In 1943, Germans who enjoyed a joke envisaged two panzer-grenadiers sitting on a bridgehead in Russia in 1999, puzzling over an incomprehensible word they have come across in a book: PEACE. No one in their bunker understands it. The platoon sergeant shrugs his shoulders. Their lieutenant shakes his head, and the next day at headquarters asks the battalion commander what it means. This august figure consults a new dictionary and finds the definition: “Peace, way of life unfit for human beings, abolished in 1939.”
This sort of gallows humor, says Nicholas Stargardt in his book The German War, was a significant element in a formula tried and tested between 1914 and 1918 for durchhalten—“holding out”—in the extraordinary fashion the German people did between 1942 and 1945, Hitler’s years of eclipse, in which around 90 percent of all those who perished in the global conflict met their fates.
The journalist Ursula von Kardorff, no admirer of the Nazis, retreated to the countryside for several days in November 1943, amid the first concentrated RAF bombing of Berlin. But she returned to the city, and to her job, fortified by a surge of determination to resist the attackers: “I feel a wild vitality welling up within me, mixed with defiance—the opposite of resignation.” The bombing, she thought, far from breaking the spirit of the German people, was welding unity: “If the English believe they can undermine morale, then that’s a miscalculation.”
Far too many books are written about the leading Nazis, personalities of awesome banality. The proper object for study must be the German people. How could it be that one of the most educated societies in Europe, the nation of Thomas Mann, inheritors of centuries of high culture and scientific achievement, fell prey to the designs of such gangsters as Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, and remained so even when it became plain that the outcome must be an epic catastrophe?
Nicholas Stargardt, an Oxford professor of modern history, draws on diaries, letters, and contemporary documents to paint a huge social canvas of Germans at war, soldiers and civilians, men and women of all ages. There are many unexpected vignettes, such as that concerning Kurt Gerstein, a disinfection expert and SS officer, who visited the Belzec and Treblinka extermination facilities in August 1942.
Gerstein found himself sharing a compartment on the night train back to Berlin with a Swedish diplomat, and risked telling this man what he had seen. Himself a devout Protestant, back in…
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