Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century

Image of Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century
Release Date: 
June 11, 2018
Princeton University Press
Reviewed by: 

A social history and even personal memoirs may not be everyone’s cup of tea and, at first glance, that might appear to be the case here. However, if one stops to think about it, there is much to consider in this publication. Where the history of Germany is concerned, particularly in the 20th century, its citizens went through an experience virtually like no other European country.

Not only does its history reflect this but it has been brought to the fore by the accession of many memoirs of dozens of German citizens, some practically unknown while others are rather more prominent, such as Joachim Fest, author of a well-known biography of Adolf Hitler. Starting with their parents, these men and women lived through the entire gamut of the imperial state, war, peace, democracy, dictatorship, national division and reunification.

Certainly it would be impossible to consult all of those who survived the turmoil that was 20th century Germany, yet the memoirists range from housewives and businessmen to politicians, journalists, academics and others to give a much more nuanced view from all parts of that society.

Many of these memoirs were written by the authors at the behest of family members or for themselves as a way of leaving a legacy for those of us who have come after. They provide an inside look into their lives, thoughts, feelings and attitudes in relation to the world which was going on around them. However, they must be considered sometimes with a grain of salt due to the human tendency to gloss over, cover up, or obfuscate some of their more unpleasant experiences.

In particular are those who were undeniable followers and believers in Adolf Hitler and National Socialism or informers for the postwar East German Secret Police (the Stasi) and politicians of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) while under the foot of the Soviet Union up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989.

Many of these memoirists were children of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first fledgling attempt at democracy, following defeat in World War I and the end of the old imperial order under Kaiser Wilhelm. They survived in spite of the required war reparations to the Allies and the hyperinflation of the nation’s economy in the 1920s.

They came of age as well during the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, with some embracing National Socialism and others opposing it at the peril of their lives. Some of the former made no apologies for their support while others maintained ignorance of the results of the Nazi Party’s many racist policies, in particular where the death camps were concerned or opposed it to the extent that they could.

Of course, all were expected to support the war effort even as their country was crashing down around them. For men, after the surrender, they faced scrutiny from the Western Allies as possible Nazis or faced long terms of incarceration as slave labor for the Soviets.

For women, it was not always possible to obtain jobs in the West or avoid mass rape as vengeance by the Soviets, all while trying to survive the postwar lack of housing, food, and other basic necessities and provide for their children.

With the creation of the German Federal Republic (GFR) and its “Economic Miracle” resurgence of the 1950s and 1960s, the dichotomy between the two Germanys stood in stark contrast as the East tried to create a perfect socialist order even while its citizens envied the mass consumerism and abundance of the West.

Of course, the fall of Communism brought everything full circle with reunification of the two states although even that was fraught with its own difficulties of integration, financially, socially and politically.

This is a social history. There is a lot here to digest in terms of the German popular experience in the last century.

Although no maps were necessary, photographs are interspersed through the. The sources employed are extensive, being translated from German language documents primarily and the memoirs themselves.

Well written, well researched, and analytical, this publication provides considerable insight into comprehending how it is possible for a phoenix to rise from the ashes and how resilience can be a national virtue.