The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945 (Citizens and Soldiers)
By Nicholas Stargardt
Basic Books, 2015.
Hardcover, 704 pp., $35.

At the end of 1999, Time named Albert Einstein as “Person of the Century.” At a New Year’s Eve celebration held in a German castle on the same date, this reviewer asked his hosts if they agreed with the selection. The hosts—the senior management team of a leading German industrial concern with operations in more than one hundred countries—responded promptly. “No. The man of the century was Winston Churchill.” The sentiment expressed in explaining this choice was: “In 1940 we had won the war. Everybody knew that, including most of the British government. Churchill sat across the Channel and said ‘Come and get me!’”

All of the men in the room on 31 December 1999 had been older boys or younger teenagers in the period described in Nicholas Stargardt’s book about the German experience in World War II. They were of the Flakhelfer generation, those sixth and seventh school year students enrolled in 1943 as air force and naval auxiliaries, generally charged with helping to man antiaircraft defense positions. It is the experience of people like these, as well as of serving soldiers, their family members, and spouses, that Stargardt, educated at Magdalen College, Oxford and author of several previous books, explores. He does so through letters and diary entries, the intensely personal communications and meditations by which people expressed their contemporary reactions to their own world (and their own perceptions of themselves as a nation) in the rapidly changing environment of the war that progressed from being a lightning strike elsewhere to a catastrophe experienced at home.

Stargardt employs a clinical approach. He does not seek to assign blame, but to understand perception and experience, and it is in his illumination of experience that the greatest challenge arises for the reader. This challenge is that, from start to end, the Germans thought of the war as defensive in nature.

The German warmaking that resulted in the deaths of millions is remembered by those outside of Germany as naked aggression, as a campaign of conquest, subjugation, and genocide. Within Germany, the war came quickly to be remembered as one involving a distinction between Nazi believers and apolitical “patriotic Germans,” citizens and soldiers of a country at war. Indeed by as early as 1946 many Austrians referred to their country as the Nazis’ “first victim,” and by the mid-1950s the rearmament of Germany as a NATO power resulted in the collective myth of the “good” Wehrmacht and the “bad” SS. What Stargardt is concerned with is not so much subsequent mythmaking, but what people thought and felt during the war, at the time they were on campaign, worried about those on campaign, worried about daily needs and the routine of everyday life, and worried about the war coming home in the form of what was quickly labelled to be the Allied “terror bombing”.

Stargardt teases apart German sentiment by personalizing the war, relating it through the eyes of ordinary people. He makes clear that the majority of the wartime population was aware, early on, of what was happening to the Jews and the Poles and came to assimilate this knowledge as an accomplished fact. It is in this context that the “defensive” nature of the war evolved in the German mind, from a defense motivated by the belief that the country was ringed by hostile powers (Great Britain and the Soviet Union in concert to prevent German health) into a belief that the war was coming home (first in “terror bombing” and then with the enemy armies literally at the gates) “because of what we did to the Jews.” Thus, the author can quote the late-war diary entry of the journalist Ursula von Kardorff: “And when the [Allies] come with their boundless hatred and gruesome accusations, we will have to keep quiet because they are true.”

A significant strength of The German War lies in the author’s use of many and varied primary sources. These include not only public documents like speeches, propaganda ministry directives, and policy documents, but the letters and diary entries made by a small set of characters over the six years of the war. The words used include those exchanged between correspondents, shedding light both on how each thinks and on how the perception and opinion of each evolves in response to the other’s input. The different worldviews that evolve, for example, between a small town physician and his son—the latter an enlisted infantryman who rejected opportunities for officer training in order to remain within the bond of his fellow grunts, or between a Catholic school teacher running recreation programs for combat troops in Warsaw, and his wife coping with the disruptions of bombing and refugees. A combat officer and his photojournalist fiancée, both accustomed to privilege, share their thoughts on the sacrifices they must make for the “greater good” of avoiding the destruction which they both believe to be Germany’s only other fate, and this long before Allied bombers are destroying German homes and Soviet armies are destroying the German lines.

More German soldiers, airmen, and sailors became casualties in the nine months from the Stauffenberg assassination attempt on Hitler (July 20, 1944) and the latter’s suicide (April 30, 1945) than in the prior five years of war. Far, far more civilians died than in the prior five years. Why did the Germans keep fighting? This is a central question explored by Stargardt. Despite the example and culture of kamikaze attacks in the Pacific War, Japan did not keep fighting until her homeland was destroyed. But the Germans did, and they did so not only because of the coercive terror wrought upon much of the population by their own regime (a process documented in Ian Kershaw’s 2012 book, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944–1945), but because when the war came home the Germans did not see any way out, and because the generation of 1939–1945 was obsessed that there be no repetition of the “stab in the back” of 1918. In the second war the fighting lines collapsed before the home front did.

Early in the war the Germans did not express euphoria over the quick victories over Poland, the Low Countries and France. Their reaction was a more muted relief that the “defense” had prevailed, and a hope that the whole nasty business would soon be at an end. The population was happiest when the regime promised peace and prosperity, not conquest. Therefore, the refusal of the British to surrender was viewed as essentially perverse, and as evidence that the regime was right about Great Britain being in a common plot with the Soviets. In a society where what happened to the Jews (and to those suffering from physical and mental defects, who were systematically killed in asylums) was known, projecting motives onto others became the norm. This projection continued after the war, and allowed many Germans to experience their lives as ones of victimhood. Where the British had been “perverse,” now the Third Reich had been perverse—as if the observations made during the war, and the memories after had been made by ones not participating as actors. The wartime experience became one of Nazis and “ordinary folk,” and this despite the reality that in the 1960s over half of German diplomats overseas had had wartime experience in the SS.

Stargardt ends with a survey of these collective phenomena of memory and mythmaking, but his focus is on the war as lived, and as lived by people in varied walks of life. His work is remarkable for its documentation of the corrosive effects of lies, half-truths, and wishes built upon each other. The book is excellent both in how the author fleshes out the experience of war in the lives and words of real people, and in how these real lives serve to warn that accommodation to lies, half-truths, and wishful thinking corrupts in all times.  

The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg is an Episcopal priest serving in Wisconsin. He previously held legal, policy, and intelligence roles in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and Europe.