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Der Schuh im Nationalsozialismus: Eine Produktgeschichte im deutsch-britisch-amerikanischen Vergleich by Anne Sudrow (review)

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Abstract

In this book, her revised dissertation, Anne Sudrow looks at the history of National Socialism and its impact on German society from a new perspective: the history of material culture. She focuses on one artifact, the shoe, as a particularly interesting object in this period, being a consumer as well as a military good. In this work of history of technology, as well as political, economic, and social history, she describes and analyzes the whole product line of the shoe, from raw materials to the consumers, thus the very different perspectives of production and consumption. And in order to better reflect on possible German peculiarities and/or general developments, she then compares the German with the British and the American experience. This ambitious project takes about 800 dense pages of text. After a lengthy introduction, Sudrow devotes about 180 pages to the prehistory of her topic: the production and consumption of shoes in the period of the 1920s to 1933 in Germany, Britain, and the United States. Given the importance of the Czech firm Bata for the successful mass production of inexpensive shoes, this firm’s history is also included. This part of the book, although quite long, is very intriguing overall, and one learns a lot about the production, sale, consumption, and even care of shoes: the problems with leather as a raw material; the technology of shoe production, with the extremely strong position of the American United Shoe Machinery Corporation; the different specifications for the sizes of shoes; the aspects of fashion; and the importance of repairing shoes. The study then deals with the changes in shoe production and consumption in the era of National Socialism. Here again, as in other fields, the chemical industry proved to be very successful, indeed; given strong governmental support, it permeated the German economy between 1935 and 1945 with the Four-Year Plan and its organizations. With its autarchy program, the Nazi Government looked for alternatives to cowhide, such as fish skin or pig leather, or, more successfully, for “homemade” alternatives to the imported tannin agents. Even more important in the pursuit of synthetic ersatz materials was the development of artificial leather (“Kunstleder”) or of rubberized soles. Even though the new material often, although not always, meant less quality and was thus less popular with German consumers, the German producers of shoes apparently preferred it to leather because it was easier to work with and the costly problem of leather residue was avoided—thus the producers more than willingly followed the Nazi autarchy program in this field. The combination of sciences with the shoe did not end with chemistry. Given the desire of the political powers and the producers to convince consumers about the new materials, research was done on the consumer and on the use-value of products (“Gebrauchswert”). A lot was also done from an orthopedic point of view, given new insights into anatomy. And while the shoe had earlier been a fashion object for women who, however, only in the middle and upper classes had more shoes than men, this changed in the Third Reich, with men desiring to wear military or military-like boots not only in the SA or SS, but also in their civilian life. Sudrow finds a true hierarchy of shoe consumers that is in tune with the Nazi racist hierarchy. Shoes of Jews and of East European forced labor were often taken away, who then received no shoes or at best wooden shoes, very often hard-to-wear clogs. And while the military still received leather for its boots, mostly from plundering occupied countries during the war, the normal civilian shoe in Germany, particularly of women, was increasingly made of ersatz materials. In order to have a more “scientific” understanding of the problems of wearing shoes with synthetic soles or shoes made altogether of synthetic material, a shoe-testing facility was established at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Sudrow here tells a story of inhuman experiments on camp inmates that was hardly known before. The results of these experiments/tests were used during and after the war. They were not, as the German industrialists later claimed, done only by and for the Wehrmacht, but also...

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