(Note: Most of the links don't work, but if and when I get the time I'll fix them.) This is the introduction to a book that will never be written.
(Note: Most of the links don't work, but if and when I get the time I'll fix them.) This is the introduction to a book that will never be written.
There isn't anything the matter with world civilization, except that humanity is viewing it through a vision impaired in a cataclysmal war. Poise has been disturbed, and nerves have been racked, and fever has rendered men irrational; sometimes there have been draughts upon the dangerous cup of barbarity, and men have wandered far from safe paths, but the human procession still marches in the right direction.
's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. America
—Warren G. Harding, post WW I
My mother, always my severest critic, laughed at me the first time I used the word “normalcy” to talk about what she would have called “normality.” She was thinking of Warren G. Harding’s widely ridiculed 1920 call for the “return to normalcy.” Harding believed that although men had behaved like beasts, they would now return to a civilized existence just as in the good old days and none the worse for their experiences. Such assertions on the brink of the great changes that occurred in the
in the 20th Century seem absurd in retrospect. U.S.
This kind of thinking also colored the exterior of life in post WW II Germany, but the façade was very brittle. There were too many losses, too many bitter memories. While things appeared to be normal, those who had lived through dreadful experiences in the Nazi state as victims and/or perpetrators were often obsessed with past traumatic events. Likewise, in the actual Nazi period, many tried to uphold notions of normality in a world gone mad. Not least of these entities trying to create “normalcy” was the
itself, as Detlev Peukert documents in Inside Nazi Germany. Nazi State
Actually, I think that normalcy is a useful word, like “truthiness,” Stephen Colbert’s coinage used to describe G.W. Bush’s take on the truth. I am defining “normalcy” to mean the appearance of normality in situations where everyday life is under enormous strain, as well as the mass media depictions of everydayness in films, advertisements, etc. Not least were the normalizing attempts of a criminal state to uphold the appearance of an ordinary, if stressed, society where people could work, play, spend, and bring up their families in peace while their rulers attended for them to matters of state. The Nazis did not engage in overt warmongering at the beginning of their regime but rather enticed the public with promises of peace, prosperity and a restoration of German national pride.
The attempts at normalcy in the Third Reich are a clear example of the phenomenon understood in the way I have defined it above. Normalcy also describes the mental state of postwar Germans who demanded the appearance of normality while often feeling very abnormal inside or suffering from severe neurosis.1
It is difficult to understand how anyone living in the conditions of the Third Reich could have carried out the routines of daily life as if nothing substantive had changed after the Nazi takeover. And yet this is exactly what the majority of Germans seem to have done or tried to do.
In German terms, postwar assertions of normalcy could be seen as a protective device for a people thoroughly discredited for losing a war, for exterminating the European Jews, and for causing the deaths of tens of millions of Russians and others. This is a matter thoroughly discussed in several essays gathered together in The Work of Memory, ed. Confino and Fritsche. This collection stresses the ideas of normalcy as they were refined in the minds of Germans after the war to create a certain kind of narrative about German national life and personal life, a narrative which would tend to exonerate Germans both specifically and generally for everything from lapses of conscience to out and out murder.
Since I wrote my Master’s thesis in the early 90’s, research in social psychology has taken great strides in clarifying the issues of memory and forgetting. Much of this kind of work as it pertains to
before WW I through postwar Germany can be found in Colfino and Fritsche’s anthology,The Work of Memory: New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture. And I was delighted to find in the popular online video service, You Tube, a brand new and wonderful resource for the social historian. A trailer I found for the 1975 made for TV film by Eberhard Fechner, Tadellöser & Wolff , is based on the fictionalized autobiography by Walter Kempowski of the same name, the work I studied and wrote about for my MA thesis This clip in not much more than two minutes running time dramatizes the strains of “normalcy” on a family where Gleichschaltung demanded the full participation of all members in the Nazi state. (see the clip here [in German]) 2 Germany
Tadellöser & Wolff, the novel, treats of a normalcy where Father went out in his uniform every day to supervise his crew of Russian slave laborers. Where Mother, a banal Hausfrau, fussed and fretted about the price of groceries while scheming and flattering her daughter’s way out of
, getting her married off to a Danish youth. Where the older son came back from carnage on the Russian front to a nice Christmas holiday at home. Where in the aftermath of the war, the son was commandeered into running family errands and was eventually imprisoned for espionage in Germany , spending seven years of his youth locked away, as is recounted in Kemposwski’s memoir, Im Block. East Germany
This sounds like a terrible time for all concerned, and it was, which might lead one to believe that things ended very badly for the little Kempowski family; however, that is not correct. In postwar
, they have been very successful, regaining the glory of his family name through the writing genius of the son Walter, who is a much respected figure in German letters. Germany
While not aristocrats, the Kempowskis were once important in
as shipbuilders. His mother came from Rostock aristocracy. For the Kempowskis, the loss of their material base, both after WW I and WW II, was a huge tragedy. The death of the paterfamilias on the Front as WW II was ending forced Walter and his brother to become guardians and protectors of their mother and of the family name. Their losses impacted their notions of their very worth in life, leaving them humiliated and degraded in their own minds. His mother was particularly affected, and her grief was what put Kempowski on his life course.3 With enormous effort, Walter Kempowski was able to restore their sense of righteousness. He now owns a huge house filled with memorabilia lovingly cared for. His massive project, Echolot, (Soundings) is a Studs Terkel-like attempt to archive every bit of information from those who lived through the Nazi years and to compile it into a grand narrative. This kind of effort-- to make the past concrete through tangible objects, through possessions-- is quite characteristic of European aristocrats and not something we Americans really understand. We can sell off Grandma’s silver and go adventuring without impacting our most essential sense of self. Hamburg
Furthermore, restoring a sense of a past under the control and with the understanding given to the memories of the people through aristocratic mediation is how a person like Kempowksi would understand his obligation to his homeland and his class. As Marcus Funck and Stephan Malinowski explain in “Masters of Memory: The Strategic Use of Autobiographical Memory by the German Nobility,” (TWM) the German nobility have a “culture of memory” that consists not just of personal and family memories but which demands material evidence: the old family house and woods, the church, the cemetery with the family names, and so on. This is nothing an American like me, a typical hybrid of European heritages, can understand except as an idea. For the Kempowskis, these matters affected them at the deepest level.
In this regard, Kempowski goes to extremes: he demands the restoration of his sense of ownership of a whole life world 4 Kempowksi angrily rejects any interpretation but his of his work. It is his property. And he cannot accept loss but instead compulsively clings to what he regards as his main form of property: his memories and the memories of everyone who lived through the Nazi times. 5
How do these memory devices: of compulsive memory, of denial, of self-serving narratives of suffering and injustice, serve to protect the Nazi past from interlopers? In his indispensable essay, Hildesheim in an Age of Pestilence” On the Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Normalcy,” Andrew Stuart Bergeson identifies normalcy as a historically determined denial strategy the Germans have used to fend off inquiries into the misdeeds of ordinary citizens of the Third Reich. That is, normalcy is not just “what is normal” but a whole set of assumptions about who owns the past and how the past plays into the present.
In Tadellöser & Wolff Kempowski’s mother expressed this refusal well when she said that
did not really lose the war but really had won, because the good people won: the aristocrats, the “good Germans” in other words. This woman re-constructed herself as a covert freedom fighter doing her best by those she loved while war waged around her. She was not the only one to use such a maneuver to evade her personal responsibility for Nazi horrors. Germany
As Bergeson says, .”.we need to historicize normalcy as a category of experience produced in and through specific customs of everyday life.” He shows how the Nazis re-defined “Geselligkeit,” which he translates as “conviviality” in a way that allowed ordinary Germans to feel that they were leading normal lives in the midst of the most grotesque abnormalities. For example, Kinder Küche Kirche propaganda allowed women to believe that they were fulfilling their social obligations by meeting the needs of their families and by attending church services, even as the synagogues were burning and their neighbors were being carried off to be tortured and murdered.
How could Germans have accepted such a state of affairs? Yes, things were very bad for the Germans after WW I, there is no denying that. True, there were periods of prosperity, but it was boom and bust.
was culturally exciting. However, there was much political ferment, especially regarding the hangover from the German defeat in WW I and extreme right-left polarization. And there was the resentment about reparations, which right wing politicos played for all it was worth. Gangs and militias roamed the streets, terrorizing the citizenry. Every single aspect of German life and culture was disputed.So a German looking at the mess his country was in in 1931 might say, "How could it get any worse?" The Nazis might have seemed to the man in the street, or as the Germans put it, the Klofrau von Hannover (the woman who supervises public toilets) as the ideal solution to their problems. Berlin
In Hitler and the Collapse of Weimar Germany the historian Martin Broszat lays out the essential details of the years from 1929-1933, when the Nazi push to power finally succeeded in its goals. Years of preparation were behind what could appear to have been a sudden collapse of democracy. But the problems had been there from the inception of the
. The German nobility and President Hindenberg had never liked parliamentary government and felt it to be a great imposition. To them, the governance of Weimar Republic was clearly their prerogative. They expected to rule as their ancestors had done. They had a long history of stifling dissent. They knew their enemy, or so they thought. City life, especially the city life of Germany then, was corrupt, decadent. For them, all was well and life was good on their massive holdings in Berlin , where they felt that their true souls resided. The old man Hindenberg must have longed to return to his estate (partly purchased with illicitly obtained German tax money) and was no doubt relieved to hand over the reins of leadership to a dynamic man like Hitler, whom he despised as an upstart but yet felt he could control, as did his ally, Papen. If these men had had any feel at all for democracy or the rights of the people, the situation might have been salvaged. But unluckily they were a spoiled, selfish and willful group. East Prussia
Thedore Fontana’s novel, Effi Briest, explores the mentality of this class of men 6 They would have liked a return to the monarchy.Their worldview had not changed at all from the time of this novel's setting. To them, everyone and everything had a place. The affairs of business and the state drew them reluctantly away from their preferred country environment. In a country where most people lived in cities as laborers or on small farms or in small towns, their attachment to this pastoral vision was quaint.
The great pity was that democracy had so few defenders in Post WW I Germany. but was thought of as a imposition foisted on Germans by the victorious allies. It was regarded on the right as an alien ideology imposed on a people who preferred a simple way of life based on trust, obedience, and the good will of the rulers and the ruled. The people to be excluded from this idyll would be the urban Jews, Communists, and any enemies of the bourgeoisie and the nobility. These Germans had more years of misery ahead of them before they learned their lesson on the wisdom of trying to create such a regressive society. And unfortunately, to the Communists, democracy was the Trojan Horse of capitalism, and so they tragically played their part in destroying the
; they failed to stand as a bulwark against the Nazis. And the people in the middle, the democrats, seemed weak and vacillating . Weimar Republic
It took another world war and another defeat to teach them their lesson. Today, German democracy is so solid that it has even withstood the strains of the Wende, the re-unification. The current chancellor, Angela Merkel, a middle of the road politician from the former
, presents a picture of Bürgerliche common sense moderation to the world. Although racism and anti-Semitism still cause problems today, especially among alienated young men in the broken down industrial areas of Prussia, who in this way do not differ much from similar youth in Poland, these disturbances are no worse than such events in “the world’s oldest democracy,” the United States, or in many other places. East Germany
has become a “normal” country. Few active participants in the Nazi state are still living. Only the victims and their descendents seem to think much about that era these days. So why not move on and forget about all this? It is because fascism remains a threat to democracy and therefore and needs to be carefully analyzed and understood. Germany
I want to say up front that one of my aims here is to attempt an analysis of how the devices used to protect the German reputation after the war resemble American tendencies in this direction. Critics who cry “Nazi” and “Fascism” at right wing attempts to curtail civil liberties and take away other American freedoms are often accused of going too far. But I want to use the historical advantage, the 20/20 hindsight that the failure of the
can give us. I am specifically interested in the attempts at normalizing bizarre phenomena such as born-again Christianity, analogous to the Hitler cult, the unprecedented takeover and “privatization” of public goods and institutions, akin to Gleichschaltung, and the perpetual mobilization for war competing with the need to provide a comfortable way of life for the masses in order to fend off effective dissent. I will have more to say about Gleichschaltung later in connection with Bush’s attempts to bring all aspects of American life into conformity with his agenda. Nazi State
has today is normalcy on the home front vying with the interminable war in U.S. . After all, isn’t a safe and prosperous existence at home, even with the ever-present orange alert warnings in airports and the general air of alarm promulgated by the mass media and the constant refreshing of memories of 9/11, a bit strange? This war that is damaging the reputation of the Iraq and causing billions of dollars and hundreds and thousands of lives? That is destabilizing the U.S. Middle Eastin ways that may never be set right?
Certainly, leftists as well as returning soldiers have long been aware of the cacophony. Today, most Americans as I write this in this summer of 2007 are at least worried and concerned about the direction this country is going in. But the proverbial American lack of historical perspective works against us.
Take for example the convenient forgetting of the horrible Gulf War I, which I’ll wager very few Americans today give more than a passing thought to. We have put that destruction so far into the past-- the highway of death, the burning oil fields-- that it could have happened 100 years ago, and yet the buildup and the war took place in 1990-91, practically yesterday. And here we are again, waging another war on the same people. How did this happen? And how can any American believe in normal life considering the situation we live in today, where the strains are so obvious but not talked about? Or at any rate not understood in any profound way? This is what my concern will be here.
How, then, to imaginatively re-create the lifeworld of Nazi Germany in order to get some perspective on the tendencies toward fascism, masked as normalcy, which are affecting us today in this country? What are the resources at hand?
Hitler and the Collapse of
Weimar . Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Germany , 1984. Munich Tr. Berg St.Martin’s Press, , 1987. New York
Confino, Alon, Fritzsche, Peter, eds.
The Work of Memory: New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture. Board of Trustees of the
, 2002. Universityof Illinois
Fontana, Theodore. Effi Briest
Peukert, Detlev J.K.
Volksgenossen und Gemeinschaftsfremde: Anpassung, Ausmerze, undAufbegehren unter dem Nationalsozialismus. Bund Verlag Gmbh, Cologne.
Tr. Inside Nazi
: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life. B.T. Batsford Ltd; Germany Press, Yale University , 1987. New Haven
Tadellöser & Wolff. Revised edition, 1978 (?) Goldman Verlag,
1 An example: I once knew German man who had been put on the front lines just as the war was ending, at age 14. He was obsessed with his neck. He felt it was very large and ugly, so he kept it covered with a scarf at all times. This notion interfered with his ability to have a normal relationship. Although he desperately wanted to marry and have a family, he was sure no woman would want him because of his disfigurement. Of course, there was nothing at all unusual about his neck.
2 I must confess that I find this depiction repellant in the extreme and the people impossible to sympathize with. It is a masterful piece of reconstruction, one of the most telling portrayals of people living a lie that I have ever seen. I did not feel that way about these people as depicted in Kempowski’s novel, however. Somehow he hooked me into a certain sympathy for their narrow, fear dominated lives. I was not so sure that living when and where they did I would have behaved any differently.
3 At the psychological level I discern a man who tried to please his bleiche Mutter, risking his life in the effort, spending all those years as a young man in prison. His relationship to woman must have suffered greatly. His pure mother, who would never let him kiss her on the mouth, contrasts with the seductive or rejecting girls and women he encountered outside the family. His one true love was his sister, Ulla. Klaus Theweleit discusses the bleiche Mutter and her relationship to fascism in Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies.
4 There is a terrific set piece in Tadellöser & Wolff of the young Walter at dinner with his old maternal grandfather, whom he describes in off putting detail, as if to restore this relic, a man long dead.
5 I believe his sense of loss also has to do with his inability to win his mother’s love. But I am avoiding psychological interpretations here.
6 And public life in
was exclusively a “Männerwelt.” Women barely existed in the public sphere. Under an 1851 Prussian law, woman had been expressly forbidden from attending political meetings or participating in any kind of poliical activity. They were granted the vote in 1918 but for reasons of custom and the general attitudes of the day toward women, few became politically active. Germany
© 2007, Marianna Scheffer