Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-55, by Harald Jähner, WH Allen, 400 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0753557860
When Germany declared an unconditional surrender in May 1945, the country was in a state of utter collapse. Its cities and towns lay in ruins. Infrastructure had been devastated; hunger and poverty were rampant; millions of refugees roamed the land. The country’s economic and social fabric had been destroyed and it was in the grip of a profound moral and intellectual decline after twelve years of Nazism.
“Zero Hour” is the term generally used to describe this lowest point in Germany’s history. The magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime, and the scale of the guilt which the German people would in consequence carry, meant that the country had to make an entirely fresh start. It had to try to rebuild itself from scratch, to break radically with everything represented by Nazism and to create a completely new set of values for its future development.
To describe this goal of a radical new beginning, German literature in the immediate post-War period used the term Kahlschlag. This meant forest clearance, felling an entire forest to create the space needed for renewal. Writers, like all others in German society, had to begin again from zero. Gone were all vestiges of the great classical tradition in German literature; instead, a spare and minimalist voice had to suffice, the “literature of the ruins”. A powerful poem of the period, “Inventory” by Günter Eich, contains a simple recital of all that is left to the poet amid the ruins: his cap, his coat, some modest shaving gear, a few sticks of lead for his pencil. This is the emblem of a German civilisation virtually silenced by the horrors of the 1933-45 period.
The conventional view of Germany in 1945 has been of a people exhausted and demoralised by war and the traumas of Nazism, struggling to construct a basis for survival, a people numbed into submission to the war’s victors (now the occupying powers) and weighed down by collective guilt and the impact of national defeat and humiliation.
Harald Jähner’s study Aftermath offers a different take, providing a lucid, exhaustively researched and compelling account of a Germany which rises much more rapidly from the rubble than we had previously imagined, of a vanquished people who in fact dust themselves off within a few years of the war ending and apply themselves with great vigour and resourcefulness, not to say opportunism, to the challenges of personal and national renewal. His research across many dimensions of German life invites us to revise our image of a German population which stayed inert and in shock until well into the 1950s. Jähner portrays instead a people who moved expeditiously from the outset to take control of their environment.
Literally in one instance, with an early chapter describing in detail how the mammoth task of systematic clearance of the rubble was organised. Citizens’ committees, for example, would recruit former Nazi Party members to the clearance teams for punishment purposes. The rubble, needless to say, was reprocessed and went straight into reconstruction of Germany’s shattered cities. Photographic images of the famous “women of the ruins” forming bucket chains to pass rubble along were intended to spread messages of solidarity – but also of female emancipation and agency in a postwar context. Germany’s artists at the same time grasped the expressive possibilities of ruined cityscapes, signals of rebirth and renewal.
Jähner brings out well the paradoxes in many areas of life as Germans struggled to find their way back to what they had previously known. Only five weeks after the war ended, people were again sitting on café terraces on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm ‑ though Germany as a whole was still gripped by starvation, malnutrition and penury. Another theme is people’s determination to make up for the miseries of the Nazi era by living for the moment, exemplified by crazes for dance and jazz or by a new sexual adventurousness. The country, according to Jähner, was more frivolous, and less inhibited, than other accounts have suggested. The writer Wolfgang Borchert captured this desperate escapism when he wrote in 1947: “Our whooping and our music are a dance above the abyss that gapes at us.” A boost in sexual activity was fuelled by Germany’s war-related surplus of women but also by women’s growing sense of independence and the breakdown of many marriages as men returned home in failure and defeat.
Summarising the main thesis of his book, Jähner declares that the postwar era in Germany was “more exciting, its sense of life more open, its intellectuals more critical, its spectrum of opinion broader, its art more innovative and its everyday life more contradictory” than it has been given credit for. The sharpest criticism of the period, he remarks, has come from those born around 1950 and coming of age in 1968 who, motivated by “rage against their parents”, castigated the earlier generation for conformism, repression and passivity. Jähner suggests that this is in some respects an unfair characterisation. In the early years after the war Germans adjusted relatively quickly to their changed circumstances and, while never comfortable with the occupying powers, found ways of asserting their interests within the new framework. They played an active part, for example, in the steps to rebuild public administration and municipal life and to create a stable political future for Germany. They took important initiatives which had the effect of strengthening social cohesion and ultimately Germany’s renewal as a democracy. Jähner mentions illustratively a stipulation that, to clear what was termed the country’s “inner war debt”, all those who had suffered only slight damage to their property during the war should be required to compensate those who had lost the most.
The record was by no means spotless, however. It is clear, for example, that Germans and Allies alike were not zealous in advancing the denazification process. Throughout the 1945-’55 decade, they gave priority to the task of restoring administrative efficiency, even if that meant leaving many former Nazi party members in their posts. Eventually, however, both German states were cleansed of Nazism and both made clear their readiness to come to terms with, and to atone for, the sins of their Nazi past.
A pragmatic entrepreneurial spirit characterised the early postwar years. Energies which were initially invested in looting and petty criminality moved on to ration-card abuses and organised black marketeering. In 1948 a platform for broader economic revival was provided by a currency reform which removed the old Reichsmark without replacement. This new beginning for Germany in economic terms laid the basis for the restoration of a legitimate market economy. With shelves filling rapidly in the wake of the reform, it became clear that Germany’s economy and industry had been less severely damaged by the war than had initially been feared. Over three-quarters of industrial capacity had been preserved (industrial productivity after the war was only slightly below the 1938 level). In addition, the “expellees” (see below) provided an important and highly motivated pool of additional labour. For these two reasons, Jähner comments, the breathtaking upturn that would begin after 1950 was not quite as miraculous as the later epithet Wirtschaftswunder would suggest.
The psychological profile Jähner offers of the German people at the end of the war is complex and striking. He finds, for example, that, far from being consumed with guilt about Nazi atrocities, “the Holocaust played a shockingly small part in the consciousness of most Germans” during this period. The basic need to survive, he suggests, shut out feelings of guilt. Indeed many Germans felt that, having lived through the terror of nightly bombing raids as well as the harsh winters of 1946 and 1947 and the daily struggle for postwar survival, they were themselves the victims – and therefore, as Jähner drily remarks, “had the dubious good fortune of not having to think about the real ones”. They had enough preoccupations in the present and therefore felt excused from thinking about the past and the Nazi atrocities committed in their name. The enormity of these crimes would of course also have played a part, as would the widespread ignorance of them among much of the population. There was, more fundamentally, a deep desire to forget the humiliation and trauma which had been visited upon them. A case can be made – and Jähner makes it ‑ that without their willingness to turn a blind eye to the hideous crimes of Nazism the German people would not have been able to banish despair and summon up the will and energy required to get them through the immediate postwar years.
A related mindset was their lack of gratitude for assistance in the form of food parcels which came to them from charitable organisations in the US, UK and elsewhere. Germans reacted to such gifts with defiance, or at least indifference; they did not appreciate displays of charity from the victors. (On the other hand, they responded warmly to the food parcels received from neutral Ireland ‑ or to the “Operation Shamrock” initiative which brought many German schoolchildren to Ireland in the late 1940s ‑ gestures which were never forgotten by that German generation).
The book’s longest chapter is devoted to “the great migration”: the multiple examples of displacement and disorientation across Germany with the ending of the war and the collapse of social order. Of the 75 million people living in the country in the summer of 1945, some 40 million were “not where they belonged or wanted to be”. This total included millions made homeless by the destruction of their property (some 45 per cent of dwellings having been destroyed during the war).
It also included some 10 million German prisoners of war. One of the most famous German plays of the postwar period, Wolfgang Borchert’s The Man Outside, tells of an unsuccessful homecoming by a German soldier. His home no longer exists and his wife has found someone else – a fate shared by many others. “Their home is outside the door. Their Germany is outside in the rain, at night, on the road.” Borchert himself, a young soldier who was terminally ill after enduring a 600 km march back to his native Hamburg, died the day before his play was premiered in 1947.
A displaced community who were ultimately to have a significant impact on the shaping of postwar Germany were the “expellees”: millions of people of German extraction who at the end of the war were forcibly displaced (or voluntarily fled) from Hungary, Romania and other “Eastern territories” annexed by the Nazis. While initially they encountered considerable racial abuse in Germany, they eventually managed to integrate successfully. The process of absorbing them into German society had beneficial consequences for the country as a whole: the need for new national safeguards for civil liberties was recognized, regional animosities directed at outsiders were neutralised and the “expellees” themselves had an important modernizing impact. From a situation in which, as one historian remarked, the “expellees” issue threatened to take Germany close to social catastrophe, their eventual successful integration helped create a more diverse and tolerant postwar order.
Jähner reports in detail on two well-known, if diverse, German companies which came into existence in the post-war period: Volkswagen, the car manufacturer in Wolfsburg, and Beate Uhse, a company which produces a range of erotic aids. He also examines the rapid postwar growth of German newspapers and magazines, due largely to the awarding of press licences by the Allies, and recalls a number of intellectual debates facilitated by these new media. From May 1945 onwards, a “hunger for culture” broke out in Germany, with the hugely popular return of concerts, theatres, cabarets and cinemas as well as visual arts exhibitions.
Harald Jähner’s book is replete with fascinating case studies of all kinds, thoroughly researched and offering much illumination on how Germany became the society it is today. My only reservation relates to the extent to which each of these studies can be said to support the book’s central thesis about the character of the 1945-55 period. While the accounts of, for example, artistic activity, media proliferation and entrepreneurship do indeed demonstrate the richness, diversity and originality of much creative endeavour in Germany in the first years after the war, some of the other material assembled seems less germane. Among, for example, the various phenomena under the heading “The great migration”, only one or two aspects strike me as being helpful to the author’s main theme.
But this is a minor quibble. If the whole is slightly less than the sum of its parts, that does not take away from the magnitude of Jähner’s achievement. The range and volume of his research and the quality of his analysis are extraordinary. He brings to life a society struggling to survive amid, and beyond, the ruins of a cataclysmic defeat. Reviewing many facets of life through a turbulent decade which has been insufficiently studied, this book illuminates the foundations of today’s Germany. It is a panoramic view which captures brilliantly the spirit of the era, both in its lighter and darker sides. In so doing, Jähner also touches on wider questions around human resilience and our capacity for self-renewal. There is much in this book which is engrossing, entertaining or provocative. I warmly recommend it to students of German history and culture and, more broadly, of the human condition.
David Donoghue recently retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has a longstanding interest in Germany and had a five-year posting to the Irish embassy in Bonn in the late seventies. More recently he served as ambassador to Germany (2006-’09). He was also the Irish head of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in Belfast from 1995 to ’99. As ambassador to the United Nations (2013-17), he co-led the global negotiations which delivered the Sustainable Development Goals. He is currently working on a book about the Northern Ireland peace process and is active in a number of think tanks on issues around sustainable development, migration and refugees and conflict prevention.