Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Negotiating the Modern, Reworking the Past

The Political Meanings of Domestic Objects in West Germany (1945-1965)

Dr. Natalie Scholz


After 1945, continually improving provision with material goods became the raison d’être of the social and political post-war order establishing itself in Western Europe. In this context, the material and aesthetic furnishing of the private domestic sphere was coupled with a legitimation and symbolic representation of the political framework. This formed part of the broad cultural phenomenon encompassing an emphatic renewal of modern society after the Second World War. These two aspects – the symbolic coupling of domestic furnishings with the political order; the linking of this couple with a powerful discourse about a new beginning – serve as a starting point for the project.

The core idea consists in making a systematic connection between the cultural ability of material things as consumer objects to contribute to the establishment of identities, on the one hand, and their ability to maintain or embody memories and/or traditions, on the other. I propose to discard completely the common dichotomy between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’, and instead to question how the past was perceived and processed in that which was explicitly ‘new’, as well as to question how change was perceived and processed in that which was obviously ‘old’. The guiding premise is that the complex coexistence of these two elements became an essential component in the ‘cultural rebuilding’ which took place during the postwar period.

The early Federal Republic of Germany seems to be a particularly striking example of a cultural practice common throughout Europe. This practice consisted in employing material everyday culture very particularly as a medium of memory and of identity establishment, enabling people to revisit aspects of the past very flexibly, to reject them, reinterpret them, renew them, recreate them or replace them – whether they be aspects of the Nazi era, the Weimar Republic or the German Empire. Domestic objects were used after 1945 not only to renegotiate modernity, but at the same time to rework the periods prior to this new 'modernity': negotiating the modern also meant reworking the past.