Sandra Lipner is a techne (AHRC)-funded PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. In her doctoral thesis, she uses a cultural family history approach to investigate German bourgeois subjectivities within the context of the Third Reich. She recently completed a three-month work placement at the Wiener Holocaust Library working on the Library’s copious family collections towards an upcoming exhibition on Letters from the Holocaust. These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

With the slogan, ‘the private is political’, second-wave feminists in the late 1960s drew attention to the inescapable influence of political structures on personal experiences – especially those of women. Their approach turned the traditional way of thinking about the private and the personal on its head. Not only were hitherto private topics suddenly part of the public discourse, the private sphere itself came under scrutiny as political activists became interested in people’s private lives and subjectivities. With the usual slight delay, historians followed suit.

Family photograph from Sandra Lipner's collection shows three women sewing.
Family photograph from Sandra Lipner’s collection

‘The private is political’ holds true for the history of the social in Nazi Germany, even though those who experienced the period often insist that their private lives were in fact apolitical. In Luke Holland’s 2020 documentary Final Account, for example, the female interviewees speak noticeably more freely about their experiences in the Third Reich than the men; it seems they were convinced that their lives had been non-political. When the former secretary of Stutthof concentration camp, Irmgard Furchner, was put on trial in 2021 for complicity in the murder of the camp’s more than 11,000 inmates, she refused to answer the court’s questions for similar reasons.[1] A nonagenarian whom I interviewed as part of my PhD project into German bourgeois subjectivities was certain that she would not be able to remember anything political about the Third Reich because, aged 20 in 1945, she felt she had been too young to have an opinion. If one defines the political as being about the world of party politics, the private can indeed be seen as apolitical. In his Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, first published in 1918, Thomas Mann made a strong case for this view and, equating politics with democracy, rejected both as ‘un-German’, like many conservative Germans of his time. Unlike others, however, he changed his mind (or, as he put it, ‘altered [his]… thoughts’) and declared in 1922 ‘that democracy can be something more German than an imperial opera gala’.[2] Mann’s reflections highlight that ideas about politics are shaped by the political cultures which they in turn help to shape.

Regardless of how contemporaries defined politics, however, their private spheres were clearly politicised. In the Third Reich, those who were seen as political or racial enemies of the state had no chance of viewing the private as apolitical.[3] Their private spheres were regularly violated by the state. They suffered unpredictable interference and had no space that was safe. Those who were seen as Volksgenossen, i.e. those who fulfilled the Nazi criteria for belonging to the German body politic,on the other hand were able to see their private lives as apolitical. As Janosch Steuwer notes, they rarely experienced government intrusion in their homes and could conceive of these spaces as safe and secluded.[4] The absence of state interference was thus not proof that their private lives were apolitical but was in fact a characteristic feature of one type of politicized private space that existed in the Nazi state.

The family network I study is a case in point. As völkisch-minded Germans, my great-grandparents belonged to groups and associations whose ethnonationalism predated Nazism and whose members were thus confident of their status as Volksgenossen and the inviolability of their private spheres. My relatives claimed this privileged position for themselves despite my great-grandmother’s Jewish ancestry. When the state classed her as a racial enemy and interfered in their home lives with increasing regularity from the early 1940s onwards, my great-grandfather protested. With the help of his völkisch network of connections and his position as the owner of a war-relevant business, he succeeded in securing an order from Baden’s Minister of the Interior that there was to be ‘no more action’ against his family. The positive outcome of his petition was certainly exceptional. However, the web of worldviews and relationships that made it possible is of interest more generally in that it sheds light on the mentalities and subjectivities that kept the Third Reich going for twelve long years. Above all, my great-grandparents’ history elucidates the close link in Nazi Germany between the private and the political and vice versa.

The apolitical subjectivity came into its own after 1945, both during the denazification process and afterwards. When I think about my grandparents and how they spoke about the past, the idea of their apolitical private spheres seems to have played an important role in allowing them to share memories of the Nazi years with me and other members of a younger generation. It meant and means that individuals and organisations could and can be remembered without inviting questions about complicity. The resulting picture of German society in the Third Reich, however, is skewed and affects how the Nazi past is remembered in German families. In a 2020 survey of Germany’s culture of remembrance, researchers at Bielefeld University found that 76.8% of interviewees believed they came from families with no perpetrators – a staggeringly unrealistic number and only a slight improvement on the 82.4% result of the 2018 study. One third of those asked believed their ancestors helped persecutees, and one third thought they were themselves descended from victims of the Nazi regime.[5] Such statistics strongly suggest that family memories of the private on the one hand and public commemorations of the Nazi past on the other continue to exist in two separate spheres, even though they derive from the same chapter in history.

An infograph sharing the findings of the Multidimensional Memory Monitor (MEMO) Germany, a research project conducted by the Institut für Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung at Bielefeld University and the Foundation ‘Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft’ in May 2020.
An infograph sharing the findings of the Multidimensional Memory Monitor (MEMO) Germany, a research project conducted by the Institut für Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung at Bielefeld University and the Foundation ‘Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft’ in May 2020.

The recent ‘subjective turn’ in the historiography of the Third Reich has contributed to the emergence of a new body of research concerned with the social and the political in the Third Reich. Histories of the private, for example by Mary Fulbrook,[6] Elizabeth Harvey, Johannes Hürter, Maiken Umbach and Andreas Wirsching,[7] present an ‘amorphous anthropological picture’ of Nazi society that complicates neat categorisations such as the tripartite schema of victims-bystanders-perpetrators.[8] In order to advance this field, historians are drawing on family history collections, among other sources. Previously discredited as inconsequential, these collections have the potential to answer important cultural history questions about meaning making in the past. They allow historians to study their authors’ mental worlds, including their worldviews and emotions, as well as their networks.

Whilst family history collections provide rich material for the study of subjectivities, networks and social practices, their use by historians can touch on sensitive issues. Historical research is concerned with truth, while family loyalties can work in the opposite direction. As Sybil Milton notes, there is ‘a universal willingness to commemorate suffering experienced rather than suffering caused’,[9] which might explain the noticeable reluctance of many families in Germany to dig too deeply into their own pasts, despite many Germans’ pride in the country’s vibrant memory culture. Even in families without a history of perpetrators, the focus of recent historiography on the various shades of grey of human experience questions simplistic family tales of the 1940s. However, I find the advantages of pursuing such questions outweigh the challenges. As a historian, my PhD project answers some larger questions about the differences between national-conservatives and National Socialists and about the role of the bourgeoisie in the Third Reich. As a family member, it helps me to find out what being classed as ‘half-Jewish’ meant for my great-grandmother. Familial gaps left by silences are filled in by knowledge, and my uneasy relationship with family traditions makes way for a sense of understanding and the freedom to write a PhD about it.

I hope that the many different historical projects based on family history collections currently under way will convince a broad public of their historical value. I hope that they in turn will inspire families of all backgrounds in areas that were under Nazi rule to donate their collections to local, national and international archives such as the Wiener Holocaust Library to make them accessible for historians. The results of cultural family histories have the potential to influence our public memory cultures and contribute to a more realistic picture of our families’ pasts in Germany and beyond. However, there are many hurdles and challenges to overcome before such hopes can become reality. After all, the private was and remains political.

[1] Luke Holland, Final Account (UK, USA, 2020); Kate Connolly, “Former Nazi Camp Secretary Goes on Trial over Murders of 11,000 People,” The Guardian, October 19, 2021,

[2] Thomas Mann, “On the German Republic,” in Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, transl. Walter D. Morris (New York: New York Review Books, 2021), 471.

[3] Cf. Janosch Steuwer, “A Particular Kind of Privacy: Accessing the ‘Private’ in National Socialism,” in Private Life and Privacy in Nazi Germany, ed. Elizabeth Harvey et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 46ff.

[4] Cf. Steuwer, “A Particular Kind of Privacy,” 48.

[5] (URL 13 May 2022).

[6] Mary Fulbrook, Subjectivity and History: Approaches to Twentieth-Century German Society (London: The German Historical Institute London, 2017).

[7] Elizabeth Harvey et al., eds., Private Life and Privacy in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[8] Maiken Umbach, “Selfhood, Place, and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945,” Central European History 48 (2015): 337.

[9] Ctd. in Edward Linenthal, Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum (New York: Viking, 1995), 199.