Sweeping the German Nation: Domesticity and National Identity in Germany, 1870-1945.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Matysik, Tracie
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Sweeping the German Nation: Domesticity and National Identity in Germany, 1870-1945 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Reagin, Nancy
Accession Number: 209577960
Full Text: Sweeping the German Nation: Domesticity and National Identity in Germany, 1870-1945. By Nancy Reagin (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii plus 247 pp. $84.00).

For over two decades now historians have been uncovering "the silent victory of the German bourgeoisie"--a victory won in the nineteenth century not by the assumption of political sovereignty, but by the acquisition of influence on German public life. Some historians have found this victory in legal and governmental reform; others have identified this victory in the formation of vibrant civic activism. In her study Sweeping German the Nation, Nancy Reagin convincingly maintains that one of the most thorough victories of the German bourgeoisie occurred not through its public influence but through its private self-conception. This more private bourgeois victory was led by its women who managed to establish a normative conception of German domesticity in the course of the nineteenth century. Importantly, the idea of a distinctively German domesticity succeeded not only at fusing the most private elements of individual lives to the idea of Germanness, but also at uniting an otherwise very diverse bourgeoisie. If the German civil servant and the German industrial magnate enjoyed rather different incomes and social status, they could nonetheless share similar goals of household maintenance; and through this shared sense of private comportment, they could come to see themselves as a uniformly German middle class.

According to Reagin the popular press played a central role in facilitating a common bourgeois German domesticity. Urbanization and upward class mobility in the nineteenth century produced a new social context in which German women were faced with domestic tasks that their mothers and grandmothers had not seen. As a result, inexpensive handbooks and periodicals came to be essential guides for bourgeois woman--whether they were independently maintaining their households or managing a team of servants. No home was complete without its Bible and "the Davidis," the cookbook written by Henriette Davidis in 1844. Likewise, Lina Morgenstem's periodical, Die Deutsche Hausfrauen-Zeitung, was preferred reading for the growing middle class. These and similar publications taught women what to serve at mealtime, when to polish the stove, and how to keep their linens snowy white.

Complementing the advice literature were the new housewives' organizations that emerged, first locally and later nationally. Closely affiliated with the bourgeois women's movement that blossomed in the last years of the nineteenth century, these organizations helped to convert matters of household maintenance into matters of public discussion and service. As World War I stretched on, housewives' organizations took the lead in managing the homefront, educating women across Germany to stretch calories--or work with nontraditional foods--in order to preserve supplies for the front. During the Weimar era the housewives' organizations began to veer politically ever more rightward until finally, marking a departure from the majority of women's organizations, they were appropriated and empowered by National Socialism.

The strength of her argument emerges most forcefully in her attention to German interaction with non-German cultures. She examines the effects that German perception of superior domestic habits carried when German citizens encountered foreign cultures. The German colonies in Southwest Africa feature particularly prominently, as commentators often used norms of domesticity to distinguish Germanness from Africanness. Supporters of colonization often urged German women to move to the colonies not only to prevent German men from marrying African women, but also to create a German order of domestic life. But German writers did not confine their sense of superiority solely to colonized African modes of daily life. Indeed, Reagin makes frequent use of German commentary on the superiority of German domestic norms over those of their European rivals as well.

Not surprisingly, German claims to superior domestic norms reached a climax in the Nazi era, especially after the German invasion of Poland and the outbreak of war in the East. Here Reagin demonstrates the central role that norms of domesticity played in ethnic cleansing. According to Nazi ideology, ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe and Russia were supposed to exhibit a natural inclination for German domestic norms, and demonstration of this inclination could be decisive in shaping their fate--i.e., whether or not they would be naturalized as German citizens. German women carried enormous influence in this domain, mobilized to inspect the households of occupied territories and influencing citizenship decisions.

In the chapter on ethnic cleansing, Reagin's earlier emphasis on the role of urbanization in the shaping of German bourgeois domesticity reappears in a new light. The German women assigned to inspect the homes of Eastern Europe assumed an almost timeless quality to German household habits as a quality of the Germanic race, and hence were puzzled when the rural households of ethnic Germans in the East didn't resemble those of the Berlin bourgeoisie. To accommodate discoveries on the Eastern front, Nazi inspectors had to revise their conception of domesticity as an intrinsic dimension of the German race, learning rather to understand it as a teachable dimension of the race.

An especially strong element of Reagin's argument is her claim that domesticity cut across regional and confessional divides in the bourgeoisie and in the bourgeois women's movement, creating a unity that fractured only under the crises of Weimar. Yet one might wonder if the unity she stresses in the nineteenth century tells the whole story. Recent literature has begun to emphasize the importance of conflict and diversity amongst bourgeois reform movements, as well as the importance of international organization for those movements. Likewise, much recent research into the private has explored the resistance of individuals to normative pressures and the failure of the nation to fully colonize the private. Reagin gives us a very convincing picture of the normative pressures on private domestic organization and of the public relevance of those domestic norms. Yet another generation of research will be able to build on her work to examine the tensions and overlaps between the public and the private, as well as between the national and the international.

Altogether Reagin's study is extremely well researched and broadly conceived. Its transnational chapters in particular provide new insight into the formations--and transformations--of German national identity, making it necessary reading for any scholar grappling with the problem of the German bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Tracie Matysik

University of Texas at Austin
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.