Harald Jähner: “American culture had a very pacifying effect on Germany” | history books
Hby Arald Jaehner Consequenceswhich is published in paperback in April, begins where most popular stories of Europe’s bloody 20th century end, with the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. Rather than focusing on diplomatic treaties or political decisions, it explores the neglected decade after the end of the Second World War through the lives of ordinary people, delving into memories and trends in popular culture.
Jähner, 69, was previously editor-in-chief of Berliner Zeitungand is now an honorary professor of cultural journalism at the Berlin University of the Arts. Consequenceswhich is his first non-academic book, won the Non-Fiction Prize at the 2019 Leipzig Book Fair and Shaun Whiteside’s English translation was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize in 2021.
The original German title of Consequences is Wolfszeitor “Time of the wolves”. What did a wolf look like in the first decade after the end of the Second World War?
“Time of the wolves” was a phrase commonly used in Germany at the time, referring to Latin “Homo homini lupus” – ” man is a wolf to man “. He painted a picture of a state of anarchy: everyone only cared about their own pack, their own family. The idea of community has collapsed.
Today we know that wolves are very flexible creatures that have complex relationships with each other. In post-war Germany, there was often great cohesion between people, for example between trümmerfrauen or “rubble women” who formed chains to clean up the debris left by the bombs. Those who have lost everything have done a lot to help each other. There was an experimental approach to new forms of human interaction which also made this period very exciting. People wanted each other as much as they feared each other.
There was also Goebbels’ propaganda myth of the “werewolf”: resistance fighters who would terrorize the Allied forces after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Apart from a small number of isolated cases, this myth has never come true. The vast majority of Germans had had enough of the fighting. They had begun to see the true face of Nazism in the final months of the war, when the SS combed a war-torn society for teenagers and pensioners they could send to the front. The same nation that had fought fanatically until the regime’s surrender suddenly became very peaceful and obedient.
You were born in 1953, almost at the end of the period you describe. What was your family’s experience as a result of the Second World War?
I was 15 in the pivotal year of 1968 and, like many young people, I asked my parents for answers. I was scandalized by the images of atrocities in the concentration camps which had gradually found their way into the press, and I wanted to know what they had done. My father had been in the navy, my mother had been a teacher in occupied Poland. Their answers were evasive, sometimes helpless. Their inability to talk about what happened to the Jews shocked us. We had a lot of fights.
Did your research for this book cause you to look at your parents’ generation differently?
Definitively. A question that animated me was how Germany managed to become a reliable democracy. When did the Germans lose their narcissistic side? When did these learning processes begin? It cannot have been by reading Alexis de Tocqueville or the German constitution; the mindset shift had to happen at a deeper level.
I began to suspect early on that my own generation’s thesis that only the student revolution of 1968 had made Germany livable again was wrong. Our parents’ generation had learned the lessons for themselves. A hugely formative experience was the black market that flourished in the years following the end of the war. For example, the black market taught them that things are relative. The kings of the black market were young traders, aged 15 to 17, many of them former Hitler Youth, who traded in Nazi memorabilia. During the war, items such as the SS Honor Dagger had mythological value – now they’ve gone for two boxes of Lucky Strikes. It was a generation formed to look at the world without any pathos. It made me understand my parents differently, and better, although I wouldn’t say I entirely made peace with their generation.
In the decade after the Holocaust, Germany tried to repress its past and largely succeeded. That’s why it’s hard to like this generation. I feel very uncomfortable with Germans who present themselves as world champions to accept their own history and want to teach other nations lessons. I feel that this critical engagement with the past is now easily defended, but I’m not sure we’ve all learned the lessons from it.
Are there lessons to be learneded of how Germany, once so notoriously aggressive, was pacified after the war?
The allied nations of the Americans, the British and the French played a key role. American entertainment culture had a very pacifying effect on Germany: its films taught us previously unknown, relaxed and laconic attitudes. It was not just chocolate and cigarettes that made American GIs attractive to German women, but because they embodied a freer lifestyle. They were gentler than their German counterparts: American soldiers were seen pushing prams through bombarded cities, which was absolutely unheard of at the time. Germany learned less about liberalism through official denazification programs than through pop culture. If there’s a lesson for these modern times, it’s how important it is to continue to care for a nation even after it’s been defeated.
The attitudes towards war that we see in Germany today are also the result of the experience of the Cold War, of seeing your country divided into two spheres of influence and of imagining that you might have to fight against members of your own family. This created a much more dominant desire for peace than in other European countries, such as Poland. As a result, many Germans today value peace more than freedom.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about the Weimar Republic, the interwar period. A sin ConsequencesI am interested in mass culture, popular song, dance styles and gender relations.
What books are on your bedside table?
I read a lot of novels from the 1920s, for example that of the novelist Ruth Landshoff-Yorck The many and the one and Klaus Mann’s autobiography Turning. When I try to relax, I pick up the collected works of Adalbert Stifter.
What book would you give to a young person?
Give them a good time by young Irish short-story writer Nicole Flattery, who has a better understanding of teenage desperation and lust for life than anyone I’ve ever read.