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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 with
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.
Trümmerfrauen faced a Sisyphean task clearing the rubble
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.
The bombing of Hamburg turned half the city into rubble
"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"