Saturday, February 18, 2012

Thomas A. Kohut's "A German Generation"

Thomas A. Kohut is the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Professor of History at Williams College and author of Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
The book tells the story of the generation of Germans born just before the outbreak of World War I whose lives spanned the course of the twentieth century. It tells and seeks to understand that story through the experience of 62 Germans belonging to this generation who told their life stories to interviewers in the mid 1990s. Although my book focuses on the entire history of 20th-century Germany, the Third Reich is at the heart of the book and of the experience of the interviewees, who generally recall it as the happiest time in their lives, at least until the tide began to turn against Germany after Stalingrad. Even though I found that I didn’t particularly like the interviewees, I sought to empathize with them, with their enthusiasm for National Socialism during the Third Reich, and in particular to understand their commitment to Nazism’s fundamental ideological tenet, the racial collective of the Volksgemeinschaft. Indeed, in the book generally, I seek to tell and understand the history of this generation by thinking my way inside the experience of its members.

Although seeking to empathize with people who had been enthusiastic Nazis is uncommon perhaps, what sets my book apart is the way I present historical material in it. In fact, my book’s structure is, as far as I know, unique. The book contains three different forms of historical writing: a presentation of the interview material, an analysis of that material, and, a series of essays presenting related work of other scholars that enable readers to determine how typical or representative the experiences of my interviewees are of other members of their generation.

Page 99 of the book lands the reader in the midst of the interview material. And here is where my book is most unique and, I suspect, controversial. Rather than present the 62 interviews individually, I have woven the individual interviews together to form six “composite” interviews, three men and three women, each pair representing one period in twentieth-century German history and one period in their lives: youth during the Weimar Republic; young adulthood during the Third Reich; and maturity in postwar West Germany. Readers will be able to see exactly how I have combined the interviews. Page 99 relates the experience of “Hans Orthmann,” who is in reality twenty-two different men. On page 99 “Orthmann” describes being wounded at the front during the last days of the war, his capture by the Americans, and his subsequent harrowing experiences in Soviet captivity.
Learn more about A German Generation at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue