©Werner Bischof / Magnum

Ruins of houses destroyed during World War II, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1946

It became a twentieth-century custom for nations to produce, under the auspices of government, official histories of their roles in great conflicts. The US and British studies of World War II are voluminous and uneven. Some contributions, like Samuel Eliot Morrison’s chronicle of the US Navy’s operations and Michael Howard’s and John Ehrman’s examinations of British strategy, are outstanding. Anglo-American campaign narratives suffer, however, from the fact that most were written within a decade of the war’s conclusion, and were subject to the exercise of varying degrees of influence and interference by former senior commanders who were still very much alive and holding high positions in government and in the armed forces.

Even more important, those histories were published while Allied code-breaking activities remained highly classified. As a result, American and British chronicles omit or obscure the critical part played by decrypted enemy signals in determining strategy and battlefield decisions. For example, the official history of the Royal Navy’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic by Captain Stephen Roskill, in many ways admirable, is fundamentally flawed because it ascribes successful U-boat detection to radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction-finding. It says nothing of the fact that throughout the war, the numbers of Allied merchant ships sunk fluctuated in remarkably exact inverse correlation with Bletchley Park’s successes in breaking German naval ciphers.

In a world conducted for the benefit of scholars, the US and British governments would today provide funding to revise the official histories in the light of modern research and revelations. As it is, of course, we must be content with what we have got: Fifties-vintage volumes that provide indispensable information about which regiments went where, and when.

Some nations’ official records are much less reliable than those of Britain and the US. Even in the twenty-first century, a depressingly small number of societies seek honestly to examine their own pasts, in war or peace. The Russian official histories of 1941–1945 are farragoes of nonsense, their version of events dominated by the propaganda requirements prevailing in Moscow when they were written. The French have never attempted to produce an officially sponsored account of their wartime occupation, because there would be no possibility of achieving acquiesence in, never mind consensus about, a version of what took place.

The Germans, however, are more fortunate. Over the past twenty years, the Research Institute for Military History in Potsdam has produced a succession of mighty volumes under the title Germany and the Second World War. These are not in the strictest sense official histories. They do not carry the formal imprimatur of the Berlin government. But they come near enough to amount to the same thing. The merits of the Potsdam chronicles are acknowledged by every student of the conflict. They profit immensely from being compiled so late in the day, when a huge weight of modern research is available to scholars. Those of us with specialist interest keenly anticipate the translations of each massive new volume by Oxford University Press.

The quality of contributions and campaign narratives varies, since each volume is multiauthored. Some recent studies in the series suffer from overdependence on Allied sources. They devote excessive space to—for instance—the conduct of the Anglo-American strategic bombing offensive. It seems otiose for German authors to rehearse a mass of detail about Allied activities that are already familiar to historians.

The importance of the Potsdam works derives from their meticulous examination of German documentary sources, which enables their authors to tell the story from a German perspective. They go to extraordinary lengths to display objectivity and detachment. Few, if any, readers of other nationalities could convincingly argue that this account attempts to mitigate, far less deny, the enormities of the Nazi era. Sometimes, indeed, the writers express themselves as if they were men and women without nationality, determined to blame others for nothing. In the latest volume, consider the circumlocution employed to note the fact that the Red Army frequently massacred German prisoners:

In the context of the brutal fighting in which the German invaders often came up against defenders whose fury had been further heightened by propaganda there is also evidence of treatment of German prisoners of war in contravention of international law.

The tone of the book is ponderous, bloodless, passionless, almost obsessive in its anxiety to acknowledge German guilt and eschew judgmentalism. Far from displaying any hint of partisan animosity toward the Allies, the authors write of “the growing number of enemies combating German aggression.” They note the belief of some German army officers in the summer of 1944 that the Führer should be told the truth about the plight of Germany. They contrast this with Claus von Stauffenberg’s view that Hitler must be killed, and comment with extravagant caution: “This uncompromising stand was most probably justified.” But it seems mistaken to tease about an issue of such gravity. It is unsurprising, indeed admirable, that German historians chronicling the era of Germany’s deepest shame approach their task as if sorting eggshells.


The latest volume comprises a series of essays on aspects of wartime German society. Its authors consider shifts of public mood and morale; contemporary awareness of the persecution and murder of Jews; the social makeup and battlefield fate of a typical Wehrmacht division; the experience of being bombed; the influence of the National Socialist Party and its propaganda machinery on day-to-day life and thought; and the role of domestic resistance.

In the autumn of 1939, in contrast to 1914, there was little popular appetite for war. General Ritter von Leeb wrote to the army’s commander in chief on October 3, describing a “bad mood among the population, no kind of enthusiasm, no flags flying on the houses, everyone looking for peace. The people feel war is unnecessary.” The Nazi leadership, aware of the uneasy torpor, identified the party’s foremost task as the mobilization of popular spirit. Hermann Göring addressed German workers a few days after the attack on Poland: “I call on you every man, every woman, young men and young women. We are all of us fighting in the front line.”

At the outset, however, not only did such appeals strike no chord, but there was a widespread delusion that the Führer himself wanted to halt the fighting. The authors write: “Most Germans were quite sure that Hitler would soon end the war that had been forced on them, since in the end what mattered to him was ensuring peace.” All this changed in 1940. Germany’s triumph over France roused national euphoria, which ebbed only slowly during the years that followed, amid the invasion of Russia and the rising tempo of Allied air raids. Stalingrad marked a turning point, of course, after which most Germans were acutely fearful for the future of their nation. If few suffered any sense of guilt—they placed overwhelming blame for Europe’s plight on the Allies—they knew that crimes had been committed, for which a terrible retribution would be exacted.

Yet opposition to Hitler or even criticism of him remained extraordinarily muted. Most people were willing to believe that he was indeed “the greatest general of all time,” as Berlin’s propaganda asserted. As late as September 1944, an NCO wrote home from the front: “Once the Führer lets his new weapons say their piece, then final victory will come as well.” The National Socialist Party’s membership rose from 5.3 million in 1939 to around nine million in early 1945. A decade of social and educational indoctrination had been overwhelmingly successful in convincing younger Germans of the virtues of ruthlessness, cruelty to lesser races, and the rectitude of any course of action adopted by Germany’s ruler.

The party appropriated responsibility for many measures that displayed its concern for public well-being, above all the relief of air-raid victims. Huge quantities of furniture were shipped from Jewish homes all over Europe, whose occupants had been dispossessed and murdered, to replace German household goods destroyed by bombing. Between March 1942 and July 1943, for instance, the contents of 22,623 Dutch dwellings were transferred to German ownership, along with those of 47,569 French and Belgian homes. Between 1941 and 1945, the property of 30,000 Jewish families was sold at public auction in Hamburg. Most of the 100,000 successful bidders were well aware of the goods’ provenance, but took them anyway.

Even for those tempted to criticize Germany’s leadership, fear of the consequences was strong. The authors note that the impression of ubiquitous surveillance was more potent than its reality. Small towns possessed only one Gestapo agent apiece. But it was well understood that anyone who voiced dissent would pay a price. An administrative officer in Braunsweig who decided that the war was lost and slashed his wrists was saved by medical assistance obtained by the city’s Kreisleiter, who then had the man shot for defeatism. Two days before US troops arrived in Wetzlar in March 1945, the town’s Kreisleiter was hanged for defeatism after he put up a sign proclaiming “Welcome to our liberators.”

According to the findings of the research institute, almost every German was aware of the existence of concentration camps, and most believed that their inmates, whether Jews or mere dissenters, deserved their fate. The authors write that collective tolerance of the camps was founded in social rejection of the categories of people assumed to be imprisoned there. Many such institutions were located on the outskirts of urban areas. The authorities in Dachau welcomed the creation of the camp there, believing that it would stimulate the local economy. Prisoners were widely employed on public works in full sight of the population, especially to clear air-raid damage. In Bremen, their striped garb caused them to be known as “zebras.”


Amid a desperate shortage of labor for rubble removal, authorities in Cologne arranged for hundreds of prisoners to be quartered on a ship anchored on the Rhine, to ensure that they were readily available once the bombers departed. Prisoners were not, of course, admitted to air-raid shelters, and thus they perished in large numbers during Allied attacks. German civilian doctors displayed no reluctance to sign death certificates for concentration camp inmates who died while working in the cities, even when it was plain that these were victims of their guards’ brutality or casual shooting. The mayor of Düsseldorf urged that more effort should be extracted from prisoners: “if these people were pushed harder, we could get many hundreds more work hours out of them, or even more,” he wrote in November 1943.

The authors consider the German people’s indifference to the fate of concentration camp victims to be part of the vast deceit in which the entire nation colluded:

The lie of Auschwitz became the lie of German society, whereby secret knowledge of secret evil was passed off as ignorance…. Living a lie was normality in German war society…. Only a few beacons of truth…rose above the sea of liars.

As the war advanced, Allied bombing increasingly dominated the lives of the urban population. Munster, for instance, experienced 75 day and 134 night alerts in 1943, which rose the following year to 231 and 98. It is interesting that some 50 million Germans—the rural population—never experienced air attack. But city dwellers learned to spend many hours of daylight as well as darkness in public shelters, which became focal points of gossip and social exchange as well as refuges from bombs.

The police chief of Bochum reported local anger when Nazi Party officials and their friends were found to have established squatting rights in a big air-raid shelter, their ordeal mitigated by several cases of beer. German civilians’ faith in their Führer might have suffered somewhat had they known that 28,000 workers—as many as were employed on constructing all of Germany’s public shelters—were occupied in building Hitler’s headquarters complexes and Berlin bunker.

The Nazis strove to arouse in their people a lust for revenge toward the Allies for the sufferings imposed upon them by bombing. When the RAF raided the Ruhr dams in May 1943, one newspaper headline announced: “Attack on dams the work of Jews.” In January 1944, General Erhard Milch of the Luftwaffe reported that while British bomber crews were mostly drawn from the nobility,

in contrast, the American flyers come almost exclusively from the lower classes. Every one of the pilots sent out on raids signs up for 30 missions; and for each of those he gets five to six hundred dollars.

The book documents lynchings of Allied aircrew by enraged local officials and citizens. After a heavy raid on Essen on December 13, 1944, an angry crowd killed three RAF men. Four more were beaten to death in a succession of incidents around Bochum on March 24, 1944. Such practices were actively incited by such orders as one from a Nazi official in February 1945, which demanded that “all fighter-bomber pilots who are shot down are on principle not to be protected from the indignation of the people.” The authors estimate that “at least 350 murders of Allied aircrew are possible.” By contrast, a local policeman from Siegen was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment because in November 1943 he invited a shot-down American pilot to eat lunch with his family. Two farmers from Dorsten were imprisoned for giving bread and coffee to downed Allied airmen.

One section of the book analyzes the composition and statistical history of a Wehrmacht infantry division, and also considers attitudes toward the army and the Waffen SS, the SS combat forces. Among 27,000 men who served at some time in the 253rd Infantry, 9,073 were recorded as dead or missing. Eighteen were executed, seven by guillotine, for acts of self-mutilation, desertion, or cowardice. In 1944 the average Wehrmacht formation spent 85 percent of its time in action. Wounds seldom promised a permanent escape from the battlefield. Some 70 percent of all those who were injured were returned to duty.

The authors assess the role of propaganda in sustaining fighting spirit, and note that by 1943 SS officials were expressing envy of the skill and success of the Red Army’s commissars in motivating Stalin’s people. A German general wrote during the same year:

The 1943 warrior is a different man from the one of 1939! He has long ago realized how bitterly serious the struggle for our nation’s existence is. He hates clichés and whitewashing, and wants to be given the facts, and given them “in his own language.” Anything that looks like propaganda he instinctively rejects.

A remarkable number of true believers, reared and educated through a decade of National Socialism, sustained their belief in final victory. But the relentless expansion of the Waffen SS to a strength of 600,000 men in 1944 reflected the Nazi leadership’s continuing dissatisfaction with the ideological commitment of the army. “The formation of the Waffen SS,” write the authors,

was not born of military necessity…. It was essentially a reaction to the army’s failure to adapt quickly enough to the general social thrust of the National Socialist system.

Probably the most interesting section of this volume considers the issue of domestic resistance to Hitler. Its most striking characteristic, of course, was feebleness. “The National Socialist regime,” write the authors,

was not primarily the product of a fiendishly cunning policy devised by Hitler. It arose in at least equal measure from a fundamental aberration on the part of large sections of German society.

It is extraordinary that such a tiny proportion of one of the most educated societies on earth possessed the perception, as well as the courage, of Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose student group, who wrote in their last pamphlet before their conviction and execution in 1943:

Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Führer, we thank you!

The authors perceive a reality which still escapes many Germans: most of those who joined the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler did so not because they recognized that he was evil, but because they were dismayed that he was losing the war: “Not all the conspirators were equally quick to see that the whole of the war conducted by the Wehrmacht was serving criminal ends.” Some German cavalry officers, for instance, saw no contradiction in plotting against Hitler while continuing to participate in murderous anti-partisan operations in Russia: “On the national-conservative scale of values, a war against ‘Bolshevism’ was, it seemed, morally acceptable.” Most of the anti-Hitler conspirators were motivated by dismay about the carnage that Nazism was inflicting upon Germany, rather than by sensitivity to the plight of millions of innocents massacred by Germans.

Many of the July plotters aspired not only to an undemocratic future German polity, but also to absurdly unrealistic frontiers for the nation. They supposed that the Anchluss with Austria might be maintained, and that Alsace-Lorraine might be independent rather than restored to France. They shared unfounded delusions about the scope for making common cause with the Western Allies against the Soviet Union. The authors argue that the overwhelmingly aristocratic nature of the resistance doomed it to failure, for it lacked any roots in popular sentiment. Many of the military plotters were equivocal in their attitudes. Some wished merely to confront their Führer and to expound to him the reality of Germany’s predicament. Others were haunted by scruples about breaking their oath of loyalty to him. Major- General Hellmuth Stieff, head of the organizational section of the army general staff, displayed notable self-indulgence when he said that he was unwilling to kill Hitler because he did not wish to “sully his soul.”

The Allies were delighted by the July plot, as clear evidence of fissures in the German war machine. But they were also relieved by its failure. The prospect of having to negotiate with an army clique willing to make peace would open up all manner of ghastly difficulties with Stalin, while raising problems with the American and British publics, who would surely be tempted by a chance of ending the carnage.

Beyond the ranks of the July plotters, the book’s roll call of individuals who brought honor to Germany by opposing its barbaric leadership is moving, because it is so short. There was reserve Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, for instance, who saved the Polish Jewish pianist W adyslaw Szpilman in Warsaw in 1944, and Austrian sergeant Anton Schmid, who was executed for giving help to Jews in Vilnius in 1942. There was General Dietrich von Choltitz, who defied Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris before the German withdrawal in August 1944, and a few more. But an overwhelming majority even of educated and sensitive people allowed their sense of patriotism to dictate a continuing loyalty to Hitler’s cause, even if some came to abhor the man himself.

Henning von Tresckow, one of the most committed and impressive anti-Nazis, wrote before his suicide in 1944: “Just as God once promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if only ten just men could be found in the city, I also have reason to hope that, for our sake, he will not destroy Germany.” The authors conclude: “The German national-conservatives bore some of the responsibility for the rise of Nazi rule…. But they also produced the only resistance that presented any real threat.” By 1944, most thoughtful Germans knew that the war was lost. They continued to fight and to acquiesce in Nazi hegemony, because they knew the consequences if they did not. Some 9,732 formal death sentences were carried out in 1944, 8,000 of these in the army. Many more people were summarily killed.

Beyond repression, most Germans retained a profound sense of personal obligation to Hitler, whom they excepted from the mounting tide of criticism leveled against the rest of the national leadership. Finally, and overwhelmingly most important, Germans correctly anticipated the revenge that Stalin’s people would exact if the Red Army was able to break through into Germany. They perceived no alternative save to resist the Russians to the bitter end, even if some people would have happily laid down their arms to the Western Allies.

The portrait of German wartime society presented by this book is somber, meticulously documented, cool, reasoned. The authors of a work like this can scarcely fail to be conscious of their heavy responsibility, writing as Germans about a period in which their entire nation, as they readily acknowledge, was complicit in some of the most dreadful deeds in human history. They write, for example, of ways by which, after 1945, in both parts of the divided Germany most of the population colluded to protect former Nazis intimately engaged in the crimes of the Third Reich:

The “collective silence” that took root in the two German societies did not cover just the crimes of the Nazi state; it took in as well the perpetrators of them, those who profited from them, and their minor accomplices. Perhaps this was because everyone had, before 1945, themselves benefited from the Nazi regime in one way or another.

There was also a widespread belief, which it seems to me persists in some circles in Germany to this day, that the nation’s sufferings and huge loss of life from Allied air attacks paid in full the moral invoice for German crimes committed under Nazism. The huge success of such authors as Jörg Friedrich, who has written extensively about the bombing of Germany, testifies to the number of Germans who wish to perceive a moral equivalence between the “war crime” of Allied bombing and the mass murder of Jews.

The Potsdam authors subscribe to no such pernicious doctrine. It represents a notable tribute to a new generation of Germans—for most of the Potsdam history’s authors were born long after the war—that they pass judgment on their own parents’ society with a merciless rigor which few other nations’ official war historians have aspired to. For instance, neither the British nor American official chronicles have anything to say about Allied war crimes—shootings of Axis prisoners among them. In the era in which those volumes were written, it would have been thought almost treasonable, as well as libelous, to expose Allied dirty linen.

It is ironic and admirable that it should be Germany that, more than sixty years after the event, has produced the frankest narrative and analysis of its part in the war for which Germans were overwhelmingly responsible. Russia might be in a less parlous state today if its scholars had written such works as the Potsdam histories about the Soviet Union’s awful past, and if such men as Vladimir Putin had read them and acknowledged their veracity.

This Issue

February 26, 2009