(Inter)National Mothers: Women's Changing Roles in the Two Germanys, 194560

AHA Session 59
Central European History Society 2
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Elizabeth D. Heineman, University of Iowa
Elizabeth D. Heineman, University of Iowa

Session Abstract

German women have historically served as community “mothers,” nurturing their families and symbolizing hearth and home. War fractures these communities: Germany in 1945 was morally discredited, physically and politically fragmented, its citizens facing an uncertain future. The papers on this panel approach the Stunde Null as a creative beginning which occasioned the re-establishment of the Germanys' position within the international community and the reconstitution of German women's social and cultural identities. German women did not reject their traditional roles as nurturing mothers in favor of a modern, postwar identity predicated on new political principles; rather, they embodied variations on traditional femininity that both echoed older models of female behavior and reflected women's place in a changed Cold War environment. These papers seek to answer the question: what happens to national mothers when the nation crumbles?

German women adapted to changing communities; they fed their families as they always had, but in the grave context of global food shortage, and always aware of the connection between personal plenty and adherence to American or Soviet political values. Women called upon their traditional “mothering” duties to serve as civil defense workers, combining Cold War enthusiasm with the sacred duty to protect their families. Women around the rapidly expanding US military installations forged new friendships with the wives of American GIs, shaping the quotidian ties that underpinned an international alliance.

All of these interactions recall women's nurturing past, but reflect Germans' position at the center of Cold War conflict in Europe. National division and nuclear weapons ended German fantasies of self-reliance and self-sustenance, and the course of the German future depended upon connections, international and interpersonal alike. In the West, the national mother became the bearer of international good will, serving as a shared cultural reference point. All mothers care for their children and mourn their lost husbands, and this traditional femininity underpinned connections between Germans and the Americans who had so recently called them enemies. In the East, German women reconciled former values with new calls for socialist egalitarianism and work outside the home.

The contradictory nature of German women's new roles - traditional but modern, maternal but militaristic, self-sacrificing but self-reliant - reveals the uncertainty of the two Germanys' relationships with the international community and with one another. German women continued to represent “the nation” in its post-national form, echoing traditional femininity while eschewing identification with the “other” Germany. They managed their own identities in their interactions with state, occupier, and each another as a survival strategy and as a means of harnessing their political power. Understanding German women's changing roles illuminates the cultural component of the superpowers' Cold War efforts, while historians of gender and women's history can see how German women's negotiation of their new identities reflected changing notions about the nation, about the relationship of citizens to the state, and about the Germans' place in a post-Nazi world.

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