Wives and the postwar husband problem


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Berlin, Tanz im Freien

ADN-ZB/ dpd Berlin 1947 Tanz im Freien. 573-47

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


Help! Where in #Germany is this?


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Does anyone have any idea where this photo was taken?

The man in the photo is the father of one of my American readers. He’s in front of a Military Government building, but she’s not sure where in Germany it was. Here’s the general information she was able to give me:

“My dad was an army surgeon with the 27th evacuation hospital.

In Germany they served at Dreisen, Hosbach, Feuchtwangen, Starnberg and
Darmstadt. They treated victims from all countries and were among the first
to help the victims at Dachau.
I’m assuming this is from 1945.”


If you recognize the building in this photo, please contact me. Thanks!

The Girl and the Dwarf King, or a POW’s fairy tale


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Das MäschenI have two small daughters, and I can be a bit sappy about that, so I couldn’t resist a post about Das Mädchen und der Zwergkönig, a fairy tale written by a German prisoner of war for his daughter Helga in 1945/46. I was cleaning out one of those dusty corners of my bedroom and found the little green book tucked away and forgotten. But its sentiment — the love the author had for a daughter he’d never seen — shouldn’t be.

Once there was a little girl who lived many years alone with her mother because her father was away at war.

That’s the first line of the book, under the chapter title: How Little Helga Freed her Papa.

The story starts with a problem children all over postwar Europe knew: Helga’s family had no more food. So she sets off into the forest to pick berries. But they weren’t hers to pick; the Dwarf King shows up angry at her theft. To make good, she picks the sweetest ones high in the bushes for him. After the dwarf stuffs himself, he’s in a better mood and gives the girl a wish. She asks if her Papa is still alive. Yes, said the dwarf, and he proceeds to give her hints how she can cross the big forest to the castle where her Papa and other soldiers were held captive.

That these were German soldiers and this was WW2 was beside the point. For the purposes of the fairy tale, there was no politics. Just a girl looking for her father. Clemens Köster wrote and illustrated the story while a prisoner of war in France. There’s not much information about what exactly he did in Reims, but it’s clear someone helped him get the paper, ink, watercolors and brushes that he used to write the book and paint pictures of Helga, the Dwarf King and his helpers, and other characters. Somehow, I’m not all that surprised a POW of all people managed to find those supplies, even in a postwar France slowly recovering from German occupation.

In 1946 Köster carried the book with him when he returned to Germany. He found his 4-year-old daughter in the hospital with scarlet fever. Later she described bits of the scene in interviews. She had never seen him before, but his picture sat next to her bed. When he came in, she immediately called out, “Papi!” And he presented her the book as his gift.

Years later when Helga was diagnosed with cancer, she remembered the little book that she had loved as a child and read to her three children. The Bayerischen Krebsgesellschaft published it in 2006 and all proceeds went to cancer research.



Postwar photos for everyone


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A few years back, the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive) announced it was donating tens of thousands of photos to Wikimedia Deutschland. The result has been a treasure trove for anybody interested in German history. I’m grateful for the donation, and here are just a few of the great postwar images we all get to see because of the Bundesarchiv’s generosity.

Slave labor and living history


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Here in Germany, my kids aren’t old enough to learn about the Nazi era in school yet. So I recently jumped at the chance to see what high school-age students were doing. It’s hard enough getting young people interested in all that old stuff. And anything short of virtual reality probably wouldn’t impress them, right?

So off I went to what the press was calling a “lecture performance” of 12th graders from the Burggymnasium in Essen. The venue piqued my interest too; the performance took place in the wartime air raid bunker under the city archive.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B25447 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Soviets deported to Germany, June 1942. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B25447 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

But first we crowded into the archive’s foyer in front of a table where two students in blouses and braided hair sat working. Cheerful period music was echoing in the hall, and it made me feel a little uneasy. We were there to learn about forced labor in wartime Germany – hardly cheerful. In clipped tones, the students called for us to get in line. It was dawning on some of us that the performance had already started.

When we entered the building, we were handed a card with a number and had been told it would be used to divide up the groups since the bunker space was so small. But once we got to the table in the foyer, we gave up the first number and were given another — mine was 721 — written on white tape. “Wear it in a visible place,” they told us. I slapped mine on my coat without asking what the number was for. I had a pretty good idea.

Numbered, I had to walk alone between two students in white shirts and dark pants. They stood at the foot of the stairway leading down to the basement. They held file folders, and as each of us walked by, they said in a bland tone, “Follow the directions.” Always this firm, impersonal tone. I was impressed and a little uneasy the students managed it so well.

In the narrow basement hallway, more students in white ordered us to go right or left. I joined the group waiting quietly in the right-hand hall. Maybe the others felt the same way I did, caught off balance by how quickly we obeyed what seemed like random orders.

Ukrainian women examined by German officials for work. May 1942. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B19880 / Knödler / CC-BY-SA 3.0

A door opened. This wasn’t the bunker yet, but a medium-sized room where thirty of us crowded inside. The windows were covered for the blackout. There were students in white shirts at a table with a scale, some bread and a cooking pot. There were students in baggy or shabby clothes lined up, their heads bowed. The “man in charge” talked to us then, complained about how hard it was to feed these people — the shabby ones, the Ukrainians dragged to Germany to work. When he had a question for us, he barked, “How much did a slave worker eat per day, number 721?” We looked down at the numbers on our coats, trying to remember who (what?!) we were. He talked about duty, and how if he wasn’t firm, if he failed in his duty, his own family would suffer. At which point he gave one of the student-slaves a mock kick and walked off.

The slaves spoke too — at first about home. How much they missed it, how their home gave them strength to endure. One scrubbed the floor as she talked about her fear of getting sick, of not being able to work anymore. It was uncomfortable having to look down on her the whole time. An air raid and sudden darkness, and we were evacuated out of the room.

To the bunker. Through a narrow door, we climbed into a nest of rooms with bare and dusty walls. Here and there, someone had stenciled the capacity the rooms had — 25 people, for instance, in a space too small to be comfortable. As we wandered from room to room, students acting as slaves told their stories of being snatched from their villages in the Ukraine or Russia. The journey to Germany in freight trains and the yearning for fresh air, space and freedom. Their work — sometimes with German families who treated them kindly; more often in factories, especially in Essen, where they were worked to exhaustion or death. Two students were closed into a replica of the famous steel locker used as an isolation cell and punishment for forced labor. There was poetry and artwork and period photos beamed on the walls. A group of students sang about home in German and Russian to a guitar accompaniment.

When we left the claustrophobic nooks and crannies of the bunker, the performance was over. My first thought was — these 12th graders put together one of the most informative and moving bit of living history I’d ever experienced. They had studied the testimony of forced labor and the Germans in charge of them to understand what went on in their own words. Students who spoke Russian translated some documents fully into German for the first time. But it was the performance itself, creating it, writing it and performing, that brought the students closer to the tens of thousands of slave workers forced to come to Essen more than 70 years ago.

An excellent performance and a great experience. Bravo.