Friday, July 6, 2018
BROKEN LIVES How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century by Konrad H. Jarausch (Princeton University Press)
This book is a revealing study of the lives of “ordinary Germans” under the Third Reich and its aftermath.
Historian Jarausch (European Civilization/Univ. of North Carolina; Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, 2015, etc.) recounts the experiences of Germans born in the 1920s—old enough to have participated in some way in the polity of the Third Reich and to have played a part in the reconstruction of Germany and subsequent “economic miracle” in the West. The latter moment, writes the author, “created an expectation of continual material improvement,” and wealth and its pursuit, coupled with memories of the nightmare years, served as powerful engines to create the social democracy that has prevailed in Germany (the West, at least) for 70 years. That comfort, however, was born in terror. Jarausch charts the changing attitudes of early-20th-century Germans toward ideas of nationhood. Where their predecessors were mostly not attuned to questions of genealogy and in many cases, among the proletariat, scarcely remembered their grandparents’ names (“for the struggle for existence prevented the keeping of records”), Germans under the Third Reich were forced to conform to ideas of racial purity and prove it lest they be destroyed. On that note, much of the narrative concerns the machinery of annihilation, but it also turns on some surprising moments, such as the decision on the part of some Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to remain in Germany even though they “had ample reason to emigrate.” That was a daring choice, it seems, inasmuch as the author’s account also implicates the majority of contemporary Germans: “More ordinary Germans were involved in the Holocaust than apologists admit, but at the same time fewer participated than some critics claim.” In other words, a silent majority gave tacit consent.
A provocative addition to a vast literature: Jarausch’s history complicates our understanding of German society during the early decades of the 20th century.