Was nostalgic in the 1940s in the 1960s

Germany in the 50s

The fifties are the founding years of the Federal Republic, in which a large part of our current political and social institutions and structures are rooted. For some, they appear to be a "good" time, when people knew a common goal: reconstruction. For others, it's "leaden times" full of bourgeois muffs.

The Brandenburg Gate in destroyed Berlin after the German surrender in 1945. (& copy AP)


The fifties enjoyed very different levels of appreciation among the general public. It is not uncommon for them (since the 1970s) to serve as symbols with negative or positive connotations in current political debates. The particular emphasis on this period is no coincidence: The fifties are the founding years of the Federal Republic, in which a large part of our present-day political and social institutions and structures are rooted. For some, they appear to be a simple and "good" time, in which people knew a common goal and pursued it with optimism and energy: reconstruction. For others it is "leaden times" full of bourgeois muffs, in which a largely apolitical population was interested in nothing other than increasing their private prosperity.

Beyond nostalgic longing and vehement rejection, contemporary historiography tries to understand and define the dazzling character of the fifties. On the one hand, it was the beginning of a democratic political system and a phase of rapid economic and social changes, which within a short time led society to an unprecedented prosperity and modernity. On the other hand, despite the denazification, there were also unmistakable personal continuities, for example in the economy, in the universities and in the judiciary - the professional careers of many members of the reconstruction generation had already started before 1933 and had continued in the Third Reich. This applied not only to the "functional elites", but also to the majority of the population. There was therefore a "people's continuity" (Lutz Niethammer), which expressed itself down to cultural preferences. The magazines, popular music and films of the fifties, for example, were quite similar to those of the thirties.

The fifties were a period in which the people who were still "stuck in the bones" of the war, above all wanted peace and security. It was also the end of an era that began around the turn of the 20th century. The employment structure with a high proportion of agricultural and other manual labor, a low proportion of higher education, authoritarian value patterns in marriage, family and school make this period seem like a distant story. On the other hand, the fifties show up in many ways as the beginning of today's modern society: the rise of television, the beginnings of the automobile boom, mass tourism and teenage culture may suffice as keywords. In any case, there seems to be well over a decade between the abolition of the food ration cards in 1950 and the first appearance of the "Beatles" (in Hamburg) in 1960.

Development phases

There are several ways to divide the 1950s into phases; It also turns out that the historical section that belongs together covers more than the decade from 1950 to 1960:

  • It is easiest to name the fundamental political cuts: The arch spans from the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 to joining NATO and gaining state sovereignty in 1955 (which was not fully achieved until 1990 due to Allied reservation rights) to the construction of the Berlin Wall and the complete isolation of the two German states in 1961.
  • The starting point for economic development will be the currency reform of 1948; an endpoint is harder to find. The uninterrupted economic rise lasted until the first recession in the mid-1960s. More recent representations emphasize that the epochal economic boom of the post-war period did not end until the early 1970s.
  • With a view to the society of West Germany, the last third of the 1950s stands out as a decisive early period of modern development. In this phase the first contours of the affluent society and its characteristic lifestyles and consumption patterns began to appear, the passenger car boom and the triumphal march of television began. From a socio-cultural point of view, the enormous importance of precisely these "short fifties" (Schildt / Sywottek) has been pointed out, in which western modernity with its mass-cultural products and models began to establish itself especially in the younger generation. There were again close connections between economic, political, social and cultural development, which must always be taken into account, even if the individual strands are described separately in the following. Parliamentary democracy was accepted by the vast majority of the population, also because the "economic miracle" began under the sign of the social market economy. And without economic European integration and anchoring in the western world economy, the Federal Republic would probably not have become a society shaped by the West in the 1950s.