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Remembering Germany's "Rubble Women"

Sabina Casagrande, DW-WORLD.DE
May 8, 2005

At the end of the war, Allied air strikes reduced most of the country to rubble. As most men were either dead or had not even returned from the war, the women Hitler had seen as homemakers had to help rebuild the nation.

They often had little more than their hands and basic tools to work withImage: AP

Allied bombing attacks, which began in 1942 and continued until just days before Germany's surrender, reduced many German cities, like Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg or Cologne, to nothing more than tons of rubble. Although the war was over and the 12-year Nazi regime had come to an end, Germany was a country in ruins.

"You have to imagine that after the end of the war, the major cities were full of debris," said Bettina Bab, a historian specializing in postwar women’s history. "95 percent of the houses were damaged or destroyed and there were huge piles of rubble on the streets."

Although it was normal that the survivors in the cities tried to make their homes livable again and carted away debris in front of their door, this wasn’t enough to clear the streets.

"There weren’t enough men to do this heavy work," Bab said. "At the end of the war, the German Reich was missing 15 million men."

They had either fallen or become prisoners of war.

So with the lack of manpower to clear the rubble, the Allied Control Council introduced a mandatory work duty for women, too -- and they rose to the challenge.

Trümmerfrauen faced a grueling task

Long lines of women on the rubble piles, hammering out stones and handing them down in buckets was a common sight, even years after the war ended.

Nachkriegszeit: Trümmerfrauen in Berlin
Trümmerfrauen faced a Sisyphean task clearing the rubbleImage: dpa

But these so-called Trümmerfrauen, or rubble women, not only tended the wounded, buried the dead and salvaged belongings. They also began the grueling task of rebuilding war-torn Germany by clearing the country's cities of an estimated 400 million cubic meters of debris, using only basic tools and, above all, their bare hands.

"I remember that you could walk down Hohe Strasse practically on a mass of rocks that was as high as the first floor," said Käthe Lindlar, who was a Trümmerfrau in Cologne. "I was deployed in the Ehrenfeld district and had to load rubble with a shovel onto little wagons all day long. The debris was then put into trucks and driven away."

Hard work meant higher rations

Bab said that these women's motivation for taking on such a difficult task was very simple: hunger. The food ration cards had five categories and those who physically worked hardest got the highest rations. Housewives, on the other hand, were classified in the same category as deskbound workers.

Ein kleiner Junge zwischen Trümmern und Hausruinen in Hamburg
The bombing of Hamburg turned half the city into rubbleImage: dpa

"So, because these women were conceded so little, they chose the difficult work in the rubble," Bab said. "I don’t think it was any sort of female feeling of 'now we have to clean up and get everything in order,' and it wasn’t compassion. It was need."

But despite the higher rations, many women stood in line for hours to get bread or butter and ended up with nothing. It was a daily battle for survival.

Continue reading to find out more about Germany's "rubble women"

When the men began returning home from the war, they faced women, who had helped clear their bombed cities, and in between, had taken care of their children and managed their households. The traditional image of a woman's role no longer corresponded to the reality in postwar Germany.

"These women accomplished a lot in the postwar period and I think they had become very independent and self-assured," Bab said.

At the end of the 1940s, when more and more men returned home from their captivity, the divorce rates increased like never before.

"They were two to three times higher than before the war, because a lot of men couldn't cope with having self-confident wives and they expected the traditional role for a woman," Bab said.

Trümmerfrau - Berlin-Neukölln
This Trümmerfrau monument was erected in a park in BerlinImage: Landesdenkmalamt Berlin

But some women simply gave up and returned to their traditional roles. According to Bab, the daily struggle for basic needs had exhausted women, no matter how much they had accomplished.

"Many women certainly didn't have the strength and the energy to deal with the men and fight in another form to assert themselves," she said. "That's how I would explain the fact that part of these self-confident women once again complied with their husbands' wishes, because the times were hard and they wanted to bring these hard times to an end."

High spirits and remarkable deeds

"Cologne as we know it today would not have been possible without the Trümmerfrauen," said Josef Müller, one of Cologne's mayors. Born in 1938, he himself was the son of a Trümmerfrau. "It was really an unbelievable accomplishment," he said.

According to Müller, there was a strong feeling of a new beginning in the air.

"You really can't imagine it today," he said.

Käthe Lindlar also remembered the high spirits at the time.

"We didn't see it all that dramatically," she said. "You had the feeling that now things are going to get better again, we’re doing something and we’re going to make it. It was very optimistic and we were really in high spirits."

Credit where credit is due

On the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, there are so many reports about men: generals, who ended the war, soldiers, politicians who came into power and businessmen who built up the economy. There are endless stories about men like Eisenhower, Truman, Churchill, Adenauer, or Thyssen.

But Germany would not be what it is today without its Trümmerfrauen -- a generation of women marked by hardship and need, but also strength.

Some cities, like Berlin, have erected statues to honor the city’s Trümmerfrauen. A similar project is planned in Cologne. But why has it taken 60 years to give these women the recognition they deserve?

Familie beim Radio hören
Many women chose to conform to their husband's wishes after the warImage: AP

"One really could have done something sooner," Müller said. "But maybe the awareness wasn’t there."

He said that for these women, clearing the debris simply went without saying.

"They didn’t expect to get any sort of monument, no one thought of it," he said. "It was simply natural that you did what you had to do to make your city livable again."

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