Konrad Jarausch, Broken Lives:
How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century
(Princeton University Press)
The words “ordinary Germans” in Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century sent me back immediately to a searing academic debate that riveted a recently reunited Germany and much of the rest of the world in the 1990s between two American scholars, Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen. Browning and Goldhagen sparred over the extent to which the anti-Semitism that gave rise to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s project to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population, was engrained in the German population.
Browning’s 1992 work Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, and Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, published four years later, both examined mass executions committed by Reserve Battalion 101 of the German Uniformed Police Force (Ordungspolizel) in Poland in 1942. The reservists had been randomly conscripted and were mostly middle-aged, with few ideological fanatics or even Nazi party members among them. Their commander, the two scholars agreed, gave the reservists the opportunity not to participate in the killing, but most declined to opt out. The two scholars offered contrasting interpretations of why so many chose, seemingly willingly, to participate in mass killing, with the difference captured by the words ordinary “men” in Browning’s title and ordinary “Germans” in that of Goldhagen.
Browning attributed the reservists’ participation in mass atrocities to universal factors, such as peer pressure, deference to authority, and adaptation to roles within an occupation unit stationed in enemy territory during wartime — attributes of human nature and group dynamics not unique to Germany or Germans. Goldhagen, by contrast, emphasized what he described as an “eliminationist” anti-Semitism so deeply embedded in German history and culture that it caused virtually all Germans to kill Jews with enthusiastic cruelty when given the opportunity. In essence, Goldhagen was arguing that a uniquely lethal anti-Semitism was embedded into the German national character.
There is no explicit mention of the Browning-Goldhagen exchange in Broken Lives, although implicitly Jarusch seems to be distancing himself from Goldhagen in this work (and it’s worth noting that Jarausch and Browning both served in the history department at the University of North Carolina and both did their graduate work at the University of Wisconsin in the same time frame). But Jarusch’s work might be considered an attempt to restore an ordinary meaning to the term “ordinary Germans.” Broken Lives gathers together a treasure trove of around 70 autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and journals composed by Germans who lived through and survived the Nazi era, ranging, Jarusch indicates, from enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi regime to courageous opponents.
Somewhat awkwardly, Jarusch calls his group the “Weimar cohort,” although he also uses “memoirists” and “authors.” Most were born in the decade after World War I and retain childhood memories of the Germany of the 1920s, during its ill-fated experiment with liberal democracy, the Weimar Republic. About two-thirds of the Weimar cohort were men, one-third women. These are not “elite memoirs,” Jarusch emphasizes, but rather “untutored accounts” which provide a “more vivid and personal picture of what it meant to live through the twentieth century” (p.11).
The Weimar cohort consists mostly of “apolitical folks who merely took pride in surviving the Third Reich through ingenious stratagems” (p.4; among the cohort, assiduous readers of this blog will recall Joachim Fest, later a noted German historian, whose Not I, a memoir on growing up in the Third Reich, was reviewed here in 2016). The cohort does not include those “fanatical Nazis” who “did not want to write about their complicity in crimes” (p.4). Alluding to his title, Jarusch observes that the autobiographies and memoirs collectively demonstrate that Germans “overwhelmingly experienced a sense of broken lives in the twentieth century, disrupted beyond repair” (p.12), in which the normal life cycle progression from childhood to adult was interrupted by forces outside the memoirists’ control.
Jarusch utilizes the individual accounts to compile a fact-intensive, before-during-after narrative of what everyday life was like from World War I onward in Germany, divisible into five segments: 1) the Weimar cohort’s youth in the 1920s; 2) the different ways members of the cohort reacted as the Nazis gained power in 1933 and tightened their grip as the decade proceeded; 3) the cohort’s war experiences; 4) their immediate post-war experiences, in the initial months and years after the end of hostilities; and 5) longer term post-war experiences, as Germany became a Cold War battleground, with a Soviet satellite in the East and a largely capitalist West, and thereafter reunited in 1990 (these five segments coincide with those that Columbia University professor Fritz Stern described in his 2006 memoir, Five Germanys I Have Known; Stern is listed among the “minor individuals” who contributed to Broken Lives, indicating that Jarusch makes only limited reference to his contribution).
Virtually all the Weimar cohort reported “surprisingly benign” childhoods during the 1920s, “quite happy in contrast to later suffering”(p.368-69). The period of innocence began to give way to more trying times for the cohort with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuring worldwide economic depression, which hit Germany particularly hard. The Nazi assumption of political power in 1933 “largely dispelled ‘the carefree atmosphere of childhood’” for the cohort (p.63-64). The war itself, which began in September 1939 and lasted through May 1945, constitutes the pivotal experience of the autobiographies and memoirs, with some memoirists detailing life on the front lines and in combat, while others, mostly women, describe their lives on the home front. In the post-war period, memoirists living in West Germany enjoyed economic prosperity and “considerable freedom for individual growth that allowed a plurality of life plans to unfold into maturity and old age” (p.303), while the autobiographies and memoirs of those living in East Germany exhibit a “peculiarly defensive character, since their authors attempt to justify individual lives in spite of having to admit the [East German] system’s failure” (p.357). West Germans memoirists supported reunification in 1990 more enthusiastically than did those from East Germany.
In his narrative , Jarausch uses the material that the cohort provided primarily in short snippets, inserted into the text in a mechanical manner. The members of the cohort come and go quickly, a short sentence about x here, another about y there; then we don’t see x or y for several pages or the next or a following chapter. We never really develop a rapport with x or y, or any of the 17 “key individuals” whose experiences are the flesh and bones of this work. Despite the richness of the historical raw material, the resulting narrative is wooden and desultory. Moreover, Jarusch does little questioning of his sources in the narrative.
Almost all the memoirs are retrospectives, written many years – most often decades – after the events they recount, where experiences and memories “blend in a unique fashion that can make it difficult to tell them apart.” The memoirs are thus “selective, biased, and exculpatory, offering an incomplete picture” (p.13). While their assertions nonetheless may be valuable in “showing how earlier experiences are remembered” (p.13), Jarusch argues, for the most part they are incorporated as fact into the text, with few attempts at qualification.
Women’s memoirs differ from those of men, Jarusch notes at several points. Both male and female memoirists used their texts to reconcile early Nazi enthusiasm with later disillusionment. But Jarusch finds more ambivalence in the memoirs of women about their roles in the Third Reich, especially their war experiences. Drafted by the Wehrmacht and sent to the front, men experienced the war as a “paroxysm of gendered violence against enemies, foreign women, and racial inferiors” (p.102). Most women in contrast “followed a traditional pattern of caring for their families, dealing with shortages, and keeping up the home front. At the same time, they coped with the separation from the men by writing letters to soldiers and sending packages in order to keep up their morale” (p.187).
As war fortunes worsened for Germany, many women were required to go to work in war production facilities. Women were equally exposed to Allied saturation bombing, which often failed to differentiate military from civilian targets. With the collapse of the Eastern Front and the advance of the Red Army, many women had to organize precipitous flight, combined with the “crowning indignity of mass rape, with its attendant brutalization, pregnancy, and shame that sexually signaled defeat” (p.370). After the war, the female memoirists were frequently “haunted by ‘anger, grief, shame, and remorse’” (p.187), more so than the men.
Any portrait of Germans being ordinary in extraordinary times cannot escape issues of German victimhood, comparative suffering, and collective guilt. Jarusch notes the tendency of the autobiographies and memoirs to emphasize personal suffering while making at best only passing reference to the pain of Nazi victims. Most of his authors, writing years and decades after the Nazi era, saw themselves as “misguided victims in order to minimize their own contribution to the Third Reich” (p.95). German soldiers, instead of being heroes, came to “see themselves as betrayed victims of a megalomaniac Führer and Nazi dictatorship. Because their heroism had become meaningless, they were left only with claims of victimization” (p.231).
In several passages, Jarusch considers the degree to which the ordinary Germans of the Weimar cohort might have aided and abetted the crimes of the Third Reich, as close as he comes to weighing in on the Browning-Goldhagen debate. The memoirs and autobiographies of the cohort suggest that “more ordinary Germans were involved in the Holocaust than apologists admit, but at the same time fewer participated than some critics claim,” (p.218), he writes. The memoirs and autobiographies “only hint at the full extent of the violence because its graphic description would be too unsettling” (p.134). Although none admitted to involvement in militarily unnecessary atrocities, the texts “do reveal a widespread knowledge of the Nazi project of annihilation” (p.135). While most of the cohort “witnessed the persecution without intervening and did their duty during the war effort,” many continued after the war to “claim not to have harmed anyone directly” (p.218-19).
Jarusch addresses the controversy over the exhibition of the Hamburg Institute of Social Research, “War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941–1944,” which toured Germany between 1995 and 1999, at the same time the Browning-Goldhagen debated was roiling the country. The exhibit raised the question whether the German army, the Wehrmacht, should be considered itself a criminal organization, and if so, whether that makes everyone who was part of it a criminal (in Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, reviewed here last month, Susan Neiman also considered the impact of this exhibit). Without answering the question directly, Jarusch concludes that the autobiographical accounts “tend to support the version of considerable military participation in atrocities and murder” (p.103), hardly a startling conclusion.
Overall, the dominant experience shared in the retrospectives of the Weimar cohort, Jarusch concludes, was the “disruption of their own life courses by historic forces outside of their control. Their existence was not the expected progression from happy childhood via turbulent adolescences to mature adulthood with professional success and loving family, but rather a constant struggle against the surprising challenges of depression, dictatorship, war, privation, and the like” (p.366). Capturing how ordinary Germans lived through and survived the Nazi era is assuredly a tale worth telling. But while Broken Lives provides much valuable ground-level information about the ordinary Germans of the Weimar cohort, it falls disappointingly short in creating affinity with the individual members of the cohort.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 21, 2020