That’s how it happens, folks


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I’ve kept this blog #USElection2016 -free, but today I have to say something.

Donald Trump is not Hitler, of course, and Hillary Clinton is no saint.


A lot of us Americans are asking ourselves what happened to our country. How could tens of millions of our people be galvanized by a man who claims he can fix the country for us? Who talks populism, protectionism, division, ridicule and hate? We can’t wrap our minds around the fact that so many of our neighbors and family members could see a leader in a man who spits venom.

Now imagine it’s 1945 or ’46. What were the Allies asking themselves in occupied Germany?

Wahlplakat der NSDAP zur ReichstagswahlHow could these people fall for that man? Was there something special about the Germans that made them blind to what he was? Did they see and not care? Were they concerned citizens voting according to their economic interests? Was it a vote against the Weimar establishment? Were they rebels? Were they sheep? Were they evil?

Those were real questions back then and all through the rest of the 20th century.

Now we know the answer to the biggest question.

It can happen anywhere. We saw it in Britain, we saw it last night in the USA. One of the first thing my international friends speculated about this morning was whether Germany would be next. There’s a national election here next year. Will lightening strike twice in this country where we’ve made our homes? If so, what do we tell our children about democracy and leadership and the rights of citizens? What do people who care about freedom do in an age when authoritarianism and the politics of division seem to be rising up all around us?

I don’t know. I’m too tired to think about it right now.

I do know that the Germans of the war generation were criticized for not resisting. For not seeing who and what was in front of them. Some were electrified by the new order. They were going to make Germany great again. Many people accepted the ugly side of the situation, or they succumbed to fear, they blended into the woodwork and got on with their lives, they became opportunists benefiting from the new laws, or they gave up on politics altogether. They let the wrong people trample over their country, its minorities and the weakest of its citizens. The ultimate result was total collapse.

We can tell ourselves that’ll never happen to us. Not in 21st century America. Except the people back then also thought they were making their country and the world better. Aside from being racist and antisemitic, the Nazis hated intellectuals, the media, artists, the disabled, gays, political “dissidents,” women in power, and anyone who ridiculed or criticized them. That looks a whole lot like what we’re seeing in the US and other democracies right now. How does that make the country and the world better?

It’s not the world I want my kids growing up in. But since it looks like they have to, all I can do is teach them a lot of critical thinking, a little history, and a skepticism of anyone who claims to be their leader. That’s not what democracy and freedom are all about.



Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-K0930-502 / CC-BY-SA 3.0




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.