“Aftermath. Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945-1955” by Harald Jähner (published by WH Allen)
Rerbuilding hearts, souls as well as bricks, mortar
Now it was the victors who were supplying the basic necessities needed to maintain the population of 75 million or so. These people collected together on what remained of German soil in the late summer of 1945 hardly merited the name of a society. The ethos of everyone caring only for themselves shaped the national identity until deep into the 1950s.
Journalist and author Harald Jähner is an honorary professor of cultural journalism at the Berlin University of the Arts and former editor of the Berliner Zeitung. Born in 1953, his research tells how more than half the post-war population of Germany were neither where they belonged nor where they wanted to be.
These included a million bombed-out people and evacuees, 14 million refugees and exiles, 10 million released forced labourers and prisoners, and countless millions of slowly returning prisoners of war. How was this horde of ragged, displaced, impoverished and leftover people broken up and reassembled? And how did former “national comrades” (Volksgenossen) , as German nationals were known under Nazism, gradually become ordinary citizens again?
“Aftermath” was first published in Germany as “Wolfszeit” (Wolf Time) in February 2019 and has been translated to English by Shaun Whiteside, from Northern Ireland, who has a number of German translations to his credit as well as working in French, Italian and Dutch. Jähner won the 2019 Leipzig Book Fair Prize for “Wolfszeit” in the category Non-fiction book / Essay writing.
The book was one of the six shortlisted for Britain’s leading Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2021 (won, incidentally, by “Empire of Pain, The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” by Patrick Radden Keefe). It was a “Spiegel bestseller”, spending 26 weeks on the list of the Hamburg-based news magazine (which makes a change from all those “Sunday Times Bestseller” and “New York Times Bestseller” tags that seem to adorn the front of just about every other British or American publication these days).
Jähner writes about how the defeated German soldiers, the prisoners and internees, who were repatriated to West Germany, East Germany and Austria were so broken that a specific term for them emerged. “Heimkehrer” (literally “homecomer”) were battered survivors who returned to a corrupted and demoralised society that they no longer recognised.
Nowhere was this more evident than at home. Often, men looked at their wives and saw strangers, while women themselves, who during the war were forced to work tirelessly on the home front, looked at their husbands with shame.
The Nazi regime had been a male enterprise, and now that it had all turned to dust, there was nobody left to blame. Men were saddled with guilt for having impoverished their families by losing the most ruinous war in history. “A lost period”, Jähner states in his insights into the cultural history of the beaten country in the decade after 1945, when its identity was fragmented both geographically and psychologically.
There was a lot of guilt about the place. But as Jähner argues, it was a self-pitying kind, rather than for the great crimes of the war. There was a general refusal to acknowledge the Holocaust: how does a nation cope with enormity both of what happened to them but also what they did? Although loyalty to Hitler and the Nazis had been turned off “like the flick of a switch”, to use his phrase, everything else was buried deep in the subconscious, only bubbling up occasionally in very bizarre ways.
For instance, during the prolonged economic crisis of the late 1940s, there was an attendant moral panic among some citizens, who were aghast at the widespread looting and the rise of the black market. This was coupled with a panic about the perception of Germany abroad. “What makes us so unpopular around the world?” querulously asked Der Standpunkt in January 1947, as if the war had never even happened.
It was not as if there were no reminders. Jähner dedicates one chapter to discuss “trümmerfrauen” (rubble women), who worked to clear some 500 million cubic metres of debris, leaving half-empty cities that the country was too impoverished to fill.
So severe was the economic crisis that, one winter, the Archbishop of Cologne, Josef Frings, told his congregation that the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”, could be discarded and that those who turned to the black market should not be ill judged.
The cigarette had replaced the worthless Reichsmark as the true currency: “They glowed and burned, they were everything and yet they were always in short supply.”
It was the currency reform of 1948 that finally got the country back on its feet, “miraculously” filling previously empty shops overnight. But it also intensified the divisions of the emerging Cold War, with the capitalist-controlled sectors opting for one new coinage and the communists another. This new conflict changed everything. As Jähner says, with the Berlin Blockade/Airlift of 1948-1949, the West had gone from bombing to feeding the city in just four short years.
His revealing, revisionist history is apparently the first book of its kind about this period and contains such observations, for instance the racial consequences of post-war migration within Germany itself, the xenophobic attitudes and why there were no serious reprisals against former Nazis (though we can’t overlook the Nuremberg trials). The Americans reinstated Nazi officers into government roles, and nazification continued to trouble Germany for many years.
The people had been under the rule of the Nazi party since 1933, and now they sought a way forward under the watchful eyes of the Allies. Nonetheless, there was a move from destruction to democracy over the course of 10 years, and Jähner tells of the transition through politics, art, journalism, sociology and eye-witness stories, backed up with a considerable number of black and white photographs and posters.