The resonance of ruins: postwar German rubble discourse in the Trümmerzeit
The Trümmerzeit, or ‘rubble era’, is a term used in German historiography to define that period of ‘“sluggish and murky transitions”’ between the collapse of the Third Reich and Germany’s subsequent division during the Cold War. Germany was intact for the present, and its history and fate were still considered those of a united people, yet as a political entity it had ceased to exist, and its cities and territory lay in ruins. These ruins, particularly those of Berlin, served as a symbol of the arduous living conditions experienced by most Germans in this period, as well as their social, cultural and personal dislocation. The term Trümmerzeit therefore highlights the centrality of rubble in Germans’ physical and mental landscapes.
The various cultural and social resonances of rubble also reflect the Germans’ shifting and ambivalent attitude towards the recent past, and their role in it. Rubble and ruins took centre stage in a variety of cultural and architectural debates, as well as in the cinema of the period, namely the short-lived Trümmerfilm (‘rubble film’) genre. These strands of rubble discourse were characterized by a ‘willingness to approach’ a discussion of German wartime experiences and actions, while ‘shy[ing] away from a complete critical confrontation’ with them. Certain interpretations of rubble encouraged a more present- or future-oriented outlook, in which questions about the past were subordinated to the more pressing concerns of survival and reconstruction. Those meanings that would have led to a more retrospective approach were undermined by the rawness of the memories concerned, the resulting debates often proving superficial and unsatisfactory. In short, a spirit of compromise and uncertainty characterized the Germans’ immediate postwar Vergangenheitsbewältigung (or ‘working through the past’), with the rubble discourse providing a particularly clear example of this.
Rubble as physical environment
The most prominent of these resonances for ordinary Germans was their experience of rubble as a physical environment, with which they were forced to contend. The sheer extent of wartime bomb and battle damage to German cities meant that by 1945 the rubble-ridden ‘urban moonscape’ dominated the physical world of their inhabitants, narrowing their perspective to a short-term focus on survival and rebuilding. Such a landscape also presented genuine physical dangers to city-dwellers. The street detritus included unexploded mortar and bombs, while the instability of the ruins themselves could lead to accidental injury or even death. As both traumatizing backdrop and mortal threat, therefore, rubble became the most important feature of the postwar cityscape.
Germans were by no means confined to the role of passive observers or victims of this environment, however, but also interacted with it in their efforts to rebuild their cities and their lives. During the reconstruction process, the ruins remained their only available living and leisure space. Citizens crowded into basements and bunkers underground, or carved ‘precarious caves’ for themselves out of the rubble, where they ‘eked out an almost Stone Age existence’. The utility of the ruins for these rubble-dwellers was reinforced by the ways in which they were integrated into the cultural revival of the cities, adding a ‘new frisson’ to the range of nightclubs and jazz bars opening in the cellars of bombed-out buildings, as well as the plays and operas performed on ‘makeshift stages’ and ‘torn-up halls’. The most direct form of interaction, however, came from people’s efforts to clear the rubble, as a prelude to the reconstruction work. This clearance involved the vast majority of the remaining populace, under the supervision of German or Allied authorities. For almost all city residents, therefore, the immediate materiality of their ruined cities was an inescapable part of daily life, and hampered their ability to focus on anything beyond the immediate present. Past and future alike ‘seemed to collapse into a present that was as long as the time until the next rations could be secured’.
Rubble as tabula rasa
Also encouraging a more forward-looking orientation were the various ways in which rubble was perceived as a blank slate, which both obscured the recent past and offered opportunities for a fresh start. Most fundamentally, the extent of the postwar devastation lent substance to the interpretation of 1945 as Stunde Null (‘zero hour’), a break with the past from which point German history was essentially reset. Above all, the ruins provided concrete evidence (literally) of the thoroughness of Germany’s defeat. The resulting sense that Germans had ‘“nothing to begin from”’, and therefore needed to forge ‘“a completely new kind of life”’ for themselves, manifested in the rapid and determined cultural revival of cities such as Berlin as early as the mid-1940s.
Similarly, 1945 was seen by many architects and urban planners as a ‘unique opportunity’ for a new beginning, a chance to rebuild Germany’s cities from the ground up and correct many of the previous century’s architectural mistakes in the process. This belief, part of the so-called Träume in Trümmern (‘dreams among the ruins’), had been espoused as early as 1942, and re-emerged in the postwar discussions concerning the appropriate style in which the country’s cities should be rebuilt. While some figures, such as Adolf Lorenz and architect Heinrich Tessenow, argued for the preservation and memorialization of the ruins, insisting that they should stand as a ‘grim reminder of German history’, their voices were in a minority, as evidenced by the more ambivalent debates surrounding architectural restoration and preservation that took place in this period. For the preservationists, memorialization was an inherently redemptive process, and offered a means to ‘reconnect with the “better” German past’. For the populace, however, that past had been compromised by its association with Nazism, and large-scale modernization was a preferable approach. The postwar years therefore saw numerous ruins demolished and built over, particularly those of the Imperial era, which was also tainted by association.
Rubble as psychotopography
In contrast to this were the ways in which Germany’s ruins also served as a reminder of its recent history, and compelled the populace to face up to it, to a certain extent. The idea that cities, and by extension their ruins, could act as sites of memory was not new in 1945. From the fetishization of ruins by the late eighteenth-century Romantics, to the work of modern architectural historians such as Robert Harbison and John Jackson, ruins have been lauded and studied as ‘the central organizing metaphor of the terrains of national memory’. The Nazis also enjoyed a ‘romance with ruins’, as expressed in Albert Speer’s theories of ruin value and their celebrations of destroyed cities in the final stages of the war.
The distinctive contribution of 1945 to this line of thought was the conception of ruins as psychotopography, a reflection of the shattered state of both the individual and the collective German psyche as a result of wartime devastation. Architect Martin Wager, for instance, likened the German people’s psychological war wounds to ‘“spiritual rubble”’ whose removal was vital before genuine reconstruction would be feasible. Deconstructing this spiritual rubble was also the main concern of the Trümmerfilm genre, whose films were united by a ‘political mission’ to address the ‘mental and spiritual residue’ with which the Nazi past had burdened the populace. Several Trümmerfilme, including Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers are Among Us, Gerhard Lamprecht’s Somewhere in Berlin (both 1946) and Günter Naumann’s The Ballad of Berlin (1948), used an expressionistic style to establish a connection between the ruined cityscapes they featured and the tormented mindsets of their characters. These conversations remained marginal and underdeveloped, however, suggesting that, for the majority of Germans, they were simply premature.
The overall picture that emerges from these various strands of rubble discourse is of a populace obliged, yet reluctant, to make a minimal reckoning with its recent past. In general, however, the issue of ordinary Germans’ complicity in the atrocities of the Nazi era was tackled only marginally, with a range of distancing strategies employed to soften this confrontation to a more comfortable level. This sense of uncertain compromise reflected the extent to which the populace was overwhelmed by the enormity of what the rubble in their cities represented, and especially of what, if its causes were addressed directly, it would force the Germans to acknowledge about themselves.