of Nazi ideology into daily life. Although this was momentous, it also happened in the space of just 12 years - a relatively compact time frame in comparison to the 40 years that the GDR leadership was in power and infiltrating the mindsets of its inhabitants. Why is this noteworthy? It informs the extent and ease with which ordinary Germans could shed the ideological baggage left by the collapsed regime.

The use of violence under each system is instructive of a second important difference between the two states. Many Germans who lived through the Third Reich later claimed not to have known about the extent of the violence against Jews. They may not have known the scale of the persecution, but they would have encountered smaller-scale instances of anti-Semitic brutality, for this took place on the street and in other public places. In the GDR, by contrast, all were aware of the existence of the Stasi, but the Stasi's activities were far more covert, meaning that the apparatus of terror used in places such as the East Berlin prison Hohenschonhausen was a genuine shock to many East Germans after 1989.

The differing levels of awareness about the violence, as well as the differing lengths of time that the regimes were in power, may help explain the third distinction between the two dictatorships: their respective legacies. While Germans across the board were quick to distance themselves from Nazism after 1945, many former East Germans retain fond memories of life in East Germany, encapsulated in the term "Ostalgie", or "nostalgia for the East". While it was understandably taboo for Germans to say anything positive about a regime responsible for murdering 6 million Jews, former East Germans have been much more vocal in stating that there was a lot more to life in East Germany than the activities of the Stasi. The specific characteristics of each regime, then, are essential to understanding the differing narratives that Germans established in the wake of each dictatorship.

Above all, Fulbrook's thoughtful, erudite research, which examines how Germans made sense of their experiences living in the two German dictatorships of the 20th century, demonstrates how much we can learn from history if we examine the past through the lens of generation, as well as class, race and gender.

The Author

Mary Fulbrook studied archaeology and anthropology, and later social and political sciences, at the University of Cambridge before moving to the US in 1973 to pursue postgraduate studies in history at Harvard University.

In a bid to survive the harsh New England winters she took up cross-country skiing, and recalls enjoying Harvard's atmosphere of debate and intellectual engagement, as well as the muffins and brownies. However, "it took a while to get used to American extroverts ready for instant friendship".

In 1983, she was appointed to a lectureship in history at University College London, where she is now vice-dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and professor of German history. She is fluent in German, reads French, and says she is well enough acquainted with the Cyrillic alphabet to survive the rigours of the Moscow Metro system.

Fulbrook was the first female chair of the German History Society, a post she held from 1996 to 1999, but notes that chairing the governing body of a secondary school in Camden was far more challenging.

"It could at times feel like being mauled by dogs," she says, "while chairing the modern history section of the British Academy is a far more genteel affair - although adjudicating among talented scholars applying for funding is a sobering experience."

Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships

By Mary Fulbrook

Oxford University Press 528pp, £35.00

ISBN 9780199287208

Published 9 June 2011

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