Mark Fenemore. Sex, Thugs and Rock'n Roll: Teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007. 277 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57181-532-3.
Reviewed by Mareike Herrmann (College of Wooster)
Published on H-German (April, 2010)
Commissioned by Benita Blessing (Oregon State University)
State Machismo Clashes with Teenage Rebels
In the introduction to his work on youth rebellion in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Mark Fenemore laments that histories of East German youth focus narrowly on the institutions designed to instruct them in socialist ideals of personhood and citizenship. He overstates the case somewhat; recent studies about young people in the GDR have made important contributions to analyzing everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte), such as Uta Poiger's Jazz, Rock & Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (2002) or, through the lens of film, Joshua Feinstein's The Triumph of the Ordinary: Depictions of Daily Life in East German Cinema (2002). Fenemore thus adds to a valuable area of GDR scholarship that examines the instances and nature of East German teenagers' resistance against the state's prescribed notions of leisure and culture. Specifically, Fenemore's objective is to examine young people's nonconformity in East Germany through the lens of gender, sexuality, and race, assessing in particular the construction of masculinity in terms of class as well as the influence of western cultures. His analysis is based upon a wealth of diverse textual and visual sources, such as literature, film, newspapers and magazines, and interviews with an unspecified number of "participants in the various 'scenes' and 'incidents [of rebellion]'" (p. 8). The book's thematic, rather than chronological, approach to analyzing youth styles and subcultures reflects the interweaving of ethnographic practices of thick description with Alltagsgeschichte. The result of this methodology, which Fenemore clearly details in his introduction, allows him to address representations and meanings of the events he studies in a variety of media discourses. Central themes in the book range from analyses of gender, education debates, youth cultures, and street culture, to militarization and representations of male deviance.
Fenemore argues that GDR authorities' policies in the early 1950s regarding western culture alienated many male teenagers from their state. East German young people rebelled when authorities attempted to regulate youths' free time and consumption habits, specifically preventing them from imitating youth culture in the West. By accusing young people of betraying their own culture in favor of a decadent, western, bourgeois culture, however, the state only succeeded in producing a sense of "ambivalence and confusion" in those teens who were, on the hand, attracted to western goods, and on the other hand, loyal to their families and their Heimat in the East (p. 81).
In his exploration of official responses to street culture, Fenemore similarly emphasizes a contradictory, elitist attitude towards working-class street "Meuten" (cliques, or gangs, p. ix). The street gangs' apparent lack of discipline, ambition, or interest in politics troubled the SED significantly. The result merely reified the very culture that the GDR claimed to have abandoned: the party spent increasing amounts of time and energy disciplining workers, pushing them to abandon their leisure time habits in favor of state-sanctioned cultural outlets. Ultimately, the SED, rather than trust its citizens' preferences for leisure-time activities, "became responsible for policing and enforcing conformity with bourgeois norms" (p. 92). Socialism thus appeared unwilling or unable to allow workers a choice in how they lived in a socialist society.
The chapter "Sexing Up Socialism," about reforms in East German youth organizations between the mid-1950s and early 1960s, traces the state's attempts to change its approach to its interactions with youth. Clearly, the state authorities' outdated concepts of youth had led to a generational disconnect between adults and the very teenagers they wanted to win over. New policies aimed for a pragmatic approach to understand young people and their interests as well as demonstrate a (real or pretended) empathy with youth--resulting in the construction and oversight of youth clubs, for example. This new direction did not, however, entirely represent a move away from the state's traditional, authoritarian approach of educating, controlling, and even policing youth into a socialist model of behavior. Typical of this tendency to resort to authoritarian policies when young people acted outside established leisure-time practices was the state's and police's overreaction in their attempt to crush the youth subcultures that developed around rock 'n' roll and bebop. Fenemore suggests that this "excessive politicization by an interfering regime" to so-called rowdyism only resulted in more protest and opposition on the part of GDR youth (p. 151). Furthermore, as Fenemore convincingly argues, the more the state tried to suppress new youth styles and cultures, the more it "came in conflict with the macho ethos that the rockers used to define themselves" (p. 151).
In discussing the militarization of the GDR, Fenemore points out a further contradiction in the GDR's policies towards young people. On the one hand, it claimed that antifascism and equality of the sexes were central aspects of the state's ideology and infrastructure. On the other hand, the military and police force became vehicles for a culture of machismo that the state allowed and even encouraged. This continuity of traditional notions of masculinity permeated other areas of GDR politics and society as well. In the years around and after the erection of the Berlin Wall, for example, the SED insisted that toughness and militarism (in the form of new compulsory service) were part of the masculinity it expected of its male citizens. Yet, the state launched a major program to demonstrate its willingness to work with, instead of against, youth organizations and young people in general (p. 157). Thus the state allowed concessions to certain aspects of mass culture, e.g., in the area of fashion, pop music, film, and youth magazine production. In effect, the state appropriated capitalist products and marketing methods to reach its young citizens, many of whom were part of the new generation that had grown up under socialism. The liberalizations inspired by the youth communiqué of 1963 were infamously rescinded (p. 32). Crackdowns ensued regarding many areas of youth nonconformism: the banning of beat music, a rejection of previous cultural openness, and the announcement of cultural censorship made during the party's Eleventh Plenary of 1965. In his conclusion, Fenemore draws connections between GDR militarism, the culture of machismo, and the antifascist state's lack of having mastered the Nazi past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung), as well as the rise of right-wing extremism in eastern states after unification.
A main weakness of the book is its lack of detail and attention to specifics in the description and analysis of individual instances of youth rebellion. In his otherwise insightful narrative, Fenemore has a tendency to jump from one source to another, without offering specifics about times, locations, or other important information, such as the age and class background of the sources he quotes (for instance, he never introduces the interview partners). Although he documents his sources, the chapter narratives often do not provide adequate details of the particular events and styles he examines. To name one instance, it would be useful to know some details about the decision by the SED to build wall around Clara Zetkin Park, an area where local youth danced to rock 'n' roll music in Leipzig. Fenemore mentions the instance in only one sentence, without dates or description of what happened and how young people responded to the police action. Moreover, Fenemore often cites sources without contextualizing them within the analysis. The decision to allow sources to speak for themselves, without analysis, also contributes to a vagueness regarding Fenemore's argument that is confusing at times. The lack of thorough analysis of literature or film is problematic, given the book's focus on youth culture. Finally, the examination of female sexuality is cursory and superficial, as is true for the few discussions of young women throughout the book.
The strength of Fenemore's study is his ability to tie the history of thaws and freezes in the GDR to the way the state handled youth, particularly male nonconformists. He demonstrates repeatedly the consequences of the SED's failure to respond to young people's interests and concerns, and its tendency to--despite periods of liberalization--react with draconian methods to youth's attention to western popular culture styles. Such attitudes created dissatisfaction, dissent, and distrust in youth organizations, especially amongst young working-class men, eventually contributing to the demise of the state. The book will appeal to scholars and graduate students studying the history of the GDR and youth and serve as a complement to the growing number of studies in GDR Alltagsgeschichte.
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Mareike Herrmann. Review of Fenemore, Mark, Sex, Thugs and Rock'n Roll: Teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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