cover image Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945–1955

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945–1955

Harald Jähner, trans. from the German by Shaun Whiteside. Knopf, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-593-31973-4

Germans rebounded from shattering defeat with hard work, a pragmatic embrace of the new, and a willful forgetting of trauma and guilt, according to this penetrating history of the early postwar period. Journalist Jähner surveys the decade following Nazi Germany’s surrender, when the nation lay in ruins, occupied by foreign armies, awash in refugees, and facing desperate shortages of food, fuel, and housing. Social strife resulted, but also novel possibilities and a “bafflingly good mood,” according to Jähner: female cleanup crews became icons of solidarity; a frenzied nightlife of jazz and dancing erupted; respectable citizens became thieves and black marketeers; abstract art and avant-garde furniture looked to the future; the Volkswagen Beetle factory symbolized a gathering economic miracle; and Germans swept their responsibility for the Holocaust under the rug while claiming victimhood, a maneuver that Jähner describes as “intolerable insolence” but also as a “necessary prerequisite” for breaking with the past and establishing democracy. Elegantly written and translated, Jähner’s analysis deploys emotionally resonant detail—after war’s horror and exhilaration, German veterans came home to become “pitiful wraith[s] in the unheated kitchen”—to vividly recreate a vibrant, if morally haunted, historical watershed. This eye-opening study enthralls. Photos. (Jan.)