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Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe During the 1940s and 1950s.

Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe During the 1940s and 1950s. Ed. Richard Bessel and Dirk Schumann (Cambridge: The German Historical Institute, Washington, DC and Cambridge University Press, 2003. xi plus 363 pp. $22.00).

The social and cultural history of post-World War II Europe has tended to address themes such as the ramifications of the Cold War, the construction of the welfare state, or Americanization. The editors of this collection of essays growing out of a conference held in 1998 propose an alternative perspective for viewing this period, one that explores how mass death in the Second World War shaped the postwar era. The book's originality rests in the contributors' ambitious efforts to describe and explain the recasting of European societies in the shadow of catastrophe. The editors suggest that the conservatism of the 1950s reflected a social-psychological reaction to the trauma of the 1940s, as Europeans responded with "a desperate flight into normality" (3). Of course, as Alon Confino aptly observes in the concluding essay, professed desires to 'get back to normal' represented a strategy for legitimizing the construction of a particular social order rather than a simple return to a static, actually pre-existing state of affairs.

The book brings together some of the more innovative historians working on the question of how Europe emerged from the train wreck that was European history in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the contributors focus on Germany and Western Europe. Postwar developments in Soviet bloc societies, which might have provided an important counterpoint to a seeming flight to normality in Western Europe, receive little attention.

The contributions vary in the degree to which they concentrate on the theme of life after death. Some essays focus squarely on the topic. The psychiatrist Alice Forster and the historian Birgit Beck collaborate on a piece that considers whether contemporary psychiatric studies of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can illuminate effectively postwar German society. The prospects seem doubtful, since the psychiatric research described treats the mental disorder as a transcultural and even transhistorical phenomenon (31). PTSD did not receive the imprimatur of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder until 1980, which raises doubts about the validity of reading back PTSD to the 1940s. Joanna Bourke's short essay advances convincing evidence that many returning British and American soldiers sought to avoid painful memories of their wartime service and to recapture the normality of civilian life. The book would benefit from a contribution focused on how the psychiatric profession during the 1940s and 1950s in fact responded to unprecedented numbers of profoundly traumatized individuals.

Several of the essays might be better grouped under the title, "life after scarcity." Indeed, Sabine Behrenbeck observes that "the Germans were traumatized less by war than by the postwar privations" (40). Michael Wildt argues that postwar social and cultural developments in West Germany were marked especially by a reaction against the virtually uninterrupted material deprivation from 1914 through 1948. He describes how postwar Germans cautiously acclimated themselves to growing abundance. Even by the end of the 1950s Germans had not yet embraced a consumerist ethic.

Paul Betts, in perhaps the most inventive of the essays, takes a novel approach to the role of industrial design in fostering the growth of consumerism from Weimar through the post-Nazi years. Although important aspects of German design remained unchanged from the Weimar period into the 1960s, Betts recounts how the cultural meaning of design was altered to serve the needs of Nazi and post-Nazi societies. He takes up Walter Benjamin's characterization of Nazism as representing the "'aestheticization of politics'" (302). Betts convincingly argues that in East Germany such practices continued in a Stalinist vein, while 1945 marked a rupture in the cultural style of politics in western Germany. By the 1950s, industrial design focused on producing attractive products that could elicit affective bonds between West Germans and the consumer goods being created and delivered to their homes. In the place of Nazism's public political spectacles, West German families came to appreciate the benefits of the newly founded Federal Republic through the aesthetic pleasures of a home stocked with all the modern conveniences. But Betts observes that West Germany was not wholly unique in this respect. Both the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic also held out to Germans promises of consumerist pleasures, even if those dreams had to be deferred. The essay offers a new interpretative lens for considering the course of German history in its most turbulent decades and the ways successive regimes tried to spur and manage the growth of modern consumerism.

The Cold War likewise continually surfaces in the volume as a theme at least as important as life after death. For example, as described by Donald Sassoon, the Cold War struggle in Italy between Communists and anti-Communists played a critical role in shaping the ways in which Italians painted themselves as passive victims of Fascism and suppressed evidence of popular support for the regime or its German ally. Similarly, Sabine Behrenbeck explains how the rivalry between East and West Germany structured different social memories of the war and its victims.

The volume has considerable value in bringing together some of the most innovative social and cultural historians of postwar Europe. The essays persuasively illustrate that, as Ido de Haan phrases it, "The psychological sequence of trauma, repression, and recovery is too crude to address the complexity of the ways in which societies deal with mass violence" (91). The framing of the late 1940s and 1950s explicitly in terms of the consequences of the destruction unleashed by the Third Reich offers the prospect of fruitful, if challenging, further work.

Timothy Schroer

State University of West Georgia
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Author:Schroer, Timothy
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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