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Twelve Years that Came and Vanished without Repercussion: Growing up Politically Ignorant in East Germany

Book Essay on: Joel Agee, Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany :
(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981, 2000), 324 pages.
UCSB: PS3551.G38 T9

by Nadia Ismail
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Nadia Ismail

I am a sophomore English major, considering a double major in either political science or history. I was particularly interested in this class because I wanted to expand my knowledge of Post-WWII German history, while trying to decide which double major I would eventually pursue. I chose Joel Agee's memoir as the subject of my essay because I was interested in understanding history through the words of someone who lived it.

Abstract (back to top)

In Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany, Joel Agee utilizes distant memories, and the memories of those who shared them with him, to write about his experience growing up in a divided Germany. As Joel's stepfather is a part of the communist intelligentsia, and merely because he is alive at such a crucial point in history, Joel is constantly exposed to political and social events that have a resounding effect on the world. Despite this, Agee seems apathetic and apolitical, turning to boisterous activites and constantly failing and repeating school years. The main focus of the book is on Joel's own reality and the crushes, accomplices, relatives and antagonists that float in and out of it, while larger political events, such as the death of Stalin or the occupation of East Germany, are only mentioned in relation to those things or are forgotten altogether.

Essay (back to top)

With exquisitely fluid and ornate prose, Joel Agee catalogs the years he spent as a boisterous and curious young boy residing in a divided German state. In his powerful memoir, Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany, Agee uses self-inflection and an anecdotal approach to write of the awkwardness and angst he faced in not only growing up, but doing so in a foreign and instable country. Much like the characters that emerge and vanish suddenly in and out of Agee's consciousness, the historical events that shaped Germany from 1948 to 1960 also seem to have an intangible and impermanent role in Agee's reality. Using only his own memory and the memories of prevalent individuals to piece together his account, the author addresses topics of mainstream curiosity such as the relations with other young Germans, the hardships of East German schooling and ever-fluctuating domestic matters. Heavier subjects, such as the Berlin Wall, or political giants, such as Joseph Stalin, are only alluded to in the context of the lighter aforementioned topics. At times, Agee seems to thoroughly incorporate and understand the role of politics and historical occurrences in relation to his own existence. However, such occurrences and experiences as living in a socialist state, the occupation of East Germany by Soviet forces, the clandestine communist organizations and other factors affect Agee only peripherally due to his dwarfed understanding of East German politics, with the main premise of the book focusing on the minutiae of the author's everyday life, his constant oscillations between failure and success, and his unrelenting desire to assimilate fully into German society.

At the young age of eight years old, Joel had set sail to East Germany with his mother Alma, his stepfather Bodo, and his younger brother Stefan on a Russian freighter known as the “Dmitry Donoskoy” (Agee 3). In retrospect, Joel comments that “the men and women who had fled and fought the Nazis, as Bodo had, were expected to be the leaders of the new Germany, which would be built on the ruins of the old” (Agee 18). This serves as an ironic statement as Joel himself would later be unable to excel in either school or social service and would renounce his own duty to become a "leader of the new Germany."

Joel and his family eventually moved into a lavish lakeside villa in a neighborhood that Agee states had housed Jewish professionals before the Nazis had come to power (Agee 19). Agee recounts “[the information regarding the Nazi seizure of homes] filtered down to my eight-year-old's understanding…and took its place beside other facts about the evil past—mere facts, almost empty of tragic or moral meaning for me” (Agee 20). While this may be discarded as a child's way of dealing with a horrific past, this method of trivializing important aspects of German history and culture continues throughout the memoir, illustrating Agee's passionate fascination with the present and disregard for historical or societal significance. Throughout Agee's early childhood, he was seen as an outsider by the native German children and chastised ruthlessly for being an Ami, a German slang term for American (Agee 23). Joel's American background would be both a source of exclusion and acceptance, as Agee's peers occasionally ostracized him for his Yankee roots, while his father, Jim, a talented American writer would send the young boy packages of celebrated books, such as Robin Hood and His Merry Men (Agee 34). Ultimately however, Joel desired to assimilate without discord into German society, and above all else “didn't like thinking of [him]self as different” (Agee 38).

Agee relates to the reader that “all East Germans were informed of what the Nazis had done…whether they liked it or not,” illustrating that while ignorance was successfully discouraged, apathy may not have been (Agee 39). For Joel, however, the holocaust did incite vehement feelings and may illustrate a contradiction to the supposed detachment Agee may have had to historical occurrences. A young Joel had unearthed Bodo's book full of Nazi photographs and was disgusted by a photo of an emaciated man who Nazi officers were torturing in order to appraise the human body's tolerance to severe temperatures. Joel states, in retrospect, that he often mentally returns to the searing image and had “discover[ed] a door through which [he] could step directly into hell” (Agee 42). However, a few pages later, Agee speaks of the Berlin wall and the dichotomy between the East and West in a trivialized and almost humorous tone. He states that he “didn't go to the West very often—just occasionally on Sundays to watch a soccer game…I had the impression that soccer was played at a higher level or was at least more exciting in the West than in the East” (Agee 61). To speak of the differences between the East and West within the context of soccer, while understandable due to the age and maturity of Agee at the time, also robs the historical value of the division of Germany and belittles the struggles of the individuals separated by the Wall at the time.

The Russian presence in East Germany was also alluded to by Agee, but is referred to without any suggestion of its authority or political power. A Soviet encampment was located near Agee's village and he and his brother visited the Russian soldiers quite often, as “ the smaller the child, the greater the friendliness almost invariably elicited in the passing Russian” (Agee 62). Agee also spoke of the bitterness many Germans felt towards the Russians and shared an anecdote about German villagers who feigned incomprehension of a “perfectly understandable” Russian soldier, in order to deny him aid (Agee 63). The author humorously observed that the Russkies tend to have a similar scent of “anthill perfume” and downplayed the intelligence of the neighboring Russian soldiers by highlighting the ability of Bodo's chauffeur to intimidate them in order to discover the whereabouts of a mistakenly held captive Alma (75). These impressions of the Russians leave the reader to believe that East Germany was occupied by what would seem to be (although relatively friendly) barbaric and foolish dunces, a fact that is refuted by widely accepted historical accounts. The Russian troops are alluded to as a mere stitch in the quilt that is Joel's everyday life, downplaying the ubiquity and importance of the occupying power. Joel's account of Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953 also lacked valid repercussions in the author's reality. The school Joel attended at the time, the Zentralgrundschule Gross-Glienickle had closed for a week, and this seems to be the main focus of Joel's attention while the elders mourned the loss of Stalin (Agee 82). It was only after hearing the Western radio's tone of celebration in the death that Joel felt any true emotion with the loss of the political figurehead, stating “ I felt offended [by the West's jubilance]—on behalf of Stalin, of Socialism, and of all good and noble things”(Agee 84).

Agee's own temperament as a boisterous and troublemaking child contrasted greatly with his stepfather's import and prestige as the chief editor of a German scholarly magazine known as Aufbau, and his high ranking membership in the Communist intelligentsia. Joel frequently skipped classes, associated with the class clowns, and seemed to strive for academic failure while secretly writing poems, daydreaming, and enjoying prestigious novels and literary works. Throughout his childhood, Joel transferred from school to school, at times due to his own decision and at other times due to the resolution of his parents or teachers to attempt an instillation of work ethic in the seemingly incorrigible boy. While at the Internat in Potsdam, Joel gained membership in the Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth. The young boy speaks of the all the superfluous details of the communist organization, while ignoring its true political purpose. He states that for admission into the group, all one needs “for a nebulous sense of belonging in the group” is to “ attend three or four fantastically boring meetings in the course of a year and wear a blue [FDJ] shirt” (Agee 118). Obviously, Joel lacked the maturity and political comprehension to realize that a communist organization such as the FDJ was much more than a few uninteresting meetings and choice of attire. An overall lack of understanding of the true resonance of happenings outside Joel's immediate life is stated very clearly just a few pages later:

There were political troubles of course—border disputes, spies and saboteurs put on trial, quiet worried talk among my parents and their friends about some trials in Czechoslovakia…of the airlift that sent American planes roaring over our heads toward the Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin…but these seemed very minor disturbances to me, faintly alarming and even faintly entertaining…the world would continue, and so would the purposeful, industrious people who drove the tanks and flew the planes and were attempting to educate me in school. The real disorder was in me: I had no purpose in life. (Agee 123)

It is this arrogance in Agee's own existence and his failure to see that his life is directly correlated with larger historical events that proves to be his weakness.

Despite this revelation, Joel undoubtedly had at least some understanding of political occurrences, even if he ignored their relevance. It seems that to a certain extent, Joel may have been discouraged to voice his opinions to adults, and was thus indirectly dissuaded to formulate opinions at all. He writes, after desiring to interject commentary on the subject of artist Otto Dix, “ I'd retreat, gritting my teeth, to the obscure periphery of adult discourse—eavesdropping by the door, in other words, and coming in to listen, perhaps to ask questions, and talking only if I could be sure of not having to meet with that patient amused and forbearing look” (Agee 161). He adds a few pages later, “I generally didn't feel qualified to converse with adults as an equal, let alone spar with them” (Agee 165). This may be a defense of some sort for Agee's detachment from political occurrences and a counterargument to reasons for such aloofness.

In the short span of only a few pages, Joel seems to catch his own selfishness in perceiving events as he scribbles in his journal.

I've been making notes on almost exclusively trivial and personal happenings—at a time when bombs are falling on Cairo, when statesmen forged terrible plans in deliberate disregard of the danger of a new world war, just for the sake of profit. (Agee 185).

Agee then writes in impressive detail a report of the happenings in the world and his concern for his own wellbeing in relation to them. He ends with a bold “God protect us!” as he seems to finally understand the hurricane of events unfolding around him (Agee 186). While this may be a short interlude in Joel's apparent disconnection from worldly issues, it does electrify the reader to a certain extent with the young boy's unprecedented knowledge of various occurrences.

Such shining moments are quickly forgotten with the author's inability to put forth a respectable effort into his studies and his seemingly continual embarrassment of himself and his family. Due to his class clown tactics and constant ditching of school, Agee and his accomplice Peter Vogul were put on trial by Communist party members (Agee 205). Because of their fathers' respective positions in the Party, the boys were evaluated for their social and academic transgressions, as well as their ability (or lack thereof) to reform. According to Agee, conferences with the parents and Party members, as well as apologies had saved the young boys from any severe punishments or Party exclusion. Following this evaluation, the peer‑run FDJ had also investigated the behaviors and allegiances of Joel and Peter, in hopes to “ determine [their] right to continued membership in the organization” (Agee 208). Despite Joel's own mental critique of the members of the FDJ—“How self-important they looked!”—he replied, convincingly nonetheless, that he truly wanted to continue his membership in the FDJ (Agee 209).

Joel's immaturity and lack of direction continued even as he aged, playing hooky with his childhood friend Ralle in Trade School for Masons, and drinking irresponsibly while working in a Shipyard in Warnemunde (Agee 296). As Joel grew older, the situation at home became strained. Frau Messiner, Bodo's illicit lover, had gotten pregnant and thus threatened the stability and trust between Bodo and Alma (Agee 306). Because of the affair and Bodo's unwillingness to stop seeing Frau Messiner, Alma decided to return to her home country of America with Stefan and Joel (Agee 315). Joel, far from being disappointed, saw this sojourn as a Deus ex Machina of sorts. He writes, “ To start a new life unencumbered by my long string of failures—in America where no one would know me! This was nothing less than a complete reprieve” (Agee 315). Once again, Joel is somewhat selfish in his desires to go to America, stating:

But if someone had persuaded me that only in the Soviet Union or in the DDR, for that matter, and never in any capitalist country, could I find a woman to love, or accomplish something worthwhile in the eyes of the world—then I would have felt obliged to let Alma and Stefan go without me. (Agee 315).

The memoir ends suddenly with the imagery of a train carrying Alma and Joel (with the intention to meet Stefan in America) departing from Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, leaving behind a handful of friends and twelve years of German livelihood.

In a New York Times book review, a critic of Agee's memoir states, “ the fact of the book is so remote from the events described in its contents that it seems completely disconnected …and one gets the feeling that [Agee's] troubles would have been the same had he spent those years anywhere else in the world” (Lehmann-Haupt 2). Another Times book review has the critic boasting a similar opinion of Agee's book, stating “ Twelve Years is not a story of politics, and if the somewhat catchpenny subtitle were dropped altogether, what would be left is what really lies at the book's heart; namely, the account of a young man growing up in a rather unremarkable manner…” (Richardson 1). In accordance with these pundits, it would seem that the historical events and social reform taking place in East Germany and the world during Agee's twelve years of living them were merely static, blending unnoticeably into the background of a life characterized by day-to-day occurrences. While Joel's doubts as to his own inadequacies of speech in the presence of adults may provide a reason for his aloofness, and his occasional orientation with current events may offer comfort to those who believe Joel had little understanding of world affairs, the inevitable argument remains that the author simply took for granted the experiences he had lived through.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • Richardson, Jack. “Growing Up German.” (Book Review) The New York Times. 26 April 1981.
    Richardson believes Agee's memoir to be poorly demonstrative of the social and political climate around him. Essentially, he states that Agee grew up in extraordinary times, but in a very ordinary way.
  • Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books Of The Times.” (Book Review) The New York Times 6 May 1981.
    Lehmann-Haupt, similar to Richardson, believes that Agee's book could have happened anywhere in the world due to his catalog of the events. He states that the political and world events, and the events of Agee's own life seem to be independent of one another, and do not tend to affect each other at all.
  • Mysak, Joe. “Twelve Years.” National Review; Vol. 33 Issue 23, p1435-1435, 1/6p. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. 27 Nov. 1981. <ebsco>
    Although Mysak concedes that Agee is a wonderful and fluid writer, his assessment of the book aligns greatly with that of Lehmann-Haupt in stating that Joel grew up with his mother, brother, and stepfather in an unremarkable way.
  • Caitlin Smith's UCSB Hist 133c review of Agee's book (2008)


  • Wikipedia. “East Germany.” 2003. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Germany>
    A concise and accurate catalog and timeline of East German history, this website provides a background for Agee's memoir and can give readers more information on events or ideas Agee does not elaborate on in his account.
  • Hyde Flippo. “The Berlin Wall: The East Side Gallery.” 1997. <http://www.german-way.com/east-side-gallery-berlin.html>
    This website houses a collection of photos, links, and writings documenting the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall. It can be useful to provide background information and additional accounts of East German life.
  • Benita Blessing. “Youth Politics in East Germany.” 2006. www.ialhi.org/news/i0605_25.php
    The article focuses on the roots and inner workings of the Free German Youth (FDJ). As Agee was involved with the FDJ for a portion of the book, a better understanding of its goals and political importance would prove useful.

Books and Articles

  • Neuman, Alma. Always Straight Ahead : A Memoir. New York: Louisiana State UP, 1993. (B&N; amazon)
    A memoir written by Joel's mother, Alma Neuman, tells of Joel's same memories, but through the eyes of another. Alma recounts the similar twelve year period as Joel, but also delves into the years prior to Joel's birth.
  • Flockton, Chris, and Eva Kolinsky, eds. Recasting East Germany : Social Transformation after the GDR. New York: Routledge, 1999. (B&N, amazon)
    This is a factual investigation into the dynamic society and economy of East Germany after the GDR. This book can be used to understand the history behind Agee's memoir and the pertinence of various events in East Germany.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/13/08; last updated:
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