Book Review: The German War
by Nicholas Stargardt
Basic Books, 2015
Nicholas Stargardt, author of a very good book called Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis, broadens the scope of his inquiry from children to the whole of the German nation in his utterly gripping new book, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 (the book’s cover also has a third possible title, “Citizens and Soldiers,” floating around unattached to the other two, but since this deplorable new little fad of giving books six or seven titles is with any luck quite temporary, that third potential title is best simply ignored). By consulting a wide array of first-hand civilian sources – diaries, letters, and memoirs, many of which have never been explored with anything like this degree of comprehensive skill – Stargardt broadens what would otherwise be a very good history of the Third Reich at war into a something far richer and more complicated. The German War eventually culminates – in a way few other English-language accounts have managed – into a stunning account of the physical and psychological trauma of an entire people.
Stargardt traces to course of this trauma as it deepens, from the guarded optimism of the war’s opening years, to the buoyant cheer of Hitler’s first meteoric successes, to the long, slow, and grinding defeat of the Nazis. By focusing mostly on the first-hand accounts of ordinary people, Stargardt is able to infuse his narrative with a sense of real possibility, to avoid the pre-ordained sense that tends to characterize more standard top-down versions of this familiar story. This approach also serves as an always-pertinent reminder of the preponderant place the Eastern front, rather than the Western one, had in the lives of most Germans, particularly most German soldiers. Stargardt follows a young man named Helmut Paulus deep into the Russian theater, reading over his shoulder his correspondence with his distant family, and what that correspondence meant:
The huge differences between life at the front and at home did not undermine the emotional bonds between them. On the contrary, home, with all its privileges and seemingly trivial problems, made conditions at the front seem more bearable. Helmut’s mother had to managed without a housemaid for much of that winter. When it all felt too much, she wrote to her son, ‘then I think of you in Russia and how much a person can bear if he has to, and I think I am pretty privileged in my nice, warm house.’ When her nephew Reinhard skated on thin ice and fell through, she thought of how often Helmut and his comrades ‘are drenched and have no heating to warm yourselves on!’ Writing to Helmut about the incident, or about the mess that Reinhard and her younger son Rudolf had made of the chemistry lab Helmut had set up in the upstairs kitchen, maintained the ties to hearth and home more strongly than any over patriotic appeal. Helmut Paulus did not need to be told what he was fighting for.
Hearth and home trumps patriotism in this reading, and Stargardt has already made it clear that patriotism trumped party indoctrination. “Soldiers and their families identified the war, not with the Nazi regime, but with their own intergenerational responsibilities,” he writes. “It proved the strongest foundation for their patriotism.” And the whole war experience was reinforced by atrocities visited on Germany by the Allies in the course of the war, such as the fire-bombing of Hamburg:
Here the streets were littered with dead bodies, often clustered in groups of twenty-five to thirty where a fireball had caught them. Some, overwhelmed by heat, were hardly scarred; others were charred beyond recognition. By 10 September, 26,409 corpses had been recovered, mainly from the streets and squares. But them most difficult and dangerous work was opening up the cellars in which people had sought refuge, and where most had died of carbon-monoxide asphyxiation as the oxygen was consumed in the fires … Elsewhere, workers found ‘doll-like’ corpses, reduced to less than half their normal size and yet still quite recognizable, a phenomenon attribute to the proportionate dehydration of all the internal organs as the cellars turned into ovens.
It’s a true feat of narrative dexterity that Stargardt manages to such an extent to humanize his subjects without diminishing by a single detail the inhumanity perpetrated by their state, often with their willing collusion. This kind of double-vision makes The German War a truly unsettling study. It takes the old and much-debated subject of “German guilt” and re-interrogates it in ways that defy easy answers. This is not a book our grandfathers would have wanted to read.