The period immediately following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War became known as Stunde Null, or zero hour. It become the bleakest chapter in the nation’s modern history. There was no longer even the hope of a surprise victory – Germany was a defeated and occupied country facing an uncertain and divided future. It had plunged the world into a global catastrophe and its armies had carried out some of the worst atrocities ever committed.
Its reputation as a ‘kulturstaat’, or cultural state, seemed irreparably tarnished – what cultured society carried out the mass, merciless killing of innocents? What civilisation would plunge a continent into flames and destruction? What people would tolerate such behaviour from their leaders?
Germany’s historic cities had been flattened. They were now vast, rubble strewn voids messily squatting on the space once occupied by homes, offices, factories, palaces and cathedrals. The most lustrous of Germany’s cultural pearls, Dresden, had become a byword for complete and utter destruction. A perfect firestorm had been unleashed by the RAF and USAAF, towering whirlwinds of flames that sucked the life out of basement refuges.
The scale of the destruction of urban Germany in the last months of the war was monumental. The new urban geography it forcibly created was barely comprehensible to the surviving population. The allied air forces had complete control over German airspace, and could comprehensively destroy their targets at will.
Dresden became a symbol for this destruction – the poster child for the price Germany was paying for Nazi aggression. There were too many dead bodies to bury in the safety and, for reasons of both sanitation and sanity, the victims were burnt on massive pyres erected in the city’s historic Altmarkt. By the end there was enough ash to cover the vast marketplace in a millimetre thick layer.
Some startling statistics tried to make sense of the millions of tonnes of rubble now heaped across Germany. The 5 million cubic metres of rubble in Munich was enough stone to create two Great Pyramids. Berlin had a startling 55 cubic metres of rubble – enough for 22 replicas of the Great Pyramids.
If Cologne’s rubble was concentrated on a square mile (e.g. the City of London, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens or New York’s Central Park up to 97th street) it would be piled 30 foot high. Another way of visualising the rubble is to imagine how much debris there would be per person in the city:
- Dresden – 40 cubic metres per inhabitant
- Cologne – 31.2 cubic metres per inhabitant
- Berlin – 16 cubic metres per inhabitant
It was the ‘Trümmerzeit’ – the time of rubble. Out of this destruction strode the ‘Trümmerfrauen’, the rubble women – post-war Germany’s emblematic survivors who worked by hand and began the shattered nation’s return to normality. With her cities lying in ruins and many of her men dead, wounded or imprisoned, it was left to the women of Germany to manually clear the streets.
Brick by brick and block by block, the Trümmerfrauen tore down half destroyed buildings and cleared the rubble strewn lots. The rubble was then sorted to preserve valuable building materials that could either be used in reconstructions or sent to the allied powers as material reparations.
And it wasn’t only stone that was removed – the rubble women sorted through wood, steel, fixtures and fittings to find the household items that could be restored and reused.
The Trümmerfrauen legacy was not just to be found in the cleared streets and rebuilt cities, but also evident in a profound shift in attitudes to gender and women at work.