Reviewed by Steven P. Remy (Department of History, Brooklyn College CUNY)
Published on H-German (September, 2003)
The Landscape of Lost Narratives
The Landscape of Lost Narratives
With Shattered Past, Konrad Jarausch and Michael Geyer have produced a work that will be of enduring value to scholars and students of Germany's twentieth century. Their central contention is that there is no "master narrative" appropriate to understanding Germany's tumultuous recent past. Instead, the authors see it as a landscape fractured both literally and figuratively and marked by multiple intersecting narratives "revolving around a central problem--fundamentally, the extraordinary difficulty of an emergent nation in finding a way of living together, in generating a civic culture to unite a diverse society, and in developing viable forms of participatory and peaceful politics" (p. x). Embarking from this premise, then, how should historians approach the study of modern German history? Whose "stories" get told, and how do scholars make sense of them in the broader context of European and global history?
Shattered Past is the result of over ten years of reflection on both the events of 1989-1990 and the challenge posed to historians by postmodernism. As for the former, the collapse of communism and unification not only seemed to bring the twentieth century to a close but also turned the Cold War and the two Germanys into discrete historical subjects. As to the latter--has the postmodern challenge left anything useful to historians in its wake? The authors appear to have answered in the affirmative, mainly because of their "incredulity toward metanarratives," as Jean-Francois Lyotard put it in 1984 and whose definition of the "postmodern condition" the authors cite approvingly (p. 38). Yet Jarausch and Geyer do not fault the master narratives of twentieth-century German history because they believe that narratives per se are illegitimate ways of describing the past, as Lyotard and others do, but because they hold that such narratives cannot adequately explain the complexity of the past or the remarkable process of rupture and reassembly that lies at the heart of Germany's twentieth century. The principle strength of Shattered Past, then, lies not in its attempted reckoning with the postmodern challenge but in its series of masterful historiographical syntheses and the roadmap it provides to historians as they construct new narratives.
The book is divided into three parts, with the first devoted to an autopsy on the master narratives, the second to an examination of broad topics that dominate much of twentieth-century Germany's historical landscape, and the third reserved for reflections on the century's dramatic swings from promise to catastrophe and back to promise. As for the national narrative, the rise and fall of which is a familiar story, the authors recommend its historicization or sublimation to local history or the study of marginalized groups and transnational phenomena while simultaneously cautioning against losing sight of "shared experiences" and the "complex interrelatedness" that can be characterized as "German" (pp. 54-60). The authors also recount the failure of the Marxist "counternarrative" to "create an emancipatory history" (p. 61). Corrupted by dictatorship and insulated from methodological innovation, the former GDR's historians left behind a body of largely worthless politicized scholarship that is now little more than "an arcane subject for historiographical analysis" (p. 76). The history of the GDR itself, however, is another matter and the authors argue for a "critical historicization" that ignores neither the reality of the police state nor the "the relative normalcy of people's lives within it" (p. 81). Further, they argue that the failure of the Marxist counternarrative should not discourage historians from pursuing another version of "emancipatory" history by reconsidering working-class history and "rethink[ing] German histories from the margins to [i.e., women, religious groups, "guest workers," homosexuals] to decenter received conceptions of what it meant to be German at a given time" (p. 83). Here it seems that the authors are conflating the overt political agenda of GDR Marxist historiography, which was aimed in theory at the "emancipation" of the working class and in practice at the perpetuation of dictatorship, with the idea of a historiography "emancipated" from the constraints of exclusionary master narratives. That the aforementioned methodological innovations and the emergence of social and cultural history had served this latter purpose in the non-communist west for some time before 1989 makes the authors' attempted linkage sound like a mildly forced effort to salvage something of intellectual value from the wreckage of the former East Germany. Their point, however, that counternarratives should also serve as a necessary corrective to post-Cold War "myopic self-congratulation" is a sound one (p. 84).
The West German modernization narrative also served an emancipatory purpose in that it offered a clean break with National Socialism and hope for a peaceful future as the BRD was joined to the Cold War community of western democracies. Jarausch and Geyer fault the modernization paradigm on the familiar grounds of its narrowness, presentism, and teleological nature. They also note the nearly fatal blows delivered by the linguistic turn, the revolutions of 1989, and the emergence of cultural history. It is this last development that the authors consider the most promising basis for a "post-Sonderweg" historiography, as "[t]he new cultural historians have pointed out that even within structural constraints, consciousness remains important; that is, crucial questions revolve around how people experience a situation and what they do as a result of this reflection" (p. 104). Broadening the scope of inquiry and analysis, they hope, will bring the "astounding multiplicity of individuals and groupings in Central Europe" to "the forefront of historical reconstruction" (p. 106).
After having relegated the master narratives to the historiographical dustbin, the authors single out seven broad themes of scholarly inquiry for close examination in the hope that they will "serve as guideposts in deciphering the shifting map of territories and people that make up the twentieth century German past" (p. 18). The themes selected--war and genocide, "the totalitarian temptation," the decline of German power, mobility and migration, the redefinition of national identity, the shifting status of women, and the "pursuit of happiness" in consumption, mass culture, and consumerism--so dominated German history since the late-nineteenth century that viewing them outside master narratives should encourage historians to "reassemb[le] the fragments of a central European past into new patterns," which I take to mean the creation of the new narratives needed to navigate the extremes of Germany's past (p. 18).
It is appropriate that the authors begin with the nadir of western civilization--war and genocide. They see Hitler's war aims as comprising the "conquest, subjection, and eradication of eastern European identities," the provision of settlement "space" for Germans, and (once the Soviet Union had been conquered) the attainment of true "global power" status (pp. 144-45). In the process, Germans themselves were to be "remade" racially, above all into a "body politic excised of both Jewish influence and Jewish persons" (p. 146). The authors explore the competing historiographical debates over the place of anti-Semitism, decisions made in Berlin versus local developments in occupied Eastern Europe, timing, orders and culpability. While granting that viewing the Holocaust as "the outcome of deliberate action by identifiable groups of people to remake society and the world" is appropriate, they add that:
"there is sound reason to distinguish the Holocaust within the context of a more encompassing genocidal politics of the Third Reich and, for that matter, among the universality of modern genocides. But the time and the place of the Holocaust were set in a politics of war that aimed at (re)generating the body politic and remaking the world through violence. One without the other makes as little sense as a history of the Holocaust without both Germans and Jews" (p. 121).
Drawing on Christian Gerlach's work, the authors propose that Hitler's December 1941 intervention in Reinhard Heydrich's ongoing killing operations made the attempted systematic murder of all Jews "a strategic imperative" of Germany's war. Here Jarausch and Geyer call attention to the consequences of a fully formed "catastrophic nationalism." A visceral sense of vulnerability apparent within the ranks of the nationalist right before World War I had been greatly inflamed by racist anti-Semitism, the postwar experiences of defeat, revolution, perceived national humiliation, the new Soviet menace, and territorial losses. Ultimately, the Nazis' response was "a whole series of final solutions, which all amounted to one choice--either constitute a German people by force or cease to exist at all" (p. 148). But as Hitler's war for territorial and ethnic expansion in the east began to falter his December 1941 intervention appears to be not only an expression of "momentary exasperation in a critical moment of the war" but also "the deliberate pursuit of a final solution that remade Germans into a race of masters as the ultimate act of war, the assertion of superiority through the elimination of the Jews" (p. 147). The result was an unprecedented and singular instance of genocide, vast physical destruction across the continent, and, for the Germans, a national catastrophe.
How did "ordinary Germans" come to support dictatorships of the right and left, and how did Germans in the Bundesrepublik then go on to create a stable democracy? While conceding the importance of coercion emphasized by the totalitarian framework, the authors also note the significance of "large-scale and partially voluntary compliance from below" (p. 158), such as denunciation, volunteerism, countless daily negotiations between ruler and the ruled, and "the partly enthusiastic, partly reluctant, decisions of millions of individuals to keep themselves in line" (p. 166). Historians should not, they add, shy away from investigating the significance of each dictatorship's symbolic and material successes and their implications for public support (pp. 159-62). Regarding the postwar political success of the BRD, Jarausch and Geyer recite the familiar litany of military defeat, occupation, what Jeffrey Herf termed the return of previously defeated democratic traditions and Adenauer's policies of integration with the west, but also suggest that a vast and complex cultural reorientation took place that legitimized the Bundesrepublik by "attach[ing] citizens to democracy beyond the vagaries of regime performance" (p. 171). As for the "taming of German power" after two disastrous wars, the authors recount admiringly the emergence of "soft power" projection by the BRD (and then by a unified Germany) characterized by restraint, reliance on negotiated solutions, and steadfast support for NATO, the EC/EU, and the United Nations (pp. 193-95). The fundamental change in the "subjective outlooks" regarding Germany's role in Europe and beyond, however, remains less well understood. That Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt "created a different civil and multilateral approach that redefined German interests as reconciliation with the West and subsequently also the East" is clear (p. 194). The attitudes of other elites (comprised in the BRD's formative decades of large numbers of former Nazis) and the broader public have been only recently explored in depth by a younger generation of German and American scholars.
The remaining themes--mobility and migration, national identity, the status of women, and consumption and consumerism--have been of more recent interest to scholars. Massive, repeated, and forced or voluntary population movements have been a signal feature of Germany's twentieth century and the authors believe that the reality of this "unsettled society" (p. 219) must be incorporated into future narratives. While the subject of national identity is hardly a new one to German political culture or scholarly inquiry, Jarausch and Geyer pay close attention to developments after World War II. The BRD was remarkably successful in creating an "internally tolerant and externally acceptable sense of self" (p. 235) by shedding the hypernationalism of the previous half-century. This process involved ongoing (though painfully delayed) reckonings with the past, reconciliation of regional and religious differences, a modification of free market capitalism, the embrace of international institutions, the negotiation of varying degrees of "Americanization," and the accommodation of new social movements in the 1970s and has taken mainstream German politics and society to a stage of "postnational" identity. The DDR, conversely, never succeeded in crafting a legitimate national alternative, leaving behind a population of seventeen million citizens who, though "more provincially German" (p. 240), nonetheless opted for quick unification with the putatively postnational BRD. Reconciling this identity with a persistent if ill-defined "sense of Germanness" (p. 243) presents a conceptual conundrum for scholars, not to mention a problem of practical politics for Germany and Europe.
The authors also admonish historians to go beyond the writing of a separate "critical counternarrative" of women's history in the process of re-narrating twentieth-century German history (p. 247). While acknowledging the successes of women's history in making women visible and illuminating the pervasiveness of gender discrimination in virtually all areas of modern life, Jarausch and Geyer note that the history of women's experiences "has broadened approaches to traditional subjects from war to social mobility to education, making it impossible to write about them only in male terms" (p. 247). The authors conclude that scholars should "reintegrate the gender perspective more strongly into concurrent discussions on political loyalty, conceptions of power, experiences of migration, or constructions of national identity" (p. 268). As Molly Loberg and Karen Hagemann made clear in their conference report posted to this forum, this process has been underway for some time.
Finally, the authors refer to "the pursuit of happiness" via consumption, mass culture, and consumerism. Readers who at this point in the book had thought master narratives to be securely abandoned may be surprised to read that "[t]he emergence of a consumer-oriented society is becoming the narrative of the age" (p. 269). Yet Jarausch and Geyer also caution against forcing the consumer revolution of the late-twentieth century into "a new teleology" (p. 272). The history of Germany's consumer revolution, in other words, came in fits and starts and resists easy characterization as an "evolving history" (p. 273).
Narrating "a coherent sense of the past" (p. 331) across the twentieth century's multiple ruptures (1945, 1968, 1989) is further complicated by conflicting personal recollections, which the authors categorize by relation to the relevant rupture: i.e., those of victim, perpetrator, and collaborator (pp. 329-30). So with the old master narratives gone, recent historiography "unsettled and exploring" (p. 106), and an array of personal narratives contending for space, the authors ask how new narratives can be assembled from all the wreckage. If historians should avoid confining and dead-ending master narratives, they still need coherent ways to explain the past to each other, their students, and the public as something other than a bewildering landscape of disconnected "stories." Jarausch and Geyer conclude that Germany's twentieth century has "veer[ed] off at odd angles, suggesting that uncertainty might be the principle of twentieth century history rather than an abnormality to be explained away" (p. 350).
This strikes me as a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise consistently thought-provoking book. The idea of "punctuated equilibrium," an evolutionary theory borrowed from paleontology (a truly historical science), might offer a more useful metaphorical guide to the historian as he or she constructs new narratives that will accommodate the extremes of Germany's twentieth century. Punctuated equilibrium proposes that the evolution of species does not unfold steadily and predictably over time but is more accurately characterized by periods of stability punctuated by disruptions that give rise to unpredictable new evolutionary developments that nonetheless remain interrelated and connected to the past. Viewing the past as periods of stability punctuated by unforeseen events may be useful in narrating not only the great traumas of twentieth-century German history but also abrupt and unexpected change on a smaller scale. Take, for instance, the authors' suggestion that "the sudden descent of a number of large appliances onto households ruined by war cannot possibly be underestimated in explaining the larger phenomenon of the late century consumer culture" (p. 308). Approaching the "mapping" of the past this way could encourage historians to construct the kind of narratives Jarausch and Geyer see as crucial to the post-master narrative era: "plural, interdependent narratives that acknowledg[e] the fragmentation of the German past" (p. 106) while confirming that "the German past" is something that historians can agree exists in the first place.
The book concludes on an optimistic note about the future of the German past. To their great credit, the authors have allowed the postmodern critique to inform and enrich--but not dominate or distort--their analysis. Ultimately, Shattered Past's greatest contribution to the field will be the new debates and research it will undoubtedly inspire. It is a book that should become a permanent addition to all scholars' libraries.
. See Central European History, 22 (1989), German Studies Review, 18 (1995), and H-German's "Postmodernism" discussion log at http://www.h-net.org/~german/discuss/pomo/.
. "Simplifying to the extreme," Lyotard wrote in 1984, "I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives [...]. To the obsolescence of the metanarrative apparatus of legitimation corresponds, most notably, the crisis of metaphysical philosophy and of the university institution which in the past relied on it. The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements--narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable. Thus the society of the future falls less within the province of a Newtonian anthropology (such as structuralism or systems theory) than a pragmatics of language particles. There are many different language games--a heterogeneity of elements. They only give rise to institutions in patches--local determinism. The decision makers, however, attempt to manage these clouds of sociality according to input/output matrices, following a logic that the whole is determinable. They allocate our lives for the growth of power." Quoted in Keith Jenkins, ed., The Postmodern History Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 36-37.
. "The Wannsee Conference, the Fate of German Jews, and Hitler's Decision in Principle to Exterminate all European Jews," Journal of Modern History, 70:4 (1998), pp. 759-812.
. Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), esp. pp. 201-66.
. See, for instance, Jay Lockenour, Soldiers As Citizens: Former Wehrmacht Officers in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1945-1955 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), [review at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=311581027618303 ]; S. Jonathan Wiesen, West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), [review at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=176191052718414]; Steven P. Remy, The Heidelberg Myth: The Nazification and Denazification of a German University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), [H-German review forthcoming, Fall 2003]; Norbert Frei, ed., Karrieren im Zwielicht. Hitlers Eliten nach 1945 (Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 2001), [review at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=62971053571695]; and Lutz Hachmeister, Die Herren Journalisten. Die Elite der deutschen Presse zwischen Nationalsozialismus und Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Muenchen: Beck, 2002), [review forthcoming, Spring 2004].
. Molly Loberg and Karen Hagemann, "Conference Report: Gendering Modern German History. Rewritings of the Mainstream," posted to H-German July 12, 2003, at http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl?trx=vx&list=H-German&month=0307&we ek=b&msg=e8VgkS%2bjLAYFAvs/GgJv7Q&user=&pw=
. See Stephen Jay Gould, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 2-3 and 179.
. On "mapping" the past, see John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
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Steven P. Remy. Review of Jarausch, Konrad R.; Geyer, Michael, Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.