Panikos Panayi. Life and Death in a German Town: Osnabruck from the Weimar Republic to World War II and Beyond. London u.a.: I.B. Tauris, 2007. 360 S. 90 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84511-348-3.
Reviewed by Drew Bergerson (Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City)
Published on H-German (July, 2008)
National History Locally Illustrated
Panikos Panayi begins his history of everyday life in Osnabrück from 1929 to 1949 by asking whether a study of another provincial German town is really necessary (p. 3). His book is different, he argues in his introduction, because his Alltagsgeschichte extends before 1933 and beyond 1945 while considering all of the different ethnic groups in a representative German town. Emphasizing the "dramatic ... impact of Nazism on inter-ethnic relations" (p. 251), Panayi describes how changing economic, social, and political circumstances beyond Osnabrück influenced the lives of a wide range of inhabitants. I am left rather unsatisfied by the kind of Alltagsgeschichte, however, where the everyday is described as little more than the object of state policies.
This study is best understood as a history of the "long" Third Reich told through the window of Osnabrück. Panayi periodizes these two decades based on high politics: the end of the Weimar Republic and the Great Depression; the National Socialist regime at peace; the Second World War; and the immediate postwar period. Beginning each chapter with a survey of national policies and global events, Panayi describes in remarkable detail the impact of these exogenous events on economic, political, and social life in Osnabrück. In this microhistory written as histoire totale, the author treats each group separately: the ethnic majority population of Germans--which he also differentiates in terms of class, genders, age, and party affiliation--as well as Jews, Romanies, German refugees, forced workers, and prisoners of war. Panayi makes skillful use of the historiographic literature to compare Osnabrück to national trends and to identify deviations: for instance, in the appearance in the late Weimar period of a competing fascist leader, Dr. Heinrich Schierbaum, and his publication, the Stadtwächter. Where the local source base is insufficient, Panayi usually does his best to fill in gaps in what most likely happened on the local level using comparable local or national studies. A national history locally illustrated, this volume could easily be assigned to undergraduates as a change of pace from the standard Nazi surveys. Panayi does not deviate in any significant way from that existing narrative.
Yet this book is less of an analytic history and more of a chronicle: an accounting of things that happened to and in Osnabrück as a result of external pressures. Panayi blames economic crises, Nazi policies, and Allied bombers for disrupting the "normalcy" of everyday life (pp. 26-33, 43-50, 68, 124) and believes that postwar Osnabrückers were successful in reconstructing that "normalcy" by the late 1940s (chapters 5 and 10) without critically investigating what that quality of the everyday might mean in shifting political regimes. By the spring of 1945, these ordinary Germans "found themselves homeless, jobless, and hungry" (pp. 109, 148, 247): but they do not seem to have authored their own fate in any way. Panayi concedes historical agency to local elites, like Erwin Kolkmeyer, a key figure in the Kristallnacht, or isolated local bureaucrats, many not Osnabrückers by birth, who exceeded their mandate. In the final analysis, however, it was the Nazi regime that "Nazified and racialized a significant percentage of the population" (p. 93). Within his analysis of everyday experience, the author draws careful distinctions between degrees of suffering. For instance, while Germans may have suffered from Allied bombings and forced deportation, they lived to see prosperity; the Jewish or Romany victims of Nazi persecution did not (p. 163). Nonetheless, Panayi's focus on everyday experience at the expense of everyday agency serves to efface the very different degrees of responsibility for these human tragedies. He is correct that the bombers of Allied liberators were irresponsibly "callous" in their disregard for human life, but his "balanced" analysis awards them an equal measure of responsibility for the deaths of forced laborers along with the Nazi regime that enslaved them in the first place (p. 234). Wholly absent from this account are the "Aryans" of Osnabrück who conquered and destroyed much of Europe with impunity and benefited for years from the exploited labor and appropriated properties of other nations.
Part of the problem seems to be the very conservative scope he allows himself in interpreting his sources. Panayi uses interviews largely as illustration, rather than as sources that can add their own particular perspective to the work of historical interpretation. He also tends to take his sources at face value (as on pp. 49, 64-65, 190), as if journalists, bureaucrats, chroniclers, and other authoritative accounts deserved no skepticism from the historian. So, for instance, he seems to accept the Nazis at their word when they claim that, by 1939, it was their policies that were primarily responsible for economic recovery, and after the war, that the local bureaucrats responsible for deporting Jews really did not know about the fate awaiting them in the East. Another part of the problem is that his otherwise integrative analysis of everyday life completely ignores cultural perspectives. Panayi treats ethnicities as static, self-evident categories, rather than historical constructs whose definition is constantly being contested and negotiated. Yet relations between "Germans" and these various in-migrants from eastern Europe during the 1940s were influenced both by policies from "above" (p. 221) as well as ways of being, believing, and behaving "from below"; and not only through direct social relations but also through cultural imaginations in absentia. It is impossible to fully appreciate inter-ethnic relations during this tumultuous period of one social engineering project after another without a parallel appreciation for the dynamic practices through which ordinary people negotiated the porous boundaries between self and other, accepting the humanity of some and relegating others to the management of a terrorist regime.
In the case of native Osnabrückers who were German but not refugees, Panayi shifts his story abruptly from how the regime Nazified them during the 1930s to how the Allies bombed them in the 1940s. Ignored entirely are the violent "inter-ethnic" deeds of Osnabrückers done during their war for Lebensraum. Establishing these connections is hard to do with a community study, admittedly; at many other stages in his narrative, however, Panayi uses the wider historiography to great effect to fill in these crucial gaps in local sources. The absence of a similar reliance on the extensive critical literature concerning the role of ordinary Aryans in the war, as workers, soldiers, occupiers, and executioners, is thus surprising. It is much easier to sympathize with the 1,433 Osnabrück victims of Allied bombing (p. 96), and the 5,000 dead or missing German soldiers (p. 109), out of a population of 94,700 in 1930 (p. 13) if we ignore the role of Osnabrückers in creating this German tragedy through their support--ranging from the proactive to the de facto--for a criminal regime bent on world conquest: that is, in making "death on a massive scale" into "part of everyday life" (pp. 105-107). Instead, Panayi relegates the question of inter-ethnic relations almost entirely to the third section of his book on ethnic minorities. This rhetorical strategy wholly ignores decades of theoretical and historical scholarship demonstrating the crucial role of oppressed and excluded minorities in the construction of majority identities. He similarly limits the question of victims--Jewish, Romany, or otherwise--to those minorities who had resided in Osnabrück in the 1930s, as if Osnabrückers had no part in the murder and oppression of millions of Europeans outside of the city. Taken together, one has the sense while reading this book that the majority of native, ethnic Germans in Osnabrück had nothing whatsoever to do with Nazi violence on an everyday basis.
Panayi is a talented researcher. His book is wonderfully detailed when it comes to Osnabrück history. His research is truly impressive in terms of the amazing scope of sources that he addresses to reconstruct local events. And he tells this story in easy-to-read prose. This book no doubt will serve in the future as the authoritative chronicle of Osnabrück in this period. But as a history of everyday life, Panayi's volume does not satisfy. His Osnabrück illustrates a preexisting historiographic tradition based on the view from the center; it offers no new interpretation of German history from below or even really from its provincial margins.
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Drew Bergerson. Review of Panayi, Panikos, Life and Death in a German Town: Osnabruck from the Weimar Republic to World War II and Beyond.
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