A collection of the everyday: “Alltagsgeschicte”
The noted British historian Ian Kershaw once noted that the grand sweep of the period had been done to death in books and popular media and that few unexpected surprises were likely for future historians. However, he was of the opinion that that studying the mundane and everyday aspects of life in Nazi Germany, greater insights could be had.
He named this approach “Alltagsgeschicte” – literally the history of the everyday.
When we watch documentaries, we are typically bombarded with excerpts from propaganda films such as as Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”. While not denying that such material is important, does it actually tell us much about the day-to-day existence of people in that place and time; or did people actually live everyday in a Nazi rally? Did they never work? Never pay taxes? Never struggle to put food on the table? Never worry about what their children were learning in school?
Some think that pondering the everyday realities is pointless and that in doing so, it draws attention away from the terrors and horrors of the regime, especially those who, just by being who they were, were considered to be alien elements and who suffered terribly for it.
I disagree. We don’t think that when we study the Medieval period (for example) that we should should just concentrate on the lives, motivations and actions of Kings, do we? Concentrating on the top 1% of a society will not give you a balanced view. When I work on excavations, if I discover a piece of broken coarse-ware pottery, the sort of stuff you mind find a peasant cooking their pottage in, I don’t throw it away as junk because it is not gold or a sword.
Why then, should this period be any different? Something I hear often when giving 3rd Reich history tours is “If I lived back then, I would have tried to fight back“. Most people did not. Maybe they loved what Hitler was doing (at least before the war and when he was winning it). Some where indifferent. Others dead-set against it. Very few actually put their heads above the parapet to protest once the regime was in power: because you might literally lose it. What follows then are items not from people you might have read about or seen a documentary on, but from common people. What did they actually believe? How much did they know? These items don’t give answers so easily – and as is often the case in history – they may hold more than one interpretation depending on the question(s) you pose.