Paul Betts, Greg Eghigian, eds. Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering Twentieth-Century German History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. viii + 276 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-3938-2.
Reviewed by James Bjork (Department of History, King's College, London)
Published on H-German (March, 2004)
Germany's twentieth-century history has been defined by its jarring contrasts and discontinuities. As the driving force behind both the European catastrophes of the first half of the century and the long march of material progress enjoyed by the western half of the continent in the century's later decades Germany has awkwardly juxtaposed success story with cautionary tale. These divergent narratives can, to some extent, be sorted out using the conventional pivots of war and regime change--1914, 1918, 1933, 1945, 1989. But as Paul Betts and Greg Eghigian persuasively argue in the introduction to Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering Twentieth-Century German History, the experiences of privation and suffering in German history can not always be neatly separated from those of abundance and comfort. The century has, instead, witnessed a complicated interplay between the endurance of present hardship and hope for future reward, the suffering of some and the well-being of others, the agony of the individual and the imagined vigor of the community. Betts and Eghigian have, therefore, conceived of this collection of essays as one devoted to "treating the themes of pain and prosperity in tandem" and exploring "the histories of German violence and normality...relationally" (p. 3). This might seem a thin thematic tether to hold together essays on topics ranging from disability insurance to labor pain to the "Ostalgie" of the 1990s. But as diverse as the authors' stories are, both they and the editors show an admirable discipline in directing their discussions back to the general question of how to make sense of Germany's extreme experiences of both pain and prosperity in the last century.
The contributions to Pain and Prosperity are arranged in rough chronological order, beginning with Greg Eghigian's analysis of the evolving ways in which individuals articulated bodily pain and suffering into claims on the German state from the late-nineteenth century through the Second World War. While noting the paternalistic impetus behind imperial Germany's pioneering system of social insurance, Eghigian argues that by the early-twentieth century, this system was providing a forum for lively debate between workers and insurance administrators over the social, economic, and moral basis of disability claims. Before 1914, workers' invocation of personal suffering as sufficient grounds for state financial compensation were generally dismissed in favor of more narrowly defined standards of impaired economic productivity. During and after the First World War, however, the near-universal experience of enduring physical sacrifice for the cause of military victory produced what Eghigian describes as a "collectivization of social suffering" (p. 25) and spurred escalating demands on the republic's fragile new welfare state. But even as individuals were invoking past sacrifice to the nation to make claims for compensation, the National Socialists and other critics of the Weimar system were arguing that only fresh rounds of self-sacrifice could prevent the degeneration of the national community. Individual pain was revalorized, in part as a means of regenerating the nation's racial elite, in part as a necessary by-product of the elimination of racial aliens. It is, overall, a persuasive narrative, though in this brief and schematic telling, it raises a number of questions. For example, Eghigian's periodization suggests that the Weimar system of social entitlement had already begun to succumb to the heroicized vision of its rightist critics by 1927, around the height of the republic's brief period of relative stability. If the republic's critics' victory was already at hand even before the Great Depression, does this not point to a rather straightforward transition from the "collectivization" of the First World War to the "nationalization" of the 1930s?
Peter Fritzsche's contribution, "Cities Forget, Nations Remember," is an evocatively written comparison of how memories of wartime loss figured in the imaginations of the modern metropolis and of the national community. Drawing on the classic descriptions of urban modernity recorded by observers like Georg Simmel and Siegfried Kracauer, Fritsche argues that the city's tendency to obliterate memory in a flood of transient sensations and fleeting personal contacts--a perception that was already producing unease before 1914--seemed increasingly unbearable in the aftermath of the First World War's horrendous human losses. The idea of an embracing and historically continuous Volksgemeinschaft, by contrast, provided a way to make sense of personal loss. Fritzsche's account of Germans' mass recourse to the idea of the nation as a framework for giving meaning to individual wartime suffering is particularly provocative in the context of recent debates about whether and how Germans should be revisiting the horrors of Allied bombing during the Second World War or mass expulsions from the East. Indeed, while Fritzsche's argument is rooted in the context of the interwar period, he does briefly argue that national themes were also fundamental to popular memories of the catastrophes of the mid-1940s. For many Germans of this later generation, as for their predecessors, national narratives figured as the only available means to avoid being "left mute in the face of loss and transience" (p. 59).
In "Purchasing Comfort: Patent Remedies and the Alleviation of Labor Pain in Germany Between 1914 and 1933," Patricia Stokes turns our attention to a form of pain that, at first glance, seems far removed from those associated with war, economic crisis, and political turmoil. But Stokes embeds German debates about the possibility and desirability of relieving women's pain during childbirth within the context of broader anxieties, sparked by the losses of the First World War, about the relationship between the comfort of individuals and the well-being of the nation. Both advocates and opponents of new methods of relieving labor pain preached the same goal of revitalizing the Volkskoerper, with the former insisting that less excruciating births would make for healthier mothers and children, while the latter warned against the dangers of diluting an experience they deemed to be the defining moment of womanhood. Stokes' discussion encompasses those methods of sedation sanctioned by medical professionals, such as the "Twilight Sleep" procedure, as well as patent remedies offering a more "natural" route to pain relief, such as the wildly popular product "Rad-Jo." Like Eghigian, Stokes looks at efforts to regulate the human body not only as an agenda of state bureaucracies or professionalized elites, but also as an aim of "ordinary" women seeking to strike a balance between the maintenance of individual autonomy and the achievement of physical comfort. One weakness of this generally engaging and informative article is its rather thin account of what exactly happens to these practices of labor pain relief in the 1930s. Stokes' overall periodization suggests that the rise of the Nazi regime was a crucial pivot, when the "tentative triumph of comfort" in the 1920s (p. 85) was overturned by a "National Socialist backlash against anything that smacked of softness" (p. 87). But the landmark year of 1933 does not seem to have played any role in the rise and fall of pain relief methods like "Twilight Sleep" or "Rad-Jo;" indeed, Stokes notes that another important labor pain drug, Pethidine, was developed in 1939 (pp. 67, 85). The reader is left to wonder exactly how and to what extent popular practice in this area can be mapped according to the familiar chronology of political regime change.
Geoffrey Cocks' contribution to the volume, "Modern Pain and Nazi Panic," offers an interesting counterpoint to the argument developed in Peter Fritzsche's article. Like Fritzsche, Cocks highlights the problem of discontent with a central aspect of modernity, in this case, the dream that scientific knowledge might offer liberation from pain, disease, and death. The First World War and the economic crises that ensued exacerbated popular anxieties about the failure of economic modernization to translate into an elimination of social and physical suffering. The National Socialists seized on these anxieties, promising that the radical pursuit of racial hygiene offered a route to personal as well as national health. But whereas Fritzsche tends to emphasize the plausibility and appeal of the idea of the nation as a framework for preserving memory in the face of catastrophic loss, Cocks sees a far-reaching breakdown of faith in the national community as casualties and material hardships mounted during the later years the Second World War. "Near the end of the war," he argues, "the Volksgemeinschaft was fading fast," and a fundamental "atomization" of German society was well underway (pp. 108-109). This description contrasts not only with Fritzsche's description of German society after the First World War, in which the idea of national solidarity apparently had extraordinary purchase, but also with his insistence that national themes continued to dominate popular memories following 1945 as well.
Sabine Behrenbeck picks up the task of trying to reconcile these strikingly different popular responses to catastrophe and loss. Straddling the period from the end of the First World War to the aftermath of the Second World War, her article, "The Transformation of Sacrifice: German Identity between Heroic Narrative and Economic Success," focuses squarely on the question of how a model of heroic self-sacrifice that had such deep roots and was so aggressively reinforced during the Nazi period could, apparently, dissolve so quickly after 1945. While Behrenbeck rightly notes that fanatical self-sacrifice was not exactly all-consuming under the Nazi regime--witness the frequent celebrations of improvements in the standard of living in the late 1930s (pp. 125-126)--the heroic model did have enormous emotional force. It was only truly discredited, the author argues, when Germans took "the Nazi ideology of self-sacrifice for the community to its logical extreme" (p. 135) committing the nation to virtual self-immolation in order to "dispel any notion of a second stab-in-the-back legend" (p. 129). This exhaustion of heroic national myths did not, however, immediately offer any alternative source of meaning. It was only in the years after 1948, Behrenbeck argues, that a growing faith in the success and stability of the West German market economy began to provide a new and plausible focus for collective identification.
The dream of economic prosperity was common to both East and West Germany in the postwar decades, of course, although it was pursued in very different ways and with increasingly divergent results. Indeed, the next two articles in Pain and Prosperity argue that the projects of economic reconstruction pursued in East and West Germany were not only parallel but mutually constitutive, as each system defined itself and its successes and failures in relation to the other. In "The Myth of a Suspended Present: Prosperity's Painful Shadow in 1950s East Germany," Katherine Pence describes how the East German regime struggled to win popular acceptance of shortages in the 1950s by portraying these temporary sacrifices as a stepping stone from the cataclysm of war and defeat to a future of material abundance. But by establishing the availability of consumer goods as a yardstick of regime success, Pence argues, East German officials facilitated growing disillusionment with the system in the 1950s, even as the standard of living did begin to improve in absolute terms. Awareness that a more robust expansion of consumer goods was occurring in the West made increasingly implausible the claim that eventual prosperity required a long waiting period. By the end of the decade, more and more East Germans had come to the conclusion that shortages reflected "not a moment of crisis but the actual character of the regime" (p. 158).
In "Scarcity and Success: The East According to the West in the 1950s," Ingrid Schenk shows the flip side of this process. Just as perceptions of Western affluence shaped conviction in Eastern failure, so stories of ongoing shortage and hardship in the East served as a crucial index of the early successes of the West German social market economy. Journalists' reports from East Germany in the 1950s repeatedly compared contemporary life there to conditions in the western parts of Germany immediately after the war, implicitly inviting western readers to reflect on how much their own lives had improved during the intervening years. This running contrast of western progress vs. eastern stagnation, Schenk notes, often included disapproving observations on the extent of East German women's involvement in paid labor. The West German economic system, it was suggested, facilitated an idealized family life in which a male breadwinner could provide a suitable standard of living for all. Even if this model was far from reality (the percentage of West German women in the workforce actually increased during the 1950s) images of East German women digging coal could offer reassurance that, in relative terms at least, the western system was protecting traditional gender roles.
The final essay in the collection, Paul Betts' "Remembrance of Things Past: Nostalgia in West and East Germany, 1980-2000" compares two recent nostalgia waves: the revived enthusiasm for the 1950s that became evident around the time of the "Wende" of the early 1980s, and the fascination with East German products that developed after the demise of the East German state in 1990. As Betts notes, these forms of nostalgia were very different in many respects. The 1950s revival was largely promoted by those on the Right and was confidently conceived as a foundational moment in an ongoing national success story, while "Ostalgie" was concentrated among those on the Left and represented a defensive attempt to hold onto a vanishing "lost world." But the two phenomena also share some interesting similarities. Both nostalgia waves, Betts argues, involved the shaping of ostensibly universalistic styles into specifically German-national shared memories. Just as popular memories of the 1950s fixated on "provincialized" version of modernism like the ubiquitous Nierentisch, so the attachment to Ossi material culture has generally been limited to products "Made in the DDR" to the exclusion of objects from elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. As Betts convincingly suggests, this "elective affinity between consumerism and national identity" (p. 202) calls into question many of the standard oppositions that have been posited by German intellectuals since the late-nineteenth century. If transient, generic, mass-produced objects were supposed to be the signs of an alienating modern way of life, the very antithesis of memory and rootedness, what are we to make of their centrality in recent waves of nostalgic longing? This affective investment in everyday consumer goods provides a challenge both to the old association of collective identity with blood, soil, and physical sacrifice as well as more recent (and more high-minded) notions that a post-heroic German national narrative should be based on attachment to Enlightenment ideals.
The multiple interconnections among the contributions to Pain and Prosperity, the ways in which the authors either explicitly engage the others' arguments or circle back on similar themes from different directions, make this a more cohesive volume than many, perhaps most, essay collections. While the individual components of the book are of high quality and will no doubt be of interest to various specialists, the book's greatest value is its cumulative effect in stimulating new ways to think about, pull apart, and piece back together Germany's twentieth century.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
James Bjork. Review of Betts, Paul; Eghigian, Greg, eds., Pain and Prosperity: Reconsidering Twentieth-Century German History.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2004 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.