Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Caroline Mezger's "Forging Germans"

Caroline Mezger is an historian at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich. She holds degrees in history from Yale University and Central European University (Budapest), as well as a PhD in History and Civilization from the European University Institute (Florence).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Forging Germans: Youth, Nation, and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, 1918-1944, and reported the following:
For much of the twentieth century, childhood and youth became a battleground as states, political activists, social and cultural movements, and even religious agencies attempted to define their own notions of belonging therein. However, even as activists endeavored to inculcate young individuals with certain ideological notions "from above," their initiatives were always forced to contend with the lived realities, aspirations, and practices of the people they targeted. Page 99 of my book, Forging Germans: Youth, Nation, and the National Socialist Mobilization of Ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia, 1918-1944, describes some of the (often quite comedic) tensions that arose as the grand schemes of Nazi Germany to imbue young ethnic Germans in interwar Yugoslavia with a pro-Nazi German identity faltered when put into practice on a local level. Specifically, it uses German Foreign Office records to recount several instances in which Catholic priests, who had been sent to Yugoslavia to preach the Nazi gospel among young ethnic Germans during the mid-1930s, failed in their mission. Instead of imbuing his sermons with pro-Nazi propaganda, the priest Karl von Koeth, for instance, publicly shamed young Nazi enthusiasts, denounced those ethnic German youth who had been sent (by Germany's Catholic authorities) on propagandistic tours of the Reich, and openly declared the Third Reich's concentration camps as equally criminal to the Soviet Union's. Von Koeth was quickly threatened by the Gestapo. However, the damage had been done, as it became clear that even Reich-dispatched clergymen did not always believe in the Nazi mission.

Page 99 is quite representative of the book as a whole on several levels. On the one hand, it quite clearly shows how ideological projects, as envisioned "from above", found themselves in continuous tension when implemented "from below", as they occasionally encountered resistance not only from the people they had hoped to influence, but from the very activists commissioned with their movement's dissemination. On the other hand, it illustrates the complex array of actors who had become implicated, by the mid-1930s, in transmitting the Nazi cause among Europe's ethnic Germans. Besides the usual suspects of Foreign Office, SS, Hitler Youth, and other agencies — studied more or less successfully by historians dealing with ethnic Germans in other regions — the Churches, too, became deeply implicated in nationalized, even pro-National Socialist battles over the hearts and minds of young ethnic Germans.

What page 99 hardly reflects, however, are the voices of young ethnic Germans themselves. Indeed, throughout the book, my narrative draws extensively on original oral history interviews with individuals who had spent their childhood and/or youth in the two Yugoslav regions that I studied: the eventually Hungarian-occupied Batschka/Bácska/Bačka, and the eventually German-occupied Western Banat. Using oral history interviews, as well as sources produced by and about ethnic German children and youth, the book traces the myriad ways in which youth mobilization schemes, education, and fluctuating conditions of occupation and war affected young ethnic Germans. Placing young ethnic Germans at the center of analysis — indeed, framing them as historical actors in their own right — enables us to see children and youth not merely as the target of (nationalist) ideological movements, but as their active (co-) creators. As such, Forging Germans highlights the multifarious ways in which children and youth themselves had agency, an agency which at times directly implicated them in some of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century.
Learn more about Forging Germans at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue