I’ve written before about how changed German women were after the war. But what happened to the relationships between wives and their husbands?
Annegrete Baum’s Frauenalltag und Empanzipation talks about the hard realities German husbands faced when they came home after 1945. On paper, nothing had changed. Marriage was still regulated by laws drawn up in 1900. A husband controlled his wife’s money and whether she could work outside the home. He dictated her roll with their children. He had the right to decide where the family would live, what furniture and appliances the home might have, and when meals would be served.
The war changed all that. The problem was, many men, exhausted and demoralized from the war, couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that anything had changed. After all he’d sacrificed, he could be lord of his house again, couldn’t he? But a husband who tried to reestablish his dominant role sometimes got this reaction from his wife, as one woman wrote in 1948:
He orders us around and isn’t happy with anything. Didn’t he have enough of orders in the war? He thinks he has the right to demand a cozy home. I think he doesn’t have the right to demand a thing. (1)
The result — many couples walked away from their marriages. In Catholic (!) Bavaria, for instance, the divorce rate rose from 4.7% in 1938 to 16.5% in 1949.
With letters from women, the screenwriter and moderator Walther von Hollander tried to understand why rates of divorce shot up in Germany after the war. The core reason was how well women took on responsibilities that used to be reserved for men. That translated into control over their money and, as an extension, a new sexual freedom. And these changes were happening on a home front where the women fought to survive the bombardments and invasion. Women saw themselves as soldiers as much as their men. Husbands had no right to claim special privileges when they got home.
Hollander also had to admit part of the problem was simple. The men had lost the war.
But as a wise female physician observed, they returned not infrequently with the look of winners. “Women,” the physician said, “entrusted their lives to the men, and even trustingly followed them into the war, which they rejected internally. The women knew a long time ago that the war was lost. But the men assured them that they would still win it. Now, after the defeat, they cannot demand that we continue to entrust ourselves to their leadership.
What about couples who stayed together? A 1948 episode of the radio show “Guten Morgen, liebe Hausfrau” offered advice for a good postwar marriage.
Men live on illusions! To let him have them — that’s the secret of a cleverly conducted marriage. Why take away his illusion that he’s the lord of the house?(2)
(1) My translation from Baum p.95.
(2) My translation from Baum p.96
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-P0506-505 / CC-BY-SA 3.0