In October 1945, the Allied ban on fraternization between occupiers and the German population was lifted. Liaisons between German women and Allied troops, particularly American GIs, contributed to a sense of crisis among many Germans, a sense that German men had failed as providers and protectors and that German women were turning to foreigners for material security. In the 1940s, competition for scarce resources such as food and apartments was intense and often manifested itself in German hostility toward certain people (e.g., the millions who had been displaced by the war) and particular policies, including the Allied requisitioning of living quarters as well as local rationing systems that tried to take victimization under National Socialism into account.
The situation was further complicated by what many perceived as the breakdown of traditional gender roles. Women shouldered much of the burden of cleaning up cities and also provided for their families; in subsequent years, especially in West Germany, these so-called rubble women [Trümmerfrauen] were widely celebrated for their bravery and independence. Few questions were asked, however, about what these women had done before May 1945. Likewise, few people wondered about what they would do in the future: namely, whether they would eagerly revert to traditional wifely roles within so-called normal families.
The physical and mental health of former soldiers and their reintegration into society was a matter of concern for many politicians and psychologists. Some in the West chose to see the issue as resolved in 1955, the year the last remaining POWs were released from Soviet captivity. Returning soldiers were repeatedly portrayed as having survived terrible ordeals without sacrificing either their manliness or commitment to family. In East Germany, the political reliability of returning POWs questions was initially questioned, but soon enough they were touted as “state fathers,” men who had successfully converted to the Socialist cause.
The constitutions of both German states gave equal rights to men and women, but the two political systems fostered different gender models. In East Germany, socialist principles and practical realities led the government to encourage female employment. There was, on the one hand, the general socialist conviction that workforce participation played an important role in women’s emancipation. On the other hand, however, there were also labor shortages, not to mention the low pensions paid to widows. To support the female labor force, the East German government began to provide daycare centers for young children starting in the 1950s.
West Germany subscribed to a different model. There, leaders encouraged so-called housewife marriages – ones in which the husband was the sole breadwinner and provider. For conservatives, these sorts of marriages reflected the values of the Christian West, which they saw as a counterweight to National Socialism, state socialism, and American-style “materialism” and consumerism. But the “stay-at-home wife” model was a far cry from the reality of millions of West German women, not only because many of them were forced to head households, but also because growing numbers of women with school-age children worked outside the home to contribute to family incomes amidst the burgeoning “Economic Miracle.” The constitutional requirement of gender equality necessitated the reform of some provisions of the Civil Code [Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or BGB], and this led to extensive public debate and a number of court cases. The Equal Rights Law [Gleichberechtigungsgesetz] of 1958 introduced important positive changes for women: for example, it abolished the husband’s automatic right to manage property brought into the marriage by the wife. On the negative side, however, this new law also reinscribed the decisive role of the husband in disputes regarding children. (This provision was struck down by the Constitutional Court in 1959.) Although steps had been made toward official legal equality for women, the question of whether they were indeed on the road to achieving professional equality continued to occupy Germans in both East and West, and various issues (e.g., the distribution of parental responsibilities and household chores) had yet to be worked out in practice. Concerns about birth rates and morality also led to severe restrictions on abortions in both Germanies until the 1960s and 1970s.