Harald Jähner’s story of the first 10 years after the demise of the Nazis has mesmerized German readers
In March 1952, the German writer Kurt Kusenberg published what today would be called a “think piece” in a newspaper – it’s headline: “Nothing is to be taken for granted. In praise of hardship.” With more than a touch of nostalgia, the author reflected on the oddly halcyon days after the war had ended seven years hence. Nothing was working – no mail, no trains, no traffic; people were homeless and hungry; dead bodies were still being found under the rubble. But Kusenberg fondly remembers the time. “Like children,” people had begun to re-establish close ties, to reweave the social fabric that had come undone. He recommended his readers put themselves back into the state of mind of the time that had been “starved, tattered, wretched and dangerous.” In the absence of order of any kind, people had to redefine what morals and social cohesion meant: “Decency did not rule out ingenuity and subterfuge – or even the petty theft of something to eat. But in this life of part-time crime, there was honor among thieves, and it probably rested on higher moral underpinnings than today’s iron-cast conscience.”
The journalist Harald Jähner tells Kusenberg’s story in his magisterial new book Wolfszeit. Deutschland und die Deutschen – 1945–1955 (The time of the wolves. Germany and the Germans – 1945–1955), published this year by Rowohlt Berlin that has become the surprise hit of the season, even surpassing Michelle Obama’s Becoming on the non-fiction bestseller list. While not exactly a beach read, Jähner’s gripping 500-page X-ray-vision tale of an often overlooked and misperceived phase of German history reveals, like all great history books, as much about the first decade after the war as about today.
Jähner combines the scholarly inquisitiveness and big-picture view of the historian with the seasoned journalist’s keen eye for the rich anecdote and colorful detail. For many years, Jähner worked as the editor of the feature pages of the daily Berliner Zeitung, where he wrote clever and whimsical essays of the highest order on everything from Angela Merkel’s workaround style of governing to his longings for the time when people still addressed him with a “Dear” in e-mails instead of the now common “Hello,” which is so devoid of any light-footed charm.
In Wolfszeit, Jähner set out to tell the story behind the “force of history’s huge events,” the changes in Germans’ daily lives, like suddenly having to live hand to mouth, to loot and barter on the black market. Some embraced the temptations of a society bereft of its former sexual mores, while others waited futilely for husbands or lovers to return from Soviet prisons.
At the outset of Jähner’s story, Germany is in ruins, both physically and spiritually. More than half of the population is in a place where they do not belong or do not want to be. Nine million Germans have lost their homes or been evacuated; there are 14 million refugees and displaced persons, 10 million newly released forced laborers and several million prisoners of war returning to an uncertain existence.
Jähner is well aware of the multilayered narratives and political provocation implicit in retelling the struggles of the time. These issues strike at the heart of the country’s psyche today as much as they did 75 years ago. Usually, he writes, the past becomes rosier over time, but in the case of the postwar era, the opposite is true. It has become darker in retrospect, partly due to “the widespread need of Germans to view themselves as victims.” The indeed lethal winters of 1946 and 1947 had to be recounted in ever-gloomier language for people to assuage their feelings of guilt for the atrocities of the Nazis, of which so many regular Germans were at least somewhat aware of or involved in.
Whenever Jähner writes of the undisputed suffering and hardships Germans were forced to endure, he calmly contrasts their plight with the abominable fate of Jews and other victims of persecution by the depraved “master race.” Yet he also notes that the survival instinct tends to override the guilty conscience. This collective phenomenon on display after 1945 is so disturbing as to call into question one’s faith in mankind; yet these doubts are somewhat dispelled by the fact that from this literal and figurative rubble would emerge a society that has become an antifascist bulwark among Western democracies.
In the immediate aftermath of the Nazis’ lock on power, order on the streets broke down. Policemen looked at each other in disbelief, wondering whether any of their authority remained. They often just took off their uniforms, burned them or dyed them a different color. Many high-ranking officials committed suicide, jumping out of buildings, poisoning themselves or slashing their wrists. “The ‘nobody time’ had begun,” Jähner writes. “Laws were suspended, nobody was responsible for anything. Nobody owned anything if they weren’t literally sitting on it. Nobody provided safety. The old power had run away, and the new one hadn’t yet arrived.”
And yet there was already a new can-do spirit taking shape. Jähner takes his readers into the mind of Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, a journalist of sterling anti-Nazi credentials. During the summer of 1945, a mere two months after Hitler’s death, she sat in a demolished but bustling Berlin and recorded in a diary her urge to at last get a grip on life:
The entire city is in a rush of anticipation. Everyone wants to work themselves to the bone, to possess a thousand hands and a thousand brains. The Americans are here, the Brits, the Russians. This is what is important; that we are at the center of activity; that the world powers meet among our ruins; and that we prove to their representatives just how serious we are with our fervor, how infinitely serious we are with our efforts at redemption and ascent. Berlin is running on all cylinders. If they can now understand us and forgive us, they will get everything from us. Everything! That we renounce National Socialism, that we consider the new to be better, that we work and are principally of good will. We have never been so ripe for redemption.
Jähner evokes picture after picture of a society corrupted, demoralized and freed – all at the same time. The tale of the Trümmerfrauen (rubble women) illustrates a more nuanced story than the iconic images of women clearing away rubble in their fancy dresses – the only ones they had left. These women were often forced to work in the clearance of debris – a monumental task that took years to complete. It was part of their denazification requirements or disciplinary provisions for “HwG” women, shorthand for those who had had “frequently alternating sexual partners.” Yet the images of women handing off buckets to one another became a “visual metaphor” for community spirit amid a society rent at the seams. “Reconstruction was presented with a heroic, almost erotic face, something gratefully easy to identify with and to feel proud of, despite defeat,” Jähner notes.
Through all the storylines of the detailed and sweeping book runs a delicate argument not to be mistaken for moral indifference. The author carefully delineates how for some time after 1945, Germany needed to block out the unspeakable crimes it had committed against humanity. Jähner is conflicted about the outcome, as he realizes there would have been no such smooth transformation to stable democracy and open society without the partial amnesia and uncanny zeal that defined the first decade after the war. In a pointed encapsulation, Jähner neatly sums up the unconscious public awareness of the time: “No optimism without bitterness, no grievance without gratitude.” There is but one glaring lesson to be drawn from his story – to fully embrace the persistent ambivalences of history.
is senior editor of The German Times.