Postwar Germany and the role of women
When a country returns back to normal after a war ends, there are many changes to the everyday lives of soldiers—and their families. Postwar Germany, virtually razed to the ground during the Second World War, had to not only go through a process of denazification, but also deal with rebuilding society physically. Often women were the ones working to clear rubble and take care of children, as husbands and fathers slowly trickled back to Germany from prisoner of war (POW) camps around Europe and the Soviet Union.
This imagery may seem unfamiliar, but to a lesser extent, we see this today in the news; we hear about men, who returned from military operations in the Middle East, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and having difficulties adjusting to life back at home. Women’s voices, as providers and caretakers, are often in the background. Yet, a quick Google search highlights a Facebook support group for wives of soldiers and veterans suffering from PTSD. Women, as rebuilders of a postwar society, illustrates the number of roles they took to ensure continuity of their lives and neighborhoods.
Indeed, women’s role in the early postwar era changed significantly—they were responsible not only for their children, but also for helping Germany rebuild.
Postwar life stories are dominated by the idea that 1945 marked a ‘Zero Hour’ (Stunde Null) for Germany. We’ve touched on this concept before, but it was in essence the popular feeling (or hope) that the end of the war was such a colossal, traumatic rupture that the Germany that emerged was a blank slate. This impression was reinforced by the extent of Germany’s defeat. Not only had the war ended in surrender, but the Reich itself had been ‘completely crushed’: its territory occupied and dismembered by its former enemies; its government dismantled; its cities, Berlin most of all, levelled; and its population reduced to a state of subsistence and forced to ‘start again from scratch’. The ‘rubble mountains’ (Trümmerberge) that made up much of the urban landscape underscored how total this defeat had been.
Films about this depict women working, yet struggling with moving forward. Gerhard Lamprecht’s Somewhere in Berlin, a Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’), depicts the ruins as a ‘chaotic space’ dominating the city, and as ‘active agents in the destruction of innocent life’. The death of an orphaned boy following his fall from a ruined wall is the narrative and emotional crux of the film, and the culmination of the corrupting influence the ruins have exerted throughout.
The daunting task of clearing the rubble began in May 1945, and involved almost the entire populace from the beginning. With much of the country’s machinery destroyed and its city streets inaccessible, clearance relied primarily on manual labour, particularly in the first few years. In both western and eastern sectors of Germany, Allied authorities organized people into semi-compulsory work details. Women were vastly overrepresented in these units. In Berlin alone, out of 5784 citizens clearing rubble in March 1948, 3782 were women. The work was physically demanding, and the quantities of rubble to be cleared immense. Hence the heroic figure of the ‘rubble woman’ (Trümmerfrau) that emerged at this time in popular media and fiction, and which took on an almost mythical status in postwar German national identity on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Despite the gradual introduction of machinery to ease the process, reconstruction was a formidable task, and was only really completed in both Germanies in the early 1960s. For at least the first postwar decade, therefore, German women’s lives were occupied with clearing away rubble, securing food for their families, and attempting to avoid the unwanted attentions of Russian soldiers. In A Woman In Berlin, the anonymous author writes of enduring rape by Russian soldiers, in the midst of attempting to figure out how to navigate a new, changed, postwar climate where women could barter sex for consumer comforts and food to help their families.
As women’s roles diversified, some began to question the value of having a husband, as returning POWs were often sick and physically incapable of doing work. Clashes between returning husbands from POW camps and children, who saw fathers as ‘taking the lion’s share’ of food and supplies but doing no work. There were many divorces in the early postwar years as some women felt they were better off alone than with a partner who was disturbed or physically unwell. This attitude began to shift in the 1950s, when it became more popular to get married and especially to marry a man who had been a POW. Women also wanted to ‘return to normality’, and in West Germany, this meant taking on gender performative roles of the mother and wife (see chapters 4 and 5 in ).