Drawing from extensive archival records and the wartime letters and diaries of ordinary German citizens and soldiers, Stargardt builds his chronicle around the framework of the major military actions of the war, intertwined with stories on an individual level. Addressing such pivotal and traumatic events as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Babi Yar and Katyn massacres, Stalingrad, the large-scale bombing of German cities and the Normandy landings, he frames the key questions: Were the German people largely victims or perpetrators?
What were the Germans saying during the war vs. How did they react as they came to understand the extent of the genocide being committed in their names? The trick with a book like this is not simply doing primary source research. It is in choosing the best primary sources to highlight. Stargardt excels at this. He has found compelling people to follow, sometimes to their graves. At times, he manages to achieve an extraordinary level of intimacy.
The German War Graves of Berchtesgaden
For instance, he devotes space to the love letters between Robert and his wife Mia. Robert was stationed in East Prussia, well away from the main action. Bored and frustrated, he tried to convince his wife to exchange dirty letters. Later, he tries to convince his wife to masturbate. The SD spent a lot of time taking the weather of the German populace. They listened to what people were saying, and then typed those observations into reports that were then filed.
Which is such a German thing to do. It is, of course, impossible to know exactly how everyone felt about any one thing. These reports, however, provide a pretty good way to generalize the German mood. It also demonstrates some odd fixations, which are the hallmark of the Nazi regime. The SD was quite worried, for instance, about teenage sexual indiscretions in the absence of fathers who were away at the front. Certain chapters, however, are more thematic in nature, and allows Stargardt to explore certain issues at greater depth.
One of these chapters, for example, deals with the Holocaust. He quotes letters from soldiers on the Eastern Front who witness the atrocities of the Einsatzgruppen. Some of these eyewitnesses are shocked; most are able to overcome their revulsion due to their belief that this is for the greater good.
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Despite the censors, a lot of these men took pictures, which they then sent home to be developed. Stargardt also spends a good deal of time on the Allied air war against German cities.
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Whatever else we might say about the air campaign its morality; its effectiveness , it certainly served to cohere German resistance to the bitter end. For a totalitarian state, the Nazi Party proved surprisingly responsive to the needs of its people. With great alacrity, it provided assistance with food and shelter, thereby binding people and Party. A book like this — centered as it is on the experiences of ordinary people — runs the risk confusion.
The old forest verses the trees conundrum. You need a proper framework to avoid getting lost in the details. Stargardt does an excellent job accomplishing this by seamlessly transitioning between the Nazi leadership at the top, and the man and woman on the street.
On one page you will read about a Nazi Party measure to boost civilian confidence; on the next page you get to read an SD report on how that measure went over. The German War also does not attempt to be comprehensive. It is well structured, easy to follow, and compellingly written. It is not a World War II story, but a human one. Stargardt does not set out to demonize the German people. He recognizes the difficult choices that each person had to make. This is important, because history is cyclical. As Stargardt notes in a concluding chapter, there was a lot of German self-pity in the years directly following the end of the war.
It required a different German generation to take responsibility for the crimes they inflicted against the world. Today, in stark contrast to Japan — who refuses to acknowledge their atrocities in China — Germany vigorously assumes responsibility for the Holocaust. Yet there are signs that is changing.
Watch, for instance, the German miniseries Generation War , which peddles the notion that it was a few bad apples that spoiled the bunch. The German War does a masterful job in exploring the experience of the German people — and also their culpability. View all 13 comments. Aug 03, Hadrian rated it it was amazing Shelves: history , society-culture-anthropology-etc , war , wwii , german. Broad, panoramic study of the views of ordinary Germans through the Second World War.
The last half of the Third Reich's existence, the years , where characterized by territorial conquest, mass murder -- and also a debilitating defeat. Its armies were ground into powdered bones, its cities were burned, its weapons reduced to molten slag, its fields of plunder turned to ashes and near-famine. What did the German people think about all this?
What did they fight for, and what did they feel Broad, panoramic study of the views of ordinary Germans through the Second World War. What did they fight for, and what did they feel about the rumors of extermination camps? Stargardt takes his study of diaries, newspapers, letters, secret police reports, army records, and so on, to write a history which claims how Germans, by war's end, saw themselves as both perpetrator and victim.
When the war started, many were reluctant. They harbored memories of the defeat and humiliation of the last war, and resented the Treaty of Versailles. Government propaganda worked to stoke these old resentments, saying these were the same enemies that had encircled Germany last time, and that a victory here would be enough to prevent the cycle of defeat from recurring.
Propaganda returned to this theme as the war went on, with further desperation as victory slipped away and defeat grew inevitable. Another question is when public support began to wane for the Nazis. Some would argue that it was the end of the easy military victories in Winter which sowed the first doubts. Others would say it was the catastrophic encirclement at Stalingrad or Tunisia which made the people feel defeat was coming. Instead, Stargardt claims it was news about the crimes against Jewish civilians, which had begun to filter back to the population by German propaganda had tacitly acknowledged this, with the tactic of 'what-aboutism', claiming the United States was about to do the same to all of its ethnic German citizenry, and that Germany must prevail so as to forestall revenge.
Others kept silent, for fear of being alienated or imprisoned. These feelings of gnawing guilt sharpened by , when the Western Allies' bombing program went into full swing.
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But while some retreated into moral equivocation, he sees others fleeing from the war's consequences - those which they had once tolerated. The propaganda continued apace, Goebbels asked in if the people wanted a 'total war', and his hand-picked audience rose in exultation. But it wasn't that all the time - the regime threatened, soothed, cajoled, frightened its listeners with threats of Soviet extermination, then tales of Italy's collapse, then movies and music numbers.
Nazi Germany's War Machine: Inside the German Army
Civilian aid efforts in the middle of bombing efforts kept morale from collapsing until spring Yet there is much that Stargradt draws from the individual histories, and not just these broad military campaigns. He notes how individuals juggled the contradictory beliefs that the regime was criminal, but somehow that the war itself was 'justified' as a defensive measure. The regime, for its part, was able to assuage popular discomfort by emphasizing what it held in common, and attempting to conceal those radical elements which would make the ordinary citizen blanch.
Take, for example, the policy of forced euthanasia. This, on the one hand, would conflict directly with the Christian view that every life was sacred. A Catholic bishop would write a letter strongly condemning such a policy, but this would at best provide a stay on such a policy; the church organization wanted to protect its property holdings. The Nazis, for their part, kept such activities out of the way when they knew they would conflict with the ingrained Christian morality.
Much hay has been made over the Nazi attempt to forge an ethnically homogeneous 'People's community', or Volksgemeinschaft. Again, this history moves beyond previous debates and shows how much of these propaganda attempts were pure fiction. The people were still divided, chafing over housing shortages, rationing, forced evacuations. In the end, most peoples' concerns were immediate - saving their immediate family or friends, to say nothing of the Reich.
Perhaps the only thing that did unify them was its vision of the apocalypse - victory or death. It was the fear of loss and revenge which is kept them fighting for so long. This 'unity' was only possible through the dissolution of other elements of civil society - labor unions, higher education, the press, the judiciary, church groups - all competing forces were either destroyed or co-opted. When resistance came closest to destroying him, in the plot of July 20, , there were howls of outrage against traitors and those who would sabotage the war effort.
But unity was the promise, and many people who were not so far on the extremist fringe nonetheless approved as they saw labor unions brushed aside, or the property of Jews confiscated. I am reminded of a previous study by Peter Fritzsche, Life and Death in the Third Reich , where the people became Nazis, or 'groomed' themselves to adopt the regime's phrases, its ideas, its propaganda tropes.
It was a two-tiered police state, so that the comfortable majority could ignore it, while the rest were targets of persecution. The military historian David Glantz said that there were three 'turning points' in the history of the war between Nazi and Soviet - by the Battle of Moscow, it was clear that Hitler could not win wars on his own terms. By Stalingrad, it was clear that Hitler was going to lose the war - it was only a matter of when, and how badly. By Kursk, it was clear that this was to be a true Roman Peace, ending only when Germany could no longer fight, and that Berlin would have to be razed.
This is a study of how such a society was made, and the roots of how it was unmade.