Germany After 1945: Reconstruction of the German Identity after World War II
The allied bombing of Germany destroyed far more than the Nazi army and German infrastructure. It unpicked the scarlet thread that was woven through the fabric of German society—German pride and exceptionalism. Germans had to deal with their military defeat and the unraveling of their society. It was especially difficult for Germans because they were not a decrepit nation; indeed, they proved themselves exceptional in every field. The adaptation to allied occupation and the adoption of foreign products were by no means comfortable and warm as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film “The Marriage of Maria Braun” has shown. Hence, the post war years were filled with much discontent because Germans had to overcome the herculean obstacles of the demasculinization of men, the reversal of gender roles, the American cultural imports, youth rebellion, the oversexualization of women, racial hierarchies and the Nazi past build a new identity.
World war two had broken German men. They failed to defend the homeland and protect their women and children in the critical hour. It was a catastrophic defeat for a race who historically was not second class individuals. Since the Reformation, German men have had profound impact on the world. From religious reformers such as Martin Luther to notables such as Beethoven, Nietzsche, Max Born and Werner Von Braun, German men made immense contributions to every field. However their defeat during World War 2 emasculated them. They emerged feeble and fragile from the war. They neither possessed the will, nor the capability to contribute to any area. This frustrating scenario is captured very well in Fassbinder’s film, “The Marriage of Maria Braun.” Maria Braun’s husband, Hermann Braun is for all practically purposes emasculated. He is mentally disturbed, emotionally distant, physically wounded, socially rejected, politically wanted, professionally worthless and personally hopeless. He spends a good deal of time in prison completely dependent on his wife. Though he does not wish to dominate his wife, his certainly does not wish to be childishly dependent on her either. However, his situation is an impossible one. This scenario is representative of German men after World War 2. The war years incapacitated them to a large extent. They were unable to shoulder the responsibilities they once proudly held because they failed to defend National Socialism. This caused much internal discontent among men because of their inability to wholly take part in the reconstruction process. However, such discontent simply could not be fixed by a change of government or a acquiring a job. The close of Fassbinder’s movie shows negatives of the former German chancellors. This can be interpreted as current German leaders and German men in general, are only a shadow of their former counterparts. The scars of war were much deeper and only time could heal them.
Due to the full scale mobilization, German women entered the workforce. The long years of war, the new lifestyle and the absence of men made German women independent. When the men came home after the war broken and tired, the women got a step raise on the social ladder. The dependence of men, new found freedom and job expertise clearly gave them the upper hand and reversed gender roles. This situation is also correctly shown in Fassbinder’s film. Maria Braun, to say the least is a very beautiful woman. She is representative of the average German woman trying to live during the war and post war years. She is independent and able to get things done because of her wits and beauty. When Hermann comes back he is completely dependent on her for everything. While he spends time in prison, she works, visits him and promises to build a home. She gains a masculine personality. She becomes strong, outgoing, fearless and capable of doing anything she sets her mind to. This reversal of gender roles is the second reason why post war reconstruction causes discontent in Germany. The reversal of gender roles made men very uncomfortable to say the least, and put immense responsibility on the women. Despite the economic miracle, Germans were unhappy and discontent because their basic perception of how their society ought to be was completely overturned.
The specter of Americanization made possible by popular culture and mass consumption proved to be very uncomfortable to Germans. Post war American occupation in the west brought immense changes for Germany. Germany was stuck between the two behemoths the US and USSR and had to define its new culture in relation to them. Changes in German lifestyle and cultural expectations were redefined largely because of American consumer goods; the most notorious exports being movies and music. Germans got a glimpse of American culture and society chiefly from Hollywood movies and music. American movies and music were products of popular culture, which by definition is accepted because it is highly fashionable and desired. American movies had a large influence because Brando, Presley and blue jeans were far more interesting, enjoyable and palatable than Marxism-Leninism. The movies and music had different effects on different groups of the German population.
The German youth, especially men, eagerly accepted American influences such as Jazz, rock n’ roll, gangster ways of life and the teenage rebelliousness. They showed their acceptance symbolically by adopting tight jeans, leather jackets, duck tail hair styles and short skirts. They are rebelled and rioted in the streets in accordance with what American movies taught them. Altogether, the German youth were departing from what used to be defined as exceptionally German and appropriate. They were adopting foreign products and values as their own and redefining what it was to be German. However, while the youth eagerly accepted Americanization, the older generation did not at first. The older generations saw American culture as an aberration. Americanization was causing a rift between the older and younger generation. Thus, there was an obvious conflict of interest and much discontent because the ages old idea of German exceptionalism was fenestrated as the German youth adopted foreign culture to be their own. The older generation however could not do anything about it because the former glory of German exceptionalism and German culture was marred with Hitler’s National Socialism. Though German adults demonized American culture and its influences initially, they gradually began to accept it for two reasons. The first reason is because their youth followed it and there was nothing they could to prevent them. The second is it offered a quiet path out of the Nazi past. The cultural vacuum left by the failure of National Socialism was occupied by Americanization. Thus Germany’s reaction to Americanism was complex and ambivalent because although it helped slowly erase the Nazi past, it essentially deprived them of their former culture which they thought was superior and exceptional.
There was much dissatisfaction in Germany about the post war reconstruction especially because of the oversexualization of German women and the notion of racial hierarchy. Fassbinder’s film demonstrated both the factors in Maria Braun’s Life. Maria Braun initially holds a placard eagerly waiting for her husband. However, when he does not come home, she gives up hope of seeing him again. She then starts an affair with Bill, an African American soldier, to get food, chocolate, alcohol, silk stockings and to learn English. However, when her husband shows up, she kills Bill. From then on she is sleeps with everyone from Karl Oswald to the visiting American businessman to climb the ladder of social and financial mobility. This scenario is a portrayal of the perceived distortion of women’s sexuality during reconstruction. This caused much discontent because German women not only emerged stronger than men from the war causing enough upheaval, they were now leaving their traditional domain as faithful wives and mothers to become powerful and burly in a decrepit manner. Maria’s relationship with Bill also brings another troubling issue Germans had to deal with during the reconstruction years—racial hierarchies. The presence of many African American soldiers and popularity of Jazz made Germans reevaluate their notion of racial hierarchies. Germans realized the previous notion of racial superiority fed during Hitler’s 12 year reign was simply not true. People of other races were not inferior as they were told, and they were certainly not superior as they assumed.
The post war years were years of much disgruntlement and unhappiness because Germans had to redefine their national identity. Overcoming the hurdles and accepting the changes were by no means easy or desirable. With broken men, careless women, a terrible past of war and persecution, Germany had a very stony path ahead. However, in the light of their economic prosperity, it is safe to believe that they have regained their composure to a good extent and are moving to a future devoid of their former troubles.
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