Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955



The Pequod Review:

Harald Jahner's Aftermath is a fascinating history of the under-explored German postwar period (1945-1955) as the country's cities were rebuilt (sometimes from scratch), surviving soldiers and POWs returned home from the war, and foreign powers maintained a constant and sustained presence. Without an established political system, numerous disputes required an ad hoc form of mediation — and some of the solutions would form the basis of the modern democratic society that we know today:

Meanwhile in West Germany a tortured discussion had begun about compensation for war losses. A law concerning the distribution of responsibility for war reparations — the Equalisation of Burdens Act — came into effect in September 1952. Erich Ollenhauer, the then-chair of the SPD, the West German Social Democratic Party, which was at the time in opposition to the ruling Conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), summed up the significance of the Equalisation of Burdens Law: "This is not a social law like a hundred others, in which achievements and obligations are weighed up against one another with painstaking precision. It is the law of the liquidation of our inner war debt towards millions of our own compatriots."

To pay the "inner war debt," the debt owed by Germany to German citizens, everyone who had only suffered slight damage as a result of the war was asked to compensate those who had lost the most. Put simply, many people had to pay up to half of what they owned so that those who had nothing could survive. In individual terms the gigantic redistribution looked like this: the law determined that owners of land, houses and other assets had to hand over the value of 50 per cent of the property that they had owned as of the deadline of 21 June 1948. The sum could be paid in quarterly installments over 30 years. The beneficiaries were the "war damaged": people who had been bombed out of their homes, the war wounded and expellees. They were to be compensated for the loss of their land and business assets, household goods and savings, but not for cash and jewelry. There was also a social component to this whereby those who had lost large fortunes received a smaller percentage compensation than those who had lost small sums. In order to calculate the claims of the expellees and the burden of those obliged to pay, so-called equalisation offices were set up, which would over the coming decades process 8.3 million applications from expelled alone. 

Dull though it might sound, the law was a miracle of political negotiating strategy. The disputes over this spectacular redistribution operation were fought out with such obstinate ferocity that in the end ordinary citizens recognised what an admirable decision had finally been made and put into effect. Instead, after years of disputation in which no one could bear to hear the phrase "burden of equalisation" any longer, everyone was dissatisfied. Those unaffected by the war felt that they were being expected to pay too much, while the expellees saw the payments as a drop in the ocean. Because nobody was happy with the law, the ramifications of the process lay hidden for a long time, but it was as a result of this law that the deeply divided Germans were brought together — albeit without really noticing. And so it was, bickering on a level divorced from big words and ideologies, that the Germans came to democracy. The general querulousness that accompanied the lasting dispute about the equalisation of burdens was a sign that things were getting back to normal. The fact that the Germans fought out their "inner war debts" in this stubborn, sober and entirely undramatic way — and in the end united on a perfectly balanced compromise which took 25,000 officials and employees decades to put into effect — might not really have made anybody happy, but from today's vantage point it is clear what a fortunate path was struck. A struggle over the distribution of funds which had begun as an unabashed culture war between locals and incomers had been turned in a fair and pragmatic way into a parliamentary negotiation. The foundation stone was laid for what would later, in Germany, be called civil society.

I also liked Jahner's review of Germany's surprisingly vibrant cultural scene, as music, literature and art experienced a burst of creativity. It was as though the country's comprehensive devastation provided something of a blank slate: 

The shock of collapse was followed by a sense of personal responsibility and a deep feeling of personal freedom. [The young student Maria von Eynern] embraced bafflement to which she gave a radically positive twist: "We," she wrote, as if speaking for a whole generation, "are creating around us an atmosphere of constant readiness to encounter the peculiarities of existence and deal with them. Freedom waves to us in every direction." There were, for example, no longer any conventions on clothing, "because nobody at all has anything 'conventional' any more — truly here is the freedom of the dispossessed and the intellectuals."

This new zest for life was not a privilege of the educated classes. The "unimaginable sociability" that Maria von Eynern was surprised to find in herself encompassed great swathes of society. While some people barricaded themselves away in the bastions of their bitterness, others immersed themselves in new acquaintances, friendships and love affairs. Migration and evacuation did not lead only to hostility but also to attraction and curiosity. The fact of families being torn apart created misery and distress in some cases, but in others a liberation from oppressive relationships. The boundaries between rich and poor were also blurred; the experience of potentially losing everything overnight and the omnipresence of death took differences that had previously been fundamental and consigned them to the margins. This could also be conveyed as the "freedom of the dispossessed and the intellectuals" that Maria von Eynern wrote about in her diaries.

Wolfgang Borchert, the writer and playwright who entered collective memory as the "Man of Sorrows" of post-war German literature, also experienced the odd combination of death's proximity and a delight in life. A zest for life in the midst of scenes of despair was often denigrated out of hand as a destructive greed for life. Some people felt that it was not appropriate to celebrate and dance so close to death, while others wanted to dance even more wildly in the presence of death and sorrow. In Borchert's writings this lust for life finds full expression. In his 1947 essay "This Is Our Manifesto" he describes the music of his generation, first as "sentimental soldiers' bawling," now luckily behind them, followed by jazz, which, along with swing and boogie-woogie, was played in Hamburg dance halls. 

Jahner also details the psychological coping mechanism that many of the surviving Germans used to deal with their country's Nazi past — by ignoring it and sometimes even claiming to be victims themselves:

There was only one subject that the outpouring of speech within Germany persistently excluded, and that was the central one: the murder of the European Jews. Amidst all the exuberant torrent of words about beasts of war and fault lines, there was hardly so much as a word about the Holocaust. Discussion of the Jews was also out of bounds.

The inability to talk about the persecution of the Jews was felt keenly by an emigrant who, just like Adorno, had returned from the United States in 1949, albeit only for a six-month visit. She experienced it at first hand, as a denial of her own existence. The philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had been forced to leave Germany in 1933 as a Jew, was a director of the organisation Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, and reported for various American agencies on the "after-effects of Nazi rule." Apart from the four-power city of Berlin, whose citizens, as she attested, "still thoroughly hated Hitler" and where she sensed a free-thinking atmosphere with hardly any animosity towards the victorious powers, she was horrified by the mental state of the rest of the country. The widespread indifference, the general lack of emotion and the obvious heartlessness were only the "most striking outward symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn and sometimes brutal refusal to face up to what actually happened and come to terms with it." A shadow of deep mourning had settled over the whole of Europe, but not over Germany. Instead, a feverish, manic industriousness served to keep reality at bay. What the social psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich would latex describe as the "inability to mourn" turned the Germans into "living ghosts who can no longer be reached with the gaze of human eyes and the grief of human hearts."

Taken as a judgement, this impression of Hannah Arendt was literally annihilating because it wrote the post-war Germans out of the list of healthy nations and assigned them instead to the realm of zombies. Alone among the busy corpses, one can imagine the horror felt by Hannah Arendt in Germany, particularly in Munich, the "capital of the movement." She found no solace among the Germans she talked to, and described how their generous forthrightness always died the moment she revealed that she was a Jew: "There generally followed a brief awkward pause; and after that came—not a personal question, such as 'Where did you go after you left Germany?'; no sign of sympathy such as 'What happened to your family' — but a deluge of stories about how Germans have suffered."

Here the silence is once again hidden away in an energetic eloquence, a "deluge of stories." One can understand the bitterness with which Hannah Arendt received the inability of her German interlocutors to show an interest in the fate of her Jewish family, which by any decent human standards would have been the least that one might have expected. But we might wonder whether behind the wounding obduracy of her German acquaintances, rather than pure heartlessness, there might not have been a degree of shame. A shame which for a long time destroyed the normal reflexes of a conversation between Jews and non-Jewish Germans.

It may be that for the Germans that Hannah Arendt spoke to the crimes committed against the Jews were no less than what they essen-tially remain: unspeakable. Would it then have been a more hopeful sign for the mental state of Germans if they had been able to talk immediately about the robbing and murder of the Jews with the same eloquence as they used in discussing their own suffering? Their voices failed them here, and silence genuinely reigned. A helpless, wounding silence.

"Burn your verses, say nakedly what you must," wrote the poet Wolfdietrich Schnurre. If, as Adorno famously stated, "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric," then what of speech? Not many people were prepared to lay themselves bare. One was loquacious or one was silent. Very few found the appropriate words. The right words were a sheer impossibility.

The murder of the European Jews represents a crime whose monstrousness affected the subsequent life of every German and plunged them into the undertow of the unsayable as soon as they thought about it. This is why the majority of Germans did not immediately face up to their guilt. Germans kept their heads down, they grew tongue-tied, they chattered away unmoved, manically, as if they had been wound up.

This seems like one of a small handful of books that will help you truly understand modern Germany.