Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich

Harald Jähner

'Aftermath' is a nuanced panorama of a nation undergoing monumental change. 1945 to1955 was a raw, wild decade poised between two eras that proved decisive for Germany’s future – and one starkly different to how most of us imagine it today. Aftermath is an immersive portrait of a society corrupted, demoralised and freed, all at the same time. Below is an extract from the shortlisted book.

Content note: this passage makes reference to rape.


‘Greedy for life, thirsty for love’

Women’s independence, enforced by the anarchy of a country in collapse and men’s failure, led to a boost in sexual activity. As in the late 1920s, when a new class of young female office workers adopted a ‘brazen’ tone that had not been seen before, the post-war period was similarly energised by women who no longer wanted to be told what to do, and spoke for themselves all the more clearly. ‘I don’t just want to be charming, I need to earn money,’ announces a young school-leaver in the 1948 film Morgen ist alles besser (Everything Will Be Better in the Morning), addressing an elderly gentleman who is smarmily heaping her with compliments. All the film’s sympathies are with the girl; that fresh tone was precisely what more forward-looking circles in post-war society were keen to hear more of.

We hear over and over again that in 1945 Germany was a land of women. It’s true, but in a shocking way it also isn’t. The wave of rapes in the first few weeks after the arrival of the Red Army had confronted women with raw masculine aggression. There were also repeated attacks by soldiers in the western occupied zones. Vagrant criminals, veterans who had lost their homes, freed forced labourers with a lot of rage in their bellies, and various men with all kinds of mental disorders made everyday life for women a life-threatening experience. But that didn’t mean that women were defeated – they continued to venture out in ever greater numbers. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t afford to stay anxiously in the home; they didn’t want to anyway. The organisation of food supplies involved legwork that is unimaginable today, and black market expeditions led them far across town. And it wasn’t just supplies; gathering news about relatives, friends and former workmates was also vital for survival. Women exchanged tips, kept networks active, and had to generally stay on the ball, and because there were no telephones, they walked, all across the cities and from village to village.

When they weren’t hurrying briskly back and forth, they were often simply going for a walk. A surprising number of shots from newsreels and amateur documentaries show women strolling, some in groups, most of them alone. By the summer of 1945 cafes had already opened on the Kurfürstendamm. Those who could afford it – and there were many of them – sat in the sun and were served refreshments. Others just strolled about. The British Pathé newsreels mocked the ‘fashion’ of the Berlin women on the Kurfürstendamm, showing their thick woollen socks paired with fashionably short dresses. One young woman appeared on screen in flat, homemade shoes that she had decorated with paper flowers – which might be considered quite modish today.

As dangerous as the times may have been, the desire for adventure continued unabated. The ‘incredible intensification of the sense of life by the permanent proximity of death’ that Margret Boveri had described in her diary also found sexual expression. Many women yearned to at last experience something once more. The occasional ecstatic spirit of optimism in the first months after the war, mixed with the agitations of anxiety and loneliness, led to a sexual hunger which could sometimes assume bizarre features. Quite perplexing to today’s ears is the 1946 pop song ‘S.O.S. Ich suche dringend Liebe’ (‘SOS, I’m Urgently in Search of Love’), in which the 22-year-old actress and dancer Ingrid Lutz sang of the sexual famine of those days. ‘Stop, stop, stop,’ she barks at her audience, and it sounds like the aggressive call of a guard hunting down a fugitive in the fog. ‘Hello, where do you think you’re going?’ she snaps. ‘What’s your plan?’ It sounded cold and brusque, and was sung with unabashed vulgarity: ‘SOS – I urgently need to kiss, SOS – I need to know today.’ The song was as remote as possible from the kittenish ideal widely thought to have defined the years that followed, in Germany as elsewhere.

The erotic emergency call that Lutz was making to her listeners existed in the context of the ever-present themes of a shortage of men, a coarsening of morals and profligacy. This musical parody of desire gives us an idea of the genuine enthusiasm with which some women went on the offensive. The Pan Am pilot Jack O. Bennett, who would later fly the first plane in the Berlin Airlift, recalled in his memoirs, 40,000 Hours in the Sky, how in December 1945, when strolling along the Kurfürstendamm, ‘an elegantly dressed society lady’ spoke to him and asked if he didn’t want to accompany her for the evening. ‘I don’t want money or food from you,’ she said. ‘I’m cold and I need a warm body.’ It could be that Captain Bennett was exaggerating in a spirit of vanity, but the awareness, still vivid in people’s minds, that this night might be their last, led many people to be much more direct with each other than they would have been before the war. The wide-spread nature of this sexual audacity is confirmed by the fact that the Berlin Central Health Administration, concerned about the rise in venereal diseases, commissioned the director Peter Pewas to make a film warning of the dangers of sexual profligacy. Entitled Strassen-bekanntschaft (Street Acquaintances), the film was released in 1948. Pewas turned the story about a girl named Erika into a cinematic work of art that demonstrated the helplessness of the post-war generation, ‘greedy for life, thirsty for love’.

© Harald Jähner from Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, W H Allen/Ebury Publishing, 2022

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich was shortlisted for the 2022 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding.

Harald Jähner is a cultural journalist and former editor of the Berliner Zeitung. He was also an honorary professor of cultural journalism at the Berlin University of the Arts. Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich was shortlisted for the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in the UK and won the Leipzig Book Fair Prize for Non-Fiction in his native Germany.

British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding shortlist event

Meet the authors shortlisted for the 2022 British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding at this special in person and online event organised in partnership with the London Review Bookshop. Join the six shortlisted authors for an exploration of urgent and globally significant topics. This event will be chaired by the award-winning journalist Rosie Goldsmith.

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