Wartime Allied bombing of Germany is estimated to have produced around 400 million cubic meters of rubble and ruins, which needed to be cleared before reconstruction of the country could begin.
This huge clean-up operation fell to Germany’s so-called Trümmerfrauen (rubble-women).
The popular image of these Trümmerfrauen consists of a team of cheerful women in headscarves and rag dresses hard at work in the ruins of cities like Berlin, Hamburg and Dresden, working as a team to clear rubble by hand and helping to build a better Germany.
Trümmerfrauen in Berlin. Photo: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons, Bild 183-H26657 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
However, historian Leonie Treber has suggested that this iconic image does not match up with the reality. She argues that women only played a minor role in the clean-up operation in the late 1940s, noting that only 5% of Berlin’s female population was mobilized to clear debris and rubble. Far from welcoming the opportunity to take reconstruction into their own hands, Treber points out that most women did not participate willingly but were forced to work by the occupying Allied forces, especially in the Soviet sector.
Many regarded clearing rubble as a humiliating punishment; the task had previously been assigned to slave labourers and concentration camp prisoners under the Nazi regime. In West Berlin, the government had to offer incentives in the form of additional food rations, resulting in the mobilisation of 60,000 women for the clearing operation.
This gulf between the national memory and reality of the Trümmerfrau experience partially stems from treatment of the Trümmerfrauen in divided Germany. In the former East Germany, the women were celebrated as patriotic Aufbauhelfer (reconstruction helpers) alongside men, and the ‘working woman’ was upheld as a socialist ideal.
In sharp contrast, conservative attitudes remained prevalent in the Federal Republic; hard labour clearing away rubble was deemed ‘unwomanly’. Instead, women were expected to return to their traditional role in the home.
In the context of the feminist movements of the 1980s however, the Trümmerfrauen were reimagined with an emphasis on heroism and selflessness.
Following reunification in 1990, these interpretations mingled together: the women were valued as “a symbol of the German people's wish to rebuild and of their powers of survival” in the words of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is this distinctly positive memory of the Trümmerfrau experience that has prevailed in the German national memory and is invoked at memorial ceremonies and museum exhibitions.
If you would like to know more about this topic, check out the following:
· Leonie Treber, Mythos Trümmerfrauen, Essen 2015 (German)
· Nicole Kramer, Volksgenossinnen an der Heimatfront. Mobilisierung, Verhalten, Erinnerung, Göttingen 2011 (German)
· ‘Dismantling the German myth of 'Trümmerfrauen'’, Deutsche Welle, 2014. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/dismantling-the-german-myth-of-trümmerfrauen/a-18083725