Was Forgetting the Holocaust a Pillar of West German Rebuilding?Historians in the News
tags: Cold War, Holocaust, World War 2, German history
Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-55
By Harald Jähner; translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside
Alfred A. Knopf, 394 pages, $30
The original German edition of Harald Jähner’s “Aftermath” was titled, more evocatively, “Wolfszeit,” meaning “time of the wolves.” The expression encapsulates the Hobbesian ferocity of the immediate post-World War II period, when the country’s ruined cities were piled high with rubble, its populace was desperate for food and shelter, and the black market and other illegal enterprises flourished.
Our contemporary view of 1940s and ’50s Germany relies on a series of tropes: the Soviet atrocities, the clearing of the rubble, the struggle for survival, Allied attempts at “denazification,” the insistence on victimhood, the repression of historical memory, and, finally, the so-called economic miracle. Even as Germany dealt with its division into east and west, this past lingered, not quite overcome.
Jähner, former editor of The Berlin Times and an honorary professor of cultural journalism at Berlin’s University of the Arts, sets out to complicate our picture of those tumultuous times. Above all, he wants to explain just how a democratic West Germany rose so quickly from the ashes of a genocidal fascist state.
That transformation is more complex than is generally appreciated, Jähner suggests in this often intriguing social and cultural history, winner of Germany’s Leipzig Book Fair Prize in 2019. “While memory usually bathes the past in a softer light with the passing years,” Jähner writes, “the reverse is true for the post-war period in Germany. In hindsight it became increasingly dark.”
The extreme material hardships of the period, he argues, were paired with a sense of freedom and possibility – as though the Nazi regime, for all its popular support, was a bad dream, and the Allied invasion a true liberation. That view helped Germans disclaim any complicity in the Holocaust, which “played a shockingly small part in the consciousness of most Germans” in the 1940s and ’50s, Jähner writes.
Postwar Germany was a turbulent land of displaced persons, including former prisoners of war and forced laborers, Jewish concentration camp survivors, and ethnic Germans who had been expelled from land that was no longer German territory. But amid the mad scramble for necessities, there also was a hunger for experience, Jähner writes, including a dance craze, enthusiasm for the performing and visual arts, and “a wave of sexual adventurousness.”
“The dominant image, and to an even greater extent, the after-image of the time is one of anxious and despairing faces,” he writes. “And yet it was also a time of laughing, dancing, flirting and lovemaking.”
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