Few commodities enjoy the global prestige of German, and especially Bavarian beer. Enshrined in the mythology of the 1516 Beer Purity Law, beer is unique even among other iconic German commodities like high performance automobiles for its apparent timelessness, its simultaneous simplicity and sophistication, and its ability to draw the attention of tourists, aspiring craftsmen, and businessmen the world over. People in German-speaking Europe have been drinking beer of one variety or another for hundreds, and indeed thousands of years. From the 1930s to the 1980s, however, beer became far more than a consumption habit. This dissertation investigates many efforts—within and beyond Germany—to define both the people and what qualifies as their drink. “The People’s Drink” demonstrates how, in the tumultuous mid-twentieth century, beer became a cultural, political, and economic site of contesting, defining, legislating, embodying, performing, and representing the German nation.
Drawing on archival sources from ten archives in three countries, as well as trade journals, magazines, advertisements, and newspapers from around the world, what follows is a commodity history that weaves together National Socialism, the allied occupation, the West German Federal Republic, the Cold War, international trade, European integration, and the history of capitalism before and after “the boom.” While each chapter builds on specific scholarly literatures, the dissertation as a whole employs commodity history to speak to two main bodies of scholarship in modern German and European history. First, the contested history of people’s drink spans a number of conventional periodizations, revealing not a “fragmented” or “shattered past,” but one characterized by remarkable adaptability and malleability in spite of—and often because of—the dramatic social and political shifts of German history. Second, following beer from the local to the regional, national, European, and global, this dissertation features a sliding geographical scale in a single story. The aspirations and limits of the Nazi dictatorship, the politics of scarcity and agriculture, the process of European integration, and even the global stereotype of the beer drinking German are part of the same story of contesting and defining Germany and Germanness in the mid-twentieth century.