Most millennials are Marxists


Meanwhile, a new generation is being baked. It starts with the "Wilhelminer", the age cohort of men born in Germany between 1854 and 1864, including Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. According to some interpreters, it is representative of the slightly quick-tempered, as grandiose as nervous collective character of this generation, which in this reading contributed significantly to the aggressive imperialist foreign policy of the empire since the turn of the century. [1] This is followed by the so-called front generation of the First World War, who had their formative experiences in the trenches on the western front. The hardness, aloofness and militancy impressed there found expression in numerous war novels of the 1920s and early 1930s. This in turn is followed by the so-called war youth generation, those born between 1900 and 1910, who grew up in the shadow of the war but were too young to prove themselves at the front.

The time after 1945 begins with the so-called anti-aircraft generation. This is, however, a rather "unfortunate category", [2] since the Luftwaffe helpers in the last phase of World War II only include the three years from 1926 to 1928, while most historically accentuated generational terms tend to include ten to 15 years. The sociologist Helmut Schelsky also spoke of the "skeptical generation" for those born in the 1920s. [3] The term "45s" sets a similar accent for roughly the same age cohort, referring to the year 1945 as the moment when the "Third Reich" lost the war and the Nazi dictatorship collapsed. In terms of life history, so the argument goes, this experience made it possible to turn away from the false ideals of Hitler's fascism and thus opened the way for sober recognition and support of the political normality of a parliamentary democracy. [4] The generation of the "68ers" - mostly the age cohort of those born around 1940 - is followed from their beginnings in the protest and student movement of the late 1960s to their left-wing political involvement in the following decades. For the time before and after the turn of the millennium, the attribution of generations will then be much more colorful and confusing. In 2000 the author Florian Illies coined the term "Generation Golf" in a well-read book. [5] For the age group of those born in the 1990s, first in the English-speaking world, but soon afterwards also in Germany, the term "Millennials" or "Generation Y" has become commonplace.

As this by no means exhaustive list shows, there is no shortage of concise names and attributions of generations. It is also noticeable that the term `` generation '' remains constant as a designation, but is intended to cover a wide range of phenomena: The experience-shaping effect of years of participation in a war and the preference for purchasing a certain mid-range car are two completely different facts. Historical and social science research on the concept and phenomenon of generations is just as colorful and diverse. [6] There are considerable doubts about the exact definition, scope and explanatory value of the generation concept, doubts that also run through the relevant literature. [7] Regardless of this, generation is referred to as a "basic sociological concept", which is located next to categories such as "class" and "gender" and has "at least an equal rank" in its explanatory claim. [8] What's it all about? Which phenomena can be described with the concept of generation, and which blind spots and problems does this approach bring with it?

The classic

In order to answer these questions, it is advisable to first look again at a text that all statements on generation research call the "classic": [9] What is meant is an essay by Karl Mannheim from 1928 on the "Problem of Generations". [10] The sociologist from Hungary was teaching at the time as a private lecturer at the University of Heidelberg. With his work on the sociology of knowledge, which looked at the social conditions and relativity of the production of knowledge, he was one of the most innovative sociological thinkers of the 1920s. At the beginning of his essay, Mannheim presented his approach as a synthesis. On the one hand, there is a generative-positivist understanding of generations, which he saw predominantly in France. In this reading, generations are actually age cohorts: They arise from the biological rhythm of birth and death and the resulting generative behavior, which can be measured using demographic methods. On the other hand, there is a romantic generational understanding that Mannheim locates in the German humanities. In addition to the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey, who had popularized the concept of generation in the German-speaking world since the 1870s, Mannheim also named the art historian Wilhelm Pinder. In a book that was first published in 1926, Pinder traced the sequence of styles in the visual arts back to the age-related nature of the artists and the resulting "generational character" of their works. Using a metaphor from music and in deeply idealistic terminology, Pinder described the generations as "voices" whose "hidden successions" had to be recognized by art historians as "polyphony" and made visible. [11]

In order to overcome the one-sidedness of both approaches, Mannheim proposed a synthesis. He made a distinction between "generation storage", "generation context" and "generation unit". [12] For Mannheim, the common positioning of a certain generation in the social space did not result automatically from the common growing up of certain age cohorts, but from the possibility of common participation in "connecting events or experiences". Mannheim also used the term "stratification of experiences" for this profound influence of collectively shared experiences. [13] This choice of words had a strategic sense, because Mannheim's text draws a comparison with social stratification and the concept of class as a fundamental category of social analysis.

A youth cohort only enters a "generational context" when the possibility of participating in shared experiences becomes a reality, that is, when these youth are oriented towards "the same historical and current problem". Mannheim made this concept formation in direct analogy to the Marxist idea of ​​the transition from the class "in itself" to the class "for itself", that is, a working class that only finds its unit of action "for itself" through the class struggle and participation in workers' parties. Mannheim described the last point of his triad of terms, the "generation unit", as a "uniform reaction" and "resonance" of different groups within a generation context. As an example, he cited the togetherness and opposition of a "romantic-conservative [n]" and a "liberal-rationalist [n]" current in the educated youth around 1800. [14]

Problems and blind spots of the generation concept

At a distance of more than 90 years it becomes clear that Karl Mannheim's concept of generations has incorporated a number of problems from which generational research has not yet fully resolved itself. [15] The first is that Mannheim brings together and brackets three dimensions of generation that are analytically better kept separate: the biological sequence of age cohorts born in certain age groups; generations shaped by common events; and finally generations as ages that follow one another within the life course (childhood, youth, old age). This first problem is exacerbated by the fact that Mannheim closely couples its concept of generation to the "myth of youth": [16] For him, it is only the youth phase in which lasting formative experiences are made, and it is the youth who make a promise Renewal of society and thus the progressive advancement of history. This definition was closely linked to the discovery of youth as an independent phase of life in the last third of the 19th century and to the intensive cultivation of the youth myth in the Weimar Republic. It can only be understood against this time-specific background. Today the myth of youth has faded and the youth phase has become more of a social problem. In addition, the assumption that youth alone is profoundly shaped by socialization and upbringing is no longer plausible, as suggested by the idea of ​​lifelong learning. [17]

Another problem with Mannheim's approach is that, despite his promise of a synthesis, he did not overcome the romantic foundation of the generation concept. Mannheim rejected Pinder's idea that every generation has an "inner goal" that shapes their attitude towards life. [18] But the idea of ​​a common stratification of experiences shared by an entire age cohort is itself deeply romantic. This is made clear, among other things, by the fact that Mannheim cited the bourgeois youth movement as an example of a generation unit that had become concrete through "group formation". [19] But the youth movement of the time around 1900 was a special case, a socially highly exclusive, inward-facing form of communalization in its rituals and forms of intercourse and supported by an elaborate emotional code, which was based on an expressive variant of the romantic youth myth. The approximately 25,000 members of the "Wandervogel Movement" in 1913, without exception, were not in a generational camp based on common "experience stratification" with young people of the same age from working-class and farming families who worked up to twelve hours a day at the workbench or in the field of hard physical labor pursued. Before 1914, but also for a long time afterwards, the modes of perception and worlds of experience of the lower middle class were miles away from those of the small group of the educated middle class. [20] The alleged "fact that people of related age groups perceive historical events from the same lifetime perspective" is by no means "as plausible as it is trivial." [21] It remains to empirically investigate in each individual case which experiences actually existed, which age cohorts of them were affected and to what extent certain experiences created communities. Only then can it be decided whether a possible generational character has not been broken through or undermined by class, social class and gender-specific factors.

This addresses a further point of criticism, gender blindness, and even more so the gender bias of Mannheim's approach and almost all subsequent research. [22] From Mannheim's text it is clear that for him the young generation consisted only of young men and that the child inevitably grew into a "youth". [23] If we take a look at some of the aforementioned generations, it is clear that both the "front generation" of the First World War and the "anti-aircraft generation" are to be understood as exclusively male. The same also applies to the "war youth generation". This is usually characterized by the attempt to compensate for the lack of front-line experience that the older brothers of this age group had with an aggressive nationalism and an emphatically militant stance in the domestic political struggles of the Weimar Republic. Again, this is based on only a very narrow sample of, without exception, bourgeois representatives of this age group. The contemporary literature, on which the historical construction of this generational orientation is based, described this group quite naturally as "sons without fathers and teachers", as the journalist Peter Suhrkamp put it in an essay in 1932. [24]

What is also noticeable about this formulation is that Suhrkamp saw no need to mention the formative effect of the mothers. It's not a coincidence. An analysis of the numerous texts that discussed the problem of young age groups in the 1920s and early 1930s shows that they were the only ones conceiving "generations of men". The evocation of male-aggressive characteristics in this age cohort was intended to correct a disorder in gender relations that was understood to be crisis-ridden. This also included a deliberate "negation of the mother", which downplayed or completely denied the female influence on adolescent young men. [25] The war youth generation was not only constructed without women, but rather purposefully against these. The generational discourse of the Weimar Republic only included young women in exceptional cases, who as a rule - much more precisely - traded as "young employees" or "young workers". [26] When the tabloid "Tempo" was looking for the "face of the female generation" in 1929, it did so as part of a beauty contest that the editors had launched. [27]

Mannheim's generational concept and much of the research that followed it thus show at least four interlinked problems and blind spots: the amalgamation of the dimensions of age cohort, generational character and age; the bond with the youth myth that emerged around 1900; gender blindness, which historically was often associated with the deliberate denial of the presence and ability of women to act; and finally the romantic exaggeration of the "generation storage" based on a common "experience stratification", which to a certain extent represents the raw material on the basis of which a "generation context" can then arise. I want to deepen this point with a concrete example, as it is the most important reason for the over-drawing of the foundations of generations in the 20th century, which is so often encountered.

For the front generation of the First World War it seems natural to assume a common generation. The historian Ulrich Herbert, for example, clearly based on Karl Mannheim, defines a "political generation" by saying that "significant and long-term events and developments shaped the experiences of an age group growing up at that time". According to his thesis, this applied "to the First World War, which exploded all previous dimensions of experience (...) in a special way". [28] But was this really the case? Who actually belonged to the front generation that was so eloquently painted after 1918? To answer this question, a few numbers are needed first. Of the around 13.1 million men who were drafted into military service in Germany from 1914 to 1918, two thirds served in the field army and one third in the garrisons at home. Certainly there was an exchange of personnel. But many soldiers remained stationed in their homeland for most or all of the war and worked there as trainers or on guard duty. They couldn't even see the front from a distance. [29] But also the members of the field army were by no means all always or even only for a long time at the front and were directly involved in combat operations there. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel were responsible for monitoring the civilian population in the occupied territories in the east and west and in the stage areas in Belgium and northern France. Socialist authors such as Heinrich Wandt and Wilhelm Appens made the stage after 1918 the subject of highly successful war-critical brochures precisely because the corruption and gluttony of the officers there was in stark contrast to the speech of a front generation marked by combat, which was so often invoked during the Weimar period . [30]

But even among the actual front-line soldiers, whose units were stationed at the front for a long time, we by no means find an even remotely uniform "experience stratification". There are many reasons for this. One was the extremely uneven distribution of fighting on the fronts. There were also silent sectors on the western front, where divisions with many older soldiers held a position without being involved in any noteworthy combat operations from autumn 1914 to spring 1918. The social and class-specific processing of the front experience was even more important. The numerous front-line soldiers from rural and rural classes experienced and interpreted the front in the usual stabilization mechanisms of rural society: food security, Christian piety and agrarian subsistence. For the soldiers from the socialist industrial workers, who were also numerous, the war was a confirmation of their experience of the class character of Wilhelmine society and the destructive dynamics of capitalism. [31] Class and class-specific interpretations were more important than potentially generational ones. The assumption of a common "generational camp" of the soldiers at the front belongs to the realm of legend, more precisely: a legend constructed and carefully cultivated in the post-war period by writers, military combat alliances and other organizations, from which cultural and political capital could be made.

Generations can therefore not be understood as communities that are founded through common socialization or collective experiences. There is no sufficient empirical evidence for this assumption, which was shaped by Mannheim. This applies not only to the so often tried front generation of the First World War, but also to the so-called 45s. Historians and social scientists have drawn far-reaching, but insufficiently substantiated, conclusions on the basis of very narrow empirical samples. [32] That doesn't mean that the generation category is completely meaningless. Rather, it shows that the understanding of generations as communities of experience, which has been continued since Karl Mannheim, is not plausible.

Generationality as a media construction

Various conclusions can be drawn from this observation. The historian Mary Fulbrook has suggested, with a view to the special character of German history in the 20th century through dictatorships and violence, that generations should be understood as units that react in a certain way to such specific "challenges". Fulbrook makes it clear that the assumption of "shared key experiences" is empirically not convincing. [33] Instead, she directs her attention to the individually tried and performed forms, but limited in a collective space of possibility, in which a generation responds to the experience of dictatorship and war. But this approach also lives from the assumption made from the outset that certain age cohorts "stand out" almost automatically due to their special visibility in the historical process. In the case of Fulbrook, these are above all the so-called 1929s, who after 1945 could be considered politically unencumbered. The model of challenge and response leads further than the assumption of an overarching stratification of experiences. But despite the reference to numerous personal testimonies, the traces of the "1929s" so understood are soon lost in the vortex of the upheavals of the 20th century. [35]

The other, central consequence is to completely detach the concept of generation from the bond with a common formative experience and to understand it as a discursively constructed and medially staged identity construction. In this sense, generations have been referred to as "imaginary terms". [36] This does not mean that such an imagination has no consequences. Rather, the focus is on the fact that "generation" is a conceptual ascription which is used in the public discussion of social and political conflicts, but which can also serve the collective self-thematization and self-description of certain age cohorts without having to be based on a uniform experience . The point of a concept understood in this way lies in the attention to the fact that the publicly circulating talk of generational units is often intended to cover up considerable differences in the stratification of experiences in order to enforce claims to interpretation or validity in society. The term "generationality" has become established for this focus on communicative and media use or ascribing a generational position. [37] A methodologically prudent and empirically highly productive example of this approach is the study by the historian Benjamin Möckel on the war youth generation in the two German states after 1945. On the basis of self-testimonies and published texts, Möckel can show that the use of the concept of generation by the youth cohorts of the second During the Second World War, it served to deal with the "devaluation" of the "community ideas" that were shaped in the Third Reich and to derive new biographical perspectives for the period after 1945 from this. The talk of the generation thus appears as a "biographical metaphor" with which the double challenge of collapse and a new beginning after 1945 could be interpreted individually as well as collectively. [38]


Over the use of the term "generation" in Germany in the 20th century lies the long shadow of the bourgeois youth movement around 1900. The classic text by Karl Mannheim was strongly influenced by the romantic basic feeling, the evocation of shared experiences and the cult of youth, the distinguished the youth movement. The inflationary as well as conflictual use of the term in the Weimar Republic deepened the misleading impression that generations can be traced back to a shared "stratified experience". Generations are primarily identity constructions that make certain age cohorts visible in society and offer individuals the opportunity to interpret and reflect on their own life story against this background. It also becomes clear that the mass media play an increasingly important role in this process of semantic generation of generations. [39]