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Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955
By Harald Jähner
Lining up photo shoots on piles of rubble; women fondling G.I.s while “boldly returning disapproving gazes”; Germans denouncing fellow Germans newly evacuated from the East as “Polacks” — these jarring set pieces illustrate Harald Jähner’s highly readable account of how Germans went about leaving Nazism behind. “Aftermath” is about the price and the accomplishment of a new beginning when the aggressive war the Germans had waged was reversed to utter defeat in 1945. A talented journalist, Jähner concludes with guarded optimism: Precisely the egoism of citizens, their loudmouthed irritation with one another and ultimately their self-serving refusal to let the past be a burden blocked a return to the fierce nationalism of the post-World War I period. This unlikely mix enabled German democracy.
Jähner introduces Günter Eich’s 1945 poem “Inventory.” “This is my cap, / this is my coat, / here are my shaving things / in their linen case. … This is my notebook, / this my strip of canvas, / this my towel, / this is my thread.” “Inventory” served as a “manifesto for Zero Hour,” the blank slate of the ruined nation. It was, Jähner writes, the “equipment for the new beginning” minimized to jettison the past.
The spare inventory was also true to the hard circumstances of being on the road in the first years after the war. One-half of the inhabitants of Germany were no longer where they belonged or wanted to be. There were millions of displaced persons, former slave laborers and prisoners of war who transitioned “from bondage to vagabondage.” As long as they remained in Germany, foreigners aroused the suspicion of Germans fearful of the revenge they might take. Neighbors were just as mistrustful of millions of German refugees who eventually settled in their towns. For years, “expellees” remained strangers in the West. But over time, Jähner argues, unwelcome refugees “de-provincialized” hometowns, mixed up local identities and caused old-timers to abandon dialect. They contributed to a melting pot of hard-working people anxious to make their way.
German soldiers who returned from the war, often after years in prison camps, added to the unfamiliarity. “Limping men” walked across everyday scenes. Veterans appeared at front doors “holding discharge papers as if to identify themselves.” At home, “the world war was followed by small-scale family wars.” When men were away, women had learned “to repair bicycles, attach gutters and replace electric wires,” and they resisted the reassertion of male authority. “Bedrooms were the most inhospitable rooms,” Jähner says: “a single ceiling light” illuminating a bed surrounded by “armoires with suitcases dumped on top of them.” Waves of divorce spilled over society. Unfamiliarity untied people from custom and deference; they went about finding new ways to do things and this led to quarrels not imaginable during the Nazi period. Germans quarreled about family, morality, freedom, financial restitution, and in so doing willy-nilly created a disputatious civil society. “Not a bad starting point for the young democracy.”
There were many ways to purge the past, and Jähner excavates different experiments Germans pursued — in writing, in lovemaking, in abstract art. Though some people remained locked in “bastions of their bitterness,” others dived into “unimaginable sociability.” They took pleasure in music, danced when it got loud and admired the relaxed postures of American soldiers. There was hustle and bustle in the broken new places like Dresden, where 40 cubic meters of old rubble piled up for every surviving resident.
In one stanza of “Inventory,” Eich refers to his “bread bin” in which he stored his woolen socks. And, he added, “some things that I will reveal to no one,” a phrase, Jähner says, that is “perhaps the key to the whole poem,” possibly a reference to the complicity of Germans in waging war and murdering innocent Jews in Europe. An early film bore the title “The Murderers Among Us,” but this sentiment did not linger. Hannah Arendt, the American philosopher who grew up in Germany, recounted a postwar visit. Published in Commentary in October 1950, “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule” summarized her impressions: When the “other fellow” figured out she was Jewish, he paused, embarrassed and “then comes — not a personal question, such as ‘Where did you go after you left Germany?’; no sign of sympathy, such as ‘What happened to your family?’ — but a deluge of stories about how Germans have suffered.”
Germans strained to create equivalence between the suffering they had caused and what they had suffered during the bombings and expulsions, often lamenting the propensity of “mankind” to wage war. “The average German,” Arendt commented, “looks for the causes of the last war not in the acts of the Nazi regime, but in the events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.”
In his final chapter, Jähner surveys silence on Jewish death as well as chattiness about German suffering, and he says that the “loud calls” of many Germans for an amnesty for Nazi criminals indicated that they were, in fact, “surrogates for the majority.” On the one hand, Germans evaded the crimes by making them universal, and on the other, admitted their own complicity by advocating a general amnesty. Jähner is counterintuitive but thoughtful. The amnesty, admittedly “an intolerable insolence,” was “a necessary prerequisite” for “the establishment of democracy in West Germany” because “it formed the mental basis of a new beginning.” Such a paradox of reconciliation is infuriating, yet hard to dismiss.