Abstract for "Remembering for the Future 2000" Conference, London, July 2000

Title: "Generational Cohorts and the Shaping of Popular Attitudes towards the Holocaust"
( text of paper w/o notes)

by Prof. Harold Marcuse
(homepage, Presentations page, Publications page)
Dept. of History, University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9410

27 March 2000

for Theme III b): The Impact of Popular Culture on Social Awareness and Memory

Drawing on biographical and oral history research on how specific historical and personal experiences influence individual attitudes towards the Holocaust, I have found that certain age and generational cohorts share common attitudes towards the National Socialist genocide. Using illustrative examples, I show how these cohorts shaped the social awareness of the Holocaust in West Germany from 1945 to the present. Since I deal with West Germany, where very few survivors lived, my focus is on the perpetrators of the Holocaust and their children, not on the survivors.

Social science research has shown that the years between ages 16 and 26 are the most crucial in forming lifelong political values and attitudes. The generation born at the end of the nineteenth century (ca. 1890-1902) formed what I call the cohort of "1918ers." These activists were branded by the "shame of Versailles" after World War I and the economic turmoil of the hyperinflation of 1923. This cohort produced most of Nazism's founding fathers, for example Hitler (b.1889), Göring (b.1893), Goebbels (b.1897), and Himmler (b.1900). The 1918ers, by controlling public discourse about the Holocaust as it transpired, laid the foundation for the attitudes of the following two cohorts towards that event.

I call the next cohort, born from roughly 1903 to 1915, "1933ers." These Germans never developed strong allegiance to the democratic Weimar system. Once Hitler was in power they made careers building and consolidating his regime. Examples include Eichmann (b.1906), Theodor Oberländer (b. 1905), Albert Speer (b.1905), and Leni Riefenstahl (b.1902).

I call the group born from 1916 to 1925 "1943ers," since their positive experience of Nazism was decisively overshadowed by the major defeat in 1943. Although members of this cohort staffed the offices, schools, and institutions during Nazism's stable phase after 1935, many were able to break free of that influence and become democrats at heart. Helmut Schmidt (b. 1918) and Richard von Weiszäcker (b. 1920) are examples of 1943ers.

The next cohort, born from ca. 1926 to 1936, can be called "1948ers." They were young enough that any memories of Nazism's best years prior to 1942 was eradicated by the devastating phase of the war and its aftermath. This generation was, in the memorable phrase of West German chancellor Helmut Kohl (b.1930), blessed by the "grace of late birth." It had no emotional investment in Nazism, although its entire socialization had been thoroughly nazified. Its political outlook and allegiance to democracy was cemented by the economic boom following the implementation of the Marshall Plan in 1948.

I go on to describe the "1968ers" (born 1937-1953), who could also be called the "first postwar generation." They were primarily children of 1943ers, and the confrontation with their parents' Nazi past decisively influenced their identity. German-American writers Sabine Reichel (b.1946, What did you do in the War, Daddy?, 1989) and Ursula Hegi (b.1939, Tearing the Silence, 1997) offer examples of this phenomenon. Lastly come the "1979ers," born 1954-1966, who were children of 1948ers but grandchildren of 1933ers. This was the first generation to delve into the details of Germany's Nazi history. Anna Rosmus (b. 1960), whose story is told in the film "The Nasty Girl," is probably the best-known example of this generation.

My paper outlines how the interactions between the prevailing attitudes of each group gave rise to popular cultural images and shaped the social awareness of the Holocaust in West Germany from the 1950s through the 1990s until today. Based on the concerns of these cohorts, I conclude that an important (but hitherto neglected) focus of Holocaust education after the year 2000 should be the perpetrators: How they came to be as they were and do what they did.

Three questions answered by this paper:

  1. What effects do major historical events (especially World War I, World War II and the Holocaust) have on the attitudes of whole age cohorts of the people who experience them?
  2. How are children affected by historical events that occurred during their parents' or grandparents' lives?
  3. What consequences for teaching about the Holocaust do we draw from the observation that there are common generational attitudes towards past events?

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