Narrating German history

Konrad Jarausch draws on six dozen memoirs of Germans born in the 1920s to illuminate life in the 20th century

YOUNG ADULTS sit on a fence in Berlin in 1986 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
YOUNG ADULTS sit on a fence in Berlin in 1986
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, Ruth Klüger emigrated to the United States in 1947. Unable, and to some extent unwilling to escape her cultural heritage, she became a professor of German literature.
Klüger’s life story, as Konrad Jarausch, a professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, points out, “helps put ordinary people back into the well-known narrative of major events.”
In Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced The 20th Century, Jarausch draws on six dozen memoirs, many of them unpublished, of Germans born in the 1920s, to illuminate the human dimensions of life in Germany during the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, World War II, the Holocaust and the Cold War. His sustained look at unexceptional lives, he suggests, “dissolves the grand story of calamity and reconstruction into countless individual tales of survival and recovery that reveal the irresistible impact of political conflicts that ruptured peaceful existences” – and for some, “offered new opportunities.”
Although Jarausch attempted to survey a broad swath of German society, he acknowledges that his memoirs do not constitute a representative sample of the population. Only 10% of them, for example, came from working-class men and women. A disproportionate number came from distinguished academics. Written late in life, the autobiographies sometimes lack freshness and factual accuracy. Jarausch maintains, however, that compared with one another, the memoirs, which “alternate between exculpatory claims of victimization and self-critical claims of responsibility,” reveal “the peculiar ways in which different Germans narrate the 20th century.”
Jarausch rarely departs from the conventional wisdom of historians about 20th-century German history. His book is at its best in documenting the wide range of experiences of ordinary Germans and their up-close-and-personal responses to tumultuous events.
Employing compulsion, consent, peer pressure and the need to “belong,” Jarausch indicates, Hitler Youth groups in the 1930s generated emotions among adolescents that ran the gamut from childish enthusiasm to revulsion and alienation. Among the few who actively resisted the Nazis were teenagers from Cologne, who presented themselves as “Friends of Nature.” They hiked, camped, and scrawled on walls and freight cars, “aren’t you tired yet of the brown shit?” Captured by the Gestapo, they were brutally beaten.
To foster solidarity in the wake of persecution, Jarausch notes, Jewish youth founded their own organizations. The Black Pennant, one memoirist recalled, extolled Nietzsche, nature, adventure “and the belief that Nazis could eventually go away.” The Nazis disbanded the group in 1934.
EXCLUDED FROM German society, some Jews reaffirmed their Jewish identity. Werner (Tom) Angress put his pain into verse: “Once we were sons of this land/ And now?/ Woe to us, such woe/ We know only hate, know only distress/ and still love Germany so much.”
The memoirs remind us that only impending defeat made German soldiers (and women on the home front) question the purpose of what they came to call Hitler’s reprehensible war.
In “an ironic role reversal,” Jarausch writes, perpetrators, accomplices, and bystanders had to scramble to survive the fall of the Third Reich. Many of them came to view themselves as victims. Some blamed their parents for the rise of Hitler. Some developed obsequious strategies to get what they wanted. Jarausch suggests that defeat – and the postwar economic boom in West Germany – provided an opportunity for many “Weimar children” to become full-fledged adults, prepared to apply a different set of political, moral and spiritual values to their country.
Indeed, Jarausch seems determined to find something affirmative arising out of the horrific events in Germany. Although he acknowledges that the support of the masses as well as the decisions of elites precipitated dictatorship, world war and the Holocaust, he maintains that from the perspective of ordinary Germans, the nation reversed course – through a process of introspection – and moved from catastrophe to civility.
Jarausch concludes that, because of their “negative history,” which is commemorated in public culture, the majority of Germans these days are more self-critical and exhibit less national pride than the citizens of other countries in Europe. The Federal Republic has paid reparations to Jews and banned “hate speech.” Despite nativist opposition, Chancellor Angela Merkel accepted one million refugees. In 2016, US News & World Report deemed Germany the world’s best country.
Following the end of World War II, Jarausch declares, the Weimar children discovered in themselves guilt and shame, a capacity to grow, and ultimately a conviction that “everything is not finished.” Although right-wingers have recently reared their ugly heads, Jarausch believes that the consensus on the sins of the past remains strong and that Germany continues to be a bastion of liberalism and stability.
As Jarausch has suggested, that outcome depends on memories of appalling acts; memories that should – but do not always – connect us.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.