Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life
by Detlev J.K. Peukert, translated by Richard Deveson
Yale University Press, 288 pp., $25.00
In Hitler’s Germany: Daily Life in the Third Reich
by Bernt Engelmann, translated by Krishna Winston
Pantheon, 335 pp., $21.95
Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, The Family, and Nazi Politics
by Claudia Koonz
St. Martin’s, 556 pp., $25.00
One of the most interesting tendencies in West German historiography in the last decade has been to turn away from the great themes of state policy, national and economic development, and theories of fascism and modernization, to a new emphasis upon everyday life and the experience of ordinary people in their family, occupational, and regional settings. The shift was not entirely unheralded, for German historians had been impressed by such classics in the depiction of the lives of the “little people” as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou. But the sudden surge of enthusiasm for the new mode that began in the late Seventies was so pronounced and the claims of its advocates so vehement that it seemed to be more than a scholarly phenomenon. The Bielefeld University historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler was probably correct in suggesting that it had its roots in the general mood of uncertainty engendered by such events as the environmental crisis, the coming of massive unemployment, and the escalation of the arms race, and that, like the emergence of the Greens, with which it was not disconnected, it was characterized by a new skepticism, a new distrust of existing authorities and their theories and ideas, and a new insistence upon seeing things differently that grew out of that mood.
However valid that explanation may be, there is no doubt about the interest aroused by everyday history, which has led to a proliferation of studies of subjects ranging from mining communities in Upper Bavaria and the experience and thinking of workers and white-collar workers in specific industries to the life of outsiders in society, utopian communities, beggars and vagrants, and rebels of one stripe or another, but has at the same time aroused a good deal of concerned criticism among historians who fear that the new tendency will merely encourage imprecision and loose thinking about the past.
Thus, Jürgen Kocka, a leading social historian, has written of “the price that generally has to be paid for this kind of microhistory: the renunciation of a recognition of connections, the ignoring of the ‘big questions’ of state and class formation, of religion and churches, of industrialization and capitalism, of the basic causes and results of National Socialism, of the German peculiarities when compared with other countries.” It is essential, Kocka continues, not to ignore those things,
for, on the one hand, changing structures and experiences even in the smallest spaces are to a great degree the result of those great connections and processes and, therefore, cannot be understood without reference to them; and, on the other hand, a great part of our politics, and with it the setting of the trends that affect individual persons and the smallest of groups, necessarily takes place above the local and regional level…. Partiality in historical understanding,…an identification with the little space by means of blacking out the connections—that is not intellectually satisfying and in the long run is politically …