The German War
A Nation Under Arms, 1939–45
WINNER OF THE 2016 PEN HESSELL-TILTMAN PRIZE
The Second World War was a German war like no other. The Nazi regime, having started the conflict, turned it into the most horrific war in European history, resorting to genocidal methods well before building the first gas chambers. Over its course, the Third Reich expended and exhausted all its moral and physical reserves, leading to total defeat in 1945. Yet 70 years on – despite whole libraries of books about the war’s origins, course and atrocities – we still do not know what Germans thought they were fighting for and how they experienced and sustained the war until the bitter end.
When war broke out in September 1939, it was deeply unpopular in Germany. Yet without the active participation and commitment of the German people, it could not have continued for almost six years. What, then, was the war Germans thought they were fighting? How did the changing course of the conflict – the victories of the Blitzkrieg, the first defeats in the east, the bombing of Germany’s cities – change their views and expectations? And when did Germans first realise that they were fighting a genocidal war?
Drawing on a wealth of first-hand testimony, The German War is the first foray for many decades into how the German people experienced the Second World War. Told from the perspective of those who lived through it – soldiers, schoolteachers and housewives; Nazis, Christians and Jews – its masterful historical narrative sheds fresh and disturbing light on the beliefs, hopes and fears of a people who embarked on, continued and fought to the end a brutal war of conquest and genocide.
How a people takes to defeat has been a staple of historical inquiry since ancient times, and in this gut-wrenching work, Cambridge University historian Stargardt (Witnesses of War) examines the German experience during WWII. His extraordinarily deep and wide research allows him to fill in an otherwise solid history of the war with intimate, newly unearthed recollections of harrowing service on the battlefield and homefront. Such is the complexity of human nature that, after millions of deaths, massive destruction, and unbelievable "psychological shock waves," Germans maintained their fierce nationalism and took pride in their ability to endure individually and collectively. What will be difficult for many readers to believe is that the people of the country responsible for the Holocaust long considered themselves the victims of failed Nazi leadership, the Allies (whom they saw as Jews in another guise), and the Soviets. Seeing the bombing of their cities as equivalent to the death camps, and sustaining unbelievable losses on the battlefield, many Germans preferred outright destruction to a negotiated peace as in 1918. Only the next, postwar generation of Germans could get beyond disbelief and disillusionment and begin to free itself of ruinous attachments and convictions. Stargardt has produced a brilliant, sobering work. Maps & illus.