Review: How the Germans Coped With DefeatHistorians in the News
tags: Nazism, World War 2, German history
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor Emeritus of History at Cambridge University. His most recent book is The Hitler Conspiracies.
“When World War II came to an end,” Monica Black notes, “Germany lay in ruins. Entire cities had been shattered by bombs and artillery, expanses of land left bare where every tree had been cut down for fuel, parts of the country practically erased.” For 12 years, Germans had lived under a regime that had shaped their lives in ways so intense that large numbers of them could not imagine a life without Hitler and the Nazi Party and killed themselves in one of the greatest waves of mass suicide in history. Even before the end of the war, reports from the Security Service of the SS had described popular feelings of “mourning, despondency, bitterness, and a rising fury,” expressing “the deepest disappointment for having misplaced one’s trust.” In the months that followed the war’s end, such feelings became ever more widespread. What had been the point of all the hard work and sacrifice? Inflation was out of control, and the basic necessities of existence had to be acquired from a black market mired in violence and criminality. The values inculcated by the Nazi regime had been upended. The present was unbearable, the future uncertain.
In her prizewinning book, Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany (2010), Monica Black charted the impact of two world wars on Berliners’ attitudes toward death and mourning. In her new book, she looks at how Germans more generally sought to come to terms with their sudden disorientation through fantasies about “good and evil, innocence and guilt, sickness and healing.” These were displaced from the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi mass murders of the mentally ill and handicapped, of resisters and homosexuals, of Poles, prisoners of war, and millions more. Nobody was willing, or perhaps able, to discuss these and projected them onto smaller and more manageable psychic dramas of faith healing and witchcraft, the inexplicable and the supernatural. The moral, social, and epistemic void in which Germans found themselves after defeat was filled, at least for a time, by the irrational.
This situation, Black argues, persisted well after the process of reconstruction and rehabilitation in Germany had got underway, undermining the common portrayal of early postwar history as a story of gritty and determined Germans heroically working to rebuild their shattered land. “Fears of spiritual defilement, toxic mistrust, and a malaise that permeated daily life” were widespread; deep-rooted anxieties “churned away throughout the 1950s against the backdrop of consumerist forgetfulness.” In the university town of Göttingen, the folklorist Alfred Dieck was collecting the rumors and prophesies he encountered in the region. The blind faith people had placed in Hitler, now destroyed, was, he thought, finding an outlet in warnings of a coming apocalypse, amplified by the emerging sensationalist popular press.
So common were these by 1949 that they amounted, he concluded, to a kind of mass psychosis. The earth was about to shift on its axis; or the guilty would be swept away in a flood of biblical proportions. Many if not most people, Dieck observed, “felt largely blameless” for the horrors the Nazis had inflicted on the world, and there was still a widespread belief that “American financial circles” (code for Jews) had brought about both world wars and the defeat and humiliation of Germany in 1918 and again in 1945. But the apocalyptic rumors he collected, Black says, also surely expressed a sublimated consciousness that Germans were guilty of the horrendous crimes that none of them wanted openly to discuss.
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