by Prof. Harold Marcuse
(homepage, Presentations page, Publications page)
Dept. of History, University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9410
draft, March 15, 2000
Paper delivered at the 'Remembering
for the Future' conference,
Oxford, 17-23 July 2000
(conference/organization website; 2-page abstract of this paper)
Note 6/3/05: the 46
footnotes in the original can be found at the bottom of this
They are NOT hyperlinked, sorry.
|NOTE: much of this text is identical to the introduction to chapter 12 of my book Legacies of Dachau (pages 290-296, go to book page), which was already in copy-editing when I prepared this article. One important difference is that in working more with the individual stories, I decided to embrace an explicit distinction between the terms "cohort" and "generation," whereas in the book I wrote that I would primarily use "cohort" to avoid confusion. See main text, below and note 3.|
In commom parlance with regard to survivors of the Holocaust we often speak of 'generations,' with a term such as 'second generation survivor' denoting the children of people who survived the Holocaust. Discussions of education about the Holocaust since the 1990s focus increasingly on what is termed the 'third generation.' These are very rough terms at best, since a child of survivors might have been born in war-torn Europe in the late 1940s, or in more prosperous circumstances a decade or more later, often in Israel or the United States. Survivors of the Holocaust who were themselves children or teens in the early 1940s might not have had children until well into the 1960s. Given the different age-typical ways the wide age-range of survivor parents experienced the Holocaust, and the very different cultural climates in which their children learned of their parents' experiences, we might expect that more precise attention to years of birth of the various generations would better enable us to discern their common traits.
This paper is an attempt to outline a theory that links defining experiences for whole age cohorts of people first with the life outlook of those cohorts, and then with the life outlooks and attitudes of their children. I have attempted this not for Holocaust survivors, but for 'ordinary Germans' who came of age in the first half of the 20th century, and their children who came of age in the second half. Thus my observations are relevant for the bystanders and (potential) perpetrators of trauma, not for its victims. In the context of Holocaust education today, this is the relevant target group.
Many historians and sociologists have observed that crucial experiences between the ages of 16 and 26, in certain circumstances from 14 to 30, are critical in shaping lifetime political attitudes. Momentous historical events such as wars and economic crises may overshadow more personally important events in individuals' lives, thus affecting the political attitudes of a large proportion of the people in the crucial age range at that time. I will refer to these event-defined groups as 'age cohorts.' The term 'generation' is often used in common parlance, but I wish to reserve it for the groups of children of event-defined cohorts, whose political attitudes, in the absence of an epochal historical experience, are shaped more by their mediated relationship to their parents' experience. Thus we will have political cohorts shaped by Nazi-era events, and political generations who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, when important events were more diffuse than the epochal turning points their parents experienced. (see note 3)
Although I will extend this theory back to the World War I conjuncture, let us begin with a look at Germans who came of age in 1930s and 1940s. Widely experienced epochal turning points might have been the formation of the Nazi state in 1933-34, and the tangible turning point in the war in 1943. The cohorts affected by these events would have been born between approximately 1904 (age 26 in 1930, when Nazism's popularity began to skyrocket) and 1927 (age 16 in 1943, when combat duty began to mean probable death).
Let us take the midpoint of 1915-16 as the transition between these two experiential cohorts (these dates are somewhat arbitrary and must be confirmed on actual cases). The older group (born ca. 1904-1915) would have had children been born ca. 1926-1937, who would have been shaped by events after 1943, such as the end of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and the economic recovery after the currency reform of 1948. The group born between 1916 and 1926 would have had children beginning roughly in 1937 (when its oldest members were 21), and trailing off by the mid-1950s.
Before we examine concrete cases, I would like to introduce a terminology that will help to keep track the various cohorts and generations. For the following discussion (summarized in Table 1), it is important to note that the dates of the birth years are approximate, depending as they do on the eccentricities of individual biography. The biographies of the people in the 'examples' column help to draw the dividing lines, but even some of these cases show attitudes characteristic of both groups.
The first politically relevant cohort in the twentieth century, which I will call the 1918ers, is important in this context only inasmuch as its members created the pivotal event that set the whole dynamic to be outlined here in motion: the Nazi accession to unprecedented political and cultural power since 1930. This cohort, born at the end of the nineteenth century (ca. 1890-1902), contributed most of Nazism's founding fathers, such as Hitler, Himmler, Göring, and Goebbels. The political attitudes of these activist visionaries were shaped during their politically formative years by the German defeat in World War I, which they understood as betrayal by the revolutionaries of 1918. Further, the 'shameful injustice' of the Versailles Treaty branded their consciousness. Those who came to support the Nazi party never felt comfortable with the democratic government that signed that treaty. This cohort included, to name a few examples, Hitler (b.1889), Göring (b.1893), Rudolf Hess (b.1894), Josef Goebbels (b.1897), Martin Bormann (b. 1900), Hans Frank (b.1900), and Heinrich Himmler (b.1900).
Given the close succession of formative events in first half of the century in Germany, new cohorts emerged every 10-15 years. Given the usual child-bearing age of 20-30, the succeeding (postwar) generations tend to emerge after every second cohort.
The next cohort, the 1933ers or careerist Nazi cohort, was born roughly from 1901 to 1914. Recent German authors refer to this cohort as the Tätergeneration--the generation of perpetrators. The members of this cohort had neither developed loyalty to the pre-World War I monarchy, nor to the German republic of the 1920s. For many of them, Hitler's assumption of power in 1933 was a vindication of Germany's national pride. They immediately took the opportunity make careers building and consolidating his state. Examples include Leni Riefenstahl (b.1902), Werner Best (b.1903), Reinhard Heydrich (b.1904), Theodor Oberländer (b. 1905), Albert Speer (b.1905), Adolf Eichmann (b.1906), Baldur von Schirach (b.1907), and Hans Filbinger (b. 1913). Rudolf Höss (b.1900) is an example who exhibits elements of both the founding and careerist Nazi cohorts.
The cohort born between 1915 and 1925 also contributed to the 'generation of perpetrators,' but this age group did not have the opportunity to rise to the prominence of the above examples during the Nazi period. Their experience of the elation of the prewar Nazi years was overshadowed by the hopelessness of the situation after 1943, symbolized by the defeat of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Thus I refer to them as 1943ers. These 1943ers staffed the offices, schools, and institutions--including the army and concentration camps--of the Nazi Reich during Nazism's stable phase after 1935. This cohort was also the most decimated in World War II. At the end of the war many of its members were able to distance themselves from Nazism. The budding Nazi careers of older members such as Franz Josef Strauss (b.1915) and pollster Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann (b. 1916) were suddenly cut off in 1945, but they were able to re-establish themselves as solid democrats. They were young enough to have had only limited complicity in constructing the Nazi regime, even if their work for Nazism had left its stamp, positively or negatively, on their values.
Richard von Weizsäcker (b.1920) is an example from this cohort who overcame his incipient Nazi complicity. (Weizsäcker, who defended his converted Nazi father Ernst at Nuremberg in 1947, later became one of West Germany's most honest, open and respected democrats.) Irma Grese (b.1921), a notorious Auschwitz and Belsen guard, is an example of a younger woman in this group who was so complicit (and intellectually limited) that she never renounced her allegiance to Nazism.
The next cohort, which I will call the 1948ers, was born from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s (ca. 1926 to 1936). These individuals grew up within the Nazi system, but consciously experienced only that system's depravity, which could no longer be ignored after 1943. These Germans were young enough so that any positive experiences of Nazism's best years prior to 1942-43 was overshadowed by their conscious experience of the devastating phase of the war and its aftermath. They were not complicit, even by apathy or inaction, in Nazi crimes.
World War I experienced as a profound, disorienting rupture
no loyalty to postwar state
(includes the founders of Nazism);
generation of 1914.
formed no strong relationship to Weimar republic; experienced Nazism as a positive turning point.
reviled generation, generation of the perpetrators
(parents of 1948ers)
|Heydrich (1904), Oberländer (1905)
F. J. Strauss (1915)
grew up under Nazism, fought for it during World War II; experienced both elation and devastation of war; most decimated by war
World War II cohort;
younger careerist Nazis; Stalingraders;
(parents of 1968ers)
H. Schmidt (1918)
R.v. Weizsäcker (1920)
|1926-1936||1944-1957 (currency reform):
end of Nazism in 1945, economic upturn after 1948 and 'economic miracle' of 50s
1945ers; skeptical, Hitler Youth, betrayed, white, reconstruction generation
|M. Broszat (1926)
G. Tempel (1926)
W. Scheffler (1929)
H. Kohl (1930)
1943er parents' failure to admit Nazi past in early 60s; Vietnam War, political weakness of democratic political system
first postwar generation
(children of 1943ers)
|Niklas Frank (1939)
U. Hegi (b. 1939)
B. Klarsfeld (1939)
S. Reichel (1946),
G.v. Arnim (1946)
|1954-1966||1970-1980 (Holocaust film):
interest in Nazi background of 1933er grandparents; grew up under more historically open Brandt and Schmidt governments of 1969-1982
Alltagshistoriker (began to research Nazi history in 1980s);
second postwar generation;
(children of 1948ers, grandchildren of 1933ers)
|Norbert Frei (1955)
M. Brenner (1958)
A. Rosmus (1960)
M. Heyl (1965)
learned of Nazi past through media and school; no close relationships with 1933ers
third postwar cohort;
(children of 1968ers )
In a phrase made memorable by West German chancellor Helmut Kohl (b.1930) in 1984, this cohort was thus blessed by the 'grace of late birth.' Although they were thoroughly disabused of any positive attitudes towards Nazism, they had still worn the uniforms of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls (membership was compulsory after 1936), some had served in combat, and they were educated by careerist Nazi teachers right into the 1950s. This created a dissonance within each individual biography, an ambivalence between understanding for those who had been complicit in Nazism, and rejection of all that Nazism stood for.
While other scholars call this cohort the '1945ers,' I prefer to refer to them as 1948ers, since the currency reform of 1948 and Marshall Plan aid gave them their first positive political orientation, as opposed to the total disorientation in 1945. For some, their unhesitating embrace of the new democratic state prevented them from recognizing its flaws. For instance, many harbored fears of non-institutional politics, and thus overlooked the state's attempts to repress grass-roots activism. The first German historians to investigate brown-collar crimes belong to this cohort-for example Martin Broszat (1926-1989) and Wolfgang Scheffler (b.1929). In the early 1960s members of this cohort initiated an implicit challenge to the public silence about Germany's Nazi past. Authors such as Siegfried Lenz (b. 1926), Günther Grass (b. 1927) and Martin Walser (b. 1927), whose writings attempted to force a public engagement with the Nazi past, are also 1948ers.
The next group, the 1968ers, is best defined as a generation, not a cohort. They were the first not to have consciously experienced 1948 as a defining moment for the future. Instead, this group came of age in the prosperous years of the late 1950s and early 1960s. This first postwar generation was born from the late 1930s to the early 1950s (ca. 1937 to 1953). In rebellions culminating in the watershed year 1968, some members of this generation stridently rebelled against their presumptively complicit 1943er parents. On the other hand, other members of this generation aligned themselves with the conventional obedience-and-order mentality of their Nazi-socialized parents and boosted the neo-Nazi party NPD into several state parliaments in the late 1960s. The political attitudes of most members of this postwar generation lay somewhere in between these extremes, but as individual biographies show, their confrontation with their parents' Nazi past decisively influenced their identity. This first postwar generation is commonly referred to as the 1968ers, because the anti-establishment movement culminating that year left a lasting stamp on their political attitudes, positively or negatively.
[web bonus: For a detailed discussion of this generation's formative experiences during the early 1960s, see my article: "The Revival of Holocaust Awareness in West Germany, Israel, and the United States" in: Carole Fink, Philipp Gassert, Detlef Junker (eds.), 1968: The World Transformed (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 421-38. text without notes]
In 1964 the returned German-Jewish emigré philosopher Günther Anders coined the phrase 'we children of Eichmann' to express the 68er generation's legacy of upbringing by 1933ers. The 1968ers did not begin to articulate this themselves until the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979 a number of important literary works dealing with the conflict between the 1968ers and the 1933ers were published. They include: Sigfrid Gauch (b. 1945), Vaterspuren (Königstein: Athenäum, 1979, 1990, 1997); Peter Härtling (b. 1933), Nachgetragene Liebe (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1980,1982), Paul Kersten (b. 1943), Der alltägliche Tod meines Vaters (Cologne: Kiepenhauer & Witsch, 1978); Christoph Meckel (b. 1935), Suchbild: Über meinen Vater (Dusseldorf: Claassen, 1980); Ernst Rauter, Brief an meine Erzieher (Munich: Weismann, 1979, 1980); Ruth Rehmann (b. 1922), Der Mann auf der Kanzel: Fragen an einen Vater (Munich: Hanser, 1979); The Man in the Pulpit (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1997); Brigitte Schwaiger (b. 1949), Lange Abwesenheit (Hamburg: Zsolnay, 1980; Rowohlt, 1982); Bernward Vesper (1938-1971), Die Reise (Frankfurt: Zweitausendeins, 1979); and Heinrich Wiesner (b. 1925), Der Riese am Tisch (Basel: Lenos, 1979).
This first round of literary publications was followed by a more explicit and analytical second round in the 1980s. It includes works such as: Dörte von Westernhagen (b. 1943), Die Kinder der Täter: Das Dritte Reich und die Generation danach (Munich: Kösel, 1987); Niklas Frank (b. 1939), Der Vater: Eine Abrechnung (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1987), and Gabriele von Arnim (b. 1943), Das grosse Schweigen (Munich: Kindler, 1989).
Other members of this first postwar generation, who had left Germany for the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, published their record of dealing with their parents' legacy somewhat later in the 1980s and into the 1990s. German-American writers Sabine Reichel (b.1946, What did you do in the War, Daddy?, 1989), Ursula Duba (b. 1939, Tales from a Child of the Enemy, 1995), and Ursula Hegi (b.1939, Tearing the Silence, 1997) are examples of émigrés of this generation who dealt with their parental cohort's past.
The attitudes of these 1968ers can be characterized as follows: they felt that they had somehow been victimized by the silence of their 1943er parents, and they were determined to teach about it themselves. They also identified strongly with the victims of Holocaust and showed great solidarity with oppressed peoples in the third world (for instance, during the Vietnam War, but also with the Palestinians once Israel had won the June 1967 Six-Day War). The left-wing terrorists of the Red Army Faction during the 1970s are the most extreme and notorious examples of this behaviour, but many showed more moderate, if still obsessive behaviours as well. TV talk show hostess Lea Rosh (b. 1937) would be another example. Rosh participated in the propagation of information about Nazism's crimes by narrating a nationally televised documentary series entitled 'Death is a Master from Germany.' In 1987 she started a private initiative to establish a national German memorial 'for the murdered Jews of Europe' in Berlin. Rosh had changed her name from Edith Rohs to express the Jewish identity she felt (one of her grandparents had been Jewish). Bernhard Schlink (b. 1944), author of the best-selling semi-autobiographical novel 'The Reader' (1995), is another example.
The next generation to emerge was what I will call the 1979ers. The name derives from the year of the first German broadcast of the TV miniseries 'Holocaust,' although, in contrast to the events defining the cohorts in the first half of the century, that 'event' was as much a result of a common attitude, as it was a cause. Rather, this second postwar generation, born between about 1954 and 1966, had only remotely mediated experience of the Nazi era. Its parents were mostly 1948ers, who had never confronted their 1933er parents about the Nazi past, and now basically kept silent about their childhood experiences. When the 1979er children began to ask questions of their aging 1933er grandparents, however, this older generation began to speak, more or less candidly, about the Nazi past. Yielding to their own desire to make sense of their own lives and pass them on to posterity before passing on themselves, they were much more willing to talk to the relatively naïve 1979ers in the late 1970s and early 1980s than they had been in earlier decades, especially in the confrontational climate created by the accusatorial 1968ers.
Mentored by 1948er professors and guided by 1968er schoolteachers (who had mellowed during what left-wing 1968er leader Rudi Dutschke [1940-1979] had called the 'long march through the institutions'), these 1979ers supplied the footsoldiers of the German version of the international history workshop movement, known as Alltagsgeschichte. Beginning in 1980 and in part prompted by the interest in the TV miniseries Holocaust, the presidential competition for the best high school history essay focused on life under Nazism.
Anna Rosmus (b. 1960), about whom Michael Verhoeven's film 'Nasty Girl' was made in 1989, is perhaps the best-known representative of this generation. While researching the history of anti-Nazi resistance in Passau for the history essay competition, she discovered many of the town's leading citizens had not been the anti-Nazis they claimed to have been. Although some 1933ers were willing to talk to her, others, once they realized she was finding out the real background to their stories, quickly reversed their openness. Rosmus was denied access to documents, defamed, sued and denounced. Ultimately, her study was published in 1984 with a preface by one of the justices of the West German supreme court. That same year she received the prestigious 'Scholl Siblings Prize' in memory of the Munich student resisters, and in 1987 Kurt Tucholsky's widow bequeathed a death mask of the famous author to her in recognition of her steadfastness. Rosmus went on to write several other historical books about Passau's Nazi past before leaving for Boston University to write a dissertation on the history of the Jews in Passau with Elie Wiesel. She continued to raise a great deal of local ire by unearthing the unsavory past activities of her fellow townsfolk. One doctor successfully sued her in a local court to remove information about him from her 1993 book about the treatment of pregnant slave laborers in the town-even though he could not disprove her allegations.
Michael Brenner (b. 1964), whose case study of Jewish life in the town of Weiden during the Nazi period won a first prize in the 1982-83 essay competition, went on to become an acclaimed historian. Brenner lectured at Brandeis University, and, when he accepted the University of Munich's brand new chair in Jewish History and Culture in 1997, became one of the youngest full professors in the country. His institute at the University of Munich has rapidly become a center for research and education about German-Jewish history. Brenner's success is just one example of the mushrooming German interest in learning about its eradicated Jewish culture. Whereas in the two decades prior to 1984 about 270 German studies of Jewish communities had been published, by 1990 about 1700 more had appeared-an eightfold increase in average annual output!
In the 1980s there were several vitriolic conflicts over what West German historian Norbert Frei (b. 1955), himself a 1979er, has called the 'politics of the past.' These included the discussion of the TV film epic Heimat (1984), which was produced as a response to the Holocaust miniseries; the controversy over US president Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1985; the so-called Historians' Debate of 1986ff; and the commemoration of Kristallnacht in November 1988, which included the resignation of the West German parliamentary president Jenninger. These controversial public events can be interpreted as a split between members of the 1948er cohort over whether they should ally backwards with their 1933er parents, or forwards with the younger 1968er generation.
During and since the 1990s, the 1948ers began to leave the political arena, with 1968ers to replace them. This is symbolized at the top level of politics with the election of Gerhard Schröder (b. 1944) to replace Helmut Kohl (b. 1930). At the same time, 1979ers are acceding to positions in the cultural elite. Another generation, which I will call the 1989ers, has begun their formative political years. Their attitudes towards the Nazi era will have been shaped by events of the 1990s, such as the German release of the film 'Schindler's List' in 1993, the nationally televised and widely discussed reception of Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners in 1996, the creation of a national Holocaust remembrance day that same year, and the controversy surrounding the 1995 exhibition 'Crimes of the German Army,' which began in 1997. When we design Holocaust curricula in the year 2000, we should keep in mind that our audience has moved beyond simple victim identification, and wants and needs to learn about the perpetrators: How they came to be as they were and do what they did.
Notes (back to top)