Konrad H. Jarausch on Broken Lives

LivesBroken Lives is a gripping account of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of ordinary Germans who came of age under Hitler and whose lives were scarred and sometimes destroyed by what they saw and did. Konrad Jarausch argues that this generation’s focus on its own suffering, often maligned by historians, ultimately led to a more critical understanding of national identity—one that helped transform Germany from a military aggressor into a pillar of European democracy. The result is a powerful account of the everyday experiences and troubling memories of average Germans who journeyed into, through, and out of the abyss of a dark century.

Broken Lives is a response to an Amazon customer review which called my synthesis of 20th century Europe Out of Ashes “interesting and worthwhile, but in the end unsatisfying.” In that previous volume I had attempted to interpret the development of the old continent as a struggle between Communist, Fascist, and Democratic modernities. Using the pseudonym “Spinoza,” the reader criticized: “Working from this narrative angle, from what you would really experience on the streets of these German cities as you walked around (what, in a word, Hitler would have experienced as he walked around as a teenager a decade or so later), would be far more powerful, and effective, in understanding the why of the 20th century than some ab­stract concept as modernism.” Since he was, in effect, calling for a history from below, I decided to rise to this challenge, albeit limited to a single country which I know best, namely Germany.

In order to reconstruct the experiences of ordinary Germans, I turned to the fascinating stories of Nazi repression, wartime suffering and post-war privation with which I grew up in a defeated and divided country. While some adults were unable to talk about what they had done or witnessed, many others were all too willing to unburden themselves. As an adolescent I had little patience with the endless tales of family members killed, possessions lost, flight and expulsion from home, and struggles to resume a normal life, because I wanted to escape the physical rubble and mental disorientation into a better future. But in retrospect I understood that these shared narratives constituted an archive of popular memories that had largely been ignored by academic historians because such accounts focused on German suffering rather than on the pain of racial and national victims of Nazi genocide and aggression.

With the passing away of the war-time generation, I realized that these stories were going to disappear unless they were preserved in written form as autobiographies. My search for such ego-texts was surprisingly successful, turning up over eighty untutored memoirs of people who were born in the Weimar Republic and put their experiences on paper in retirement at the end of the twentieth century. Many of the narratives, such as the nine volumes by the composer Gerhard Krapf, were in manuscript form as well as in private possession, reaching me through personal contacts. Others, such as the life-story of the Rhine River captain Hermann Debus were printed privately, appearing in little publishing houses below the radar of academic reviews or university libraries. Others yet, such as the amazing account of the Jewish historian and personal friend Werner “Tom” Angress were printed by reputable publishers. Surprisingly enough, the surviving authors and their descendants were eager to have their stories shared with a wider public.

As an ensemble, these popular memoirs constitute a set of private memories, largely absent from accounts of public memory culture. Quite a few scholars have analyzed the contentious development of an official memory culture that has become self-critical and contrite about the Nazi crimes and the complicity of the majority of the population. But this unofficial layer of recollections, below public protestations of guilt, has been largely neglected, since it is focused on German suffering, thereby initiating a competition of victimhood in which Germans also claim to have experienced terror and pain. This discrepancy has always fascinated me, since both the stress on critical public memory and the emphasis on apologetic private recollection seem to have a point, posing the question of how these contrary positions relate to each other. Hence I wanted to explore how later self-representations dealt with earlier Nazi complicity.

While working on a wide range of popular autobiographies, I was surprised to see that in a process of decades-long reflection many of the authors had become critical of their previous selves. For instance, Leonore Walb, on rereading her girlish Third Reich diary was so shocked by her adolescent enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth that she required psychiatric help in order to reconcile her later anti-Fascism with her earlier self. While this was, no doubt, an extreme case, other authors like Dieter Schoenhals wrote not just to convey family history to their off­spring but also in order to impart a timeless lesson to the public. Even if many remained reticent about their own reluctance to help Jewish acquaintances or Slavic slave laborers, virtu­ally all of them condemned the war and the dictatorship, seeking to make sure that such horrors would not recur. Encouraged by the reflective speech of President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985, the official critical and private apologetic memories have gradually grown somewhat closer to each other.

Weaving the many diverse life-stories together into an over-all tapestry of experiences made me appreciate the human dimension of the descent into the Third Reich and the subsequent recovery. This shocking trajectory of a purportedly civilized nation was propelled by many small individual decisions which collectively gathered such enormous force that they shattered entire countries and people in Europe. It has not been appreciated sufficiently that the Nazi complicity broke millions of lives, not just among their political, racial, and ethnic victims, but also among their Aryan and German supporters. Far from apologizing for such misdeeds, I want to explain the youthful attraction of the NS dictatorship as well as the subsequent adult understanding of its terrible consequences. It is this crucial nexus between perpetration and suffering that charac­terizes German stories of the twentieth century—including that of my own family.

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century and Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front. He lives in Chapel Hill and Berlin.