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5. Uncertainties of Modernist Culture
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Overview   |   1. The Deepening of Division   |   2. The Conflict between Democracy and Dictatorship   |   3. Strains in the Social Market Economy   |   4. Responses to Social Conflicts   |   5. Uncertainties of Modernist Culture   |   6. Western Success and Eastern Failure

In the cultural realm, the 1960s witnessed the sweeping triumph of modernism in both German states. Publicly supported elite institutions, such as museums, theaters, and concert halls in the West were now dominated by an internationally oriented avant garde that promoted Abstract Expressionism, the theater of the absurd, and experimental music – tastes that only sophisticates could follow. Since the 1950s, the masses turned to popular culture, purveyed by better radios, color television sets, long playing records, tape decks, and the like. These devices promoted imports, such as rock and roll music and Hollywood movies, which made American lifestyles, pictured in glossy magazines, synonymous with the modern version of the good life. With rising prosperity, the implements of mass consumption, such as telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, and automobiles spread throughout the West German population. The GDR was hard pressed to offer a copy of this attractive consumerism with its own socialist version, but could not compete (25).

Cultural and attitudinal change was partly fuelled by the massive expansion of secondary schooling and higher education. In the West, Georg Picht criticized the "educational deficit" and Ralf Dahrendorf called education a "civil right," demanding an increase in higher schooling and more equal opportunities for disadvantaged students. By the 1970s, massive investment in teacher training and hiring and the construction of new buildings allowed about half of an age cohort to enter high school and one-quarter to attend university. Educational reformers also created comprehensive schools [Gesamtschulen], integrated post-secondary institutions [Gesamthochschulen], and offered more choice in curricula. But by the 1980s, the impetus was spent, lack of funding had renewed overcrowding, and the participation of students in decisions was rolled back by the Federal Constitutional Court. In the GDR, socialists created a polytechnical education, closer to vocational training, which favored children from workers' and peasants' families. But the third university reform was a curious mixture of overdue modernization and politicization that increased SED control (26).

The rapid pace of social and cultural modernization eventually provoked a series of identity debates about what it meant to be German in a divided country. In the Western state, they began with the rediscovery of Heimat, a somewhat mystical notion of one's home and regional rootedness, whose popularity extended well beyond the ranks of the Greens. Another discussion revolved around the conundrum of which traits remained "German" after a thorough internationalization of culture, outlook, and habits that even shifted food preferences to Italian cuisine. A third debate, called the Historikerstreit [the Historians' Debate] focused on the issue of German guilt and the singularity of the Holocaust, which critical intellectuals asserted, but conservative members of the older generation continued to reject (27). In the GDR, the Honecker regime tried to broaden its popular base by accepting some previously criticized figures from the German past, including the reformer Martin Luther, the Prussian king Frederick the Great, and the German unifier Otto von Bismarck. Although they rejected nationalism, some writers on both sides used the term Kulturnation [cultural nation] to express a lingering sense of Germanness. (28)

(25) Michael Wildt, Am Beginn der "Konsumgesellschaft". Mangelerfahrung, Lebenshaltung und Wohlstand in Westdeutschland in den fünfziger Jahren (Hamburg, 1994), vs. Ina Merkel, Utopie und Bedürfnis. Geschichte der Konsumkultur in der DDR (Cologne, 1999), and "Working People and Consumption under Really-Existing Socialism: Perspectives from the German Democratic Republic," International Labor and Working Class History 55 (1999), pp. 92-111.
(26) Konrad H. Jarausch, "Das Humboldt-Syndrom. Die westdeutschen Universitäten 1945-1989 – Ein akademischer Sonderweg?" and John Connelly, "Humboldt im Staatsdienst. Ostdeutsche Universitäten 1945-1989," in Mitchell G. Ash, ed., Mythos Humboldt. Vergangenheit und Zukunft der deutschen Universitäten (Vienna, 1999), pp. 58-104.
(27) Herman Glaser, Kleine deutsche Kulturgeschichte. Eine west-östliche Erzählung vom Kriegsende bis heute (Frankfurt am Main, 2004). Cf. Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust and German National Identity (Cambridge, MA, 1988).
(28) Helmut Meier and Walther Schmidt, eds., Erbe und Tradition in der DDR. Die Diskussion der Historiker (Berlin, 1988). Cf. Konrad H. Jarausch, "Die postnationale Nation. Zum Identitätswandel der Deutschen 1945-1995," Historicum (Spring 1995), pp. 30-35.

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