Tr?mmerfrauen, Germany's Post War Heroines

Tr?mmerfrauen, 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, K?che, Kirche", children, kitchen, church, might not be as dominant as it once was however to a certain extent it still exists.

But at the end of WWII it was the Tr?mmerfrauen, "Rubble Women", the women Hitler had idealized as "stay at home" homemakers who, with 15 million men missing, killed or prisoners of war, had to help rebuild a country that 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 "Rubble 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.

Tr?mmerfrauen worked through the night building a runway at Berlin's Tempelhof airport, to support the June 1948 - May 1949 Anglo/American Berlin airlift that 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" brought in mandatory work duty for women aged between 15 and 50 to help clear rubble, and demolish bombed buildings that were unsafe and impossible to reconstruct.

Work that was not without its dangers, including uncovered bombs and ammunition, which often led to accidents and deaths.

Long after war's end, and well into the 1950?s, it remained a common sight to see lines of women hammering out stones with their bare hands and rudimentary tools; placing them into buckets that were passed on to be loaded into wagons and trucks, and taken to fill 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. The situation was so severe that on December 31, 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 "K?lsch", the local Cologne language, "Fringsen", stealing for a reason. Although Archbishop Frings did add that whatever had been taken was to be replaced, or reimbursed, as soon as possible.

Five levels of food rationing were in force at the time; housewives, or anyone with dependent young children and no one to care for them, and those who did the heaviest work, were rewarded with the highest rations.

There were volunteers, but understandably most "Rubble Women" worked from need not only altruism. Then at the end of their day they 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 their wait.

Across Germany in cities as diverse as Aachen, Bremen and Leipzig 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 hammered and moved wreckage for entire days; clearing 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 damaged or destroyed, and despite all the surrounding chaos and deprivation they also cared for their families and home.

Some were widows with young children, but for those who were not as their men gradually returned home it was to a completely different "wife" to the one who had been left behind.

Many of the returnees had been brought up to expect a traditional and subservient wife so could not deal with one who had become self confident in their absence. Divorce rates at the end of the l940?s grew to two or three times as high as before the war, and it was a turning point in traditional gender roles.

Nevertheless many Tr?mmerfrauen did relinquish their new found self confidence and independence, and despite their experiences reverted to a 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, and 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.

This is where Chancellor Merkel was brought up and educated.

Despite the heritage of bravery and self reliance left to them by the "Tr?mmerfrauen", 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 not over.

Photo Credits: Gruppenbild eines Tr?mmerbeseitigungstrupps, Roger R?ssing via de.wikipedia - Tr?mmerfrauen 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 - Tr?mmerfrau beim Transport von Ziegelsteinen 1946 Dresden, Photographer Richard Peter Deutsche Fotothek Dresden - all courtesy de.Wikipedia

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The Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945
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