Generational identity and generational conflict were concepts which exerted a powerful fascination in Weimar Germany. The sharp historical discontinuities since 1914 – the watershed of the Great War, followed by the revolutionary upheavals of the post-war period and later by the Depression – accentuated the contrasts between the formative experiences of one age cohort and those of its immediate predecessor. A leader of young Protestant women observed in 1930 that ‘in all the past centuries there has probably never been a time in which the image of youth has changed so rapidly and with such dramatic contrasts’. By 1932, a contemporary commentator declared that the current generation of adolescents was unable to comprehend the outlook of their immediate elders, let alone understand the world in which their parents and grandparents had grown up.
The sense of belonging to a generation marked by some key experience in adolescence like the outbreak of war, or the ‘hunger winter’ of 1916–17, or the inflation did not inevitably lead to a particular political outlook. But there were ideologues with backgrounds in the youth movement and links to the late Weimar bündische Jugend who were convinced not only that generational divides were crucial in shaping Weimar society, but moreover that a young generation, steeled by its hardships since 1914 and united behind suitable leaders, was destined to play a key role in politics. The ‘generation of the disinherited’ would become the ‘generation of the chosen’. In the final years of the Republic, as has been well documented by research, a rhetoric of generational politics flourished as the collapse of the institutions of Weimar democracy left a growing political vacuum.
In Weimar Germany the participation by both women and young people in the processes of mass politics was seen as problematic. Where the participation of women was concerned, perceptions of the problem were bound up with the general debate over women's emancipation in Weimar Germany. Feminists saw women's low level of participation in formal politics as the problem, and accordingly sought to make the emancipation of women proclaimed in the Weimar Constitution into a reality by educating the mass of women to take up and use their new political rights. In the eyes of antifeminists, who rejected the whole notion of women playing a role in the public sphere equal to that of men, the problem was women's political activity in any form. Meanwhile, the troubled relationship between successive generations of young people and the Weimar political system gave rise to concern about young people's political participation. The political parties of the republican camp sought to mobilize youthful support, whereas the republican authorities sought to combat youthful political activism where it threatened political stability and to channel it in the right direction.
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