Fulbrook, Mary. Dissonant Lives: Generations of Violence through the German Dictatorships.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Hare, J. Laurence
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: International Social Science Review Publisher: Pi Gamma Mu Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Pi Gamma Mu ISSN: 0278-2308
Issue: Date: Spring-Summer, 2012 Source Volume: 87 Source Issue: 1-2
Topic: NamedWork: Dissonant Lives: Generations of Violence through the German Dictatorships (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Fulbrook, Mary
Accession Number: 294895892
Full Text: Fulbrook, Mary. Dissonant Lives: Generations of Violence through the German Dictatorships. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii + 515 pages. Cloth, $65.00.

More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the study of the lives of ordinary Germans in the former East Germany has moved more firmly into the purview of the historian. Armed with decades of archival research and a growing collection of autobiographies, memoirs, and letters from former citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), scholars have at last found themselves in a position to assess the experiences of those who dwelled under the communist dictatorship. Such inquiry has coincided with fresh approaches to similar questions about past generations living under that other German dictatorship in the Third Reich. What has remained unexplored, however, are the continuities across the two periods. What was it like, we might ask, to live through two brutal but disparate dictatorial regimes? This is precisely the question that Mary Fulbrook's Dissonant Lives sets out to answer as she examines the generations of Germans who lived through both regimes and whose accounts reveal the surprising links between the two.

In this extensively researched volume, Fulbrook, a professor of German history at University College London, shows her skill at rendering broad questions about the German past accessible for the uninitiated while still making significant contributions to the thornier academic debates within German history. She draws on statistical studies to identify a number of so-called "sore thumb" age cohorts that stood out during the years of the Third Reich and the GDR. For Fulbrook, the goal is not merely to prove that these generational groups played disproportionate roles in the respective regimes; rather, she wishes to learn why they were so salient. "To explain this remarkable loyalty and to under stand the different experiences of other generations no amount of statistical analysis will be sufficient: we need also to look at people's subjective experiences" (p. 258). This leads Fulbrook to take a "history from within" approach that traces the ways in which individuals participated in or responded to the shifting regimes, beginning with the Wilhelmine German Empire after 1900 and ending with the reunification of Germany in 1990. In many cases, she is able to follow her subjects across multiple eras, thus revealing the ways in which individuals fashioned their sense of self in far-reaching and rapidly changing historical circumstances. These cases in particular yield the most interesting findings of the book, which are first that the seeming rupture between the Third Reich and the GDR is illusory, and second that one cannot understand the choices of citizens living in the latter without understanding their experiences in the former.

The scope of this study is simply staggering, and one might argue that the extant source base is piteously small for accomplishing such an ambitious project. Fulbrook's research, however, seems up to the task, and is remarkable in both breadth and depth. Especially impressive are the many small insights derived from close readings of hundreds of memoirs, war letters, diaries, and interviews, which together reveal a convincingly complex array of choices and responses from a range of individuals, including active supporters, victims, and marginalized figures of the regimes, along with a number of subjects who merely kept their heads down and did their best to conform to the demands of the state. The circumstances facing these individuals were in many instances as varied as their responses, but at times a few common themes emerge. Most significant among these is the role of violence, whether visible in war and genocide or hidden in state surveillance and repression. It was violence, Fulbrook argues, that proved critical in shaping the perspectives and choices of different age groups. With so many shades of gray, of course, it is not surprising that Fulbrook at other times finds simple patterns to be elusive. Yet she leaves the reader little room to doubt the powerful historical agency evident in the choices of her subjects. With this in mind, Fulbrook proceeds to challenge some powerful concepts in German historical studies. For example, the notion of the "bystander," so popular in studies of the Holocaust, is complicated by the pervasive presence of violence in the lives of "ordinary" Germans living under Hitler. The continuities, meanwhile, between generations living through both the Third Reich and the GDR render untenable any notion of an absolute rupture, or "zero hour" at the end of World War II. And in the case of both dictatorships, the lopsided complicity of the "war front" generation in the Nazi regime and the "1929er" generation in the GDR destabilize any top-down totalitarian model of German dictatorship.

Given the vastness of Fulbrook's source base and the difficulties of identifying generational cohorts, some scholars may pine for a more thorough discussion of her methods. Other readers will wonder why considerations of gender are so noticeably absent from Fulbrook's exploration of identity construction. But most will agree that this book is a monumental achievement that will long stand as a frame of reference for future studies into the experience of dictatorship.

J. Laurence Hare, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of History

University of Arkansas

Fayetteville, Arkansas
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