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Alltagsgeschichte: A New Social History

"From Below"?
HERE is an insatiable demand in the Federal Republic for
accounts of the past that allow contemporary Germans to
identify with the forgotten joys and sorrows of ordinary
people. Just about anything "thrown onto the (book)market" may
include the word Alltag in its title.
Trade union and SPD adult educa-
tion programs, Volkshochschulen and youth associations teach "lay his-
torians" how to retrieve the traces of their "lost past. "
"History work-
shops" (Geschichtswerkstatten), inspired by the leftist-populism of the
Greens and often dedicated to a politically subversive reconstruction
of forgotten local histories, have sprung up all over West Germany.
But despite this wave of popular enthusiasm, Alltagsgeschichte has not
degenerated, as some critics feared, into an "entertaining, but naive
1. Peter Borscheid, "Pladoyer far eine Geschichte des Alltaglichen," in Peter Borscheid,
Hans J. Teuteberg, eds., Ehe, Liebe, Tod: Zum Wandel der Familie, der Geschlechts- mid Gen-
erationsbeziehungen in der Neuzeit (Minister, 1983), 4; see, for example, Frank Grube and Gerhard
Richter, Alltag im Dritten Reich: So lebten die Deutschen 1953-1945 (Hamburg, 1982J.
2. See, for example, Gerhard Paul and Bernhard Schossig, eds., Die anderc Geschichte: Ge-
schichte von unten, Spurensicherung, okologische Geschichte, Geschichtswerkstatten (Cologne, 1986).
3. See, for example, "Juden: Innenansichten vergangener Lebenswelten," Geschichtswerkstatt,
Heft 15 (Hamburg, 1988). This volume includes a report from a local history workshop group
in Hamburg concerning its attempts to get funding for an "alternative harbor jubilee" (Alterna-
tiver Hafengeburtstag; p. 69) which gives a sense of the critical role in local politics that many
history workshop groups have attempted to play. See also Dagmar Freist, "Alltagsgeschichte der
Juden: In Search of New Approaches to Jewish History," German History: The Journal of the
German History Society 7, no. 2 (August 1989): 248-52. In this paper, I have restricted discussion
to the practice of Alltagsgeschichte in the Federal Republic both because a much more developed
debate on this subject emerged in West than in East Germany before 1989 and also because the
DDR discussion of Alltag was informed by a quite different understanding of the relationships
between theory and practice. But for an introduction to Alltagsgeschichte in the German Demo-
cratic Republic see Harald Dehne, "Dem Alltag ein Stuck naher?" in Alf Liidtke, ed., Alltagsge-
schichte: Zur Rekonstruktion historischer Erfahrungen und Lebensweisen (Frankfurt and New York,
1989), 137-68, and also Jurgen Kuczynski, Geschichte des Alltags des deutschen Volkes, Studien 1-5
(Berlin 1980-82).
David F. Crew 395
and sentimental, low-German mini-series."
Serious practitioners of
Alltagsgeschichte have never been content to engage in the unexamined
retrieval of the most obscure details of the everyday lives of the masses
(die Vielen).
Indeed, Alltagsgeschichtehas challenged the theoretical and
methodological hegemony of Strukturgeschichte within the German
historical "guild" (Zunft) and it has campaigned for the construction
of a radically new paradigm of social historical research. Alltagsge-
schichte originally emerged from the dissatisfactions of a younger gen-
eration of social historians with the "structural" social history (Struk-
turgeschichte) constructed by Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jurgen Kocka, and
the Bielefeld "school" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The "social-
scientific" approach of the Bielefeld school, inspired by Weberian so-
ciology and "modernization theory," produced an abstract analysis of
the large structures and long-term historical processes that created a
German Sonderweg (special path) leading to Hitler.
asks social historians to examine working-class "cultures" as well as
social "structures," popular "experiences" as well as political "process-
es." Social historians are now urged to reconstruct the values and
attitudes, the "needs," "wants," and "desires" of ordinary people.
Is there an unavoidable "tension between scientific knowledge and
everyday experience," as some critics charge?
Has Alltagsgeschichte
embarked on an unproductive "anti-theoretical trip"?
4. Liidtke, ed., Alltagsgeschichte, 7.
5. Jurgen Kocka makes these kinds of charges and presents a sustained attack upon Alltagsge-
schichte in a number of articles; "Zuriick zur Erzahlung? Pladoyer fur historische Argumenta-
tion," Geschichte und Gesellschaft 10 (1984): 395-408; "Historisch-anthropologische Fragestel-
lungenein Defizit der Historischen Sozialwissenschaft?" in Hans Siissmuth, ed., Historische
Anthropologie (Gottingen, 1984), 73-83; "Sozialgeschichte zwischen Strukturgeschichte und
Erfahrungsgeschichte," in Wolfgang Schieder and Volker Sellin, eds., Sozialgeschichte in Deutsch-
land: Entwicklung und Perspektiven im internationalen Zusammenhang, 1 (Gottingen, 1986): 67-88;
see also H.-U. Wehler, "Der Bauernbandit als neuer Heros," in Die Zeit, no. 39, 18 Sept. 1981,
and Klaus Tenfelde, "Schwierigkeiten mit dem Alltag," Geschichte und Gesellschaft 10 (1984):
3 76-94 and, most recently, Hermann Glaser, Kulturgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschlands, 3:
Zwischen Protest und Anpassung, 1968-1989 (Munich and Vienna, 1989), 333-37.
6. Jurgen Kocka succinctly discusses the ongins of the new Strukturgeschichte in the Bundes-
republik of the late 1960s in "Das Haus der Geschichte hat viele Zimmer: Uber tastende Versuche
der Nachkriegszeit, Pionierleistungen und zukunftsweisenden Neugrundungen: Thesen zur
Geschichtswissenschaft," Frankfurter Rundschau, no. 139, 2ojune 1989, 9.
7. Detlev Peukert, "ArbeiteralltagMode oder Methode?" in Heiko Haumann, ed., Arbei-
teralltag in Stadt und Land: Neue Wege der Geschichtsschreibung, Argument-Sonderband, AS 94
(Berlin, 1982), 25.
8. Borscheid, "Pladoyer fur eine Geschichte des Alltaglichen," 4, quoting Kocka, "Theorie-
orientierung" (1982), 10.
396 Alltagsgeschichte
historians argue that ordinary human beings seldom understood and,
in any case, had little real power to alter the anonymous structures,
forces, and processes that determined their everyday lives. Con-
sequently, critics of Alltagsgeschichte charge that it is condemned to
analytical futility and can provide no new key to German social history.
But the historians of "everyday life" are trying to do more than just
describe how "large processes" were passively experienced in the
"small worlds" of everyday existence. Alltagsgeschichte questions ac-
cepted understandings of the "big structures" and "large processes"
"industrialization," "bureaucratization," and "modernization"by
deconstructing these arid abstractions into the flesh-and-blood human
beings whose conflicting ideas and actions produced history: "social
practice moves to the center of the stage. "
Nor is Alltagsgeschichte less
committed than Strukturgeschichte to the use of theory. But whereas
the "structural" social historians inscribed Weberian sociology and
"modernization theory" on their theoretical banners, historians of
"everyday life" have increasingly turned to British "cultural history"
and French social anthropology.
While some of the earlier work on Alltagsgeschichte concentrated on
the material conditions of working class life, "experience" has since
become a central analytical category of the "history of everyday life. "
With this new emphasis, Alltagsgeschichte attempts to show how "ordi-
nary people" refused to accept their assigned roles as the passive "ob-
jects" of impersonal historical developments and attempted, instead,
to become active historical "subjects." This reconstruction and analysis
of the social, cultural, and symbolic practices of "ordinary" people is
not an easy task. Few German workers committed their thoughts and
feelings to paper. Documentary sources, written "from above," usu-
ally reflect the attitudes of middle-class observers so that they have to
be read "against the grain." Practitioners of Alltagsgeschichte have also
explored the possibilities of more unorthodox sources photographs,
for exampleand non-verbal forms of popular expression such as the
"body language" of German workers.
And oral history, like Lutz
9. Alf Lttdtke, "Einleitung: Was ist und wer trcibt Alltagsgeschichte?" in Liidtke, ed.,
Alltagsgeschichte, 12.
10. Good examples of this earlier work on Alltagsgeschichte are presented injiirgen Reulecke
and Wolfhard Weber, eds., Fabrik, Familie, Feierabend: Beitrage zur Sozialgeschichte des Alltags im
Industriezeitaher (Wuppertal, 1978).
n. On these issues see in particular several of the articles included in Peter Assion, ed.,
David F. Crew 397
Niethammer's ambitious project on the history of the Ruhrgebiet be-
tween 1930 and i960, can provide an access to working-class "experi-
ences" not found in archival and published sources.
Advocates of an anthropologically informed approach to Alltagsge-
schichte, such as Hans Medick, David Sabean, and Alf Liidtke, warn,
however, that the cultural distance separating the historian from his/
her "acting subject" is an even greater problem than the limitations of
the sources. They propose that the historian should attempt to imitate
the anthropologist, to go, in Franz-Josef Bruggemeier's words, on a
"voyage of discovery to one's own people."
Of course, this could
seldom be more than a metaphorical "field trip." Historians cannot
become full-fledged "participant observers" in the cultures they study;
their subjects seldom have the opportunity to "talk back," to challenge
and correct the historian's (mis)understandings of their social prac-
But an awareness of the cultural gap separating present from
past is a necessary corrective to the cultural arrogance of historians
who assume that their ways of knowing are superior to those of their
subjects. Even in one's own land, it is important to remember that
"the past is another country . . . they do things differently there."
In addition to challenging the validity of existing approaches to
Tramformationen der Arbeiterkultur: Beitrage der j . Arbeitstagung der Kommission "Arbeiterkultur" in
der Deutschen Gcsellschaft fiir Volkskunde in Marburg vom j). bis 6. Juni 1985 (Marburg, 1986), but
especially Wolfgang Kaschuba, "Protest und GewaltKorpersprache und Gruppenrituale von
Arbeitern im Vormarz und 1848," 30-48.
12. The results of this project have been published in three volumes: Lutz Niethammer, ed.,
"Die Jahre weiss man nicht, wo man die heute hinsetzen soil": Faschismuserfahrungen im Ruhrgebiet,
Lebensgeschichte und Sozialkultur im Ruhrgebiet 1930 bis i960, vol. 1 (Berlin and Bonn, 1983);
Lutz Niethammer, ed., "Hinterher merkt man, dass es richtig war, dass es schiefgegangen ist": Nach-
kriegserfahntngen im Ruhrgebiet, vol. 2 (Berlin and Bonn, 1983), and Lutz Niethammer and
Alexander von Plato, eds., "Wir kriegen jetzt andere Zeiten": Aufder Suche nach der Erfahrung des
Volkes in Nachjaschistischen Landern, vol. 3 (Berlin and Bonn, 1985).
13. Franz-Josef Brttggemeier, Leben vorOrt: RuhrbergleuteundRuhrbergbau 1889-1919 (Munich,
1983). The key text here is Hans Medick, "'Missionare im Ruderboot'? Ethnologische Er-
kenntnisweisen als Herausforderung an die Sozialgeschichte," Geschichte und Gesellschaft 10
(1984): 295-319, now reprinted in a revised version in Ludtke, ed., Alltagsgeschichte, 4884. See
also Hans Siissmuth, ed., Historische Anthropologie: Der Mensch in der Geschichte (Gottingen,
1984), David Warren Sabean, Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early
Modern Germany (Cambridge, 1984), Robert Berdahl et al., Klassen und Kultur: Sozialanthro-
pologische Perspektiven in der Geschichtsschreibung (Frankfurt, 1982), and Hans Medick and David
Sabean, eds., Interest and Emotion: Essays on the Study of Family and Kinship (Cambridge, 1984).
14. Alf Ludtke, "Einleitung: Was ist und wer treibt Alltagsgeschichte," in Ludtke, ed.,
Alltagsgeschichte; see especially section 2; "De-Zentrierung und 'das Fremde,'" 13-14.
15. From the British film, "The Go-Between."
398 Alltagsgeschichte
German social history, Alltagsgeschichte also questions some of the
standard assumptions of German political history. Alltagsgeschichte has
adopted a particularly aggressive stance in the field of labor history.
German labor history has often been written as an unproblematic
"success story," chronicling the labor movement's inevitable progress
towards a "modern" system of rational industrial relations. But All-
tagsgseschichte provides material for a radical critique of the goals and
strategies of the organized labor movement. Historians of working-
class "everyday life" claim that the formal, organized politics of the
labor movement did not always serve the real day-to-day needs and
interests of ordinary workers.
As Alf Liidtke puts it, "from this
viewpoint, it is not only the achievements that come to the fore; at the
same time, deficits of the 'Free' (as well as of the Christian) trade
unions and working-class parties exhibit themselves during the Em-
pire and, even more, during the Weimar Republic."
Workers had to
develop independent ways of coping with the problems of everyday
life. Their "survival strategies" were embodied in informal social
structures and symbolic cultural practices. Franz Briiggemeier shows,
for example, that the "half-open" miner's family in the Ruhr took in
boarders at different points in its life cycle, thus ensuring its economic
survival, and also helping to integrate young, single miners into the
working-class "community." Alf Liidtke shows how workers on the
shop-floor achieved the symbolic reappropriation of the indepen-
dence, time, and space denied them by industrial labor discipline (a
practice that Liidtke terms Eigensinn) by means of "horseplay" and
"illegal" work-breaks. Some practitioners of Alltagsgeschichte even pro-
pose a radical redefinition of the concept of politics itself, arguing that
everyday "survival strategies" and symbolic practices comprised an
alternative "politics of everyday life," separate from the "official" and
"formal" politics of the German labor movement.
16. See especially Briiggemeier, Leben vor On. For an excellent recent overview, see Geoff
Eley, "Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte: Experience, Culture, and the Politics of
the Everydaya New Direction for German Social History?" Journal of Modern History 61,
no. 2 (June 1989): 297-343.
17. AlfLudtke, "Einleitung," in Ludtke, ed., Alltagsgeschichte, 17.
18. See, for example, AlfLudtke, "Cash, Coffee-Breaks, Horseplay: Eigensinn and Politics
among Factory Workers in Germany circa 1900," in Michael Hanagan and Charles Stephenson,
eds., Confrontation, Class Consciousness and the Labor Process: Studies in Proletarian Class Formation
(New York, 1986), 65-95, and "Organisational Order or Eigensinn} Workers' Privacy and
Workers'Politics in Imperial Germany," in Sean Wilentz, ed., Rites of Power (Philadelphia, 1985).
David E Crew 399
Alltagsgeschkhte has shown what can be learned by examining the
apparently "irrational" features of working-class behavior. Moreover,
it has demonstrated the importance of symbolic and expressive "needs"
as well as material and instrumental "interests."
This approach has
uncovered a popular culture persisting well into the twentieth century
from which seemingly "archaic" and outdated forms of popular pro-
test, such as food riots, periodically erupted. But the official culture
of the German labor movement put a premium on disciplined, in-
strumental, and rational behavior. The "rougher," more "irrational"
features of working-class culture appeared to hinder the organizing
efforts of the labor movement. Consequently, trade unionists and so-
cialists sometimes found themselves in the uncomfortable position of
echoing the sentiments of the bourgeois reformers and "social experts"
who wanted to "colonize" the worker's "life-world" (Lebenswelt) in
order to achieve the "social disciplining" (Sozialdisziplinierung) of
working-class everyday life.
Alltagsgeschkhte approaches the history of the Third Reich in an
equally provocative and unsettling fashion. For example, Alf Liidtke's
recent attempts to explain the relationship between the Nazi regime
and the German people play on the ambiguities and contradictions of
the popular "experience" of German fascism.
He argues that even
workers who had supported the SPD and KPD during the Weimar
19. See, for example, Alf Liidtke, "Everyday Life, the Articulation of Needs and 'Proletarian
Consciousness' Some Remarks on Concepts," unpublished manuscript, and also David Crew,
"Bedurfnisse und Bedurftigkeit: Wohlfahrtsburokratie und Wohlfahrtsempfanger in der Wei-
marer Republik," Sozialwissenschaftlkhe Informationen/'SOWl, Heft I (1989), 12-19.
20. On this point see especially Geoff Eley, "Labor History, Social History, Alltagsge-
schkhte . . . "
21. See especially, Alf Liidtke, "Wo blieb die 'rote Glut'? Arbeitererfahrungen und deutscher
Faschismus," in Ludtke, ed., Alltagsgeschkhte, 224-82, "Die grosse Masse ist teilnahmslos,
nimmt alles hin . . . Herrschaftserfahrungen, Arbeiter-'Eigen-Sinn' und Individualitat vor und
nach 1933," in H.-J. Busch and A. Krovoza, eds., Subjektivitat und Geschkhte: Perspektiven
politischer Psychologie (Frankfurt, 1989), 105-28, and "Formierungen der Massen oder: Mit-
machen und Hinnehmen? 'Alltagsgeschichte' und Faschismusanalyse," in Heide Gerstenberger
and Dorothea Schmidt, eds., Normalita't oder Normalisierung? Geschichtswerkstatten und Faschis-
musanalyse (Munster, 1987), 15-34. For a comparison with earlier work on the subject of
"popular opinion" under the Nazis see the excellent studies by Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion and
Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 10.33-10.45 (Oxford, 1983), and The Hitler Myth: Image
and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford, 1987). See also Martin Broszat, "Alltagsgeschichte der
NS-Zeit," in Hermann Graml and Klaus-Dietmar Henke, eds., Nach Hitler: Der schwierige
Umgang mit unserer Geschkhte: Beitrage von Martin Broszat (Munich, 1987), 131-39, and Detlev
J.K. Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition and Racism in Everyday Life (New
Haven and London, 1987).
400 Alltagsgeschichte
Republic displayed ambivalent attitudes towards the Nazi regime after
The Nazis attempted to exploit this "sceptical acquiescence"
(abwartendes Hinnehmen) with a "symbolic offering" (symbolisches Ange-
bot) in the form, for example, of Nazi insistence on the importance of
"German quality work" {Deutsche Qualitatsarbeit). This was an endur-
ing "cultural icon" in German society that could engage the sym-
pathies of a wide range of ordinary Germans, from factory engineer
to skilled worker, regardless of their former political persuasions.
Like their Italian fascist counterparts, the Nazis also appealed to
younger German workers' fascination with modern machinery. Then
too, German workers may have been made vulnerable to the "mass
symbolism" and militaristic formations of the Third Reich because
they had been introduced to these symbolic forms in the Weimar
socialist and communist movements. Finally, Ludtke asks whether the
working-class practice ofEigensinn might actually have prevented Ger-
man workers from openly resisting Nazism because it allowed them
small acts of daily self-assertion in the workplace.
In short, Liidtke
argues that Nazi domination was built on the ambiguities and con-
tradictions of working-class culture, as well as on the Nazi use of
terror in combination with material inducements to passivity.
The symbolic practices decoded by Alltagsgeschichte are primarily mas-
culine. A recent article by Carola Lipp, Sabine Kienitz, and Beate
Binder shows, however, that it is possible to get at the "everyday"
experiences of women as well as of men. Women took an active part
in the popular protests of the 1840s but their motives and modes of
symbolic expression were quite different from those of the men. The
verbal abuse hurled by Stuttgart women at government troops during
an 1847 bread riot was the political "staging of an everyday practice"
of ritual insult that women learned in the streets of the city's lower-
class neighborhoods.
Dorothee Wierling's contribution to Ludtke's
22. Alf Ludtke, "Wo blieb die 'rote Glut'?" 225.
23. Alf Ludtke, "'Deutsche Qualitatsarbeit': Obereinstimmung und Dissenz zwischen den
Klassen in Deutschland," Kommune 7, no. 4 (1989): 62-66.
24. Alf Ludtke, "Wo blieb die 'rote Glut'?" and "Die grosse Masse ist teilnahmslos, nimmt
alles hin . . . "
25. Carola Lipp, Sabine Kienitz, Beate Binder, "Frauen bei Brotkrawallen, Strassentumulten
und Katzenmusiken: Zum politischen Verhalten von Frauen 1847 und in der Revolution 1848/
49, " m Peter Assion, ed., Transformationen der Arbeiterkultur, 4963.
David E Crew 401
recent collection of essays likewise stresses the importance of rescuing
ordinary German women, as well as men, from "the vast condescen-
sion of posterity." But it also asks that an analysis of relationships and
conflicts between the genders be integrated into the "history of every-
day life." This "gendering" of Alltagsgeschichte has not yet gone very
In the same volume edited by Liidtke, for example, Wolfgang
Kaschuba presents an excellent discussion of the role played by the
myth and reality of strenuous, physical wage labor in the construction
of male working-class cultures. Yet he does not indicate how these
male cultures of work affected everyday relationships between men
and women.
Alltagsgeschichte has frequently been accused of "trivializing" German
history by privileging the "authentic" experiences of ordinary people
without offering any real analysis or interpretation. This seems par-
ticularly dangerous when we come to the history of the Third Reich.
For as Detlev Peukert observes, "the appeal to everyday experience is
not of itself sufficient . . . it is always necessary . . . to offer an in-
terpretation of the economic, social, political and cultural aspects of
the period in question based on the systematic and analytical elabora-
tion of theory. Those who denounce the effort to systematise concepts,
26. See, however, Alf Liidtke, "Hunger, Essens-'Genuss' und Politik bei Fabrikarbeitern und
Arbeiterfrauen: Beispiele aus dem rheinisch-westfalischen Industriegebiet, 19101940," Sozial-
wissenschaftliche Informatioiten/SOWI 14, no. 2 (1985): 118-26.
27. Wolfgang Kaschuba, "Volkskultur und Arbeiterkultur als symbolische Ordnungen:
Einige volkskundliche Anmerkungen zur Debatte um Alltags- und Kulturgeschichte," in
Ludtke, ed., Alltagsgeschichte, 191-223. Paul Willis provides some excellent comments on the
relationship between masculine work identities and patriarchy in his Learning to Labour: How
Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (Westmead, Farnborough, Hants., England, 1977),
especially 147-51. See also, DavidF. Crew, "Class and Community: Local Research on Working-
Class History in Four Countries," in Klaus Tenfelde, ed., Arbeiter und Arbeiterbewegung im
Vergleich: Bericht zur internationalen historischen Forschung, Historische Zeitschrift, Sonderhefte,
vol. 15 (Munich, 1986), 327-32. Kathleen Canning shows that the reconstruction of women's
experiences and cultures of work both illustrates and challenges the German labor movement's
highly gendered construction of "class"; see her "Rethinking German Labor History: Gender
and the Politics of Class Formation 1890-1930," unpublished paper presented to conference on
"The Kaiserreich in the 1990s: New Research, New Directions, New Agendas," University of
Pennsylvania, February 24, 1990. See also Jean Quataert, "Social Insurance and the Family Work
of Oberlausitz Home Weavers in the Late Nineteenth Century," in J. C. Fout, ed., German
Women in the Nineteenth Century: A Social History (New York, 1984), and "The Shaping of
Women's Work in Manufacturing: Guilds, Households, and the State in Central Europe, 1648-
1870," American Historical Review 90 (December 198s): 1122-48.
402 Alltagsgeschkhte
analyses and judgements . . . are driven to the position that the only
kinds of 'authentic' everyday experience that can be cited are those of
the 'alte Kampfer\ Wehrmacht veterans and the man in the corner shop
who 'never had a clue what was going on'. This sort of history ends
up merely reproducing some of the most influential propaganda for-
mulae of National Socialism itself."
Some types of Alltagsgeschkhte
have undoubtedly tended "to submerge disturbing aspects of history
by forcing them into almost fictional narratives."
But this allega-
tion far more accurately describes conservative-revisionist attempts to
"normalize" twentieth-century German history and to "relativize" the
significance of Nazi genocide. Andreas Hillgruber has suggested, for
example, that "If the historian gazes on the winter catastrophe of
1 9 4 4 - 4 5 * Onl y o n e p o s i t i o n is pos s i bl e . . . h e mu s t i dent i f y hi ms e l f
with the concrete fate of the German population in the East and with
the desperate and sacrificial exertions of the German army of the East
and the German Baltic navy, which sought to defend the population
from the orgy of revenge of the Red Army, the mass rapine, the
arbitrary killing and the compulsory deportations. "
With these state-
ments, Hillgruber seriously distorts the history of the war in the East.
It is difficult, for example, to "identify," as Hillgruber suggests, with
German troops who have recently been described as behaving "on the
whole with extreme brutality and barbarism toward the Red Army,
they also laid waste whole areas of the territory they occupied and
massacred or otherwise caused the deaths of millions of innocent ci-
vilians as a matter of policy. "
In addition, Alf Liidtke reminds us that
the "heroism" and "self-sacrifice" of the German armed forces pro-
longed the war and allowed Nazi genocide to continue in the death
camps behind the lines. Nor does Hillgruber bother to discuss the fact
that the "concrete fate" of the German population in the East with
which he asks his readers to identify was a result not of Soviet aggres-
sion but of Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941.
Alltagsgeschkhte has, on the other hand, provided a complex and
28. Detlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 243.
29. Dagmar Freist, "Alltagsgeschichte der Juden: In Search of New Approaches to Jewish
History," 250.
30. Andreas Hillgruber, Zweierlei Untergang: Die Zerschlagung des Deutschcn Reiches und das
Ende des europdischen Judentums (Berlin, 1986), 24.
31. Richard J. Evans, In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from
the Nazi Past (New York, 1989), 60. See also Theo Schulte, The German Army and Nazi Policies
in Occupied Russia (Oxford, 1988).
David F. Crew 403
disturbing picture of "the multiple everyday ambiguities of 'ordinary
people' making their choices among the various greys of active con-
sent, accommodation and nonconformity. "
In his recent article on
the Third Reich, for example, Liidtke declares that it is frequently
impossible to draw clear lines between the "victims" and the "villains"
(Opfer und Ta'ter) in the Nazi regime. The same working-class victims
of Nazism might, in another context, also become its accomplices. In
a brilliant study of "popular opinion" in Bavaria, Ian Kershaw shows
that "The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indif-
ference. "
And Detlev Peukert demonstrates the ubiquity of "every-
day racism" in the Third Reich and argues that the popular intolerance
which moved many Germans to approve of the Nazi regime has not
yet disappeared in West Germany after forty-five years of "formal
Moreover, apparently innocuous and unpolitical fea-
tures of National Socialist "everyday life" (the promise, if not the
reality, of mass consumerism, for example, popular fascination with
new technology, or enjoyment of the pure "entertainment" films
churned out by the Goebbels propaganda machine) appear to have
created a broad basis of popular acquiescence, compliance, and sup-
port for the Nazi regime. These, clearly, are not the lessons about their
past that conservative-revisionist historians such as Nolte and Hill-
gruber or politicians like Kohl want citizens of the present-day Federal
Republic to learn. Alltagsgeschichte encourages citizens of the FRG to
think critically about the place of Nazism in their own history and
about the political relevance of "everyday life" in West Germany today.
Unlike Hillgruber's misappropriation of the history of "popular ex-
perience," Alltagsgeschichte makes it difficult for present-day Germans
simply to "empathize" with the "fate of the German population" in
the last years of the war, or, on the other hand, to distance and dis-
sociate themselves from the "everyday experience" of National Social-
ism. By examining the intense moral ambiguities of everyday life
under National Socialism, Alltagsgeschichte has helped to ensure that
the Nazi years will continue for many Germans to be a "Past That Will
Not Pass Away. "
32. Detlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 243.
33. Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent, 277.
34. Detlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 208-35.
35. The title of Ernst Nolte's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article (6 June 1986): "Ver-
gangenheit, die nicht vergehen will."
404 Alltagsgeschichte
At a time when not only the radical right but even the conservative-
center in West German politics stridently insist on an end to public
discussion of "collective guilt," Alltagsgeschichte plays a much-needed
subversive role in the construction of public memory. But can it pro-
duce a coherent, alternative narrative of the German past? What new
general interpretation of German history, if any, will emerge from
Alltagsgeschichte'? Historians of everyday life have been content mainly
to demonstrate the deficiencies of existing narratives. They argue, for
example, that popular experiences fit poorly, if at all, into the chronol-
ogy of political history. In the memories of the subjects interviewed
for Lutz Niethammer's oral history project there is no sharp line be-
tween "war" and "peace." These ordinary Germans in the Ruhr re-
membered May 1945 as the month when the fighting stopped but the
wartime struggle for survival continued. The currency reform (Wdh-
rungsreform) was a far more important turning point in their postwar
lives than the founding of the Federal Republic.
Alltagsgeschichte has also questioned the ideas of "progress" and
"modernization" upon which conventional narrations of modern Ger-
man history rest. The "new orthodoxy" introduced by the Bielefeld
school in the 1960s explained Nazism as a consequence of Germany's
"failure" to "modernize" properly in the late nineteenth century. Ac-
cording to this interpretation, it was Germany's "preindustrial elites"
and "preindustrial traditions" that eventually brought Hitler to pow-
By contrast, Alltagsgeschichte has adopted a "postmodernist"
critique of the very concepts of "progress" and "modernization,"
arguing that Nazism was one of several possible products of the
"pathologies" and "contradictions" of modernity itself, rather than a
consequence of Germany's antimodern Sonderweg. Detlev Peukert
suggests, for example, that the road to Nazi genocide was built on the
contradictions, crisis, and failure of a seemingly "progressive" exper-
iment in social engineering, the ambitious state welfare system con-
36. See especially Lutz Niethammer, "Heimat und Front: Versuch, zehn Kricgserinnerungen
aus der Arbeiterklasse des Ruhrgebietes zu verstehen," in Lutz Niethammer, cd., "Diejahre weiss
man nicht, wo man die heute hinsetzen soil," 163-232, and Lutz Niethammer, "Privat-Wirtschaft:
Erinnerungsfragmente einer anderen Umerziehung," in Lutz Niethammer, ed., "Hinterher merkt
man, dass es richtig war, dass es schiefgegangen ist," 17106.
37. See especially Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Das Deutsche Kaiserreich 1871-1918 (Gonmgen, 1975),
available in English translation as The German Empire 1871-1918 (Dover, New Hampshire, 1985).
For a critique of the Sonderweg argument see David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities
of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany (New York, 1984).
David F. Crew 405
structed in the Weimar Republic. His discussion blurs the distinctions
normally made by political historians between Weimar and Nazi Ger-
many and between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic. In place
of the old chronology, Peukert inserts an analytical category describing
an entire historical epoch which began with the twentieth century and
which has not yet ended the "classical modern."
Neither the alternative chronologies of popular experience and
memory produced by oral history nor the Alltagsgeschichte critique of
"modernization" and "progress" makes the writing of a general ac-
count of German history impossible. Indeed Peukert has structured
his own recent surveys of the Weimar Republic and of everyday life
under National Socialism around the "contemporaneity of the non-
contemporaneous" and the "crisis of classical modernity."
But an-
other aspect of the Alltagsgeschichte approach does have more radical
implications; Alltagsgeschichte's pursuit of the radically "de-centered"
subject leads to the conclusion that there can be no single, privileged,
or "master" narrative and that the "history of everyday life" requires
the complex reconstruction of a variety of individual lives and experi-
ences. In theory, there could be as many "histories" of the First World
War or of the Third Reich as there were individuals who lived through
and experienced these periods of the German past. Reading traditional
written records "against the grain," the practice of oral history, the
deciphering of Korpersprache and symbolic actions does provide new
evidence about the history of "everyday life." Yet, even with the help
of these new sources and methods, will Alltagsgeschichte actually be
able to gain access to the experiences of any more than a small minority
of "ordinary people"? And how will we know whether the individual
experiences that can be reconstructed in sufficient detail are represen-
"Thick description" of "revealing miniatures" also tends to dissolve
the collective subjects of more conventional narratives"class," "na-
tion," "party," "movement," and, more recently, "gender." Conse-
quently, Alltagsgeschichte has begun to drift away from what was once
the major concern of the "new social history" in Germany the con-
38. Dctlev Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 26-46 and 208-35; Die Weimarer Republik: Krisen-
jahre der Klassischen Moderne (Frankfurt, 1987); and, most recently, "Die Genesis der 'Endlosung'
aus dem Geist der Wissenschaft," in Detlev Peukert, Max Webers Diagnose der Moderne (Gottingen,
39. Detlev Peukert, Die Weimarer Republik and Inside Nazi Germany.
406 Alltagsgeschichte
struction of a social history of politics and the conceptualization of
society as a whole. The "historians of everyday life" argue correctly
that the questions asked by many labor historians are sometimes too
simplistic: were workers united or divided, radical or reformist, did
they resist Nazi HenschafP. Alltagsgeschichte attempts instead to recap-
ture the nuances, ambiguities, and contradictions of popular experi-
ence which made workers' relationships with their employers, with
the state, but also with one another, far more complex than other
labor historians have been willing to admit. Yet, if workers were, as
Alltagsgeschichte shows, divided by a wide variety of cultures and ex-
periences, how did class-based collective action happen? How did
socialist politics using a "language of class" win popular support? For
the answers, Alltagsgeschichte will have to pay more attention to the
analysis of contemporary political and social "discourses" and to their
purchase on popular anxieties, hopes, and fears. Did the language of
the German labor movement with its emphasis on collective solidar-
ity and the labor theory of valueprovide a collective identity for
workers that had not emerged from the immediate experiences of
everyday life? Why was National Socialism apparently more successful
than the German labor movement in exploiting symbolic forms that
resonated with the everyday life experiences and with the "irrational"
needs, wants, and desires of many ordinary Germans? Why did the
German left fail to recognize the singular importance of preempting
fascism on this important political terrain? Peter Schottler injects these
questions into debates about Alltagsgeschichte in his essay on "Men-
talitaten, Ideologien, Diskurse: Zur sozialgeschichtlichen Thematisie-
rung der 'dritten Ebene.'" But "language" and "discourse" are clearly
not yet standard terms in the working vocabulary of Alltagsgeschichte.
40. Peter Schottler, "Mentalitaten, Ideologien, Diskurse: Zur sozialgeschichtlichen Themati-
sierung der 'dritten Ebene,'" in Liidtke, ed., Alltagsgeschichte, 85-136. See also Peter Schottler,
"Historians and Discourse Analysis," History Workshop: A Journal of Socialist and Feminist Histo-
rians, Issue 27 (Spring 1989), 37-65. For some ideas about how the analysis of political languages
might come to play a greater role in the development of Alltagsgeschichte see, in particular, Gareth
Stedman Jones, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982 (Cambridge,
1983), and Thomas Childers, "The Social Language of Politics in Germany: The Sociology of
Political Discourse in the Weimar Republic," American Historical Review 95, no. 2 (April 1990):
David F. Crew 407
The theoretical and methodological discussion of Alltagsgeschichte will
undoubtedly continue to be permeated by an insistence on the need
to distance oneself from purely "rationalist" and "teleological" un-
derstandings of history and on the importance of learning to "live
with" ambiguity, "uneven development," and contradiction in history
The uninitiated will sometimes find the language of
Alltagsgeschichte disorienting and even confusing. But this effect is
quite intentional and it will, I think, continue to hamper efforts to
achieve the kind of working compromise with Strukturgeschichte that
Jiirgen Kocka has proposed in a Frankfurter Rundschau article. Until
now one of the harshest critics of Alltagsgeschichte, Kocka adopts an
altogether more conciliatory tone in this piece, suggesting that Struk-
turgeschichte and Erfahrungsgeschichte can not only coexist but even en-
rich one another; "the synthesis of the history of structures and the
history of experience is the seldom realized goal." Kocka suggests that
the "house of history" has many rooms and he does not see why
Alltagsgeschichte should be unable to find a permanent home in one of
Yet as long as Alltagsgeschichte continues to propose such a
radically different approach to the writing of social history in West
Germany, it is unlikely to be content with just a room of its own in
a house where Strukturgeschichte is still the landlord.
41. Alf Liidtke, "Einleitung," in Liidtke, ed., Alltagsgeschichte, 21-26.
42. See also Kocka's recent collection of essays, Geschichte und Aujkldrung: Aujsatze (Gottingen,