Pandora's Box: Gender and the Complicating of Modern German History
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Pandora's Box: Gender and the Complicating of Modern German History Atina Grossmann. Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. xvii + 304 pp. ISBN 0-19-505672-8. Isabel V. Hull. Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. xiii + 467 pp. ISBN 08014 -3126-3. Mary Jo Maynes. Taking the Hard Road: Life Course in French and German Workers'Autobiographies in the Era of Industrialization. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. xii + 263 pp. ISBN 0-8078-4497-7. Nancy Reagin. A German Women's Movement: Class and Gender in Hanover, 1880-1933. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. xii + 322 pp. ISBN 0-8078-^525-6. Doris L. Bergen Does it just seem so in retrospect, or was modern German history a fairly straightforward field in the 1970s and early 1980s? Periodization was easy; one had wars and changes in regime so that dates like 1648, 1871,1918,1933, and 1945 provided obvious parameters for monographs and academic courses. The dominant debates, although often bitter, had become famUiar. Did German history follow a Sonderweg, a "special path" that led directly from failure to achieve a bourgeois revolution in the nineteenth century to the catastrophe of National Socialism? Was it primarily foreign poticy or domestic policy that shaped developments in Germany? Did German aggression unleash World War I? Was the Holocaust planned or produced under the pressures of war in the east? Did continuity or discontinuity characterize German history? These were—and are—important questions. But they are also typically cast as questions about men. Diplomats, politicians, industrialists, and soldiers dominate the story they tell. Since the early 1980s, a diverse group of scholars—almost all of them women, some of them, particularly in Germany, existing near the margins of institutionalized academic Ufe— have been shifting the focus of German history: to women, women's bodies, and the ways that gender has shaped events and perceptions in the German past. In different ways, each of the four books under © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. 2 (Summer) 1997 Review Essay: Doris L. Bergen 165 discussion here is part of that ongoing process. Their authors, all connected to universities in the United States, build on well-established foundations and fulfill some of the promise shown in earlier women's history. At their best, however, these books are at least as disruptive as they are affirming. With gusto and in some cases superb style, their authors take on truisms of German history, including some introduced by women's historians in recent years. Other conventional wisdom, although not challenged explicitly, begins to unravel on its own when confronted with the decentering force of gender. Even a reader who is not convinced by each specific argument risks finishing these books with a sense that things are in motion. Insights, doubts, complications, and vague possibilities abound. The unsettling effect of these studies taken together—indeed of gender history as a whole—can be captured in the image on the dust-jacket of Isabel Hull's book: Pandora's box. Once it is opened, who knows what will fly out. But no matter what it is, it will probably not lend itself to domestication. And if these books are any indication, it is likely to "complicate the categories," to borrow a phrase from the 1996 Berkshire Conference, whether we are talking about sex, the body, class, politics, time, or reUgion. What happens when we put sex at the center of our historical inquiry? Isabel HuU's impressive new study, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815, demonstrates the transformative power of taking seriously the relation of state, society, and what she calls "the sexual system"—that is, "the patterned ways in which sexual behavior is shaped and given meaning through institutions"(l). In a thoroughly researched, compellingly argued, hefty study, Hull makes good on her promise to write "the history of the changing public interest in sexual behavior at the moment of fundamental transformation toward the modern" (6). The German...


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