Bookshops and bakeries

What were Brits and Germans reading (and watching and listening to) just after the end of the Second World War and how did this influence their perceptions of each other and of themselves?

This question was the rather vague starting point for my research. But I’m less than three weeks in and I’m realising that it assumes far too much. Really, I need to ask two much more basic questions. Were Brits and Germans reading/watching/listening to anything just after the war? If they were, did it have any influence on their perceptions about each other?

Some thoughts on the first question…

A survey of 1000 Tottenham residents in 1946 revealed that almost half never read books at all. Of course, a small sample from Tottenham isn’t representative of the British population, but this somehow fits with what I’ve learned about post-war Britain.

Family and social life was in chaos as soldiers returned (or didn’t) from war and bombing had caused widespread destruction, to say nothing of extensive food rationing, fuel shortages, and high unemployment: amidst all of this, who had the time, money or inclination to read books?

Yet this common sense explanation fails when we look at post-war Germany. The political, economic, physical, moral and social destruction there far surpassed the worst of post-war Britain. 26 million people (1/4 of the population) were homeless, 10 million were displaced, 80-90% of some towns were destroyed, survival on 700 calories a day was common and the nation was occupied by enemy forces.

It’s hard to imagine. Despite such conditions, however, the German people were hungry for books. Eyewitnesses spoke of queues outside bookshops as long as those outside bakeries. “A more virginal, even ‘amorous’, receptive readership there has hardly ever been”, wrote one American officer, rather bizarrely likening the years of Nazi censorship to sexual deprivation.

This description does however do justice to the intense desire among Germans to read, and not be picky about it – they welcomed anything and everything and were often frustrated by the severe paper shortages.

The contrast between voracious German readers and apathetic English ones is striking. Reading had been shunted down the English list of priorities by poor material and social conditions. Conversely, in a nation prevented from reading freely for 12 years, the mental nourishment offered by books was now almost as important as physical nourishment.

It’s a classic case of not knowing what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. When they got it back, the Germans really did take advantage of their new-found freedom. It’s difficult, but perhaps we should be grateful for the freedoms we have now, without having to lose them first.


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