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  • The Challenge of Modernity: German Social and Cultural Studies, 1890–1960
  • Jessica Gienow-Hecht
The Challenge of Modernity: German Social and Cultural Studies, 1890–1960. By Adelheid von Saldern (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. xxii plus 383 pp. $64.50).

Adelheid von Saldern belongs to a small group of German female senior historians who, in the past thirty years, have initiated pioneering developments in German historiography, particularly in the realm of gender and local history. This book serves to introduce her research to a broader audience in the United States. It includes eleven essays (one of which von Saldern co-authored with Karen Heinze and Sibylle Küster) based on recent and contemporary historiographical developments in social and cultural studies, grouped under three different headings: “The Dynamics of the Working-Class Movement in Society;” “Social Rationalization and Gender;” and “Popular Culture and Politics.” Modernization features as a component in all of these essays, though the individual articles cover an impressive range of topics. Von Saldern avoids a dogmatic approach but instead opts for a broad definition including party organization, bureaucratization, the differentiation of society and participation in political life, social rationalization and popular culture. All chapters were previously published in German-language journals and collections. Now the University of Michigan Press has collected, translated and published them as part of Geoff Eley’s series, “Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany.”

Dedicated to labor history, the first section focuses on internal conflicts within the Wilhelminian SPD as well as perceptions of labor parties during the Weimar [End Page 217] period. Based on her research on the Göttingen SPD, von Saldern shows that hinterlanders were more reluctant to join the party than city dwellers. Some regions therefore remained permanently weak, a development fostered by a growing trend toward centralization, bureaucracy, and hierarchalism. As a result, even before World War One, tensions between party headquarters and its branches outside of the big cities chipped away at the strength of the SPD, alienating locals from the central administration and weakening the party’s overall response to competing political formations. The “myths” of a united working class eventually crumbled after World War One due to the permanent split between the SPD and KPD but also because many voters did not perceive their plight as related to class.

In part two of this volume, von Saldern integrates questions of labor history with Alltagsgeschichte (history of every day life) and gender studies. Here, she shows how the development of modern lower class housing was cast in the context of the “reconstruction” and clean-up of society at large. Reformers and architects like Martin Gropius saw themselves as “remodelers of humankind,” hoping to encourage the development of a “new man” who would exhibit a “modern way of life.” Informed by Taylorism, they studied efficient ways of housekeeping and devised hygienic standards designed to clean up both the slums and the race. From how to keep bedrooms clean and airy to pressing questions such as “How Should Linoleum Floors Be Cleaned?” manuals, house wards, caretakers, and municipal works provided housewives (i.e. above all women) with plenty of advice on how to adjust their life to the newest, healthiest and scientifically most efficient manner of domestic life. For all the modernity involved, this did not entail a renunciation of traditional gender roles; instead, the modern household along with all its new appliances declaring out-and-out war on dust and darkness effectively “regendered” the existing norm along the lines of modern rationalization. Poverty and homelessness featured the downside of this perception, as the life of Gertrud Polley reveals, a lower-class woman from Hannover who became somewhat of a scandal in the late 1920s. Here, von Saldern shows best how political history, gender analysis as well as cultural studies can be intertwined. A single mother, divorcee, temporary prostitute, vagabond, and, for the most part of her life, a recipient of welfare, Polley did not represent the “new woman” of the 1920s but, instead, a “crank” who embodied everything that seemed threatening to modern reformers: independence, protest, promiscuity, and indecency. As a result, city authorities in Berlin took her son away while...

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pp. 217-219
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