German Book Review : '' Aftermath : Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945 - 1955 by Harald Jahner. Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside.

It was a startling disappearing act, one for the ages. Right at the moment when Hitler killed himself in his bunker on April 30, 1945, Germany was magically transformed from a genocidal Reich to a place where there barely any Nazis to be found.

''No one was a Nazi,'' the journalist Martha Gelhorn wrote about the end of World War II in Europe, mordantly recalling how all the Germans she met insisted they had hidden a Communist or were secretly half-Jewish. The photojournalist Margaret Bourke White heard the phrase '' We didn't know! '' with such '' monotonous frequency '' that it sounded '' like a national chant for Germany.''

In ''Aftermath : Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955,'' the Berlin based journalist Harald Jahner is similarly skeptical, describing how the majority of surviving Germans were so preoccupied with their own suffering that the dominant mood was one of self-pity.

''They saw themselves as the victims,'' he writes, ''and thus had the dubious good fortune of not having to think about the real ones.''

The pointedness of the sentence is quintessential Jahner; he does double duty in this fascinating book [translated into English by the gifted Shaun Whiteside], elegantly marshaling a plethora of facts while also using his critical skills to wry effect, parsing a country's stubborn inclination toward willful delusion.

Even though ''Aftermath'' covers historical ground, its narrative is intimate, filled with first person accounts from articles and diaries.

The original German title was '' Wolfzeit '' or times '' Time of the Wolf. ''

The postwar Germans were fond of animal metaphors. Those who stockpiled supplies were ''hamsters,'' while those who stole from the hamsters were ''hyenas.'' One could never be sure what the wolf was up to, '' since the 'lone wolf ' had just as frightening a reputation as the whole pack,'' Jahner writes.

The duality between the loner and the group reflected the postwar emergence of the apathetic Everyman known as Ohnemichel, a play on name Michael and the German words for ''without'' and ''me,'' a figure whose solitary inwardness was like the flip side of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft, or ''people's community.''

It was as if the country had lurched from one extreme to the other, from collective euphoria to lonesome despair.

The nonaggressive Germany of today, which hosts more than a million refugees, seemed unimaginable at the time.

As Jahner puts it, ''How could a nation that perpetrated the Holocaust become a dependable democratic country'' - so dependable that it gets caricatured as a ''paradise of mediocrity''? 

Considering all the chaos in the years after the war, boredom might be seen as a formidable achievement.

Jhaner sets out to tell the tumultuous story of the postwar decade in all its contradictions, conveying the breadth of experience amid the ''extreme challenges'' the German people faced.

With their defeat, ''laws had been overruled,'' he writes, ''yet no one was responsible for anything.''

The World Students Society thanks review author Jennifer Szalai.


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