Nuclear Families in a Nuclear Age: Theorising the Family in 1950s West Germany

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<jats:p>This essay explores the imagination of the family in 1950s West Germany, where the family emerged at the heart of political, economic and moral reconstruction. To uncover the intellectual origins of familialism, the essay presents trans-war intellectual biographies of Franz-Josef Würmeling, Germany's first family minister, and Helmut Schelsky, the most prominent family sociologist of the period. Their stories demonstrate that the new centrality of the family was not a retreat from ideology, as is often argued, but was in fact a reinstatement of interwar ideologies in a new key: social Catholicism in the former case, National Socialism in the latter. These divergent trajectories explain why Würmeling and Schelsky, despite being two central defenders of the family in the 1950s, could not work together. The essay follows their careers into the 1960s, suggesting that the fractious state of familialism in the 1950s helps us to understand its collapse in the face of the sexual revolution.</jats:p>






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CHAPPEL, JAMES (2017). Nuclear Families in a Nuclear Age: Theorising the Family in 1950s West Germany. Contemporary European History, 26(1). pp. 85–109. 10.1017/s0960777316000539 Retrieved from

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James Gregory Chappel

Gilhuly Family Assoc Professor

James Chappel is the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History at Duke University. He works on the intellectual history of modern Europe and the United States, focusing on themes of religion, gender, and the family. His most recent book is called Golden Years: How Americans Invented and Reinvented Old Age (Basic Books, 2024). It is a history of aging, health, and disability in the USA from 1920 to the present. Pre-order now!

His first book, Catholic Modern (Harvard, 2018), asks about the transformation of the Catholic Church in 20th century Europe. How did Catholics, long affiliated with monarchism and anti-Semitism, come to accept liberal democracy and capitalism? How, in a word, did Europe's Catholics become modern? The book argues that the major transformation took place in the 1930s and 40s. In those crucial years of violence and war, Catholics decided to stop trying to conquer society as a whole, and start trying to salvage "the family" as the source of moral authority and political order. The book thus explains how and why Catholics became buttresses of the postwar democratic order, and also explains the new centrality of gender and family ethics to Catholic life, thought, and policymaking.

His next project, tentatively entitled The Ends of Life: Getting Old in the American Century, uses similar methods to explore the history of old age in 20th century America. This is under contract with Basic Books. The book asks how American society has grappled with the truly stunning expansion of the life course in the twentieth century. In some ways, this was handled remarkably well, given the American state's notable failures in other dimensions. Elder poverty plummeted, and the elderly are really the only Americans who have access to a functioning welfare state. This success, though, is limited -- many older Americans, especially women and immigrants, are falling through the safety net. And this success comes with a cost. The unique success of the elderly at accessing benefits has led to generational conflict that is debilitating for American democracy. This book attempts to understand how we got to this place, and how we might imagine a more intergenerational future. 

James has published in both scholarly and popular venues, including Journal of Modern History and The Nation.

For more information, visit his personal website.

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