Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life in Germany, 1939-48

December 9, 2010

Much has been written about women in wartime and post-war Germany, generally to the effect that they were left to shoulder the burdens of maintaining family life in both the terrifying and chaotic circumstances of the Second World War, and the dislocated and straitened circumstances of its aftermath. With the removal of 18 million adult men through conscription, female-headed households became the norm during the war. At the war's end, 5 million of these men did not return, although about 2 million of them would eventually return from captivity. Nevertheless, in 1946, three-quarters of all West German families were "whole families" with two parents.

It has been customary to argue that the war had a devastating effect on German family life and on marriages. Certainly, some marriages contracted in haste at the start of, or during, the war did not survive it. But a great many did. It is also true that both men and women embarked on new relationships during the war. A German soldier in an army of occupation may become involved with a French, Dutch or Danish woman - and perhaps leave her with their child when he was posted elsewhere - while German women struck up relationships with soldiers billeted in their area, or with forced foreign workers set to work in Germany, or with members of the Allied occupation forces. These kinds of diversion were not necessarily marriage-wreckers, but they sometimes were.

Hester Vaizey investigates a side of the story that has been relatively neglected: the strength and durability of many German marriages under the severest of pressures. She begins by persuasively arguing that the peacetime attentions of the Nazi regime did not invade the private sphere to the extent that others have asserted. It is, after all, one of the paradoxes of the Nazi regime that its insistence on the family as the "germ cell" of society had the effect of encouraging the maintenance of the family as a bulwark against infiltration by Nazi influence - although this was hardly the case where at least one parent was an enthusiast for the Nazi cause.

Her main concern is to show that in and after the war women did not, as some authors have insisted, become so independent that many of them did not feel the need for a man in their life, which led to the break-up of marriages. She is right to stress the debilitating effects of shortages, bombing and making do, leaving most women utterly exhausted. She uses a rich seam of diaries and letters between spouses to demonstrate both this and the longing on both sides in a marriage for "reunion" and a return to normality. The letters in particular are a most illuminating source. Vaizey is careful to mention possible self-censorship, although she shows convincingly that regime censorship was patchy: downbeat and critical messages could get through.

This is an engrossing study of real human beings, including children who sometimes reacted negatively when a father who had become a stranger returned from war or captivity and reclaimed his wife's affections. There are a few points where Vaizey's enthusiasm perhaps leads her to overstate her case without convincing evidence to support it. But overall her study clearly, and for the most part very readably, shows the fundamental importance of marital and family bonds to couples and children at a time when personal privacy was routinely violated and families torn apart.

Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life in Germany, 1939-48

By Hester Vaizey, Palgrave Macmillan. 2pp, £55.00 and £18.99. ISBN 9780230251489 and 51496. Published 22 September 2010

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