Your Soft German Heart

Richard J. Evans

  • The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-45 by Nicholas Stargardt
    Bodley Head, 701 pp, £25.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 84792 099 7

‘We still do not know what Germans thought they were fighting for,’ Nicholas Stargardt announces at the outset of his ambitious and absorbing new book, ‘or how they managed to continue their war until the bitter end.’ This is not for want of trying: numerous historians have analysed German opinion and behaviour at every stage of the Second World War, using above all the Meldungen aus dem Reich, the regular confidential reports on civilian morale made by SS Security Service and local and regional government officials, together with diaries and correspondence, especially field-post letters to and from soldiers at the front, to chart the diverse and changing attitudes to victory and defeat. The most notable of these accounts, Ian Kershaw’s The End, pointed to Hitler’s stubbornness and charisma, the ingrained sense of duty felt by officers and civil servants, the widespread (and justified) fear of the Red Army, and the sharp increase in the terror exercised on the military and civilian population by the SS and the Nazi Party in the final months of the war, starting after the failed Bomb Plot in July 1944 and ratcheting up all the way to the end.[1] There have been many other attempts at an explanation, starting as long ago as Marlis Steinert’s Hitler’s War and the Germans (1977). Further factors can be added to Kershaw’s list, including a pervasive nationalism and the effects of the media propaganda orchestrated by Goebbels, which inspired hopes of ‘wonder weapons’ and spread fears of Allied retribution. On the Eastern Front in particular, soldiers fought on out of loyalty to their comrades, living and dead. Almost to the last, they also fought for Hitler, at least if the ‘Fallen for Führer and Fatherland’ on gravestones are to be believed.

Stargardt’s claim that this is a subject we still don’t know much about thus seems wide of the mark. Historians generally agree that Germans felt widespread optimism about the outcome of the war at least until the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, followed by doubt and apprehension from that point onwards, allayed only temporarily by the stunning victories over the Soviets in the summer and early autumn of 1941. When the invasion ground to a halt before Moscow in December 1941 these anxieties deepened, but popular morale by and large seems to have held until the catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, when it began to plunge. It turned into deep gloom after the Allied bombing raids on Hamburg of late July and early August 1943, which destroyed most of the city and killed around 40,000 of its inhabitants and were followed by further raids on German towns and cities over the next 18 months.

Stargardt writes that ‘historians have assumed that crises such as followed the Hamburg firestorm or occurred a few months earlier after the loss of the 6th Army at Stalingrad tipped German society into irrevocable defeatism: increasingly alienated from all that the regime stood for, the majority of the population was only kept going by Nazi terror.’ But he is confusing defeatism – the belief that Germany was not going to win the war – with the alienation of all Germans from the regime, to the extent that they could only be kept fighting by coercion. It was, as historians have long since realised, a lot more complicated than this simple and ultimately misleading either/or story suggests. Apart from anything else, as Kershaw argued, there were many reasons most Germans didn’t give up despite a growing realisation that they were going to lose, and coercion wasn’t one of them until very late in the war.

Stargardt elides the period between early to mid-1943, when for the first time some sectors of the population seriously doubted whether Germany would win, and mid-1944: contrary to Stargardt’s claim, it was then, most historians agree, that the terror really began, though it only reached its height in the very last months. The change of mood in 1943 was signalled by the growing emphasis of Goebbels’s propaganda on defending Germany and, indeed, Western civilisation against the Bolshevik hordes and the supposed world Jewish conspiracy against the ‘Aryan’ race, and its ever greater insistence – never more bombastic than in reports of the defeat at Stalingrad – on the need for self-sacrifice to keep Germany from going under.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[1] Richard J. Evans reviewed The End in the LRB of 8 September 2011.

[2] Ferdinand Mount wrote about Weeping Britannia in the LRB of 17 December 2015.

[3] Klemperer’s diaries were discussed by Thomas Powers in the LRB of 21 September 2000.