I came across this book after reading this review of it, and it piqued my curiosity. After reading Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, I’ve been interested in learning more about what German citizens thought and knew during World War II. Postwar shocked me because I had no idea quite how devastated Germany was during World War II and because I hadn’t expected some political opinions to have remained popular well after the war’s close.
The German War is half social history and half military history of Germany during World War II. The social history uses German soldiers’ and civilians diaries and correspondence with each other to show what people thought they were fighting for and against. Despite Goebbels’s public speech and the press usually referring to the Holocaust as “the Jewish question”, Stargardt makes it clear that most Germans knew what fate Jews faced under the Reich. I had not realized just how much the hatred of Jews fueled public sentiment during the war. Railing against “Jewish Bolshevism” or “world Jewry” was common, and many people blamed Allied bombing as having been carried out because of a global Jewish conspiracy. The military history is carefully explained in the book, and shows how developments in the war affected public sentiment and life in Germany.
As a reader in the 21st century, it is hard to fathom how anyone could have believed such radical and false conspiracies. But Stargardt’s primary sources show just how widespread these beliefs were. The book describes some moments towards the end of the war when German soldiers question the treatment of Jews, the pillaging of cities and towns on the eastern front of the war, etc., but these moments are few and far between. I might have thought before reading this book that Germans perhaps were isolated from foreign news sources and only heard Nazi propaganda. But this was not the case. Many people regularly listened to the BBC and other foreign media, not just for popular jazz programs, but also to see how the news was being reported in other places. Despite this exposure, it seems that most people were far more willing to believe their own government’s propaganda uncritically, at least until the waning months of the war as the fighting entered Germany.
The German War is an engrossing portrait of life in Germany during World War II. It explains how so many millions of people, citizens and soldiers alike, could be enlisted in a cause so hateful and destructive.