Jannes Riemann reviews Leonie Treber’s controversial book on Germany’s ‘rubble women’…
I was listening recently to the Germany – memories of a nation series on BBC Radio 4, in which historian Neil MacGregor – he who curated the British Museum’s exhibition of the same name in 2014 – discussed about how Germany’s “rubble women” had the “Herculean task” of clearing away the debris of the empty ruins, and how their “emotional and physical strength…put the country back on its feet.”
He talked of the “astonishing speed with which the Trümmerfrauen made Germany habitable again”….so much so, that by the late 50s much of West Germany had been rebuilt, in contrast to some British cities, where the rubble remained on the streets until the 60s.
In the decades since WW2, this story has become the de facto reconstruction tale. Almost everyone interested in the topic has seen the famed black and white photos of women standing in orderly rows – buckets in hand, often smiling – atop the vast mountains of brick, stone and dust created by Allied bombings and Russian artillery during the Battle in Berlin, and the story is recounted on dozens of daily tours and in dozens of museums throughout Berlin and beyond.
As a West German schoolchild, I also heard the story consistently throughout the 90s and early 00s. Indeed, it’s one of the few heroic stories I remember from those years, alongside that of Officer Stauffenberg, the man who attempted to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944, no doubt because they were “feel good” consolations after previous years of learning how Germans were almost universally complicit either as Nazi perpetrators or followers (Mitläufer).
But was Germany’s remarkable post-war reconstruction really down to these female war survivors? German historian Leonie Treber, in her 2014 book Mythos Trümmerfrauen, claims not. Treber claims the story is a myth: a vastly exaggerated truth that conveniently fed into notions of cultural identity for both East and West Germany.
Her key finding is that the main rubble removal and recycling was achieved by professional workers and big machines – just as it had been during the war when the Nazis preferred women to stay at home and take care of children, work in the arms factories, or sign up as nurses or secretaries. Following wartime bombings, it was special units of the Security and Help Service (SHD or Sicherheits- und Hilfsdienst) and/or Air Raid Police (Luftschutzpolizei) who mainly got the urban infrastructure working again.
When Allied bombing intensified across Germany in 1943, and with more and more men fighting on the fronts, forced labourers and concentration camp prisoners were also drafted in to clean the streets; it was, after all, no kind of work for an ‘Aryan’ woman. This point is raised by Treber to show how these forced labourers, busy reconstructing German cities since way before the war ended, have been excluded from the story.
To the usual argument that the women stepped in to replace all the German men who were by this time POWs, Treber shows how German cities were actually far from completely devoid of male workers. According to her research, roughly 30% of the Berlin rubble workers were men between 1945-1946, a statement backed up by the many (largely unseen) photos of “rubble men” in the historical archives.
Even though women clearly surpassed the male workforce in the 18 months after the end of the war, Treber looks at the total number of Berlin women of employable age to find only between 2% and 5% could have worked in the rubble clearance field during 1946. Hints of this can be seen in videos from the time, like this one from July 1945 where initial scenes of around 20 confident, partly posing women are followed by clips of three “rubble men” (1:30 minutes), a series of less confident women not wanting to be filmed (3:19), and also a boy cleaning some bricks (3:45).
From a peak of 35,000 rubble workers in May 1946, the workforce quickly dropped down to 5,000 unskilled labourers in spring 1947 because contracts were given to companies who specialised in rubble clearance. In Berlin, the Employment Agencies of the separate districts were responsible for planning the clearances in the first months after WWII, though this was later passed onto the Civil Engineering Offices, who received a directive as early as 22 June 1945 stating how “the debris from the streets has been carried over not only in the houses, but even subway tunnels. The clearance of subway tunnels requires an increased workload, which can be avoided if the work follows a plan.”
Evidence of this can actually be seen in the many ‘rubble women’ photos that also show the Feldbahns – narrow gauge field railways – operating in the streets of many German cities. Treber shows how these were already being used in Berlin from September 1945 on, together with locomotives, conveyor belts, special brick cleaning machines, crushing and screening plants and winches. By 1948, the Marshall Plan also aided clearance and re-building throughout West Germany and West Berlin.
Treber’s research goes even further, claiming that many of the women did not take on the work with some kind of nationalistic glee, but were obliged by the Occupying Forces, or economic necessity to do it. They received better food ration cards and a small payment. Backing all of these claims up is the fact that the term Trümmerfrauen didn’t exist at the time; rather, the term Bauhilfsarbeiter (“unskilled labour”) was used. This is easily confirmed with a search for the term through the online archives of major newspapers like Die Zeit and Der Spiegel; the term comes up primarily in East Germany in the 1950s and in West Germany only in the 1980s– where the term was used before, but only very scarcely.
So how has the term, and the myth it serves, managed to survive throughout the decades when there’s so little factual evidence for it? This seems to be mostly a question of political ideology. The notion of a female-only workforce rebuilding a country tied in neatly with East Germany’s Marxist-driven notion of gender equality, while in the West the associated – and equally misleading term “Zero Hour” – was useful for selling ideas of a “brand new start” after the War.
As historians like Wolfgang König have pointed out, it’s not quite as clear cut as that, not least because many German companies were not only still producing after WWII, but some were even more productive than at the start of the war. In the West, the term seems to have died off fairly quickly after the division, returning to mainstream discourse only in the 80s when some of the ageing women in question reached retirement age and complained that rubble-clearing work after WWII was not included in their pensions.
Such was the emotional power of these claims that they were supported by left as well as right wing parties in the West German parliament in Bonn. Following reunification, the myth therefore not only continued but was bolstered by a fresh round of Trümmerfrauen memorials, which joined the initial wave from the 50s (in both East and West Germany).
Inevitably given the subject matter, Treber’s book has drawn criticism, not least from the ‘rubble women’ themselves; witnesses in Essen, for example, have stepped forward to claim that they saw mostly women doing the rubble clearance work without any help from machines, and another is quoted as saying: “They were just women working with their hands in half-facades of houses or putting the pavements back together […] It was dangerous work … and that historian [Leonie Treber] has no clue.”
But Mythos Trümmerfrauen readily shows how rubble clearance worked differently in different cities; how it was replaced by machines at an earlier stage in some than others, for example. And its author does not refute the existence of ‘rubble women’ at all, more the idea that they rebuilt Germany alone. Her point, really, is that their work represents a preparatory stage of reconstruction rather than its totality and to reveal the political circumstances that led to the perpetuation of the myth.
In the end, myths are an accepted and at times necessary method to define national identity. But it’s equally accepted that different generations question and refute the ‘truths’ behind them. Even though the story of the Trümmerfrauen seems rather harmless compared to other, more heroic and dangerous myths, according to Treber it nonetheless gives a false impression of how Berlin and Germany reconstructed itself following the ravages of war. Those who care more about facts than myth will find it an illuminating read.
An extended version of this article has originally published, in German, in “Schattenwelten” (“Shadow Worlds”), the internal magazine for members of the Berlin Underworlds Association.
References & Further Reading
Treber, Leonie: Mythos Trümmerfrauen. Von der Trümmerbeseitigung in der Kriegs- und Nachkriegszeit und der Entstehung eines deutschen Erinnerungsortes. Essen: Klartext 2014.
Münkler, Herfried: Die Deutschen und ihre Mythen. Reinbek: Rowohlt 2010.
König, Wolfgang: Technikgeschichte: eine Einführung in ihre Konzepte und Forschungsergebnisse. Stuttgart: Steiner, 2009