Emotional States: Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in East and West Germany, 1949-1989

Ax, Oscar, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Confino, Alon, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the institution of marriage in East and West Germany from 1949 to 1989. It traces the attempts by state representatives, religious organizations, and a wide variety of other groups to shape the meaning of marriage in the postwar period. I argue that changes in people’s views and behavior related to the institution of marriage were not fundamentally influenced by the ideologies of East and West Germany. Instead, other forces, active on both sides of the Iron Curtain, caused the general changes in people’s attitudes toward marriage in the forty years this study covers. I show how these shifts were the result of phenomena such as consumerism and growing individualism rather than a consequence of religiously and politically motivated attempts to change people’s lives. I further demonstrate how the East and West German states were very similar in their conservative approach to marriage, their opposing political systems and ideological differences notwithstanding.

Contrary to previous studies on marriage in modern Germany, this dissertation pays special attention to the role emotions played in people’s imagination of a happy life with a partner. I show how in the early postwar years, marriage experts were more interested in rational decision-making and ensuring that people chose the “right” partner than they were in spouses’ emotional bonds. By the 1980s, though, virtually all experts were convinced that romantic love needed to be the foundation on which a happy marriage is built. Finally, whereas East and West Germans followed many of the same traditions and slow transformations in their changing views on married life, they differed in one key aspect by the end of the Cold War. Although marriage was still popular among East Germans in the 1970s and 1980s, it was generally not considered to be the supreme form of relationship it had once been. Marriage also lost ground in the Federal Republic, but its almost mystical powers as an institution binding people together for life never quite disappeared from the imagination of West Germans.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
German history, history of emotions, marriage, love, happiness
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