It was a surprising act of disappearance, one for the ages. Just as Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945, Germany magically transformed from a genocidal Reich to a place where there were hardly any Nazis.
“No one was a Nazi,” journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote of the end of WWII in Europe, bitingly recalling how all the Germans she encountered insisted they had hidden a Communist or were secretly half-Jewish. Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White heard the phrase “We didn’t know! With such a “monotonous frequency” that it sounded “like a kind of national song for Germany“.
In “Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955”, Berlin journalist Harald Jähner is equally skeptical, describing how the majority of surviving Germans were so preoccupied with their own suffering that the prevailing mood was that of pity. “They saw themselves as the victims,” he wrote, “and therefore had the dubious luck of not having to think about the real ones. “
The keen sense of this phrase is the quintessence of Jähner; he duplicates this fascinating book (translated into English by the talented Shaun Whiteside), elegantly bringing together a plethora of facts while using his critical skills to make an ironic effect, analyzing a country’s stubborn tendency towards willful delusion . Even though “Aftermath” covers historical ground, its narrative is intimate, filled with first-person accounts from articles and diaries. The original German title was “Wolfszeit” or “The Time of the Wolf”. Postwar Germans were fond of animal metaphors. Those who stored supplies were “hamsters”, while those who stole hamsters were “hyenas”. You could never be sure what the wolf was doing, “since the ‘lone wolf’ had a reputation just as frightening as the whole pack,” Jähner writes.
This duality between the loner and the group reflected the post-war emergence of the apathetic Everyman known as the Ohnemichel, a play on the name Michael and the German words for “without” and “me”, a figure whose solitary interiority was like the reverse side of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, or “popular community”. It was as if the country had gone from one extreme to the other, from collective euphoria to lonely despair. Today’s non-aggressive Germany, hosting over a million refugees, seemed unimaginable then. As Jähner puts it, “How could a nation that perpetrated the Holocaust become a reliable democratic country” – so reliable that it is caricatured as a “paradise of mediocrity”? Considering all the chaos of the post-war years, boredom can be considered a formidable achievement.
Jähner sets out to tell the tumultuous story of the postwar decade in all its contradictions, conveying the breadth of experiences amid the “extreme challenges” that the German people faced. With their defeat, “the laws had been overturned,” he wrote, “but no one was responsible for anything.” A recent book by Volker Ullrich, “Eight Days in May,” painstakingly recounts what happened between Hitler’s suicide and the unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht on May 8, 1945, stressing that most Germans did not consider this. like a day of liberation but “an unprecedented catastrophe.” Jähner’s “Aftermath” begins where Ullrich’s epilogue ends, with the Germans diligently avoiding what the Nazi regime had done on their behalf, instead devoting themselves to cleaning up the rubble with what Ullrich did. aptly described as “a sinister diligence”.
Jähner delivers an entire chapter to the rubble, which was everywhere; Not only was it an overwhelming physical fact, but it was also a powerful cultural symbol. There was Trümmerfilme (“Rubble films”) and Trümmerliteratur (“Rubble literature”); women known as Trümmerfrauen would be recalled in retrospect as “mythical heroines,” writes Jähner. Although a number of these women had been forced to serve as punishment for their Nazi past, the photographs of them in their aprons and scarves, surrounded by ruins that had to be carefully removed with their shovels, were attractive and ultimately useful, offering “an excellent visual metaphor for the sense of solidarity that the broken down German society urgently needed.”
the Trümmerfrauen also reflected the demographic reality of the post-war country: in 1950, there were 1,362 women for every 1,000 men. The soldiers who returned were often mutilated or psychologically destroyed. During the war, women drove streetcars and drove bulldozers; they learned that cities don’t need men to function. Jähner tells us that the resulting feelings of humiliation in men often weighed more heavily on their psyches than the war crimes they committed. He quotes a returning soldier who complains that his wife “learned to say ‘I’ while I was gone.” The Germans who married in haste, on short leaves after the first victories at the front, were haunted by memories of “the height of the Nazi regime,” Jähner writes. “These awe-inspiring fantasies still resonated as the man and woman now sat opposite each other in their newfound misery.”
“Aftermath” weaves its way through sex, love and modern art; the book also covers simpler political terrain like the repatriation of displaced people and the official division of East and West in 1949. Jähner also inevitably explores the postwar economic situation, showing how the ration cards strictly controlled have given rise to a thriving black market. People were robbing their neighbors and helping each other. “Morality did not just dissolve,” writes Jähner. “It adapted.” Cologne Cardinal Josef Frings felt prompted to tell the Germans that they could relativize the command “you shall not fly”; they could take what they needed to survive. The German language has adapted accordingly, with people calling for theft Fringe, as in “I Fringesed the potatoes. Even Cardinal Frings was finally caught Fringe; the British discovered that the churches in Cologne were full of illegally stored coal.
Jähner focuses on such details because it was through them that much of the real transformation of postwar Germany first occurred. If anyone deserved punishment and retribution, it was the Germans after the war – Jähner bluntly points out the tendency of many to indulge themselves “so largely in their own suffering”, to seek out stock platitudes which have allowed “even the Most devoted Hitler – worshipers feel duped rather than guilty.
But the Allied top-down attempts to “re-educate” the Germans to recognize what they had done could only go so far as with a population looking away; the creation of civil society required a ‘change of mentality’ which emerged when people were forced in their daily lives to face the reality that awaited them. A robust economic recovery in both East and West was a boon, Jähner says, but such “good fortune” had “nothing to do with historical justice.”
Germany’s current self-image as a country that has come to terms fully with its past might, according to this book, be a bit of wishful thinking. “The stability and openness to discussion of German democracy have not yet been tested in a real existential crisis,” writes Jähner. He ends by quoting the philosopher Karl Jaspers who, in 1946, warned against the blind spots that it was so tempting to cultivate: “Let us really seek what contradicts us.