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International Conference

Translating Health:
Cultures of Prevention and (Bio)Medicine in Europe after 1945

23rd-25th of May 2013

"Volksgesundheit without the Volkskörper? Reframing Biopolitics after the Third Reich."

We have long become accustomed to the argument that, as Henry Friedlander puts it, “the revelation of Nazi crimes in the 1940s discredited eugenic theories.” There is certainly some truth to this assertion, and an exploration of bio-political thinking in both postwar Germanies reveals dramatic shifts in terminology and a conscious distancing from medical and welfare practices likely to threaten bodily integrity or the sanctity of individual decision-making in the reproductive sphere. Particularly in West Germany, terms like Bevölkerungspolitik (population policy) and Volksgesundheit (health of the people) generally gave way to seemingly less ideological descriptions like Bevölkerungswissenschaft (population science) and öffentliche Gesundheitspflege (public health). And yet the idea that the health of the nation could be influenced through policies targeting reproduction certainly did not disappear. While it had become taboo to talk about the Volkskörper (body of the people) in ways that called National Socialist categories to mind, underlying assumptions about racial homogeneity and the necessity of population management remained. By the 1960s, they had curiously morphed and intertwined with concerns about the “population explosion” in the “Third World.” Indeed, it is impossible to understand how bio-political ideas were translated in both rhetoric and practice for the new political realities of the Cold War period without exploring the interaction between German experiences and international influences. This paper will investigate some of the mechanisms through which bio-political thinking was reformulated in East and West Germany from the occupation period to the 1970s. I will explore the development of gendered norms, ethical considerations about sexuality and reproduction, and political attitudes towards demography in the context of German sensitivities to the Nazi past. Through what process were bio-political belief systems translated into less ideologically explicit language? How did this new language differ in East and West? How did German efforts to become reintegrated into international political and scholarly discourses influence rhetoric and policies concerning population management? And what role did the occupation and the reception of Anglo-American psychological and sexological research play in the development of German thinking about gender, sexuality, and the Volkskörper? The answers to these questions will demonstrate that the development of post-WWII German bio-politics was a process of historical and trans-Atlantic translation.