For the great majority of Germans, the 20th century was a time of massive disruptions and discontinuities, marked by drastic changes of regime, periodic economic catastrophes, hugely destructive wars, and cataclysmic social upheavals. Some years ago, the historian Detlev Peukert pointed out that a young German man born between 1900 and 1910 would have gone through adolescence during World War I, with its privations, its food shortages, and its deaths and diseases, notably the vast influenza epidemic that killed countless people at the war’s end. He would have come of age during the postwar hyperinflation, when German money lost almost all its value, and would have entered the labor market just as the worldwide economic slump raised unemployment levels to more than a third of the entire workforce. Experiencing Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, which saddled the country with territorial losses, restrictions on its military capacities, and huge financial reparations, he would have lived through the revolution of 1918 that overthrew the kaiser, the chronic political instability and violence of the early Weimar years, the political paralysis of the early 1930s, and the collapse of the republic with the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.
By 1935, he would have been drafted into the armed forces, and between 1939 and 1945 would have fought in World War II, the most destructive conflict in history, in which more than 5 million German soldiers were killed, over half a million German civilians lost their lives, and most German cities were reduced to rubble. After enduring a period of severe economic crisis, inflation, malnutrition, and black marketeering, he would have been in his middle years before he began to experience political stability and economic success in West Germany, if he was lucky enough to end up in that half of the country, or would have continued to suffer in the communist East, where dictatorship and deprivation remained the norm. No wonder people in West Germany in the 1950s were desperate for a quiet life. “No experiments!” as then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer declared.
In his new book, Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century, Konrad H. Jarausch, author of several accomplished histories of postwar Europe and modern Germany, examines not the life of Peukert’s imagined citizen, but rather those of Germans born into the generation that followed. Basing his account on 72 published and unpublished autobiographies, with particularly detailed attention paid to 17 of them, Jarausch is as interested in memory as he is in experience. The result is an engrossing and rewarding book that tells the story of 20th-century Germany from the individual perspectives of those who went through it and (mostly) somehow managed to survive. Clearly, as Jarausch says, their lives were repeatedly disrupted, their personal time lines broken by major and often devastatingly destructive events. And as these events unfolded, so their memories of the past changed as well.
Among the more surprising of Jarausch’s findings is that, in general, his subjects remembered the ill-fated Weimar Republic in positive terms and as a period of normality against which they measured the instabilities and catastrophes of the Nazi and early postwar years. The 1920s saw Germans of this generation go through their childhood, and so perhaps for that reason they recalled the decade as idyllic compared with what came after. During Hitler’s Third Reich, politics and ideology were brought into everyday life and into every family. Some of Jarausch’s protagonists engaged in small acts of resistance, such as merely mumbling the required “Heil, Hitler!” greeting or hanging the smallest possible flag from their window on special days like Hitler’s birthday. Fanatical Nazis are rare in Jarausch’s sample; by 1939, many people were merely going through the motions of demonstrating the public support that the dictatorship required.