When Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz in 2006, he delivered a speech, with death camp survivors present, that hit all the right notes. Until the Bavarian-born pontiff brought himself into the narrative, describing himself as “a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness”.
Joseph Ratzinger was a teenager in postwar Germany’s school of hard knocks, where no one discussed why voters elected “criminals” to power. The main moral dilemma was not why Germany murdered six million Jews, but the moral rights and wrongs of looting for food and coal. For many ordinary Germans, reflecting on the past meant pointing the finger of blame at true believers in the SS and Gestapo. Others suggested that Hitler had “abused the German capacity for enthusiasm”.
Or as Pope Benedict claimed in 2006: “our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power”.
Given its staggering crimes in the 20th century, and the blinkers of self-pity adopted in their aftermath, how, then, did postwar Germany become the dependable, democratic country it is today? That is the question Harald Jähner attempts to answer by returning to a lawless era known to many Germans as the “Wolfzeit” or “Time of Wolves”.
It began with the anarchy of May 1945, turned a corner with the currency reform of 1948, and gathered pace with the slide of a divided Germany into the cold war era.
Jähner’s book attracted considerable praise in Germany for knitting a coherent narrative out of events previously viewed separately – or ignored entirely. Its English translation is even more welcome, filling the yawning gap on bookshop shelves between a growing number of modern German history and the oversupply of Nazi studies that end in Hitler’s bunker.
In Jähner’s thoughtful narrative, the struggle for material survival eclipsed any capacity for moral self-examination. But postwar starvation and black market hardships had their purpose, he argues, laying the foundation for West Germany’s social market economy model: free market with state intervention only where needed.
The arrival of 12 million Germans from seized eastern territories – East Prussia, Pomerania, the Sudetenland – was arguably the greatest mass movement of people in human history. This influx generated huge social tensions and left a silent legacy of lost tradition and homelands; it also supplied the postwar German economies with highly skilled workers.
He demolishes old cliches, dismissing West Germany's economic "miracle"
as a logical consequence of policy and circumstance: a $1 billion US Marshall
Plan cash injection; a currency reform that restocked shops by making it affordable again for sellers to sell and buyers to buy. That Germans could order a Volkswagen for 5,300 Deutschemarks in 1950 and take delivery eight days later was, he says, because three quarters of Germany's pre-war industrial capacity was preserved.
Far from a shattered economy, postwar productivity was just below 1938 levels.
But economic prosperity, and the distractions of materialism, came at an emotional cost: a society that was unable – or unwilling – to mourn the Nazi-era victims because to do so would require uncomfortable analysis of one's own complicity.
The fruits of denial had ripened by 1947, when a magazine journalist wondered what made Germany so unpopular in the international family of nations: “it cannot be explained in terms of nature, history...” Shortly after, another had flipped Germany’s embrace of fascism as an opportunity for virtue signalling: “We stood closer to the void and there is less in our way to distract us from our knowing of the harsh truth.”
The lack of widespread retribution in the postwar years, later challenged by 1968 students, is often framed as a lack of moral courage by Germans to hold themselves and their neighbours to account. But for Jähner, his country’s rebirth hinges on its imperfect postwar moral and social pact: a realisation – from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer down – that there were simply too many big and small Nazis to prosecute while keeping society functioning. Postwar German society – east and west – overcame the Nazis despite integrating them, Jähner argues, rather than excluding them.
The consequences of that decision continue to play out today. Four years ago voters made the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) the largest opposition party in the Bundestag. September’s federal election will be a chance for those same voters to demonstrate whether theirs was a one-off protest vote, or whether they, like the AfD leadership, view the Nazi era as an irritating speck of “birdshit” in the otherwise glorious annals of German history.
When he returned to postwar Germany wearing a French army uniform, Jewish writer Alfred Döblin hoped the homeland he fled to survive would embrace the chance it had been given to "become an unassuming, civil, respectable reality".
As the Angela Merkel era draws to a close, it looks like Germany has reached this destination – with a little help from its friends.
Derek Scally is Irish Times Berlin correspondent and author of The Best Catholics in the World