The policies adopted by the Allies and the two German governments after 1945 and the reconstruction of economic and political life are not the only subjects worthy of close examination. There is also the issue of societal transformation and the many questions it posed. How did elite groups as well as masses of ordinary Germans negotiate the chaos of 1945? What became of the country’s social and family structures? And what happened to cultural life in the broadest sense?
Casual visitors to occupied Germany who glimpsed the physical, psychic, and moral wasteland that was Central Europe in the summer of 1945 could be forgiven for believing that the country was in the midst of a social revolution, that this was Stunde Null [Zero Hour]. The image was deceptive, however. Social structures proved durable, as did cultural attitudes and practices. The impact of the Nazi dictatorship and the war was no doubt profound, but it did not create a tabula rasa. For instance, if one takes a purely quantitative approach to what sociologists call “the circulation of elites,” it becomes clear that turnover was in fact much lower than human losses and wartime destruction had initially led contemporaries to believe. When viewed from a more qualitative angle, the picture is as complex as it is intriguing, given what German society had just gone through.
Not surprisingly, contemporaries perceived Germany’s immediate postwar years as a period of intense crisis, but their perspectives were shaped by their own political outlook and wartime experiences and thus varied considerably. In the Western occupation zones – especially the American zone – Jewish DPs, most of whom came from Central and Eastern Europe, insisted on separate DP camps, which they believed would allow them to rebuild Jewish lives, a project they viewed in both personal and political terms. Jewish organizations pressed hard for improved camp conditions and for visas allowing emigration out of Germany. Jewish men and women, most of them torn from their families by the Nazi genocide, formed new relationships and married with a speed that was often disturbing to Allied observers. A veritable Jewish baby boom soon followed. Over the next few years, only a very small Jewish community would settle or resettle in Germany, for the most part in the West. In both German states, Jews continued to confront anti-Semitism as well as demands for complete assimilation.
Ethnic German women had much lower birthrates in the years immediately after the war and into the 1950s. A range of factors contributed to this: for example, many women of childbearing age were war widows and could not – or did not – find new partners quickly. Additionally, many marriages that survived the war faltered in the postwar period, as economic and social strain caused divorce rates to shoot up. Until the late 1940s, women in all occupation zones and from all ethnic backgrounds could make use of emergency abortion provisions, which were instituted in response to the staggering number of rapes committed (especially by Soviet soldiers) at the end of the war. Some newborns were subject to close scrutiny, particularly those born out of wedlock or to German women and African-American soldiers. Public discussion of the various challenges these “mixed-race” children would face in the future made clear that many Germans found it difficult to imagine their fellow citizens as anything other than white – and this at a time when, in the aftermath of Nazi racism, many were hoping to achieve a color-blind society.