The End of Innocence. The 9/11 Generation in Germany and the United States

How can we explain the idea that the September 11 attacks generated a new generation in Germany? We know that there is a 9/11 generation in the United States. They are characterized by a willingness to serve in the military, homeland security, and the intelligence services. This is unlike the Vietnam generation. We also know that the 9/11 generation in the U.S. became more political through 9/11 and that they are especially interested in foreign policy. 9/11 seems to be the political awakening for an apolitical and peace-spoiled generation. “September 11 was the end of the holiday—the holiday from history” almost all of the American interviewees stated. But why should the attacks be the end of historical non-involvement and lead to a new generation in Germany, too? Were not the attacks too far away and only perceived via media? What makes a generation if it is not immediate and real participation in an event? Let me introduce some arguments for the investigation of the development of a 9/11 generation in Germany.

Collective Instead of Personal Participation

I argue that the experience of collective violence “ignites” a process of identification with history and society and the more collective this experience is—e.g., via mass media—the stronger the feeling of historic and social (instead of only personal) participation. For collective identification it is important that the individuals are sure that the others experienced the event in the same way. Thus, the “media event” is not an argument against the development of a 9/11 (and any other) generation. It is a presumption. A generation is a kind of collective identity and a result of social processes of identification. They are not a congregation of mourners or a sum of personally concerned persons. If generations always consist of those directly involved in the original event they would be very small. In the context of generations and cultural, long-term changes, “participation” and “involvement” does not mean the individuals were in Manhattan or Washington DC when 9/11 happened. It means identification with the event simply because individuals lost their sense of protection by their parents and could be involved: as victims, targets, and weapons.

“Generation” as a Heuristic

Researching the development of a new historical generation is the strongest way to prove social change after an historic event. Only new generations have radically new perspectives on the world and its “sensitivities.”[1] They decide if cultural patterns will break or continue. For that reason, generations are hinge points of social memory and seismographs of social change. If we wanted to know how 9/11 changed not only the political, but also the social world, generations are a good—maybe the best—instrument of measurement. And we know hardly anything about social change after the September 11 attacks, especially in Germany. While there has been much research about the political change and (a few) contributions about the impact on attitudes (e.g., about the effects on attitudes toward immigration, toward the U.S.,[2] or toward Muslims[3]), there is hardly any knowledge about the cultural and long-term changes caused by the September 11 attacks. Do the individuals identify with history and society through 9/11? Is 9/11 a turning point for interpretation and action? If so, how did 9/11 change individuals and how did individuals change the world? Did the attacks influence the biographies and daily life of individuals? Did it change their behavior, or that of their peers and friends? Do they think that the attacks are a lesson, and do they spread this lesson among their peers or even in public? Do they want to shape the world because they think it is “their” time, and no longer the time of the “68er,” who had critical attitudes toward the United States and shaped the current predominant interpretation patterns in Germany? Even if we do not find a completely new generation, there is no better instrument for empirically focusing on social changes after the September 11 attacks: unlike surveys about attitudes, generation research focuses on long-term and lengthy processes in the structures of collective knowledge. And unlike surveys about political attitudes we get the chance to reconstruct the motives for statements and behavior. Thus, we are able to understand (and not only describe) changes.

Characteristics of 9/11: “Best Conditions” for Generation Development

Although many important historical events change our lives, not every event means a radical break and develops a new generation. Or to turn it the other way around: not every cohort becomes a generation, even though they experience important historic event(s), and even though public discourses often search for new generations. So when do generations develop?

Physical and life-threatening experiences in particular lead to new generations. This is because facing the possibility of their own collective death is the most fundamental historic experience for age groups if they have only heard about such things before. And unlike peaceful events or natural catastrophes, collective violence is able to generate an awareness that, in the case of 9/11, bodies—own bodies—could be used as political instruments or even weapons and targets, and people who we thought were well-schooled in all things and even in such things—the parents’ generation—have not been able to prevent it This is what has happened historically: The war generations and the “68” or “Vietnam generation” experienced collective violence and its social diffusion and made it the theme of “their” time. “How could you tolerate this?!” and “Never again!” have always been the mottos for new generational movements to make things better than their parents did, and to argue for a break with predominant interpretation patterns and behavior.

September 11 fulfills these criteria to excess. It evoked a new quality of collective physical violence that was experienced “live” all over the world. For young adults, it was the first time that they experienced the possibility of a collective threat against their own lives; previously they had only known about things of the sort from the narratives of older people.

How Old is the 9/11 Generation?

In particular, this concerns persons who were born from 1971 to 1981. This cohort had a common past in which they understood and shared the narratives of the older generations. Only if there is a shared past are we in a position to study the real effects of September 11. If we want to know if there was an irritation of political attitudes and political awareness, we need a real “before.” This means we have to focus on people who already had a political consciousness. The age group, today 33 to 43 years old, is old enough to have a common awareness of collective violence and yet at the same time they were young enough to have no idea of potentially life-threatening global conflicts. Finally, this cohort was socialized by the “68” generation, which was critical of the U.S. and “American” cultural patterns. That is why we can expect a “real” irritation from 9/11 in this age group.

The younger cohort, i.e., the “Millennials” (born between 1980 and 2000), are of course also shaped by 9/11. But they were just at the beginning of their political socialization when September 11 happened and they do not understand the difference between post-Cold War and post-9/11. They do not cause the change but they are socialized by the 9/11 generation and the changes after 9/11. Hence, to study the “doing” of change after 9/11, you have to study the age group born between 1971 and 1981. However, as there is always a generational overlapping of age groups and because the limits of age groups in generation research are always working hypotheses, members of the 9/11 generation could also be between the ages of 29 and 44.

The End of Happy Ignorance: Empirical Evidence

We already have evidence for the collective identification with 9/11 by members of this age group. The comparison between the reactions of young Germans and those of Americans in the same age group shows that for the collective identification with an historic event, it does not matter how close you were to the event when it happened. While there are certainly differences between Americans and Germans and between Americans living in different parts of the United States, these differences are not necessarily important for the collective identification and the development of a generation. For example, some respondents who were near the Pentagon when the attack happened are impressed and worry about it. But they do not identify with it; it is not “their” time and not their challenge. This is true for younger respondents (“Millennials”) and respondents who do not participate in mainstream society. While young German authors describe 9/11 as the “end of that state which is called ‘Happy Ignorance,’ meaning the good fortune to not be involved,”[4] young Americans living in Washington or New York City do not inevitably connect themselves to the event. At the same time, discourse analyses in Germany are able to show previous interpretation patterns “docking” to the event; for example, German politicians and authors compared U.S. foreign policy after 9/11 with situations in World War II.[5] It seems like Germans connect themselves to 9/11; 9/11 stimulates collective identification (with history, society, culture, and nation) not only in the U.S., but also in Germany.

Conclusion: 9/11 as a “Glocal” Experience and Challenge for the Mainstream Society

The September 11 attacks generated a new generation not only in the U.S., but also in Germany because it is a “glocal” experience “docking” to previous predominant interpretation patterns. That means that for collective identification with 9/11 other criteria are more important than the immediate involvement. This might be an explanation for the fact that, for the “global” 9/11 generation, the common sorrow is not (the obsession with) security or the war on terrorism. Instead, the 9/11 generation has renewed the question of tolerance for different cultures and religions not only in politics, but also in everyday life.

Dr. Daniela Schiek was a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow in February and March 2014. She is a teaching and research associate at the University of Duisburg-Essen and a member of a special research group at Bielefeld University.

Many thanks to Pia Bungarten and Martha Griese for their recruitment of interview partners. I also want to thank AGI for supporting the study. Finally, thank you to my interviewees in Washington, DC and New York City for giving me an insight into their fears, feelings, conflicts, and identities related to 9/11.

[1] Karl Mannheim, “Das Problem der Generationen,” Koelner Vierteljahrshefte fuer Soziologie 7 (1928):157-330

[2] Andrei S. Markovits and Lars P. Rensmann, “Anti-Americanism in Germany,” in Anti-Americanism. History, Causes, Themes. vol. 3: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Brendon O’Connor (Oxford: Greenwood, 2007): 155–182.

[3] Simone Schueller, “The Effects of 9/11 on Attitudes toward Immigration and the Moderating Role of Education,” IZA Discussion Paper 7052 (2012), and SOEP Paper 534 (2013), [2

[4] Florian Illies, Generation Golf II (Munich: Goldmann, 2005): p. 105.

[5] Margit Reiter, “Uneingeschränkte Solidarität? Wahrnehmungen und Deutungen des 11. Septembers in Deutschland,” in Europa und der 11. September 2001, ed. Margit Reiter and Helga Embacher (Vienna, Cologne, Weimar: Böhlau, 2011): 43–75.


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.