May 24, 2023

German Veterans of the Second World War: Still “Outside”? (I)

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In the first part of this this blog, conference co-organiser Yara Staets illustrates the difficulties in the process of coming home for German Second World War veterans. In the second part, she explores some of the narratives that have emerged and continue to emerge in relation to veterans and how they indicate that the process of their home coming was and still is a cultural challenge.

Difficulties in the process of coming home for German veterans after the Second World War

The process of German veterans returning home after the end of the Second World War was difficult in various ways. Germany had not only started the First, but also the Second World War, had lost both, was responsible for the Holocaust, and many different war crimes. The "unconditional surrender of the Wehrmacht" meant the end of this military form of organisation and the previous government in Germany, the National Socialist-regime. The government was temporarily taken over by the Allies until in 1949 two new German states were founded.

This situation had a massive impact on war veterans: the eleven million German prisoners of war (POW) did not have to be returned immediately after the end of war. They could be kept in captivity by the Allies and used as labour force as part of reparations payments. Also because of poor conditions in camps, one million died. In addition, some POWs stayed in camps for years, longest in the Soviet Union. From there the last veterans returned only in 1956.[1]

Nonetheless, after arrival in Germany, the veterans were confronted with further difficulties. Many found their houses destroyed by the air raids, their families dead or alienated, and their former jobs no longer available. In addition, every veteran had to undergo a denazification process. This constituted an investigation into how he was involved in the crimes of the Nazi-regime and the SS.

With a negative outcome, veterans could be prosecuted or lose their right to get a qualified job and other forms of help. Even after this the veterans had to compete for jobs, food, financial support, and accommodation with the rest of the population of the war-depleted country. In addition, applications for any of these resources had to be supported by legal documents. Especially veterans who had been absent fighting or in POW camps experienced difficulties in providing the documents, and so these processes often took years. Because of this, a lot of the veterans felt left alone in their process of coming home after the Second World War.

The German post-war society, to some extent, recognised the problems of its veterans.[2] But the main goal of the population after the war was to forget the past and rebuild the country. Late returning veterans especially evoked unwanted memories. Also, while some veterans expected to be celebrated or get special support, they were blamed for the lost war and the difficulties in post-war Germany. This only began to change when veterans were given a lobby, the Verband der Heimkehrer, in 1950.

Overall, only a minority of the veterans could return to their pre-war life. Instead for many the reintegration into the post-war society was not possible: homeless, jobless, hungry, and alone, some turned to criminal activities, an unknown number committed suicide, and a study on 60,000 veterans conducted in Hamburg revealed that their life expectancy was only 45 years in 1954.[3]

[1] See also for the following still Arthur L. Smith, 'Heimkehr aus dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. d. Entlassung d. dt. Kriegsgefangenen', [Aus d. Amerikan. übertr. von Rainer Michael Gottlob], Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt: Stuttgart, 1985, pp. 129-131.

[2] This can be seen, for example, in the several "Trümmerfilmen" (rubble movies), which were made between 1945 and 1949. These films are mainly about the difficulties of returning soldiers in post-war Germany. See Svenja Goltermann, Die Gesellschaft der Überlebenden. Deutsche Kriegsheimkehrer und ihre Gewalterfahrungen im Zweiten Weltkrieg, München: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 2009, pp. 345-357.

[3] Smith, p. 186.

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