Konrad Jarausch on Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century

Broken 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.

How did ordinary Germans experience the cataclysms of the 20th century?
During the tumultuous twentieth century, ordinary Germans often felt overwhelmed by events over which they had no control. Starting with the defeat of World War I, they ex­perienced a series of disasters such as hyperinflation, depression, Nazi dictatorship, renewed war, Holocaust, flight and expulsion, division, and Communist repression that left them scrambling to survive. Except for short periods in the late Empire, middle of the Weimar Republic, and beginning of the Third Reich, times were tough and unpredictable, putting a premium on adaptability. As a result of the disastrous decisions of elites, they had to deal with a stunning succession of five different political systems within the course of a single century. In contrast to the normal progression of life stages in more fortunate neighboring countries like Switzerland, the past seemed problematic, the present challenging, and the future uncertain. This book seeks to explore this neglected human dimension of events by drawing on seven dozen untutored autobiographies that cover their entire life-spans from the Empire to united Germany.

What amazing stories do their memoirs tell about suffering, survival, or success?
As related in these personal memoirs, the facts regarding the impact of such upheavals on individual lives are often stranger than fiction. While perpetrators of crimes rarely admit their misdeeds, the many bystanders recount their struggle to cope with multiple dangers by compliance or evasion, seeking to get through them as best as they could. Endlessly repeated at bars and kaffeeklatches, their life-stories focus on avoiding death at the front, not dying in bombing raids, fleeing from the Red Army, making it through post-war hunger and cold, while dealing with a succession of shifting ideological demands. The narratives of political or racial victims such as Communists or Jews instead focus on their suffering and miraculous survival, unlike many comrades or family members killed in mass murder. Only after the war are Western narratives able to celebrate successful rebuilding and prosperity. These are astounding accounts show how normal individuals were trying to live in highly abnormal times. Offering a chorus of diverse voices, the present book is an effort to present their stories to a wider public.

Why did young people born in the 1920s get drawn into the Nazi dictatorship?
The children of the Weimar Republic proved especially vulnerable to Nazi appeals because Hitler’s propaganda promised to lead the young to a better future. The inability of their parents to deal with the effects of the Great Depression had discredited adult leadership. While schools indoctrinated adolescents in racist nationalism, the peer group in the Hitler Youth pressured insecure youths to join the exciting activities like hiking, camping, and paramilitary training. Too inexperienced to develop a political judgement of their own, most young people fell under the spell of the Führer and a movement that vowed to create a true “people’s community” without class distinctions and to make Germany great again by overturning the “shameful peace treaty” of Versailles. Only children from religious families, Communist parents, or Jewish backgrounds were excluded. The overwhelming majority of the young Aryans could feel emboldened by being treated like the avant-garde of a better future. Most did not understand that they would have to pay for this allegiance with their own lives.

How did World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War break their lives apart?
Instead of ushering in a brighter future with Germans ruling the continent, the Nazi dictatorship unleashed repression, war, and genocide. Already before 1939 the political and racial victims of the Third Reich experienced persecution, incarceration, and expulsion, if fortunate to get away. During the war many Nazi enthusiasts among the young men were killed in action in the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation during its spectacular victories and inexorable defeats. Young women at the home front had to work in war-production factories, huddle in air raid shelters, and try to flee from the advancing Red Army in order to avoid repeated rape. While political victims suffered in penitentiaries, those Jewish Germans who had not managed to escape in time struggled to survive in the underground, during selection in concentration camps, and in death-marches at the end. Even after the fighting ended, many died of starvation, cold, and disease. Without regard to political commitment or racial belonging, this vortex of death and destruction broke millions of lives apart, leaving even survivors in a sea of suffering.

How did they as adults gradually turn into democrats or communists after the war?
With the end of hostilities, the remaining Weimar children had to pick up the pieces and become responsible adults. Trying to make sense of their horrible experiences, many retreated into their private lives by finishing professional training, getting jobs, and founding families. In the remnants of Germany, divided by the Cold War, they faced an ideological choice: should they try to become Western style democrats or follow the Communist dream of a classless society in the East? Since with American aid the Federal Republic of Germany experienced an Economic Miracle, many were willing to side with the West. Attracted by the promise of a peaceful egalitarianism, others chose the German Democratic Republic of the East even if it was a Soviet satellite. Though a series of Nazi scandals tarnished the Bonn government, ultimately the generational rebellion of 1968 turned it into a liberal society whereas the anti-fascist promise of the SED regime became a communist dictatorship. Only with the peaceful revolution and reunification of 1989/90, did Western democracy win the ideological contest in the end.

Why did their memories become surprisingly self-critical decades after the events?
Though Weimar children were too busy to confront their own past during their professional careers, many begun a painful process of self-examination after their retirement. In a diachronic reflection, these authors compared their youthful Nazi enthusiasm with their adult convictions as democrats or socialists, and tried to figure out how they could have believed such a racist nationalism as adolescents. Encouraged by political leaders, intellectuals and the media, they began to question their own earlier lack of sympathy for their persecuted Jewish neighbors as well as the exploited slave laborers or Russian POWs, pondering what they had witnessed of the mass murder during the Holocaust. In some cases, this admission of guilt for supporting the Third Reich and failing to act humanely towards its victims even led to nervous breakdowns, healed only by active engagement for progressive causes. While all memoirists stressed their own suffering, a minority went even further and embraced a public memory culture that has made Germans exceptionally self-critical when compared with to their former allies.

What lessons of human rights, pacifism and social solidarity do they hold for the future?
In a surprisingly broad consensus, ordinary autobiographies show that Germans have drawn largely similar conclusions for the future. Unfortunately, there are still some nationalist holdouts who blame the harsh treatment by the Allies or hold Hitler and the Nazi bosses responsible for their predicament. But most writers want to teach their own families as well as the general public an essential lesson in order to prevent the recurrence of such horrible events: their political messages cluster around the importance of human rights as antidote to dictatorship; the need for peace as barrier against another devastating world war; and the imperative of social solidarity as obstacle to a return of demagogic populism. Beyond the sheer drama of their life-stories, it is this collective learning process which makes reading these personal accounts worthwhile. As a paradigmatic resume of their broken lives, the autobiographies of the Weimar children emphasize that everyone should heed the warning of their disastrous experiences during the Third Reich.

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.