Review: The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945, by Nicholas Stargardt
Basic, 2015. 570 pp. $35
Some books, no matter how harrowing their subject, how unrelenting, or how complex, display such mastery, vivid detail, and fresh perspective that they demand a reading. To me, The German War is one, though I shuddered and cringed my way through, sometimes cursing or even shouting in anger. That’s what happens when terrible history feels as if it took place yesterday.
Stargardt, who teaches at Magdalen College, Oxford, asks a question that many other historians have posed: How did the German people feel about the war they waged between 1939 and 1945?
That deceptively simple inquiry involves many interlocking pieces, among them the Holocaust, Allied bombing, euthanasia, rationing, German leadership, and Nazi ideology. Stargardt covers these and more, plumbing private letters, government documents, newspapers, film, and court cases. Perhaps most revealing about public attitudes, he cites reports from the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, the security arm of the SS, which gathered what people were saying among themselves. Having sifted through this stunning amount of material, the author conveys not only the implications of political and military decisions at the highest level, but how they affected the lives of sixteen individual Germans, in their own words.
The Nuremberg rallies were perhaps the largest public expression of loyalty to Hitler and the Nazi program. This one dates from September 1934 (Courtesy German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
Stargardt has a myth-busting mission, which at times makes his narrative more than a little polemical. However, I think he succeeds, and it would be picky to condemn him for imperfect pitch when he shows why the most popular, accepted tunes are based on flat notes.
For instance, he demonstrates how the overwhelming majority of Germans supported both Hitler and the war effort, even to the end, even if they felt no sympathy with Nazism. This can be hard to understand, because most foreigners have grown up believing–or being taught–that the Nazis had somehow “brainwashed” an entire nation, that Germans obeyed out of fear, and that merely a fraction knew about the crimes committed in their names, let alone perpetrated them.
Not so, says Stargardt. Hitler was widely revered, and his radio broadcasts warmed the populace, lending them strength to bear ever-increasing sacrifices, even in the war’s final weeks. Many people assumed that if he’d only known of the daily injustices and hardships they suffered, he’d have corrected them. (The SD, as the Propaganda Ministry insisted, tolerated grumbling, so long as it betrayed no disloyalty.) Nobody welcomed the outbreak of war in 1939, except for the few who thought it an adventure, but, on the other hand, nobody questioned that the war was necessary to break the stranglehold of enemies threatening to destroy the Reich. Devout Christians, Catholic or Protestant, may have deplored the Nazi scorn for religion, but they agreed that Jews, as part of an “international Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy,” must be destroyed. Even in the last weeks, German forces bled freely for every inch of ground they yielded, as they had for almost six years. That tenacious, steadfast bravery could not have come from fear. Rather, the nation was determined not to surrender, as it had in 1918. Many fought on past the point of hopelessness to wipe away what they considered that old stain on the national honor.
As for what would later be called the Holocaust, the German public learned about it early and often. Not only did Hitler publicly promise on several occasions that Jewry would be wiped out, but on the Eastern Front, the army took part in mass killings, which were treated as perfectly natural. Soldiers described them in letters and took photos, which they showed to friends and family. The home front heard of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and so forth as death camps, though exactly how they functioned remained secret. Few people even cared until Allied air raids began causing serious destruction and loss of life, at which time many Germans assumed that these were retribution for killing Jews. Many also believed that the Jews were behind the raids, whose perceived intent was to exterminate Germany. By the same logic, Germans implicitly accepted that they were victims, not perpetrators, and even after 1945, insisted they had fought a legitimate war of self-defense. Some 37 percent still believed that their security had demanded the murder of “non-Aryans.”
If there’s one thing missing in Stargardt’s account–hard to believe, given its length and depth–it’s how certain German attitudes remained unchanged from the First World War. The notion that Britain had conspired to “encircle” and “strangle” Germany out of jealousy dates from then, as do the mantra of a defensive war compelling invasion of other countries and the belief in German victimhood. Hitler didn’t have to fabricate these popular narratives, only recall them from his own days as an ardent soldier in a Bavarian regiment.
The German War can be hard going because of its subject matter. But I’m glad I read it.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.