Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cover story: "Out of Ashes"

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front and After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945–1995.

His new book is Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century.

Here Jarausch explains the connection of the book's cover to the pages within:
In this snapshot LIFE magazine journalist William Vandiver captures the effort to clean up the rubble in a German city in March 1946. Standing on top of a ruined house, three women and two men in heavy coats, wearing scarves, caps, and gloves are picking up stones and stripping them of mortar in order to prepare them for use in rebuilding ruined houses. In the background looms a neo-gothic church that has miraculously survived the Allied bombardment which has destroyed the rest of the city. Since many men of working age had been killed in the fighting, women had to take on such physical labor in order to make their towns habitable again. Sometimes they were also helped by former Nazis. But it was the “rubble women” who became famous for their exertions that signaled an indomitable will to survive within all the ruins.

In a broader sense, the photograph symbolizes the self-destruction of Europe through Nazi aggression, Communist complicity and Allied resistance. Since the lightning strikes of the German military had overrun much of the continent initially, it took a massive effort of the British, Russian and American armies to stop this advance. Making use of their superiority in raw materials and industrial production, the Western Allies turned tables on the Luftwaffe, subjecting Germany to a devastating campaign of air bombardment that not just erased military targets but also systematically destroyed civilian cities through unleashing “fire-storms.” By the fall of 1944 this strategic bombing campaign had devastated the Nazi economy and prohibited the full use of “miracle weapons” by choking the transportation grid. Hunched in bomb shelters, the civilians bore the brunt of the bombing attacks, hoping somehow to survive their fury. Since German morale would not break, the Allies continued their pressure with raids involving as many as a thousand bombers that produced tens of thousands of non-combatant deaths in cities like Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden.

Surprisingly, in the cellars, make-shift shelters and still standing buildings, life continued after the Nazi surrender. During Allied occupation the Germans were confronted with the same rape and pillage which their soldiers had visited upon their neighbors. Moreover, they had to dig out the corpses, clear the streets and reconnect the gas and water lines in order to make the rubble somehow habitable again. This enormous effort took years to complete, since there was little heavy machinery. Instead many women and some men sorted the debris by hand, removing the broken stones and cleaning the others that might still be salvaged for reconstruction. In this way, post-war rebuilding literally rose from the ashes of burnt houses. All that was left was mourning for the millions of Holocaust victims such as the murdered Jews, Slavs and others, as well as for the military dead and the civilian casualties. In this metaphorical way, the reference in the title also alludes to the ashes of concentration camp crematoria, the torn corpses of soldiers and incinerated remains in bomb shelters.

The political rebuilding required recovering a sense of humanity in all this carnage. Equally pervasive as the physical destruction, the mental devastation needed to be overcome by a revival of religious faith or by a return to the humanistic values of the Enlightenment. In a broader sense, this horrendous suffering taught the survivors the need for maintaining peace in the future, the respect for human rights for everyone and the importance of social solidarity with the less fortunate. Out of this self-imposed suffering, Europe did manage to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes through economic integration, a return to the rule of law and a strengthening of the welfare state. These European lessons of the first half of the twentieth century have a universal relevance -- even for the United States which has twice rescued the old continent from self-destruction. Through this horrendous experience, Europe has developed a chastened sense of modernity that contains a universal message of humanity.
Learn more about Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue