Forever young, forever revolting

Generations in Conflict

August 22, 1997

Youth revolt and German history make an obvious, yet in English strangely neglected, coupling. As the first collection to attempt to make this connection over the two centuries since the Sturm und Drang of German romanticism, this is a most welcome volume. In Germany, from the romantics onwards, "youth" has been cherished as the reservoir of idealism, purity and regeneration, imparting at times a quasi-official sponsorship to rebellion by the young.

A further reason for studying German history in generational terms is that its modern political upheavals have taken place in virtual generational cycles: the 1848 revolutions; the wars of unification; the rise of mass politics in the 1890s; the first world war and the 1918 revolution; the Nazi seizure of power of 1933; following the complete defeat of 1945, the occupation and formation of two separate states; and, in West Germany, the 1968 student revolt. Arguably, political generations in modern Germany were more distinct than in any other major European country.

This cyclical quality to the abrupt and violent dislocations of German history, in which the young always seem to have been over-represented, prompted Karl Mannheim to argue for the need to conceptualise the clustering of social values and experience in generational terms back in 1928. And it is on his own period, the epoch of the so-called "front generation" who returned from war in 1918, that so much attention has hitherto been focused. This too is not straightforward. Elizabeth Harvey points out in her essay that the young were at least as politically split as any other social group. Both "youth" and the "front generation" became powerful symbols in Weimar, attracting many who were too young to have experienced more than the home front themselves.

If the gap between cult and reality is so great, does this mean that we are mistaken to think in generational terms at all? Much as the Nazis may have decried such attitudes as Weimar decadence, as Dagmar Reese shows, the flat shoes, short hair and greater physical assertiveness of young women was sustained through the 1930s. In a fascinating study of the role of the Hitler youth generation in postwar reconstruction in both Germanies, Alexander von Plato argues also for a cohort-specific set of values which survived the collapse of their original political ideals. All of this suggests that generations do develop their own codes, but these fit neither a straightforward political chronology nor the neat patterns of discourse and propaganda.

Heinz Bude takes Georg Baselitz's painting "Die Nacht im Eimer" - a boy standing alone, sorrowfully grasping his enormous penis - as a symbol of the mentality of the 1968 generation. He explores their revolt against the authoritarianism of the Adenauer years as a displaced rebellion against their parents: displaced, because as war children many of the '68ers would have already witnessed their parents' extreme vulnerability and sought, not to challenge them, but to protect them from the world.

Mark Roseman, in an incisive and imaginative introductory essay, asks how willing older generations were to be challenged. Where they were not willing, as in the 1950s, then youth did not succeed. But where the older generation had lost confidence in its own values and institutions, as in 1933 and, to a considerable extent, in 1968, then "youth" was pushing at an open door. This may give us a yardstick for measuring its consequences: it is not the young alone who make the politics of youth. Rather, "youth" is always a collusive creation, crossing the generational divide. As long as the older and middle generations retain enough confidence to remain flexible in their attitudes, then the fateful cycle of youthful challenges is unlikely to be repeated. This is a lucid and thought-provoking collection, one of those increasingly rare edited volumes which is far more than the sum of its parts.

Nicholas Stargardt is lecturer in modern European history, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Generations in Conflict: Youth Revolt and Generation Formation in Germany, 1770-1968

Editor - Mark Roseman
ISBN - 0 521 44183 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 314

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