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Truemmerfrauen, Germany's Post War Heroines
With a female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Germans no longer find the combination of "woman" and "power" to be as unusual as it has been in the recent past, nevertheless with the majority of German schools still finishing at lunchtime, continuing a tradition that goes back 250 years, neither does it appear to be a coincidence that she is childless. "Kinder, Küche, Kirche", children, kitchen, church, might not be as dominant as it once was however to a certain extent it still exists.
However at the end of WWII it was the 'Truemmerfrauen', 'rubble women', the women Hitler had idealized as 'stay at home' homemakers who, with 15 million men missing either killed or as prisoners of war, had the job to help rebuild a country which bombing, firestorm attacks and localized battles had reduced to rubble.
Germany would not be what it is today if it had not been for this generation of women whose sheer hard work had made their cities livable once more. There were 60,000 'Rubbel Women' in Berlin alone, and in each city they looked after wounded, buried the dead, tore down ruined buildings and reclaimed anything reusable from toilets and fireplaces to wooden and steel beams.
Truemmerfrauen worked through the night building a runway at Berlin's Templehof airport, to support the June 1948 - May 1949 Anglo/American Berlin airlift which brought in necessary food and supplies for the city's population. Ultimately beating the Russian blockade of the city.
Seven million more women than men were in Germany at the time, and during 1945 to 1946 the "Allied Control Council" had brought in mandatory work duty for women aged between 15 and 50 to help clear the rubble, and demolish bombed buildings which were unsafe and impossible to reconstruct. It was work that was not without its dangers, and these included uncovered bombs and ammunition, so there were often accidents and deaths.
Well into the 1950’s and long after the war’s end, it remained a common sight to see lines of women hammering out stones with their bare hands and rudimentary tools, and placing them into buckets which were passed on to be loaded into wagons and trucks, and taken to fill up holes in roads or used to make new bricks.
In the years immediately after the end of the war there were millions of refugees, widespread hunger and epidemics of what were at the time life threatening illnesses, including typhus and dysentery, to such an extent that on December 31st 1946 Archbishop, later Cardinal, Josef Frings of Cologne gave his blessing to those who had to steal to feed or warm their families. This added a new word to Koelsch, the local Cologne language, ‘Fringsen’, stealing for a reason. Although Archbishop Frings did add that whatever was taken had to be replaced or reimbursed as soon as possible.
Five levels of food rationing were in force at the time and unlike office workers, housewives or anyone with dependent young children and no one to care for them, those who did the heaviest work were rewarded with the highest rations. Understandably, although there were volunteers, most of the Rubble Women worked from need not only altruism, however at the end of their day they still queued for hours with their ration cards in the hope, not always successful, that there would be some basic supplies to be found at the end of the wait.
Across Germany in cities as diverse as Aachen, Bremen and Leipzig the women’s lives were a battle for survival, they became independent and their expected role in life no longer existed.
Whatever the weather, and often with only a daily bowl of soup from the Allied troops to sustain them, they had hammered and moved wreckage for entire days, clearing the debris from cities where a quarter of Germany’s homes had been destroyed, another quarter damaged and unlivable, half of all schools no longer existed, forty percent of the infrastructure and factories were either damaged or destroyed, and, despite all the surrounding chaos and deprivation, they had also cared for their families and home.
Some were widows with young children, but for those who were not as their men gradually returned it was to a completely different "wife" than the one he had left behind.
Many of the returnees brought up to expect a traditional and subservient wife could not deal with one who had become self confident in their absence, and divorce rates at the end of the l940’s grew to two or three times as high as before the war. It was a turning point in traditional gender roles.
Nevertheless many of the Rubble Women did relinquish their new found self confidence and independence, and despite their experiences reverted to their traditional family role, perhaps because they were too exhausted after their years of struggle for basic needs to take on a fight with the men in their lives to assert themselves, possibly after years of turmoil it just felt comfortable.
However those who lived in what became East Germany continued, until the fall of ‘the wall’ and collapse of communism, to expect to be accepted and treated as independent with equal opportunities, and this is where Chancellor Merkel was brought up and educated.
Despite the heritage of bravery and self reliance left to them by the Truemmerfrauen, their own mothers and grandmothers, without whom present day Germany would not have had an early foundation on which to rebuild, it was many years until women in the western side of Germany once again began to openly question the status quo, a process that is ongoing but still a long way from over.
Truemmerfrauen in Berlin, July 1946, from German Federal Archive - Post war Poster thanking the Nazis for the fact that people must go through the streets begging, The House Of German History, Bonn - Rubble women breaking up stones in 1952, by Renate and Roger Roessing Deutsche Fotothek - 1955 Memorial to the post war Truemmerfrau in Volkspark, Berlin by Katharina Singer, photographer Lienhard Schulz - all courtesy de.Wikipedia
Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945. Using whatever paper available Missie, an exiled Russian princess stranded in wartime Germany, wrote an evocative diary about her own life and the lives around her. Including those of her friends, the group that tried to assassinate Hitler. Infinitely readable and absorbing.
Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power A fascinating window on to a not often discussed subject from the viewpoint of Americans living there at the time. May of whom were initially impressed by the Nazi regime.
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