In recent years, Germany’s social historians have portrayed the human side of the Second World War by studying what happened on the home front, as well as in the occupied lands. They have paid particular attention to those persecuted in the name of race, above all the Jews in the Holocaust. At the same time, military specialists have focused on those who served in the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS, in an attempt to explain their behaviour and crimes, as well as their determination to keep going against increasingly impossible odds.
In this ambitious study, Nicholas Stargardt brings together the results of such investigations with the aim of showing how people on the home front, as well as those in uniform, adapted to the course of the war. He “traces the changing expectations, oscillating hopes and fears of individuals” through their diaries and letters, and situates that evidence in the broader context of national popular opinion as reported by Nazi authorities.
Although the book begins in September 1939, the real drama starts in June 1941 with the attack on the Soviet Union. Astonishingly, by 29 November that year, barely six months into the crusade against “Jewish-Bolshevism”, the respected minister of armaments Fritz Todt went to see Hitler to inform him that the war could “no longer be won by military means”. At best, he said, the war might be “ended politically”. The Führer instead soon declared war on the US and doubled down on his efforts to annihilate the Jews.
As Stargardt shows, the German home front suffered terrible losses from Allied bombings. Some 420,000 people would lose their lives, more than half of them after August 1944 when hope of victory had all but completely evaporated. On top of that, the author estimates, in 1945 each day of fighting “cost the lives of 10,000 German soldiers”. Why did neither the military nor the German home front collapse? Here the author is right to suggest that while terror was a factor in keeping people in line, it was never the only or even the most important reason, because no matter how unpopular the war became, for the majority “it still remained legitimate – more so than Nazism itself”.
Nonetheless, civilians and soldiers not only fought for victory or at least a stalemate, they also persisted in validating the National Socialist dictatorship. Hence their widespread outrage at the July 1944 plotters for daring to attempt Hitler’s assassination.
Stargardt is not alone in claiming that Hitler failed to realise his ideological project of building a conflict-free and egalitarian “community of the people”. Yet we can read the evidence from another angle, to show that the regime and especially the war revolutionised German society. Even if the Nazis could not wipe the slate clean of all previous attitudes and customs, nor create their utopian society, it does seem they were shockingly well on their way.
We get little in The German War on the interaction between Germans and foreign workers, who by 1945 numbered 7.7 million, and in Essen, for example, made up 70 per cent of the workforce in heavy industry. At first sight it might seem that importing millions of Polish and Ukrainian men and women, many of them only children, contradicted the project of building a race-based “community of the people”. On the other hand, the very presence and stigmatisation of such outsiders labouring at menial tasks provided daily reminders to the “master race” of its own privileged status. The regime held them “apart” in many camps, subjugated in varying degrees of severity on sites that merged imperceptibly with the thousands of concentration camps that by war’s end could be found in every corner of the Fatherland.
These considerations aside, Stargardt’s book is a prodigious accomplishment, as he manages to keep us in touch with the grand sweep of the war, as well as its ebb and flow, without losing sight of specific soldiers’ behaviour. Simultaneously, we learn about the changing experiences of family and friends back home and their vacillation between hopes for victory and despair at the prospect of defeat and occupation. Its treasure trove of interesting information, clever observations and fresh insights make The German War essential reading for anyone interested in the Second World War in Europe.
Robert Gellately is Earl Ray Beck professor of history, Florida State University, and author, most recently, of Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War (2013).
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-45
By Nicholas Stargardt
Bodley Head, 736pp, £30.00
Published 3 September 2015