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An All-Consuming History? Recent Works on Consumer Culture in Modern Germany

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 August 2009

Paul Lerner
University of Southern California
E-mail address:


In a 2001 essay, the introduction to a special journal issue on consumption in twentieth-century Germany, historians Alon Confino and Rudy Koshar noted the relative lack of scholarship on consumption and consumerism in European, especially German, historiography, as compared to the explosion of interest in the topic among historians of the United States. For Confino and Koshar, this disjuncture appears all the more remarkable in view of the centrality of consumption and consumer goods to the political and ideological struggles of the German twentieth century and indeed the potential power of consumption, as a historiographic subject, for linking daily life and individual experience to the sweeping trajectories of the century's history. It turns out that Koshar and Confino did not have to wait very long for this gap to be filled; in the several years since that journal issue appeared, works on consumption in modern Germany have been coming out at a furious pace. In addition to several broad surveys of and edited collections on consumer society in the modern period, over the last few years there has been a wave of specialized studies of consumption and consumer goods in Nazi Germany, in the Federal Republic, and notably in the GDR. The problem of consumption has also been a key concern in recent works on Wilhelmine and Weimar cultural history, although historical studies of the period's consumer culture—or the institutions and mechanisms for its dissemination—remain fairly rare.

Review Essay
Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 2009

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1 Confino, Alon and Koshar, Rudy, “Régimes of Consumer Culture: New Narratives in Twentieth-Century German History,” German History 19 (April 2001): 135161, 137CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also the special issue of Le Mouvement Social devoted to consumption in twentieth-century Germany, edited by Gerhard Haupt: “Au Bonheur des Allemands. La Consommation en Allemagne au xxe Siècle,” Le Mouvement Social No. 206 (January–March 2004).

2 See, for example, Haupt, H. G., Konsum und Handel. Europa im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003)Google Scholar; Stearns, Peter N., Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire (New York: Routledge, 2006)Google Scholar; Daunton, Martin and Hilton, Matthew, eds., The Politics of Consumption: Material Culture and Citizenship in Europe and America (Oxford: Berg, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Strasser, Susan, McGovern, Charles, and Judt, Matthias, eds., Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Trentmann, Frank and Brewer, John, Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges (Oxford: Berg, 2006)Google Scholar; and de Grazia, Victoria, ed. with Ellen Furlough, The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996)Google Scholar.

3 For an exception, see Hamlin, David, Work and Play: The Production and Consumption of Toys in Germany, 1870–1914 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Relevant works that appeared too late to be included in this review include Katherine Pence, Rations to Fashions: Gender and Consumer Politics in Cold War Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming); Rubin, Eli, Synthetic Socialism: Plastics and Dictatorship in the German Democratic Republic (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Swett, Pamela, Wiesen, S. Jonathan, and Zatlin, Jonathan, eds., Selling Modernity: Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gudrun M. König, Konsumkultur. Inszenierte Warenwelt um 1900 (Vienna: Böhlau, forthcoming); and Stephens, Robert P., Germans on Drugs: The Complications of Modernization in Hamburg (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This list itself is a testament to the field's extremely rapid growth.

5 Jarausch, Konrad H. and Geyer, Michael, Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 274Google Scholar.

6 See, for example, W. König, Volkswagen, 10.

7 In de Grazia, ed. with Furlough, Sex of Things, 7.

8 See, among others, Baudrillard, Jean, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London: Sage, 1998)Google Scholar; Appadurai, Arjun, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Douglas, Mary, The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (London: Routledge, 1996)Google Scholar. For historical perspectives on these issues, see Ulrich Wyrwa, “Consumption and Consumer Society: A Contribution to the History of Ideas,” in Getting and Spending, ed. Strasser, McGovern, and Judt, 431–447; and Trentmann, Frank, “Beyond Consumerism: New Historical Perspectives on Consumption,” Journal of Contemporary History 39 (2005): 373401CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 For an exception, see Clunas, Craig, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

10 In addition to works discussed here, see Fritzsche, Peter, Reading Berlin 1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Jelavich, Peter, Berlin Cabaret (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Jelavich, Peter, Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

11 Geyer, Michael, “Germany, or the Twentieth Century as History,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 96 (Fall 1997): 692Google Scholar.

12 S. Jonathan Wiesen, “Miracles for Sale: Consumer Displays and Advertising in Postwar West Germany,” in Consuming Germany in the Cold War, ed. Crew, 151–178.

13 Carter, Erica, How German is She? Postwar West German Reconstruction and the Consuming Woman (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

14 See Gerlach, Siegfried, Das Warenhaus in Deutschland. Seine Entwicklung bis zum ersten Weltkrieg in historisch-geographischer Sicht (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1988)Google Scholar; Spiekermann, Uwe, Warenhaussteuer in Deutschland. Mittelstandsbewegung, Kapitalismus und Rechtstaat im späten Kaiserreich (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1994)Google Scholar; and Ladwig-Winters, Simone, Wertheim—Ein Warenhausunternehmen und seine Eigentümer. Beispiel der Entwicklung der Berliner Warenhäuser bis zur “Arisierung” (Münster: Lit, 1997)Google Scholar. See also the articles in Crossick, Jeffrey and Jaumain, Serge, eds., Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850–1939 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999)Google Scholar.

15 Spiekermann, Warenhaussteuer.

16 See my essay, “Consuming Pathologies: Kleptomania, Magazinitis, and the Problem of Female Consumption in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany,” WerkstattGeschichte 42 (Summer 2006): 46–56; and Uwe Spiekermann, “Theft and Thieves in German Department Stores, 1895–1930: A Discourse on Morality, Crime, and Gender,” in Cathedrals of Consumption, ed. Crossick and Jaumain, 135–160.

17 In addition to works cited above, see Gellately, Robert, “An der Schwelle der Moderne. Warenhäuser und ihre Feinde in Deutschland,” in Im Banne der Metropole. Berlin und London in den Zwanziger Jahren, ed. Alter, Peter (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993), 131156Google Scholar.

18 On consumer protest among West German youth, see, for example, Stephens, Germans on Drugs.

19 See Breckman, Warren, “Disciplining Consumption: The Debate about Luxury in Wilhelmine Germany, 1890–1914,” Journal of Social History 24 (Spring 1991): 485505CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 See Sneeringer's, Julia fascinating article on advertisements geared toward women and the language of politics, “The Shopper as Voter: Women, Advertising, and Politics in Post-Inflation Germany,” German Studies Review 27 (October 2004): 476501CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 For example, Campbell, Colin, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987)Google Scholar.

22 See Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900.

23 Reuveni, Reading Germany, 282.

24 On Nazi opposition to American consumer culture, see de Grazia, Victoria, Irresistible Empire: America's Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2005)Google Scholar, especially chapter 2.

25 Baranowski, Strength through Joy, 4.

26 Hartmut Berghoff, “Enticement and Deprivation: The Regulation of Consumption in Pre-War Nazi Germany,” in The Politics of Consumption, ed. Daunton and Hilton, 165–184.

27 See Spode, Hasso, Wie die Deutschen “Reiseweltmeister” wurden. Eine Einführung in die Tourismusgeschichte (Erfurt: Landeszentralle für politische Bildung, 2003)Google Scholar, for a pioneering work on tourism in Germany. Other useful works include Baranowski, Shelley and Furlough, Ellen, eds., Being Elsewhere: Tourism, Consumer Culture, and Identity in Modern Europe and North America (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Koshar, Rudy, German Travel Cultures (Oxford: Berg, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Koshar, Rudy, ed., Histories of Leisure (Oxford: Berg, 2004)Google Scholar; and Judson, Pieter, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontier of Imperial Austria (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

28 In addition to Spode's work and the studies discussed here, see Confino, Alon, “Traveling as a Culture of Remembrance: Traces of National Socialism in West Germany, 1945–1969,” in Alon Confino, Germany as a Culture of Remembrance: Promises and Limits of Writing History (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 235254Google Scholar.

29 See also Berghoff, “Enticement and Deprivation,” 178.

30 Aly, Hitlers Volksstaat, 115, 117, 118.

31 Above all, see Wildt, Michael, Am Beginn der “Konsumgesellschaft.” Mangelerfahrung, Lebenshaltung, Wohlstandshoffnung in Westdeutschland in den fünfziger Jahren (Hamburg: Ergebnisse Verlag, 1994)Google Scholar.

32 Carter, How German is She?

33 Wiesen, “Miracles for Sale,” in Consuming Germany in the Cold War, ed. Crew.

34 Merkel, Ina, Utopie und Bedürfnis. Die Geschichte der Konsumkultur in der DDR (Cologne: Böhlau, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 See also Katherine Pence's eagerly awaited Rations to Fashions. The six essays in Consuming Germany in the Cold War, ed. Crew, are mostly based on research conducted for dissertations or first books, and were written by scholars who were within six years of earning their Ph.D.s. At the time of the volume's publication, none had surpassed the rank of assistant professor.

36 Jeff Schutts, “Born Again in the Age of Refreshment? Coca-Colonization and the Re-making of Postwar German Identity,” in Consuming Germany in the Cold War, ed. Crew, 121–150.

37 Robert Stephens, “Drugs, Consumption, and Internationalization in Hamburg, 1960–1968,” in Consuming Germany in the Cold War, ed. Crew, 179–201.

38 For a different perspective on youth consumption in the two Germanies, see Poiger, Uta G., Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

39 On this point, see also Pence, Katherine, “You As a Woman Will Understand: Consumption, Gender, and the Relationship between the State and Citizenry in the GDR's Crisis of 17 June 1953,” German History 19 (2001): 218252CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 See the indispensable article by Zatlin, Jonathan R., “The Vehicle of Desire: The Trabant, The Wartburg, and the End of the GDR,” German History 15 (1997): 358–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kaminsky, Anne, “‘True Advertising Means Promoting a Good Thing through a Good Form’: Advertising in the German Democratic Republic,” in Selling Modernity, ed. Swett, , Wiesen, , and Zatlin, , 262–86Google Scholar.

41 Stitziel, Fashioning Socialism, 167.

42 See Pence, Katherine and Betts, Paul, eds., Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

43 For an example of such a study, see Leora Auslander, “‘Jewish Taste?’ Jews and the Aesthetics of Everyday Life in Paris and Berlin, 1933–1942,” in Histories of Leisure, ed. Koshar, 299–318.

44 On sexuality and consumption, see Elizabeth Heineman, “The History of Morals in the Federal Republic: Advertising, PR, and the Beate Uhse Myth,” in Selling Modernity, ed. Swett, Wiesen, and Zatlin, 202–229; Heineman, Elizabeth, “The Economic Miracle in the Bedroom: Big Business and Sexual Reconstruction in Reconstruction West Germany,” Journal of Modern History 78 (December 2006): 846–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 See Trentmann, “Beyond Consumerism.”

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