Reviews and Short Notices
Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships. By Mary Fulbrook. Oxford University Press. 2011. xii + 515pp. £35.00.
Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature © 2013 The Historical Association
Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature
Volume 96, Issue 1, pages 106–107, December 2012
How to Cite
Grady, T. (2012), Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships. By Mary Fulbrook. Oxford University Press. 2011. xii + 515pp. £35.00. Annual Bulletin of Historical Literature, 96: 106–107. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8314.2012.01268.x
- Issue published online: 20 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 20 MAR 2013
At over 500 pages, Mary Fulbrook's latest book is as ambitious as it is long. The study seeks to imbue the history of twentieth-century Germany with personal narratives. More precisely, it is an attempt to show how individuals from across German society turned to Nazism in the 1920s and 1930s before fleeing fascism for a second communist dictatorship during the second half of the century. As such, the book provides a very personal account of German history from the run-up to the First World War through to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within this time frame, Fulbrook discusses the many violent political and social upheavals that one would expect to see referenced: economic turmoil, the two world wars, genocide and surveillance in East Germany. While these themes may sound familiar, Fulbrook casts new light by approaching them through the lens of biographical and generational history.
The book's first major claim to originality, then, lies in its use of personal, biographical narratives. Utilizing ‘ego-documents’ – memoirs, diaries, letters and oral testimony – provides Fulbrook with a means to ‘understand the ways in which individuals lived through... turbulent times’ (p. 3). The success of an enterprise of this type, though, can ever only be as good as the sources at the historian's disposal. In the case of this book, many of the personal histories that weave the narrative together are indeed truly fascinating, offering glimpses into the personal lives of the people who lived through Germany's twentieth century. In a few places, however, particularly in the earlier chapters on the inter-war years, the breadth of sources is a little thin. Fulbrook's reliance on one refugee and exile memoir collection from the late 1930s, for example, gives voice to those who fled Nazi Germany, but reveals far less about the views of more conservative Germans.
Generational history provides Fulbrook with a second opportunity to innovate. Over the years, the theory of generations has offered rich pickings for German historians, with studies on fields as diverse as combat in the Great War, Nazi perpetrators and youth rebellions in the 1960s. For Fulbrook, however, the power of generational history rests with its ability to draw out multiple perspectives on the past. Rather than exploring a single German history of the twentieth century, she attempts to show that Germans’ experiences of these years depended on their year of birth. The experience of combat in the Second World War, for example, differed according to where and when an individual fought. As Fulbrook stresses, this divergence related ‘directly to an individual's year of birth’ (p. 172). The older cohort of soldiers who were already adults in 1939 experienced everything from the euphoria of early victory through to racial war on the eastern front, while younger Germans, called up in late 1944, only witnessed the Nazi regime's desperate efforts to avoid defeat. As Fulbrook convincingly demonstrates, these differences proved significant after 1945. In East Germany, in particular, it was the generation who barely experienced fighting in the Second World War who helped to develop the new state.
While Fulbrook is certainly right to emphasize generations as a category of historical interpretation, the term itself is a slippery one. As such it is not always easy for Fulbrook to fit individuals into a particular category. This leaves some people between generations or simply ‘on the cusp’ (p. 342) of belonging to a generation. Added to this, an individual's generational identity, however defined, also has to fit with labels of class, politics, ‘race’ and gender. When seen in this wider context, generational identities increasingly end up taking a back seat. Indeed, it is hard to escape the impression that many individuals’ experiences of the world wars or of East Germany were shaped more by issues of class or ‘race’ than the particular year of their birth.
The importance of non-generational identities really comes to the fore in the book's final chapters on East Germany. With few dramatic events until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, generational differences became less important in shaping people's lives. In this final section, it would have been interesting to have seen how West Germany fits into Fulbrook's narrative. The earlier chapters concentrate on imperial Germany, the inter-war German state, and in places even expand into Austria with great effect. After 1945, though, the book becomes primarily a history of East Germany, which excludes the possibility of revealing generational comparisons across the German/German divide.
These minor quibbles, though, should not detract from what is an ambitious and wide-ranging study. The book is not only based on a wealth of valuable archival material, but it also seeks to push the history of Germany's twentieth century into a largely new direction. For these reasons alone, this is a book that should receive a wide readership.