In the aftermath of the Second World War many Germans, instead of succumbing to guilt about the horrors they had brought upon the world, indulged in an orgy of self-pity. In January 1947 a writer in the magazine Der Standpunkt asked: “What makes us so unpopular around the world? Germany is the problem child of Europe, the whipping boy of the world.”
Harald Jähner, the author of this important, exemplary account of postwar life in the defeated Reich, writes that most older Germans embraced a narrative of their own victimhood. This displaced compassion for others, notably for six million Jews.
They wallowed so expansively in their own sufferings — hunger, family loss, poverty, transformation of their cities into rubble — “that there was no room and no thought left for the true victims. Some were already positioning themselves as losers and turning their unique shame into a claim for leadership.”
Anti-Semitism still ran deep. People recoiled from such visiting Jews as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. From America the great Thomas Mann wrote a lacerating article about why he would not come “home”, enraging fellow writers by asserting that every book published in their country since 1933 should be pulped.
Most Germans took little notice of the Nuremberg war crimes trials, dismissing them as victors’ justice. There was resentment about the “privileged” treatment accorded by the Allies to former forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners, especially in the matter of rations.
Anti-Semitism still ran deep. People recoiled from such visiting Jews as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
With five million men dead, six and a half million more in Western Allied prison camps and two million in Russian ones, German women faced a desperate shortage of male companionship and sex. In Berlin for a time, rumor had it, there were six young women for every young man.
The singer Ingrid Lutz performed a famous 1946 pop song “SOS — Ich Suche Dringend Liebe” (“SOS — I’m urgently in need of love”). Many of the broken, emaciated soldiers who eventually came home seemed less appetizing than healthy specimens of the occupying forces, especially Americans with their wonderful teeth.
Couples found it difficult, or impossible, to salvage fractured relationships. Repatriated POW’s were prone to impotence. Many wives had been raped or found temporary lovers in their husbands’ absence. More than a few women saw their former partners as losers, having been empowered by the necessity to plow and reap, run homes alone and toil in offices and factories.
In Berlin for a time, rumor had it, there were six young women for every young man.
An enterprising former pilot named Beate Uhse made a fortune selling erotic goods, including pills to revive sexual desire. Meanwhile, there was a boom in coffee tables, a new idea that allegedly started because American soldiers had sawn the legs off people’s kitchen tables so that they could put their feet up on them. Art boomed: in the East the Communist Party insisted on figurative painting, while in the capitalist West abstract work became the rage.
The cigarette was “a medium of victory and defeat”, trafficked manically, sometimes in exchange for sex.
A British officer who had run a tank repair shop, Major Ivan Hirst, presided over the resurrection of the Volkswagen Beetle in Saxony. German history airbrushed the fact that forced labor kept Volkswagen’s production lines going through the war years. Many industrialists who had made fortunes exploiting slaves secured new postwar millions that place their descendants among the richest people in their 21st-century society.
Art boomed: in the East the Communist Party insisted on figurative painting, while in the capitalist West abstract work became the rage.
The Communists expelled millions of ethnic Germans from the East — notably Poland and Czechoslovakia — dramatically swelling the population of West Germany. The newcomers were resented by their unwilling hosts, but made a critical contribution to the labor force that drove Germany’s “economic miracle”.
A huge Allied operation sought to return more than eight million forced laborers to their homelands, mostly in the East. Many slaves were so traumatized that they became unruly and violent, not least because they had no wish to be at the mercy of Stalin.
At a camp in France some of the 3,500 Russian former inmates began attacking locals. General Dragun, the senior Soviet liaison officer, was summoned to restore order, which he achieved by selecting ten prisoners at random and having them shot. The author writes: “The methods of dehumanization pursued by the Nazi regime in the camps continued just as much in the behavior of the exhausted victors.”
In modern Germany much ink has been lavished on its people’s wartime sufferings — for instance, Günter Grass’s best-seller Crabwalk, about the 1945 sinking of the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff. The myth that all postwar Germans were suffused with guilt and shame has been allowed to dominate. By contrast, the 28-year-old Achim von Beust, a founding member of the CDU in Hamburg, wrote brutally in 1947 about the older generation, of whom a majority “were not and are not democrats and I see that as the fundamental evil. Hitler knew how to persuade the Germans that they were a privileged species … Most of our parents went along with that madness.”
Jähner, a former Berlin newspaper editor, is today 68 and thus of the postwar generation. In the concluding chapter of this admirably unsentimental work he describes Germany’s postwar recovery as “completely undeserved”, having “nothing to do with historical justice. For decades there was no widespread engagement with the murder of millions.”
This is the kind of book few writers possess the clarity of vision to write, about the relatively recent past of their own societies. Most of the Germans who survived the Second World War never witnessed the crimes committed in their name or the miseries they had inflicted on the world. The dead were out of sight, out of mind. German civilians in the heimat (homeland) just saw their own tragedies, and considered these monstrously undeserved. Jähner thinks otherwise.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph