Jaimey Fisher. Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007. 392 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8143-3329-7.
Reviewed by Benita Blessing (Department of History, Ohio University)
Published on H-German (March, 2008)
In Disciplining Germany, Jaimey Fisher addresses the role of youth as actors and symbols in the reconstruction of post-World War II Germany. The phrase "postwar" is of key importance here; Fisher's book joins a growing body of work that calls attention to the "transition" years from National Socialism to the policy and culture in the first years after the war. His approach is compelling: "intellectuals, authors, journalists, and filmmakers" focused on youth symbolically as the group most able to cope with Germany's past and turn the country towards a democratic future (p. 2). Yet, this same interest in youth as the face of a new Germany had also been at the core of Nazi policy. This tension in visions of young people as vessels of hope but also as vessels of "explosive excess," Fisher argues, allowed for public discourse in which the idea of young people became a means of assigning blame for the Second World War, pushing multiple ideological agendas, and even constructing frameworks for "imagin[ing]" different scenarios of postwar construction (p. 88).
That the term reeducation became a catchphrase for myriad attempts to rebuild postwar Germany is undeniable. In the American zone it was used to connote democratization. And when Fisher discusses reeducation in its broadest context of helping a people to rethink one (authoritarian) belief system and exchange it for another (democratic) one, he is on solid ground. His most convincing arguments here revolve around the extended analyses of the essays and speeches of intellectuals such as Karl Jaspers and Ernst Wiechert, with supporting evidence throughout the book from other leading cultural icons (such as Thomas Mann). These scholars set out to identify out the appropriate cultural heritage for Germany to embrace in order to set a direction for the future. Fisher identifies language in these many works that reappropriated the Nazi focus on young people for postwar, democratic needs, both real and symbolic. In his close reading of these many works, Fisher identifies a discourse of generational differences, real and perceived, that allowed adults to talk about themselves and their progeny by framing concerns about the future of young people.
When Fisher uses "reeducation" in a narrower, academic sense, as when he terms education "the last front on which the Germans could fight the Allies," however, his argument becomes less convincing (p. 15). The claim that studies on reeducation ignore the larger cultural context, or that reeducation became a final showdown between Germans and their occupiers is overstated. It is certainly time for new studies on postwar German reeducation policies since the appearance of seminal works like James Tent's study (1982): two decades is more than long enough for scholars to revisit any part of a discipline's canon. But neither Tent's earlier study nor more recent works such as Karl-Heinz Füssl's broad analysis of postwar Germany (1994) isolate reeducation from interconnected, sociopolitical considerations. Interactions between Germans and their occupiers, and debates among Germans themselves, were not stand-offs between a defeated nation trying to maintain dignity and unreasonable demands by occupiers regarding schooling. Educational policymakers in Germany, when discussing schooling throughout postwar Germany, reached back to historical precedents of German school reform as possible models, looked abroad to other nations' school systems, and questioned the very objectives of education. The stakes for the outcomes of these discussions were high, and the realities of implementing these objectives (such as dealing with unheated classrooms in the cold winter months) were a constant source of concern for both Germans and their occupiers, and, although largely absent from Fisher's analysis as agents, young people themselves.
Fisher moves from the very intellectual approaches to the future of German youth to a consideration of the presence of youth in postwar German cinema, West and East. Focusing on a few key films, Fisher demonstrates how the big screen became a place where generational differences--and thus the Nazi past and the postwar present--could be reconciled and, particularly in the East, offered a new model for fatherhood, one that could nurture young people towards constructing a positive future. Fisher provides a refreshing interpretation of these movies, their plots, their actors, and their audiences, without any complicated apologetics about the limits of film in portraying reality. Audiences in these cinemas were watching their past and their present unfold in front of them, along with the screenwriters, producers, and actors who went to great pains to produce great films in the proud pre-World War II cinematic tradition by capturing the essence of postwar German experiences.
Disciplining Germany is a difficult book to categorize easily. Fisher's attempt to begin with high culture discussions of youth and move down to popular cultural arenas is not entirely satisfying; the chapters are discreet enough that the theme of "youth" is not always enough to remind the reader that the many essays are actually part of one larger work. Even the title seems to be a reach; except for the many references to Michel Foucault throughout the book, there is little reason to even suggest the word "discipline" as a motivating influence on intellectuals, such as Jaspers or Mann, or policymakers, whether they Germans or occupiers, to engage in debates about coping with Germany's past and creating a future. The subtitle is a much better description of the book's aims, and provides a more satisfying framework for making sense of the many areas of policy and culture that Fisher addresses. In bringing together many voices concerned with young people in the immediate postwar years, Fisher has written a book that is an important source for better understanding the crucial "transition" years, both in terms of actual events and in recognizing the discourse in which Germans and occupiers couched their concerns and hopes.
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Benita Blessing. Review of Fisher, Jaimey, Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War.
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