Buffalo Soldiers (92nd Buffalo Infantry) escort a German Officer captured in civilian clothing, 1945.
“Berlin lies strewn about, Dust blows up, then a lull again… the great rubble woman will be canonized…” (Günter Grass)
Berlin, December 1948: With German cities in ruins after World War II and the country’s male population decimated, it fell to the women to clean up the rubble. The so-called “Trümmerfrauen,” or “rubble women,” worked with their bare hands and whatever tools they could find.
The Trümmerfrauen phenomenon was launched by Allied orders requiring women between the ages of 15 and 50 to report for duty. A law passed by the military government allowing local authorities to employ women in clearing rubble. Up to 80 percent of the historic centers of German cities had been destroyed by Allied bombs during the war; Liselotte Kubitza recalls emerging as an 11 year old from her shelter of three weeks to a scene of destruction in Berlin, where “[o]ne whole wall between us and the neighbouring flat had collapsed, parts of the ceiling had come down and all the windows were gone.” Once the violence ceased, unsafe buildings were torn down. Bricks and other materials were carefully sorted so they could be used again.
At one stage, it was estimated that it wouls take 25 years to clear the city rubble, with 42,000 workers continuously at work. Munich, Kiel and Stuttgart were the fastest; by 1949, Munich had cleared 80 percent of its rubble, and by 1952, Stuttgart had cleared 88 percent.
The post-war blockade of Berlin by the Soviets meant that not as much construction material could get through to the city. As a result, a higher number of workers had to turn to rubble clearance.
“We had to do something,” says Naß. “First and foremost because at the back of the mind you had that thought, ‘When my brother comes home, or when my husband gets home, it can’t be like this.’ And who else would do it? So the women did it together.” Physical hardship was the norm for Naß and her peers and they carried out their exhausting work with bare hands alone. “We had no hammers, no shovels, no buckets, no gloves,” she says.
The work though was a distraction from the bitter disappointment and emotional turmoil Berlin’s survivors felt. As a young woman who had grown up almost exclusively under the Third Reich, Frau Naß admits the end of the war threw all her beliefs into question: “We were totally disillusioned, because as girls we had gone through the Hitler Youth,” she says. “You have to imagine how you would react if the whole system you had been brought up in simply didn’t exist anymore. People just couldn’t grasp it.”
A man walks through a destroyed city in Germany looking for food, 1945, by Werner Bischof.
Magazines scattered among the rubble of the heavily bombed town of Saint-Lô, Normandy, France, summer 1944. See more photos here.
(Frank Scherschel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Theodor Rosenhauer paints the ruins of Dresden’s Japanese Palace after Allied bombing raids destroyed the city, February 1945.
19,000 Italians and 6,000 Germans taken prisoner by British forces at the port of Tobruk; Libya - November 1942
Soviets and Americans celebrating upon their meeting of East and West in Griebo
Civilians beginning the long task of clearing the ruins of Dresden Frausenkirche in 1952.
One of the most important Lutheran churches in Dresden, it was completely destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in February 1945. Its rebuilding was finished in 2004; the interior in 2005 and was reconsecrated in October the same year.
On the anniversary of the day Hitler took to his Führerbunker — where he would reside until his suicide three months later in April 1945 — we present post-war photos of the bunker itself and of a devastated Berlin.
A Russian woman stares straight ahead, refusing to answer a German soldier, 1941
German troops chatting with some gypsies in the Balkans. The gypsy seems Jack Sparrow.
The mobile library of the US 31st Infantry in Louisiana, 1943
Constructing protection around Michelangelo’s David, during World War II. / Florence, Italy