Time of the Wolf: Germany, post-war
Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich by Harald Jähner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Aftermath by Harald Jähner (original: Wolfszeit, “Wolf Time,” 2019) is about the Germans in 1945-1955, recovering from the war, their huge and humiliating defeat, the destruction of most of their cities and production facilities, and their own conflicted consciences. Not surprisingly, most popular was the interpretation of themselves as “victims” rather than perpetrators of the terrible violence that not only killed millions of people but displaced even more millions of survivors. The sequels of the Ukraine war are going to be of similar scale, as we can already see with the millions of refugees, destruction of agrarian and industrial productivity, and the terrible losses of life. How the Russians are going to deal with it, and their own consciences if at least some of them acknowledge the evidence, …?
The war and the rapid collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 altered the structure of all Europe — as will Russia’s current war on Ukraine. What had been the greatest economic and military power on the continent was now divided into four zones governed respectively by the French, the British, the U.S., and the Soviets. National boundaries were redrawn, so that much of what had been German became Polish, leading to expulsion or (more-or-less voluntary) mass migration of German speakers westward, to lands they had never seen before and whose dialects and accents were unfamiliar — and where they had no prospects for making a living.
“In the summer of 1945 about 75 million people lived in the four occupied zones of Germany. Some 40 million, far more than half of them, were not where they belonged or wanted to be.” (p. 39)
The hardship and misery in the destroyed cities induced the German self-pity mentioned above, their view of themselves as “victims”, and an utter lack of concern about the missing millions of Jews, even among those Germans (a minority) who accepted German responsibilty for the destructive war. Finding ways to survive — often by theft, frequently accompanied by violence over a precarious shelter or a fragment of bread in a bombed out city — and the abuses by the occupying forces, including house-breaking and rapes by barely-controlled Soviet soldiers — earned this period the label “Wolfszeit”, or “time of the wolf”, the ferocious monster of German folklore.
But it also inspired creativity and ingenuity of many Germans, sometimes in ways that contributed to the rebuilding of economy, production and even culture. Among the exceptional personalities that Jähner highlights are the now-famous writer and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a creative capitalist as a child in the black market of Bavaria; the beautiful and daring actress Hildegard Knef, portraying women taking sometimes brutal control of their sex-lives — a scandalous departure from pre-war German mores; Rudolf Hernnstadt, a Jewish Communist journalist who established new newspapers in the Soviet zone; Hans Habe, “[t]he most glittering among” the German Jews (though he was actually of Hungarian origin) serving the U.S. occupiers — handsome, clever, pretentious and “highly efficient” at establishing newspapers to counter the lingering ideology of the Nazis; the famous author Alfred Döblin; pilot and sex-education popularizer Beate Uhse; and Heinrich Nordhoff, the “general” who got Volkswagen back in production.
Very clearly written and bristling with dramatic incidents, this book is necessary for understanding the Germany that emerged from its “wolf’s time” to become, this time in very different form, the great economic power it is today.