A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century by Thomas A. Kohut.

Author:Hare, Laurence
Position:Book review

Kohut, Thomas A. A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. x + 335 pages. Paper, $30.00.

In June 2014, Arts.21, the cultural magazine of German news service Deutsche Welle, unveiled "When We Were 17: Youth at the Crossroads," an online exhibit showcasing the experiences of young Germans at six key moments in the country's history during the last century. The exhibit followed closely on the heels of the television miniseries, Unsere Mutter, Unsere Vater (Generation War), which was produced by German broadcaster ZDF and told the story of five friends coming of age in Germany during the Second World War. Such examples attest to the ways in which generational approaches to the German past have recently became all the rage. Scholars, too, have undertaken new studies of German history through a generational lens, including the historian Mary Fulbrook, whose 2012 work, Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships, followed two "war youth" generations through the years of Nazism and Communism. And now fellow historian Thomas A. Kohut has joined the conversation with his latest, A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century.

Kohut, whose background is largely in psychohistory, comes to the study of generations to understand how historical events shape the human psyche. Such questions, of course, tend to be controversial among many historians, who debate whether scholars can derive a psychological profile utilizing only the limited resources of the historical record. But here Kohut is on firmer ground, as he turns to sociology to frame a set of historical questions in the context of collective experience. Specifically, he builds on the work of the German sociologist Karl Mannheim, who argued for a notion of "generational consciousness," for individuals who, in his words, "had been exposed to the same--generally destabilizing--social and historical forces in adolescence" (p. 5). Kohut examines one such group belonging to the so-called Weimar-youth generation, whose members grew up during the First World War and Weimar era, reached young adulthood during the years of the Third Reich, and retired in the postwar Federal Republic. His first objective is to reveal the ways in which "different historical experiences gave distinct shape to each German generation" (p. 8), with a specific focus on how these experiences are imprinted most...

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