The German Century

A Community of Defeat

German life in the 20th century.


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.

Nevertheless, despite the relentless promulgation of Nazi ideas in the revised school curriculum, through Nazi teachers, and by the leaders of Nazi youth organizations, many of the adolescents that Jarausch examines enjoyed being in the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls, and fondly recalled the fun they’d had sitting around the campfire or tramping over the hills. A number of them confessed later that, as one of them put it, they “wanted to help in the building of the new, third, thousand-year Reich and to carry responsibility.” Some were completely swept away by the propaganda and considered it “good that the Nazis hold power,” as another one said. “They help Germany regain the greatness which it deserves.” Few of them mentioned the rabid anti-Semitism that permeated the ideological training of the youth organizations, including even the songs they sang.

A good number of Jarausch’s Germans, however, admitted to having been bored and irritated by the constant military drills and the persistent indoctrination that were part of the Nazi youth movement. They came to feel betrayed by the promises that the Nazis had held out to young people, and guilty about the extent to which they had allowed themselves to be seduced by the Nazi vision of the future. But what really changed their perspective was the war. Despite being taught constantly that military prowess was the highest human achievement and heroism the noblest human quality, very few of the young men that Jarausch studied framed their reminiscences as tales of derring-do rather than of survival. From the tough and often humiliating training they underwent as raw military recruits to the experience of battle in Western Europe, Africa, the Balkans, and, from June 1941 on, the Eastern Front, they encountered brutality, violence, hardship, and death. The illusory belief in German victory that many of them shared in the early stages of the war vanished almost overnight after the Red Army’s destruction of the Sixth German Army at Stalingrad. After this point, early in 1943, the majority realized that the war was lost. They kept fighting out of loyalty to their comrades, and out of fear of being killed or, what was potentially almost as bad, captured by Soviet troops. Some admitted to being involved in atrocities against civilians, and most confessed they had learned in one way or another about the mass murder of European Jews at shooting sites or in camps on the Eastern Front. As the Soviets advanced inexorably toward Germany itself in 1944, the men carried on fighting, not least to defend their fatherland against the Bolshevik hordes that seemed hell-bent on destroying it. Only in the final stages did they begin to desert en masse, to flee in panic, or to lay down their arms and show the white flag.

For many who have read about the German military during the war, this may all be a familiar story. Where Jarausch breaks new ground is in portraying the war, and indeed the Third Reich as a whole, as a gendered experience. As far as the Nazi state was concerned, a woman’s role was to keep house and raise children (preferably lots of them). For the younger women in Jarausch’s sample, the League of German Girls provided some sense of empowerment as they were given their own roles in life outside the constricting embrace of the family. Women, Jarausch emphasizes, were not merely victims: They collaborated with the regime from the outset, embraced Nazism’s ideals, or took part willingly in projects such as the “colonization” of the east, where Polish farmers were summarily ejected to make way for German settlers—a “noble mission,” as one woman described it. (Only later did she realize that her behavior toward the local Polish population, which included beating a boy for not minding the cows, had sown seeds of deep hatred that would eventually sprout into violence and revenge.) “I let myself be captured by a great lie,” as another of Jarausch’s female subjects later admitted.

German women began to turn against the Third Reich only in 1943, when Allied bombing raids on German cities started disrupting their lives and the living conditions became steadily more unbearable. At the war’s end, hundreds of thousands of German women, huddling in the ruins of bombed-out buildings, in cellars or in makeshift shelters, were brutally raped by Red Army soldiers. Many killed themselves out of shame; others had abortions to rid themselves of the unwanted consequences. Some survived by distancing themselves mentally and emotionally from the grim realities of the wartime years: “This is not you yourself,” one woman recalled thinking, “this is only the body, the miserable body!” Others found solace in reconnecting with their families. For all of them, Nazism’s collapse prompted self-critical reflections on the extent to which they had supported the dictatorship. The violence and chaos of the war’s end, compounded by the arrival of some 11 million German refugees and expellees from the east, from countries like Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, prompted an anguished reappraisal of their earlier seduction by the promises of a glorious future held out to them by Hitler and his propaganda machine.

Viewed as unpolitical by the Nazi regime, German women largely ignored the persecution of their country’s Jewish population before the war, argues Jarausch, as well as the mass murder of Europe’s Jews during it, though they had mostly learned about it at the time, either by witnessing it in Germany itself or through reports from soldiers on leave from the Eastern Front. In an illuminating chapter on Nazism’s victims, Jarausch notes that the vast majority of his Jewish autobiographers considered themselves Germans first and foremost and had little sympathy for Zionism. Members of the small Jewish minority in Germany—less than 1 percent of the population in 1933—had to face persecution, marginalization, and the gradual elimination of economic and career opportunities as the Nazis tightened the screws, until about half of them—predominantly younger people—made the difficult decision to emigrate.

For many, measures such as the boycott of Jewish shops in 1933, the racial legislation of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, or the pogroms and arrests of Kristallnacht in 1938 came as a terrible shock. Those who stayed in Germany eventually faced deportation and death; those who survived often did so by sheer chance. Having blond hair helped those few who went underground; lying about their age helped others who were lined up for “selection” on arrival at Auschwitz. Jarausch’s subjects include an SS man who described the process of extermination by gas chamber at the camp in the same detail with which he recalled the seeming normality of the bourgeois lives that the SS led in their quarters in the nearby town.

Living in ruined and shattered cities and towns, deprived of food and shelter, cut off by the almost total destruction of road and rail communications, Germans in the war’s aftermath formed a “community of defeat,” created by a shared sense of shock and disorientation. Survival often depended on access to the black market or on stealing supplies of food and fuel. With millions of men killed in combat or still in prisoner-of-war camps, it fell to the women to carry out the task of clearing away the rubble and restoring a sense of normality and order. Out of such experiences, Jarausch’s subjects shaped narratives of heroic suffering and survival, focusing on the way in which they rebuilt their own lives out of the ashes. The search for moral reorientation led many back to religion. Politics seemed largely irrelevant to most—not surprisingly, since in the 1930s and early ’40s it had betrayed them and led to disaster. Instead, people retreated into the private sphere. No wonder, as many historians have pointed out, that family values seemed paramount in the 1950s.

The discrediting of the Nazi elites and the deaths of so many German men in the war also meant that there were many jobs available for younger people in West Germany, as well as opportunities for civic engagement, which in due course would lead to a new wave of political activism in the 1960s. In the Soviet zone of occupation, the early idealism was crushed by the relentless Stalinization of the social and political system, which led to the emigration of more than 3 million people to the freer and more prosperous West Germany, until the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 cut off the last avenue of escape. After the collapse of communism in 1990, East Germans remembered their state largely as a failure. Only a few still insisted that some aspects of the German Democratic Republic, such as free health care, free nurseries, old-age care, and social welfare in general, “were models even for Germany as a whole.” Yet even they did not want to see a return to GDR conditions.

On both sides of the Berlin Wall, West Germany—the Federal Republic—became an emblem of German success. “After [our] experiences in the Weimar Republic, the Nazi state, and the GDR,” one person recalled, “[we] consider the Federal Republic of Germany the best German state yet.” Twentieth-century Germans’ negative experiences with war and authoritarian states, Jarausch concludes, turned them into convinced pacifists and democrats, whatever their attitudes toward immigrants and minorities might currently be. Only a very small minority, even in the far-right Alternative for Germany party, reject the dominant negative view of the country’s Nazi past and the continuing acknowledgement of its crimes and atrocities.

Broken Lives offers a gripping and often moving account of people caught up in some of the 20th century’s most terrible and cataclysmic events, the way they experienced them, and their attempts to make sense of them later in life. But readers need to be wary of Jarausch’s frequent claims for his subjects’ typicality. Like far too many other historians, he sees the German middle class as emblematic of the country as a whole. By his own reckoning, three-quarters of the autobiographies he analyzes were written by members of the bürgertum. But most estimates put the manual working class in the mid-20th century at around 50 percent of the German population. Obviously, educated and professional people are more likely to write their memoirs than members of the urban or rural proletariat; only a tenth of Jarausch’s subjects could be classified as working-class (the rest were from the lower-middle class). This leads Jarausch to make one dubious generalization after another when he uses these autobiographies to describe the experiences of all Germans.

Thus he claims, for example, that the parents and grandparents of his subjects generally felt a sense of nostalgia for the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine empire, sharing a common sense of nationalism and pride in Germany’s achievements. What he fails to mention is that the largest political movement in Germany at the time, with over 1 million members by 1912 and more seats in the national legislature than any other, was the Social Democratic Party, which was fiercely critical of Imperial Germany’s social and political structures and deeply hostile to the imperialist and patriotic ideals of the establishment and most of the middle class. The Social Democrats created a vast apparatus of cultural and social organizations, later copied by the Communists, in which millions of young people spent their lives until the Nazi seizure of power. Jarausch is aware of this, of course, but he pays far too little attention to the Social Democrats, leaving the impression that they were somehow marginal to the German experience. They were not.

Similarly, bourgeois memoirists might have lived through the 1920s in “the carefree atmosphere” of a “happy, sheltered childhood,” but for most working-class children—or in other words, most children—it was a time of grinding poverty and hardship, especially during the Depression, and it was alleviated only briefly in the mid-1920s by the creation of a welfare system that eventually buckled and broke under the strain of mass unemployment.

German schools in the 1920s may have been nationalist and conservative in some areas, but Social Democratic educational reforms were beginning to transform them into far more progressive and democratic institutions. Anti-Semitism was rife in the upper levels of society and in conservative politics, but it was weak to nonexistent in the working class. Jarausch does not address these important class differences. Many bourgeois youths were seduced by the promises of Nazism, but huge numbers of young proletarians with ties to the socialist or communist left were not. Just as interesting is the experience of those who allowed themselves to be co-opted into the Nazi regime, usually against the wishes of their working-class parents, and the depoliticizing effects of both the regime, which destroyed the trade unions and the socialist movement, and the prosperity of the 1950s, which in the view of a number of German sociologists brought traditional working-class culture and values to an end and created a “levelled-down middle-class society” in Germany by the following decade. Exploring such processes might have complicated Jarausch’s argument, but it would have lent it a good deal more social breadth and depth.

Jarausch could have easily redressed the social imbalance of his sample by adding the experience of working-class Germans, trade unionists, Social Democrats, and Communists—not only through working-class autobiographies, of which there are many, but also, and perhaps above all, by oral histories, such as Lutz Niethammer and Alexander von Plato’s three volumes of interviews with workers in the Ruhr area from 1930 to 1960. There are many more such volumes in existence, edited by other labor historians, and it is hard to understand why Jarausch did not use them. Oral histories are no more unreliable than memoirs or autobiographies, and they have the advantage of extending further down the social scale than written testimonies generally do. Jarausch’s book is therefore a valuable account of the everyday lives of many Germans before, during, and after the Third Reich, but it has to be treated with caution when it comes to generalizing the experience of the German people as a whole. n

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