Books of 2016, #4: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, by Nicholas Stargardt


For most of the Cold War, the popular consensus regarding “blame” for World War II and the Holocaust ran something along the lines of “well, there were good Germans and bad Germans, and most just wanted to get by, but Hitler and the Gestapo were very bad and willing to hurt people who didn’t do what they wanted, ergo, thus, six million Jews somehow WHOOPS died and an entire continent went up in flames”.

This was obviously a very simplistic look at things, but when you combined a West German willingness to toss a LOT of money Israel’s way to make up (in some small, unsatisfactory manner) for things along with the United States and NATO’s need to have “good” Germans that they could rearm and park on the front line against the Soviet menace backed by their own “bad” Germans, well… everybody basically went along with this view.

Even though it was bullshit.

The first big revision to this viewpoint came after Germany reunified, the Cold War ended, and, instead of there being a binary “good vs. bad” German theme, there just being, well… _Germans_ again. And a Harvard PhD candidate named Daniel Jonah Goldhagen didn’t care for the traditional narrative and therefore dropped a bomb on it called “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust” in 1996. Disagree or not with his premise that a majority of ALL Germans very much wanted all of the Jews dead (as he doesn’t prove this to my own or a lot of other people’s satisfactions), what he DID manage to do here was prove that there was really no way the common belief that most Germans had no idea what was going on with the Jews held any water. The gist, and it’s hard to believe that this was ever controversial, is simply this:

You cannot kill six million people (and change) without a very large number of people knowing about it and helping to make it happen.

What “The German War” attempts to do, then, is show what average Germans felt about both the Holocaust and the war in general as it happened, via private letters, diaries, the public opinion polls taken by the SD regularly throughout the war almost to the very end, etc…

It is a much better _book_ than Goldhagen’s, which read like what it was: a PhD thesis barely edited into narrative book form, and therefore dry, dense, and repetitive.

Stargardt’s book, however, is a fantastic read, though, admittedly, that feels like an odd adjective to use for a book on such a grim topic.

Overwhelmingly sourced (it often feels like every paragraph has a footnote), Stargardt tells the story of a number of Germans, mostly regular people, soldiers, wives, doctors, mothers, but specifically tried to seek out those who a) lasted at least into the war’s middle years if not through to the end b) left a record of multiple entries along the way. Basically, he wanted to track changes in how regular Germans felt about the war and the Jews as the Germans went from winning and conquering all before them, from arresting to then deporting to then killing the Jews, and then to being on the defensive, bombed, invaded and, finally, conquered.

There’s a brutal melancholy in watching a young wife go from a loving new wife scared of what the war will do to her husband but convinced that Germany needs to defend itself from the assaults of Global Jewry to bombing victim convinced that the bombing is the revenge of the murdered Jews (and thus, somehow unfair) to widow.

The soldiery, as is often the case, figures out faster that what they’re doing is indefensible but generally rationalizes their actions as being what must be done if the nation is to survive. It’s possibly even sadder to read their stories than the housewives, particularly the more sensitive ones who quickly realize that they’re doing unconscionable things that only future generations _might_ benefit from. And, regardless of the terrible things they’re doing, it just gets depressing at how many of these stories end with a hard stop when the soldier in question dies.

The details of the individual lives traced here gives this book its narrative thrust, and its emotional impact. To reinforce the author’s main point, though, these stories are reinforced with a lot of weight from the popular opinion surveys and mood studies the German SD did throughout the war, almost up to its very end. Goebbels wanted his propaganda to be effective and, to do that, he needed to know what the people actually thought in order to shape it to his ends. Thanks to this urge, we have a lot of data on what the people actually believed as well as what the German State wanted them to believe.

In the final analysis, I believe Stargardt makes his point well. While the reasonings and self-justification changes depending on which person’s words are being reviewed at any given point in the book, the inescapable larger conclusion reached is simply that a) most Germans were very well aware of what was happening to the Jews (and Poles, and Russians, and Ukrainians, etc….). Furthermore, most (but by no means all) Germans were pretty much okay with what was going on, particularly when the German star was in the ascendant. Once fortune turned, many Germans believed that what was happening to them was either retribution for what they had done to the Jews; the main difference seems to be whether a given person thought that this was fair or unfair.

What this book shows is this point: regardless of how a given German felt about what was happening to the Jews and the other victim races, they _knew_ it was happening. And this is a very important point as it goes against what we were led to believe for the many decades of the Cold War era here in the West.

I believe this book has become and will remain the standard regarding contemporary German knowledge of and feelings towards the Holocaust and Germany’s part in World War II for years to come.

Author: Shawn Ritchie

Chicago, Whiskeys, Guitars, Blackhawks and Nerdery.

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