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Honeckers Children: Youth and Patriotism in East(ern) Germany, 1979-2002.

Honeckers Children: Youth and Patriotism in East(ern) Germany, 1979-2002. By ANNA SAUNDERS. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 2007. 252 pp. 50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-7190-7411-0.

The stated aim of the present volume is an intergenerational comparison of youth attitudes to the former GDR and the unified Germany. Saunders assesses the long-term influence of GDR socialization on identity within present-day Germany and examines the extent to which the rapid changes experienced in East Germany have led to shifts in civic loyalties and notions of patriotism. The title, Honecker's Children, imposes a ready-made identity on the social group under scrutiny; a sense of loyalty and of belonging to the former East is implicit, which has the potential to undermine the intention of the investigation from the outset.

Manifestations of patriotism by young Easterners are explored by adopting an interdisciplinary approach in which Saunders combines the findings of her own fieldwork (undertaken in Sachsen-Anhalt in 2001 and 2002) with official statistics and established theories. The two groups which form the basis of her study are, firstly, those young adults who were teenagers at the time of unification and for whom unification represented a crucial caesura in their biographies, acutely marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, and, secondly, those who were teenagers at the time of interview and therefore had little or no personal experience of the GDR. In establishing this contrast, Saunders seeks to demonstrate the influence of GDR socialization, or lack of it, on forming attitudes and identities in the present.

It is no coincidence that Saunders focuses on the period 1979-2002, 1979 being the thirtieth anniversary of the GDR, the first year of obligatory military education in schools, and a time of increasing Cold War tensions, and 2002 marking the first year when GDR school-leavers had no personal experience of GDR schooling. Three phases of change are recorded: the 1980s, October 1989-October 1990, and the post-Wende period; and five key areas are of central interest: historical consciousness, militarism, the hostile enemy, proletarian internationalism, and pride in the GDR past.

The period immediately preceding and during unification is presented as a limbo, in which many young people fled to the West and those remaining hoped for effective reforms. The West became a tangible place for these youngsters and first-hand experience obliged them to make comparisons between the two states. The loss of the private GDR niche and an increased reliance on Western structures led to an acceptance of unification, but not a new form of patriotism, which cannot be imposed from above in a uniform manner, but must grow organically from below, especially as patriotism in the former East was closely linked to satisfaction in the personal sphere. Thus the sceptical attitude of today's youth towards the FRG mirrors the previous generation's lack of attachment to the GDR. This view is reinforced by the concept of received memory, with increasing numbers of young people having to rely on the older generation for information about the former East and thereby acquiring a nostalgic attachment at second hand.

Although the author clearly substantiates her conclusions with evidence from her fieldwork, the sample of interviewees is limited to a small area and the interview sample amounted to around forty people. The findings may therefore be unrepresentative of the territory as a whole. The interviews were conducted in 2002 and tell us little about how the youngest generation of East Germans perceive their identity.

All quotations are given in English, regardless of source. The German original is not provided except in the case of a few isolated concepts. A few instances of translation loss are noted in the speech of youngsters, where, for example, 'ja' seems to have been translated as 'yeah' and several phrases sound slightly unidiomatic.

Honecker's Children provides a useful insight into questions of patriotism and shifting Eastern identities, albeit on a relatively slender base. Other sources could have been incorporated that would have enriched and varied the debate, including literary texts, which frequently deal with issues of identity and patriotic sentiment, as Saunders acknowledges in her introduction. The book as it stands serves its stated purpose in providing a useful historical snapshot and will undoubtedly form a basis for future work in this area.


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Author:Smith, Ellen
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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