Thursday, September 18, 2008
My German Question by Peter Gay
I picked up My German Question at a university bookstore a few years ago. The book was being used in a history course and the topic caught my attention. It has sat on my shelf for the past two years because I rarely pick up a non-fiction book to read for enjoyment. However, I decided to assign it as a choice for my students' book review this semester and knew that I needed to have read it before my students. I'm glad to have read Peter Gay's addition to the literature on life in Nazi Germany. It adds a direction to German history that I think has been little covered in the scholarship. However, there are definite limits to the work for the non-academic reader.
Peter Gay grew up a Jewish individual in Berlin. He was an adolescent in the 1930s and obviously was severely affected by the Nazi regime and their treatment of the Jews. However, unlike many Jewish people in that world, Gay and his family succeeded in escaping in 1938 to Cuba, eventually emigrating to the United States. Gay is a respected European historian who has written extensively on cultural questions in Modern Europe. He is probably most well-known for his extensive writings on Sigmund Freud. I first encountered Gay in a history class on 19th Century Europe with the book Schnitzler's Century.
In the 1990s, Gay chose to write an autobiographical examination of life as a Jew in Nazi Berlin. My German Question was the outcome. What makes this book fascinating is how far the path strays from the stereotypical representation of life in the 1930s. Gay never experienced a concentration camp. He never suffered direct physical mistreatment by a Nazi officer. In many ways, he world was quite isolated from the events that popular culture focus on leading up to World War II. The counter example is kristallnacht when members of his family had businesses destroyed and his father went into hiding for a short time. Nonetheless, Gay successfully explains how comprehensive Nazi ideology was in affecting people's lives. He studies his internal dialogue, his interest in sports, his growing awareness of adolescent sexuality as ways of showing how the Nazis affected him and his life. He effectively explains why his family did not feel the need to leave Germany earlier. They did not suffer the extensive cruelty that would lead them to feel a need to flee. And they were German. Why would they leave their homeland? I found the book interesting because it added a dimension that I had not read before.
However, that dimension is also the book's limitation. Gay is readable by a non-academic audience. Yet, if the reader does not have a strong background in the history of Nazi Germany I'm afraid that his views might confuse more than clarify what life was like. Life doesn't seem quite so bad as most books show. In addition, if a reader does not know Gay's academic background, his attention to sexuality and psycho-analysis can get a bit overwhelming. Finally, Gay drops a fair amount of German into his book. At times it is necessary to explain double entendres with the language, but it becomes distracting.
If.. and a big if, you are interested in Nazi Germany and have a decent background in life for the German people in the 1930s, I would strongly recommend Gay's My German Question. He successfully adds an important dimension to understanding life for the German citizen as Hitler rose to power. However, if you merely have a passing interest and prefer non-fiction that reads like straight-forward biography, this book is not the best choice.