Public Service Personnel in West Germany in the 1950s: Controversial Policy Decisions and Their Effects on Social Composition, Gender Structure, and the Role of Former Nazis

Article excerpt

Although a half century has elapsed since the end of World War II, comparatively little research has been done on German social history in the period after 1945. Instead, social historians have concentrated on examining events and processes in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries. One major reason for the continuing focus on this era is the understandable desire to identify social factors which help to explain the failure of Weimar democracy, the rise of National Socialism, and its widespread acceptance in the German population. As a consequence of this emphasis, however, the period after 1945 has been neglected. The extensive research by contemporary historians on the postwar era has provided little corrective, since it deals predominantly with developments in the political sphere. More than a decade has gone by since the prominent contemporary historian Hans-Peter Schwarz criticized this bias and challenged his colleagues "to discover the society of the Federal Republic in its beginning phases as a field of historical research."(1) But only few heeded his call. The author of a recent survey observes that there is still a notable lack of consensus as to which concepts, key terms, types of explanations, and theoretical models might be most helpful in analyzing the phenomena at hand. Moreover, there is a need for empirical studies dealing with the specific social constellations and groups that played an influential role in postwar developments.(2)

Within this context, this article deals with the development of a particularly large and important social group during the 1950s. The focus on this decade might seem surprising, since the 1950s are commonly seen as a socially static, even boring, period during which most West Germans were preoccupied with economic reconstruction. Only in the 1960s, according to popular conception, did social stagnation give way to upheaval and rapid transformation. However, recent scholarship has revealed the complex character and historical significance of West German social evolution in the 1950s. Continuity was indeed the dominant feature of some areas of society, but other sectors were marked by momentous changes, some of which occurred quite rapidly. It is still too early for a definitive reassessment of the 1950s, for our knowledge of social developments in many areas remains fragmentary. Nevertheless, more and more historians now regard this decade as a key period, during which numerous processes of far-reaching importance set in and others, whose roots can be traced back to earlier decades, now prevailed. The dynamic thrust of these developments would lead to a metamorphosis of the social structure, way of life, and value systems in the Federal Republic within a relatively short period of time. As a result, West German society left behind the world of the 1920s and 1930s, which had been the explicit or implicit prototype for its reconstruction. What emerged was a "modern industrial society" with all its contradictions, social costs, ecological hazards, and problems of political governability.(3)

Until now, research on the social history of the Federal Republic has virtually ignored those working in the public service.(4) This is surprising, given the Size of this group and its traditional importance within German society, politics, and economics. Both a longstanding bureaucratic tradition and the increasingly active role of the state in economic and social policy had contributed to a massive expansion of the public service since the mid-nineteenth century. It eventually reached proportions unique on an international scale, as comparative figures for the first part of the twentieth century show. In 1925, and thus even after a sharp reduction in the number of those working in the German public service as a consequence of territorial losses in World War I and severe economic problems, there were still over 2.72 million public employees - more than in any other country in central or western Europe and nearly as many as in the United States, although the U. …