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.

Stargardt claims that his book ‘offers a very different understanding of the effects that wartime defeats and crises had on German society’ from that offered by previous historians. The approach he adopts certainly is different. He is interested, he says, in ‘the subjective dimensions of social history’ and aims ‘to uncover the fears and hopes’ of ordinary Germans in order to learn what they ‘thought they were fighting for’ and to discover by this means the emotions that drove them to keep going until the bitter end. What the Nazis were attempting when they seized power in 1933 was, he says, less a social revolution than a ‘revolution of feeling’. By using a very wide range of personal documents such as diaries and letters, he aims to chart changing feelings about the progress of the war, the triumphs and disasters of the Nazi regime, and the atrocities against the Jews, Slavs and others. Not least, he seeks to analyse what Germans felt about one another.

The study of the history of the emotions has a long pedigree, with the Annales school advocating what Lucien Febvre called in 1941 ‘la vie affective d’autrefois’ and producing classics such as Jean Delumeau’s history of fear, published in 1978. It is only in the last decade or so, however, that the subject has really moved into the historical mainstream. Some observers detect an ‘emotional turn’ in historical studies to follow the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1990s, building on dissatisfaction with the way a history that focused on seemingly autonomous discourses ignored their relation to experience, making it difficult to explain why discursive shifts occurred or how they were experienced. Books such as Joanna Bourke’s Fear: A Cultural History (2005) and Thomas Dixon’s Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (2015) have shown that emotions and their expression are culturally conditioned, varying over time and differing not only – obviously – between individuals but also between social classes, religious confessions, nations and genders.[2]

At the same time, methodological debate has focused on the difficulty of trying to reconstruct the way people felt in the past. As the Oxford historian Lyndal Roper warned, ‘it is hard to see how to write a historical account of the subjectivity of groups rather than individuals.’ Love and hate, anxiety and fear are difficult to define and even more difficult to pin down in historical sources. Ute Frevert, the Berlin-based director of a large project on the history of the emotions, has drawn attention to the ‘danger of writing emotions into society on a general level … We tend,’ she says, to ‘forget about the manifold differences that shape societies’. Germans, she points out, are widely thought to be particularly prone to angst, but it’s wrong merely to assume that one national culture experienced or expressed emotions differently from another without undertaking comparative research. In any case, as the American historian Alon Confino has cautioned, ‘the interpretative rewards’ of investigating people’s emotions in the past ‘are not immediately obvious’. It is a pity that Stargardt did not think more carefully about these theoretical and methodological matters or make his book’s relationship to the genre more explicit. As it is, The German War provides an illustration not only of the gains that can be made for historical knowledge through a focus on the history of the emotions, but also of its pitfalls.

At the heart of Stargardt’s book are the stories of people whose feelings he seeks to reconstruct from their diaries and correspondence. Some of them are well known, like Victor Klemperer, who kept a secret diary which was published after the war, or Wilm Hosenfeld, a schoolteacher who became an officer in the German army and rescued Jews stranded in the ruins of Warsaw – among them, Władysław Szpilman, the central character in Polanski’s film The Pianist (2002), which was based on Hosenfeld’s voluminous diaries and correspondence.[3] But many are unfamiliar, and their stories are fascinating. Stargardt reconstructs the experiences of the young photojournalist Liselotte Purper from her unpublished correspondence with her fiancé and later husband, Kurt Orgel. We first encounter her at the beginning of the war, nailing blackout paper to the windowframes of her apartment in Berlin, then scampering downstairs to the cellar as the air-raid sirens wailed; a false alarm but one that caused her to reflect ruefully on how much had changed in just a few days. A year later she was in newly conquered France, admiring the old buildings in Strasbourg. Then she travelled to occupied Poland, taking photographs to document the resettlement of ethnic Germans from the East on farms whose Polish owners had been evicted without compensation. Back in Berlin in 1942, she was impressed by women’s responses to Goebbels’s call for warm winter clothing to be knitted for the troops on the Eastern Front: ‘The German women,’ she wrote to Kurt, who was among the troops besieging Leningrad, ‘have stood up to be counted … if victory can be wrung through love and sacrifice, then ours is certain.’

In November 1943, with Allied bombing reaching a new intensity, Liselotte, by now married to Kurt, took cover in the underground shelter of a railway station, but the house where she lived was destroyed: everything she possessed – letters, books, records, her husband’s war diaries, her photographic archive, even her violin – was lost. After a conjugal visit by Kurt, she hoped for a baby, lamenting that ‘the best of our nation are being lost without producing any progeny or only one, while in the East the inferior are propagating themselves by the dozen.’ As Kurt’s tours of duty grew ever longer, the couple’s letters became suffused with erotic fantasies. In the autumn of 1944, frightened by the thought of what the Red Army soldiers might do if they got to Berlin, Liselotte tried to stiffen Kurt’s fighting spirit on the long retreat across Eastern Europe: ‘Close your soft German heart with hardness to the outside,’ she told him. The ever more frequent bombing raids made her rail impotently against the ‘senseless rage’ and ‘bottomless hatred’ for Germany on the part of the ‘global criminal conspiracy’ now showing its ‘fanatical will to destroy’. Early in 1945 Kurt was wounded. He was invalided out to Copenhagen, but his wounds became infected and he died on 19 February. Liselotte had long since given herself over to despair: ‘Against the devilish thunder from the air, I feel unarmed.’

Although she worked for Goebbels’s propaganda apparatus, Liselotte was neither an active Nazi nor a particularly fanatical nationalist. Her letters reflected the feelings of a fairly ‘unpolitical German’. Indeed, few of the men and women whose letters and diaries are quoted in this book were committed Nazis. August Töpperwien was a conservative Protestant who doubted the reasons for the war from the very beginning, and disapproved of the murderous violence the regime visited on the Jews; he fought out of a sense of duty and a belief that a socialist or communist revolution of the sort that had swept across Germany at the end of the First World War had to be avoided at all costs. Helmut Paulus, a doctor’s son from the Upper Rhine, always carried a volume of Nietzsche with him; appearing to his comrades to be ‘bulletproof’, he narrowly escaped death on the Eastern Front time after time. He was finally killed in November 1943. Paulus, who dreamed of taking up medicine after the war, thought of himself as a Landser, a common soldier without any ideological motives. The otherwise unidentified diarist Robert R. recorded with evident unease the atrocities in which he had to participate in the war against the Soviet Union, including the shooting of prisoners and the torching of villages, but convinced himself that it was necessary to carry on fighting so that his two-year-old son should never have to fight in Russia: ‘No, that must never happen, that Raini should ever have to come here where I am now … Rather that I go through all hells once again and die there.’

Fascinating though they are, these field-post letters reveal emotions more or less the same as those felt by soldiers anywhere. They did not discuss politics very much, or ask whether the fight was worthwhile. They thought of, often longed for, home, they exchanged affirmations of love with their wives and girlfriends and, in some of the most extraordinary material presented by Stargardt, explicit sexual memories and fantasies. They read stories and sang songs as a distraction from the horror, tedium and privation of their daily existence. They congratulated themselves on lucky escapes and reported with a variety of feelings, ranging from exultation to regret and occasionally guilt, their encounters with the enemy and especially their behaviour towards civilians. Of course, there were many topics to which they usually felt they couldn’t refer. There is not much in this book, for example, about the massive looting and spoliation carried out by German troops on every front on which they fought, or on the rapes and forced prostitution which recent research has revealed to have been a far larger part of the conquest of Eastern Europe than previously thought.

A more important issue is how the emotions expressed in these documents relate to the wider questions the book hopes to address. In order to be able to generalise from this material about ‘Germans’ or ‘people’ or ‘everyone’, as he frequently does, Stargardt needs above all to convince the reader that the deep divisions that characterised civil society under the Weimar Republic, and indeed long before, were quickly and effectively overcome by the Nazis. After all, roughly a third of the population was involved in the labour movement in the 1920s, some of them as communists, others as social democrats. The members of these parties were the prime target of Nazi violence and brutality during the seizure of power; between the end of January and the middle of July 1933 between 100,000 and 200,000 people, overwhelmingly members, officials and parliamentary or local or regional assembly deputies of these left-wing parties, were illegally arrested. They were sent to the newly created concentration camps and brutally treated, before being released, usually after a few weeks, on condition that they didn’t engage in politics again, on pain of being re-arrested and then, they were informed, killed. This programme of ‘re-education’, Stargardt maintains, was a ‘real success’: by the summer of 1935, ‘fewer than 4000 prisoners were still in the camps’ and the left had been ‘destroyed politically’. All that was left were ‘pockets’ and ‘residues of working-class identity’.

The fact that so few prisoners were left in the camps by the mid-1930s was a consequence chiefly of the transfer of coercive power from the Nazi Party and its stormtrooper battalions to the state, through the passage in 1933 of new laws that made political dissent illegal. Five thousand offenders, overwhelmingly Socialists and Communists, were convicted of high treason in 1935. At the same time 23,000 inmates in state prisons and penitentiaries were formally classified as political offenders. The Social Democratic subculture was harder to eradicate than the Nazis hoped; and Stargardt eventually recognises this when he concedes that ‘the parties themselves may have been suppressed, but the Nazi regime knew that their subcultures remained.’ Despite this concession, he generally writes as if working-class consciousness had altogether disappeared under the Nazis. One of his individual subjects, Karl Dürkefälden, displayed his socialist values when he criticised his soldier brother’s justification of the mass murders of Jews he had witnessed or heard about on the Eastern Front. In the end, however, Dürkefälden silently gave up the argument. The Nazis, Stargardt concludes, ‘had first destroyed the old labour movement through terror and then tried to reshape working-class identities around promises of consumer affluence, stable employment, national pride and ethnic difference’. Working-class contempt for Italian forced labourers and deep-rooted fear of Russian ‘barbarians’ were influenced by a national pride that existed even before the First World War, but this doesn’t mean that working-class identity had been obliterated by the Nazis’ much vaunted ‘national community’, or that the moral values inculcated by social democratic and communist subcultures had been entirely destroyed. Once again, it is unclear how much we can establish on the basis of Dürkefälden’s letters alone.

The claim that the Nazi regime would ‘calibrate its violence so that the majority of Germans did not feel it’, targeting instead despised minorities like Gypsies or homosexuals, or marginal groups like vagrants or ‘asocial’ nonconformists, ignores the almost universal threat of violence, imprisonment and torture wielded by party officials in the working-class areas of large cities, where hundreds of thousands of lower-middle-class Nazi ‘block wardens’ carefully controlled the behaviour of former communists and social democrats and their sympathisers. A huge range of sanctions was available to them, including not just arrest and imprisonment but forced labour on projects such as the concrete defence emplacements of the ‘West Wall’. Stargardt describes a ‘massive effort’ on the part of the non-combatant sections of the population without mentioning that people were often sent there as a punishment for refractory behaviour in the workplace. The work was dirty and exhausting, and kept labourers away from their homes and families for months on end. Half the German population was classified as working class, but too often Stargardt, like many writers, equates the bourgeoisie with the nation, nowhere more than when he writes of the role of the ‘literary canon’ as a refuge for ‘apolitical Germans’ unwilling or unable to confront the barbarity of the regime.

Did workers and their families continue to put their faith in the regime because it looked after them through all the privations and disasters of the war? The book lays great stress on the effectiveness of the Nazi authorities and how this encouraged many Germans on the home front to follow them to the end. Yet the success of the Winter Aid programme in alleviating hardship was not so much an example of voluntary mass social mobilisation as a consequence of the widespread intimidation used by stormtroopers and other agents of the regime when collecting contributions. ‘Huge resources were devoted to civil defence,’ as Stargardt writes, but the fact remains that they were utterly inadequate. Stargardt concedes that only 10 per cent of Berliners were provided with air-raid shelters; people noted that the party bosses had built their own shelters first, with Hitler in the lead. Conditions in those few bunkers that were eventually built became intolerable.

By the later part of the bombing war, Stargardt concedes, ‘nowhere was truly safe.’ The regime mobilised hundreds of thousands of women, adolescents and men too old to serve at the front in a vast effort to look after the population of the bombed-out cities, but it was never able to assuage the widespread disillusion at the failure of Göring’s Luftwaffe to defend the country against aerial attack. Lack of raw materials and basic resources had plagued the German war effort almost from the very beginning, and though it is true, as Stargardt claims, that ‘the Germans could produce synthetic rubber and biofuel,’ they couldn’t do this in sufficient quantity to make a difference, and Allied bombing targeted at the manufacturing centres ensured that would never change.

The book’s argument is vitiated by numerous digressions and irrelevancies. It’s interesting to learn of the feelings and follow the experiences of the many individuals whose wartime it chronicles, but a lot of the detail has little or no bearing on the question of how far these people supported the war and its aims. It’s also hard to see the relevance of some of the other material presented. A lengthy account of life in a youth correctional facility, an extended discussion of German economic policy in occupied countries and long stretches of conventional military exposition could surely have been cut back. Stargardt must be correct in concluding that it is a mistake ‘to imagine that German society as a whole either supported or opposed the regime’. But few historians, other perhaps than one or two of those who have argued for the success of the Volksgemeinschaft idea in building consensus behind the leadership, have ever made this argument.

[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.