Private Life and Privacy in Nazi Germany

The project (headed by Johannes Hürter) explores the innovative question of how the relationship between people’s private lives and public claims to power developed under the Nazi regime of 1933-1945. When and how, in which areas, and to what extent did National Socialism succeed in asserting its ideas within the private spheres of individuals, families, and social groups – and where was it not successful in this regard? This primary question focuses on the space of action and experience in which the ideology and rule of the Nazi regime met and conflicted with personal wishes and needs, hopes and desires, but also often intermingled with them.

The social practice of privacy under National Socialism had so far been largely overlooked by scholars. This provides the starting point for the research project, which has been conducted at the IfZ since July 2013 in cooperation with Prof. Elizabeth Harvey (University of Nottingham) and the German Historical Institute Warsaw. To bring about a more nuanced view, the project pursues four overlapping perspectives. First, the project examines the promise of private life and privacy. The Nazi regime assured private “happiness” to politically and “racially” conforming members of the majoritarian society, while however also maintaining its claim to community and power. Secondly, the project focuses on the question of negotiating private life and privacy. The scope and definition of the categories of “private” and “public” were subject to (asymmetrical) processes of negotiation. Thirdly, there is the question of the staging of the private, as reflected in visualizations such as photographs of people’s private lives, performative acts in everyday life, and public demonstrations on the part of the regime. And fourthly, the defense of the private lies at the center of the analysis. The regime’s interventions as well as the consequences of repression, annihilation, and war were met by individual strategies and efforts to preserve privacy and personal autonomy even under the conditions at hand.

The question of how private lives and privacy were promised, negotiated, staged, and defended under the conditions of Nazi rule is explored in five subprojects:

The subprojects cover a broad thematic spectrum, dealing with central aspects of privacy in the “Old Reich”. This includes the courtroom as a stage on which the relationship between the “private” and “public” was regulated and negotiated in individual cases; “home leave” from the front as a point of contact and area of friction between the military and civil society, between Nazi claims to power and the construction of private internal spaces; a representative biography of a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls – BDM) between enthusiastic service to the regime and individual personal development; and the efforts of a married couple to integrate their family’s private life into the National Socialist system. The fifth individual project focuses on particularly precarious “private” spaces in the German-occupied territories of Eastern Europe, and specifically privacy under the catastrophic living conditions of the Jewish ghettos, using the examples of Warsaw, Łódź (Litzmannstadt), Tomaszów (Tomaschow), and Piotrków (Petrikau). These five subprojects are interrelated thematically and coherently. At a workshop organized by the project in February 2015 in Łódź, Poland, the design and initial results of the project were discussed together with leading scholars in the field of research on National Socialism. In June 2015, the researchers presented their projects as part of the panel “New Perspectives on Privacy and the Private under National Socialism” at the annual conference of the German History Society in London.In June 2016, the project hosted the international conference on “The Private in Nazi Germany” in Nottingham. The English-language conference volume is released in June 2019. The book illuminates the social practice of the private from a variety of perspectives.

Photo Credit:

Bnner above: "Der Karikaturist E. O. Plauen mit Familie im Urlaub an der Ostsee": bpk / Hanns Hubmann

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