The defeated German soldiers who returned from the Second World War were so broken by the conflict that a specific term for them emerged. Heimkehrer were, according to Harald Jähner, battered survivors who returned to a society which they no longer recognised.
Nowhere was this more evident than at home. 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.
This is just one of many fascinating insights in Aftermath, a cultural history of Germany in the decade after 1945. ‘A lost period’, Jähner states, when the country’s 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.
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 events of the preceding decade 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 following the war, leaving half-empty cities that the country was too impoverished to fill.
Indeed, 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 chucked and that those who turned to the black market should not be judged for doing so.
There is a wonderful paragraph, unfortunately too long to quote here (but well translated by Shaun Whiteshead, as is the rest of the book), in which Jähner describes how 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 Airlift, the West had gone from bombing to feeding the city in just four short years.
There are many observations like this. The author is also very good on the racial consequences of post-war migration within Germany itself, and on why there were no serious reprisals against former Nazis.
‘According to the spirit of the age it was not important where someone came from, but only where they wanted to go.’ However right this sentiment was, the German people – though shattered and with decades of division still ahead – were looking forward, beyond the smouldering wreckage of the past.
Review by Calum Henderson.
Aftermath: life in the fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, Harald Jähner, W H Allen, hbk (£20), ISBN 978-0753557860.