Post-war Germany and Changing Values of Work

by Sophia Kownatzki

On Friday, November 2nd, twenty-five people filled 201 Moses to hear a talk by Jörg Neuheiser, Visiting Associate Professor at UCSD sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). His lecture, titled “Work between National Socialism and the Economic Miracle: A Forgotten Crisis in the Early Federal Republic,” considered work in post-war Germany from a historical and sociological perspective. Neuheiser gave an overview of the histories of the so-called “Trümmerfrauen” (rubble women), the reconstruction of German cities and the creation of the economic miracle in the 1950s. It was during this period of successful recovery, he argued, that work was inextricably tied with the German people’s sense of duty and purpose in life. The forgotten work crisis in the 1950s, Neuheiser reveals, has implications on the future of work in today’s technologically advancing world. More specifically, Neuheiser addressed two questions: What can Germany do about high youth unemployment? And, will there still be vocational training with machinery?

Noting a “failed attempt to repress women’s work,” Neuheiser stated that one way to tackle unemployment in Germany was by pressuring married women to leave the workforce, not only citing motherly moral obligations, but the idea of unfair economic distribution by having “double earners” in one household. With regard to vocational training, Neuheiser discussed a shift in this post-economic miracle period, in which Germans placed an emphasis on skilled work and quality of craftsmanship – two values that hold strong in German culture today.

Neuheiser noted that in the 1970s, there was a clear change in values, especially among German youth, where the previous bourgeois work ethic cleared way for the “new leisure ethic – the post-material work ethic.” To working people in the 1970s, work had a purpose in life, but was not a fundamental part of it. Through his retracing of the shifting values of work, Neuheiser portrayed a more nuanced, complicated progression of modernity in Germany.

Audience members had a number of engaging questions and suggestions for the speaker. Neuheiser clarified the myth of the German work ethic and its many varied iterations throughout German history, pointing out specific periods which valued work in anti-Semitic comparisons and civilian bourgeois ideals. Others were curious about depictions and perceptions of working German women in this crisis of work. Neuheiser ended his lecture by emphasizing the complexity of debates surrounding the value of work in daily life.