Without looking anything up, what five things do you immediately think of if I were to say “Germany immediately after the war”?
Answering my own question… John le Carré ‘s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; the GDR; Orson Welles in The Third Man (yes, I know it was set in Vienna – but that was what I thought of); “picturesque” ruins; the image of the red flag being raised over the Reichstag when the Soviets took Berlin.
Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich sets out to have a more logical approach. Harald Jähner first outlines who was there at the time, remarking that “more than half the population are where they do not belong or want to be”. Several million were German soldiers who were now prisoners of war. Another nine million were internally displaced civilians, primarily city dwellers who had been evacuated to the countryside (where, Jähner points out, they were not exactly welcome). There were another eight to ten million prisoners of Germany – primarily forced labourers who were suddenly free. Their number could have been higher but for extensive massacres by their captors, even at a time they knew the war was about to end. Finally there were another twelve and a half million ethnic Germans trailing in from Eastern Europe as, often unwelcome, refugees. These numbers were augmented by 100,000 Jews, primarily from Poland – “a migration that nobody expected” – who were passing through, having faced pogroms when they tried to return to their home towns and villages.
Who was to feed these forty million? Where were they to live? The four occupying forces – Britain, France, America and the Soviet Union – had to deal with this. And create a Germany – well, two Germanies – out of the physical and political rubble. Indeed, the rubble. The cities were largely in ruins and had to be cleared, including by trummerfrauen – “rubble women” – so often photographed. The ruins were a photographer’s dream, and there were even fashion shoots with a background of ruins, as life returned.
The population was shattered, particularly the men returning from the front. There were many divorces as the men who returned after years away came back to a different world. The occupation was harder for women – the incidence of rape by Soviet soldiers is now well known (the 1954 book A Woman In Berlin is a major source of information on this). But it was hard for everyone as the rations were not enough to get by, leading to not just an extensive black market but organised theft. This was described as Fringsing after one Cardinal Frings, who gave a sermon saying theft was acceptable to survive. The Third Man turned out to be a good call after all.
The clear up took a long time. The last Displaced Person’s Camp (for people leaving) did not close until 1957, the last camp for those ethnic Germans arriving did not close until 1966. Yet other issues were dealt with with astonishing speed. Hans Habe – actually a Hungarian Jew – thought that the best tool of denazification was newspapers and he set up sixteen of them, just as soon as major cities were liberated. The jewel in the crown was the Neue Zeitung, based in Munich, which had a star cast of German exiled writers, reaching a circulation of 2.5 million “along with a further 3 million orders that could not be fulfilled because of lack of paper”.
Ah yes, the Nazis… Jähner describes how the worst were weeded out, but former Nazis were soon back as judges, politicians and businesspeople.
Aftermath is weakest, perhaps, on the new GDR – East Germany. One interesting chapter describes how art made a comeback with the GDR promoting socialist realism, while the FDR – West Germany – saw the promotion of abstract art. A Cold War of artistic direction – and there in the background of the West German art scene was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The CIA front. This was one of the few chapters that compared what was happening on the different sides of what became a separation wall. I’d have liked to have read more about the GDR side.
There’s several chapters of material new to me. The impact of the refugee Germans arriving in rural areas for example. One town of 1600 had 600 ethnic Germans billeted on them. These were Germans who often had little connection to Germany, who spoke different dialects, who had different morals, often a different religion from the farming communities who had to put them up. Ironically, this mixing led to a more united German volk than happened under Hitler, with the decline of local dialects and the development of industry in previously farming areas.
What was hard to stomach though was the common feeling that so many Germans felt, that they were themselves the most important victims of Hitlerism. Only a later generation, typically the students of 1968 rebelled against this, pointing out how many former Nazis moved seemlessly into position of power, and who asked the basic question “What did you do in the war, daddy?”
Aftermath is well translated, by the way, by Shaun Whiteside
The book costs £9.99. It is published by Penguin and available from firstname.lastname@example.org