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. 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.
Vol. 38 No. 16 · 11 August 2016
I write to correct some of the misrepresentations in Richard Evans’s review of my book, The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-45 (LRB, 14 July). On one thing we do agree: the book attempts to answer the question of how Germans understood their own cause in the Second World War. Its main purpose – though he does not mention this – is to explain the basis and shifting character of German patriotism. My book argues that the war became the principal focus of society’s hopes and fears: it was popular only in the brief periods when victory appeared imminent and yet its legitimacy was called into question far less than that of the Nazi regime.
Evans does not like the use of the collective term ‘Germans’, though he cannot avoid using it himself. I use it to pinpoint moments when there was a shared sense of the national cause in the face of an enemy. This was never easy for the Nazi regime to achieve. German society remained plural in its values and could be marshalled into supporting war in 1939 only by appealing to the broadest possible legitimation for war, namely ‘national defence’. The same appeal had worked in 1914 to bring Social Democrats into line. Evans is wide of the mark in claiming that I think the Nazis ‘had quickly and effectively overcome’ the deep divisions within civil society; even the Nazi regime itself did not believe it had achieved this.
By August 1943, many Germans were openly comparing the destruction of the Jews to the Allied strategic bombing offensive. This revealed a widespread sense of both culpability and vulnerability which deeply unsettled Nazi leaders – all the more so because such talk was accompanied by open calls for regime-change. Far from eliding 1943 and 1944, as Evans claims, my book draws more attention to the crisis that followed the fire-bombing of Hamburg in 1943 than any other history of this period; and it shows, for the first time, how German anxieties about their own war framed their need to talk in public about the murder of the Jews.
Evans claims that I ignore differences of social class. In fact I argue that rationing, bombing and evacuation exacerbated old social conflicts as well as engendering new ones. There was a faint echo of traditional collective action when miners’ wives in Ruhr towns demonstrated until the authorities issued ration cards to children who had returned home after being evacuated – the police even took their side. But most protests did not take this form, and they weren’t aimed at the Nazi regime. Rather, there was a culture of petitioning the authorities to take sides in local disputes about privileged access to special rations, cinema tickets and air raid bunkers. This was a society in which racial hierarchies had infused older ones based on professional standing, skill and gender. Class still coloured many things but was no longer a primary social division.
The real collective social endeavour remained the war. The importance of coercion in Nazi Germany should not be dismissed but terror alone is not a sufficient explanation. Forms of self-mobilisation clearly played a significant part throughout the war, but the motives and meanings people invested in their actions are hard to dissect. In his own work, Evans deals with this problem by cherry-picking quotations from private letters and diaries to illustrate existing interpretations. Even in his review, he falls back on generalisations about attitudes and psychology that he claims to reject, pointing to ‘a pervasive nationalism and the effects of the media propaganda orchestrated by Goebbels’. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but without a historical method for testing such assertions, they remain psychological projections.
In The German War I address this problem by charting the lives of individual Germans and showing how the war changed them. These people are not, as Evans suggests, all ‘bourgeois’: they include farmers, village schoolteachers, a carpenter, a market-gardener and railway workers. They belong to different generations and come from a wide range of places. Evans claims that I try to extrapolate a national mindset out of a handful of random cases. On the contrary, thanks to the reports the Nazi regime gathered each week and month on public opinion, we already know a great deal about how much attitudes fluctuated and how varied they were. That made it possible for me to situate individuals within a wide spectrum of social views. What makes the individual voices powerful is that they reveal the emotional choices and commitments people made, how they coped with being bombed out or bereaved, or how they dealt with the difficulties of maintaining relationships from afar. Such sources are suggestive, not exhaustive, but they tell us things we could not learn otherwise.
Magdalen College, Oxford
Vol. 38 No. 18 · 22 September 2016
I was a ‘Mischling ersten Grades’ (a half-Jew in Nazi terminology) living with my Jewish family in Berlin until 3 January 1943, when two polite, nondescript German officials came for my Jewish grandmother. After that I lived partly with Aryan relatives and partly with ‘ordinary’ families in different parts of Germany. Nothing in my experience of life in Nazi Germany corresponds with Nicholas Stargardt’s generalisations about ‘Germans’ in his letter of 11 August, where he repeats the message of his recent book, The German War, that ‘Germans’, i.e. most Germans, were aware of the mass slaughter of the Jews.
What most Germans, especially in the cities, could not but be aware of was sufficiently horrendous: the public humiliation of Jews, the mandatory introduction of the Yellow Star in September 1941, the total exclusion of Jews from social and cultural life, the gradual ban on just about everything people care about, down to the pet canary no Jew was allowed to keep. I know that many, perhaps even most, Germans would cross the road to avoid an embarrassing encounter with a former Jewish acquaintance, and that huge numbers benefited from the removal of a Jewish neighbour without giving it much thought.
But the belief that most ordinary Germans knew of the wholesale murder of Jews before the collapse of the regime indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of life in Nazi Germany, a failure to appreciate the immense care a ruthless leadership would take to protect the general German public from all knowledge of the Final Solution. In 1938 the leaders found to their dismay that a good many of their subjects had been repelled by the open savagery of Kristallnacht. After that they did their best to keep all knowledge of potentially disturbing projects from their squeamish German subjects.
Huge numbers of Wehrmacht members on the Eastern Front would inevitably have known about some of the killings – a few even took part in mass killings. Yet there are many reasons besides the cautiousness of the leadership why the majority of people on the home front did not know what many assume they must have known. The places where these massive horrors were committed were in the east and at some considerable distance from the German heartland; the regime’s brutality and relentless censorship and surveillance would dissuade any but the most courageous or foolhardy soldier to raise such matters in letters or during the few precious hours of the occasional home visit; and millions of those committed to the Eastern Front never returned. I have yet to see anything indicating widespread German knowledge of the Final Solution before the summer of 1945. A few hints in a few letters from the Eastern Front, some ghoulish snaps of mass killings or snatches of ‘forbidden talk’ as picked up by Nazi surveillance bodies indicate merely that the Nazi blackout could not be perfect. Some ‘ordinary Germans’ did know. But none of this is proof of widespread knowledge among ‘Germans’.
In The German War Stargardt refers often to the six Nazi death camps, but only twice does he mention Theresienstadt, the old Habsburg garrison city in Bohemia which the Nazis converted into a Jewish settlement in 1942 and which Stargardt rightly says ‘was deliberately used to calm German anxieties’. He doesn’t consider that it served a purpose in providing a smokescreen for German Jews as well as German Aryans. By the summer of 1942 everyone in Berlin with Jewish connections knew of Theresienstadt, where the city’s Jews would be ‘resettled’. With no specific information as to what this resettlement (Umsiedlung) might involve, and feeling in any case generally uneasy, all Jews in Berlin would keep their suitcase packed, awaiting the knock on the door which could come at any time. Some people snatched hope from a rumour that Theresienstadt was an agricultural settlement where Jews could look after themselves, relieving Germany of their keep. Only a few weeks before my mother – who, as an Aryan, was free to move around the city – found his family’s flat sealed with the familiar party emblem, my cousin Dieter had proudly announced that he and the family would soon be moving to the countryside. I forget what my mother said when I complained at having to stay in Berlin.
For all the lack of information and the general disquiet, what we knew and were aware of did not lie beyond the bounds of ordinary human experience. However appalling the treatment of the Jews, the notion of an organised, mechanical annihilation of millions of human beings was beyond the imagining of most ordinary Germans, whether they were members of one of the many, mostly obligatory Nazi organisations, or detested and feared the regime. Six months after my grandmother had been taken away, a card arrived from one of her old acquaintances at Theresienstadt with just a brief message: ‘Don’t send Else any more packages.’ Even then the notion that my grandmother or indeed any Jew ‘resettled’ in the east might be deliberately murdered remained unthinkable. My grandmother had been frail and old; she could have died of natural causes.
It was not until the end of the war that most Germans, including all our Aryan family and friends, first heard of Auschwitz and all the horrors committed by the Nazi authorities. Years later I came across the only person I have known who had heard of the atrocities during the war. Gretel came from a small place in what was German Upper Silesia until 1944, and she recalled how heartily everyone had laughed at that ‘crazy Pole’, a Polish labourer who had told them: ‘The Germans shove people into gas ovens and kill them!’
Vol. 38 No. 20 · 20 October 2016
Carla Wartenberg writes that what she and her countrymen knew of the treatment of Jews by the Nazis ‘did not lie beyond the bounds of ordinary human experience’, thus making the wholesale murder of Jews ‘beyond the imagining of most ordinary Germans’ (Letters, 22 September). Is it to validate this picture of supposed normalcy that she relates that on 3 January 1943 ‘two polite, nondescript German officials came for [her] Jewish grandmother’? If so, the effect, chilling and macabre, is hardly what she intended. Although the language she uses could just as well be describing two courteous gallants arriving to escort a young woman to a dance, in fact it records the moment an old woman in poor health was forced to leave her home to be deported to a concentration camp. This antiseptic portrayal of Nazi officers going about their everyday tasks inadvertently shows how the actuality of the Final Solution could be distanced, made palatable, or normalised by ‘ordinary’ Germans intent on not seeing or understanding what was happening around them.
My argument here is that too often we have recourse to an impoverished conception of knowledge when we attempt to answer the question of what the Germans knew about the mass murder of Jews. On the strength of this conception, Wartenberg can present an entirely plausible case for her countrymen ‘not knowing’ or, rather, for their ‘knowing’ about certain things (Kristallnacht, for example) but ‘not knowing’ about others (i.e. the death camps). But barbarism doesn’t suddenly spring up out of nowhere; it gradually (or not so gradually) intensifies in stages, often alongside what is taken to be civilised behaviour. There is of course a difference between the events of Kristallnacht and the atrocities of Auschwitz, but they share a kinship in the context of the unceasing dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda by the Nazis. The Final Solution may not have been an inevitable outcome of this racist ideology but it should certainly have been conceivable to any German who cared enough to worry about the fate of the Jewish neighbours he saw disappearing on a daily basis. For the ‘ordinary’ Germans invoked by Wartenberg, however, it is difficult to imagine what evidence could have convinced them of the Final Solution, short of Hitler himself knocking on their door to announce the fact.
Such wilful blindness is not unique to wartime Germany. Current instances include Americans’ unwillingness to confront the growing civilian death toll caused by US drone attacks in conveniently distant lands, or Tel Aviv residents’ shielding themselves from knowledge of atrocities taking place in the Occupied Territories.
Santa Monica, California
Vol. 38 No. 22 · 17 November 2016
Garry Saunders states that ‘a conservative calculation suggests there were at least three million slaves in Berlin at any one time, their numbers boosted, when required, by the occupants of concentration camps’ (Letters, 3 November). One slave is a slave too many. But is he seriously suggesting that their numbers would have just about equalled the official population of that city in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s?