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 the capital he also reported the gassing of Jews to Otto Dibelius, the liberal Protestant bishop of Berlin, and Dibelius’s Catholic counterpart Konrad Count von Preysing. Nothing came of his revelations, any more than when he told his own father, a retired judge. Gerstein reproached this parent with a scorn that suggested generational role reversal:
When a man has spent his professional life in the service of the law something must have happened inside him during these last few years…. You said: Hard times demand tough methods!—No! No maxim of that kind is adequate to justify what has happened.
Bishop August Clement, Count von Galen of Munster, was another of those who became lost in a moral maze. He protested vigorously and courageously against the Nazis’ first extermination program, directed against mentally handicapped patients. He deplored the ethics of seeking retaliation in kind for Allied bombing of German cities. But he offered impassioned support for the invasion of Russia, which he and other bishops characterized as a “crusade” against “Godless Bolshevism.” After Germany’s defeat, the bishop offered thanks to his country’s
Christian soldiers…who in good conscience of doing right have risked their lives for the nation and Fatherland and who even in the hubbub of war kept their hearts and hands clean of hatred, plundering and unjust acts of violence…. The soldier’s death stands in honour and value next to the martyr’s death.
In seeking to understand Europe during the Nazi era, it is essential to recall that in 1933 the Russian Revolution lay only sixteen years in the past; Stalin was sustaining the slaughter of innocents initiated by Lenin. Terror of Bolshevism—well-merited terror—was a phenomenon common to the bourgeoisie of the entire continent. Only a small, enlightened minority acknowledged from the outset that fascism posed an equal menace. Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia had existed as independent states for less than two decades, and it seemed hard to regard their frontiers as beyond dispute.
Many of Hitler’s people nursed grievances about their loss of national territory under the Versailles Treaty and about the sufferings, real and imagined, of German minorities in Eastern Europe. As Stargardt notes laconically, “only German rights mattered.” In 1939 there was no popular enthusiasm for war, but this blossomed during the first year of the conflict: “Victory was sweet because it seemed astonishingly easy.”
When Hitler’s September 1940 peace offer to Churchill was rejected, many Germans saw this as evidence of their enemies’ intransigence. William Shirer’s Berlin house cleaner grumbled: “Why didn’t the British accept the Führer’s offer?” The author identifies inter-generational support for the June 1941 onslaught upon Stalin’s people:
What bound fathers and sons together was more than shared experience…. The sons had to achieve what their fathers had failed to do. They had to break the cycle of repetition, which condemned each generation to fight in Russia.
Aryans must prevail over Slavs, they believed, or be destroyed by them.
As the war intensified, then turned against Germany in the wake of Stalingrad, a different mood overtook the nation. First came shock at the discovery that the Wehrmacht was not invincible; revelation of the hollow mockery of Goering’s pronouncement that if a single enemy aircraft bombed the Reich, he would call himself Meier. There followed a national closing of ranks, a stiffening of sinews, that astonished the Nazis themselves.
Liselotte Purper, a Hamburger, contemplated Germany’s bomb-battered cities and professed herself filled with impotent rage, not toward Hitler but instead against the “global criminal conspiracy [moved by] such a bottomless hatred, such a fanatical will to destroy as there never has been in the world. They know not what they do!” Even most of those who considered themselves anti-Nazis, says Stargardt, could not bring themselves to wish for Germany’s defeat, though “their sense of profound vulnerability grew.”
Intermingled with expressions of outraged victimhood such as that of Frau Purper was the fact that enough Germans knew what they had done to other nations, especially to Russians and Jews, to conclude that if they lost the war, retribution must follow that seemed likely to be annihilatory. Stargardt writes:
Neither Nazism nor the war itself could be rejected, because Germans envisaged their own defeat in existential terms. The worse their war went, the more obviously “defensive” it became. Far from leading to collapse, successive crises acted as catalysts of radical transformation…. Major disasters like Stalingrad and Hamburg did indeed lead to a catastrophic fall in the regime’s popularity, but they did not in themselves call patriotic commitment into question.
If the Germans had thrown in the towel in 1943 or 1944, on any terms or more plausibly on none, they could have spared themselves the worst consequences of Hitler, and the more than two million German deaths that took place in the last year of the war, at Russian hands or from Allied bombing that attained a crescendo at Dresden, Chemnitz, Leipzig.
Stargardt does not address at length the moral failure of the army, the one force in Germany capable of overthrowing the Nazis: only a small minority of officers participated in the ineffectual July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler. He probably takes the view that this issue has been exhaustively addressed in many other books, as indeed it has. But it poses an intractable dilemma for the author of any work of this kind, which afflicted even the third and last volume of Richard Evans’s monumental study of the Third Reich, to determine how far it is necessary to retrace familiar historical narrative for the sake of completeness. Stargardt addresses extensively and well the active or passive complicity of vast numbers of Germans in the Holocaust, but we have known about this for years.
It is an interesting semantic point that in the later war years Nazi rhetoric constantly deployed the word “fanatical” with approbation, when instructing the German people on the conduct expected of them. Anglo-Saxons, of course, reflexively recoil from fanaticism: no Englishman would have applauded it as an ideal, even in the darkest days of 1940.
Since 1945, much ink has been expended on arguing the case that the Allies were wrong to insist upon Germany’s unconditional surrender, because this persuaded anti-Nazis that they had no choice but to fight on. Yet even most of the plotters who tried to kill Hitler in July 1944, including Colonel Claus von Stauffenburg himself, were not liberals but right-wing nationalists with amazing delusions about the prospect of preserving Germany’s 1939 frontiers in a negotiation with the Allies.
One of Woodrow Wilson’s biggest mistakes was to insist that Germany should be granted an armistice in November 1918, rather than being obliged to surrender. This, together with the fact that the Kaiser’s country emerged from the conflict structurally intact, created the basis for later Nazi claims of the “stab in the back,” the pretense that Germany had not really been defeated.
At the end of World War II, amid the absolute ruin of the Reich, there could be no such delusion. The Western Allies had compromised the virtue of their cause by joining with Stalin’s bloodstained tyranny, and by allowing Russia to bear most of the blood sacrifice for destroying Nazism. But once they did this, it is hard to imagine how any negotiated peace could have been offered or achieved, to which Moscow would have agreed to be a party, or to which the Americans and British should have been.
Nicholas Stargardt notes that in the twenty-first century, Germans have become hugely interested in their own wartime past, though favoring TV programs and books created by their compatriots rather than by British or American authors:
The victim narrative has been most prominent, as interviewers have concentrated on unearthing the buried memories of civilians who experienced the fire-bombing of German cities by the RAF and the USAAF, the epic flight ahead of the Red Army and the killing and rape which so often followed…. Groups of self-designated “war children” formed and everywhere commentators reached for terms like “trauma” and “collective trauma”…[which] tends to emphasise the passivity and innocence of the victims.
More than a decade ago, I myself interviewed for a book a German woman who, in 1945, had suffered many humiliations at the hands of the Red Army, alongside her daughter. She said: “It was so terrible, going through all that, when we knew we had done nothing wrong.” She allowed knowledge that she had killed no Jews, raped no Russian women, to banish any sense of personal shame or guilt, both at the time and since. Stargardt observes that only the extreme right in Germany today seeks to establish a direct moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Allied bombing. Yet it seems depressing enough that many modern Germans wish to regard their parents and grandparents as kindred to the peoples of the nations they invaded and ravaged, all alike victims of Hitler rather than his accomplices.
The publishers describe this book as “the definitive portrait of Nazi Germany during World War II.” No portrait of anything or anyone is “definitive” and any publicist who suggests otherwise should be sent for pulping. Stargardt’s judgments seem impeccably sensible, but they are scarcely original: his furrows are well ploughed. The author nonetheless tells his bleak story fluently and well, and illustrates it with a host of telling and often unfamiliar anecdotes.
The historian Sir Michael Howard argues wisely that counterfactuals are not the proper business of historians, but it is sometimes salutary to consider “what ifs?” Had Hitler conquered Britain, some of us suspect that under occupation its people would have behaved a little, but not much, better than did the French. The aristocracy and commercial classes would have collaborated wholesale.
Likewise Stargardt describes how one German doctor in 1939 tipped off the families of mentally handicapped patients in his sanatorium that their loved ones were destined for extermination, and urged their removal. Few took advantage of his warning. Are we sure, absolutely sure, that in the same circumstances American or British people would have displayed greater compassion? The likely answer, like so many answers to so many questions of this kind, may be uncomfortable for humanitarians.
Most Germans found the first decade of the Nazi era deeply gratifying. When Hitler’s grand vision went wrong for his own people—several years after it began to impose ghastly horrors on the rest of the world—all but a small minority of his people were too busy feeling sorry for themselves to spare sympathy for his victims abroad and at home, least of all Jews. As for the Wehrmacht, no student of its mid-twentieth century record could with a straight face describe its leaders as officers and gentlemen.
A popular delusion exists that while the victorious Allies messed up the end of World War I by making a botched treaty at Versailles, they somehow did better after 1945. It is certainly true that continuing American strategic and economic engagement, exemplified by NATO and the Marshall Plan, led to a much better outcome for Western Europe. But it is hard to propose congratulations all around, when 90 million hapless East Europeans merely exchanged Soviet tyranny for the Nazi variety; upward of half a million Germans perished in the 1945–1946 refugee flights and ethnic cleansing of minorities in the East; and a murderous civil war in Greece persisted until 1949.
It is very hard to bring a vast global conflict to a tidy conclusion. Protracted piecemeal diplomacy achieved more than did “Big Three” summits. In July 1945, the Allies nonetheless conducted the last such wartime meeting at Potsdam. Winston Churchill, impatient to meet the new US president, was the prime mover for it, and harbored his accustomed delusion that his own physical presence could extract more from the Russians and Americans than Britain’s shrunken national status could secure.
Before the conference began in the mock-Tudor Cecilienhof Palace built for the Kaiser’s son during World War I, the British and American delegations engaged in some half-awed, half-appalled tourism amid the wreckage of Berlin. Their Russian hosts were entirely accommodating, indulging even the generals’ and officials’ quest for souvenirs from Hitler’s bunker. Churchill gazed without animosity upon the Germans foraging amid the rubble: “My hate died with their surrender,” he wrote later. “I was much moved by their desolation.”
But when the serious business of the conference began, Churchill was seen to little advantage. He was old and tired, and had failed to do his homework. He lapsed into rambling monologues, and allowed himself to be charmed by Stalin. So poor was his instinct for the new age that, when news was passed to him of the successful atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, he expressed enthusiasm for the prospect of brandishing this threat to bring the Russians to heel in Eastern Europe.
Michael Neiberg’s account of Potsdam dwells at length on the clumsy cramming process to which Harry Truman was subjected, following Roosevelt’s death on April 12. This was handicapped by the disappearance of the records of earlier wartime summits at Tehran, Cairo, and Yalta, so that officials were obliged to brief the new president on American positions from their own imperfect and often contradictory memories.
The book quotes extensively the remarks of Joseph Davies, a former US ambassador in Moscow and one of the most disastrous Americans ever to represent his country abroad. Davies wrote in earnest of Stalin in 1938: “A child would like to sit on his lap and a dog would sidle up to him.” He played a marginal role on the US team at Potsdam, and the author treats both his character and contribution with less contempt than they deserve.
The “Big Three” met thirteen times at Potsdam, their foreign ministers twelve. On the last four occasions, following the July 26 announcement of Labour’s triumph in the British election, Churchill was supplanted by Clement Attlee, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden by Ernest Bevin. This operation of democracy baffled the Russians, who had taken it for granted that Churchill had power enough to fix the result. It emphasized the Soviet impression of the Western delegations as fumbling novices, of Stalin alone as the assured master of his own nation’s destinies.
Yet Truman did as well as any man could have expected of him at Potsdam, given the huge handicaps under which he labored, not least having the inadequate James Byrnes as his secretary of state. He conducted himself with dignity and firmness, making plain America’s intention to remain engaged in Europe, rather than to retreat into isolationism as in 1919. He set off home, after a mere three weeks abroad, satisfied that he had achieved the two foremost US policy objectives: to make the Russians biddable members of the new United Nations, and to persuade them to attack the Japanese in Manchuria.
The Americans failed to perceive that Stalin, rather than requiring any inducements to join the war against Japan, was bent upon doing so, to secure territorial booty on the Pacific coast. He cared little one way or another about the UN, a mere talking shop. What he wanted, and got, out of Potsdam was to stage a protracted victory parade, and to make plain to the Western Allies that Poland was now a Soviet imperial dependency. The British and Americans reluctantly agreed to cede eastern Poland to Russia along the so-called Curzon Line, so that Stalin kept the Polish turf he had secured from Hitler in the August 1939 Nazi–Soviet Pact.
But what choice was there? As Stalin mockingly demanded at the conference table: “Did your army liberate Poland, Mr. Churchill? Did your army liberate Poland, Mr. President?” The Red Army held Eastern Europe, and could be dislodged only by force of arms. In May 1945, Churchill had caused his chiefs of staff to draw up a detailed plan for Operation Unthinkable, to dislodge the Russians from Poland using forty-two Anglo-American divisions—and the remains of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Naturally Washington rejected this crazy notion out of hand, but the fascinating planning document still exists, and it is a little disappointing that Neiberg does not mention it.
His problem, in this entirely unexceptionable narrative, is to make a case that Potsdam changed or decided anything. The conference was a fascinating piece of theater, wherein Stalin toyed effortlessly with Churchill and Truman. All the strategic and atomic secrets that they cradled out of sight with the glee of schoolboys were known to him through American and British traitors.
The author, a professor at the US Army War College, describes how on the way home, aboard the cruiser USS Augusta, Truman and Byrnes hit the bourbon together “as they celebrated their success at Potsdam.” The new president later developed into one of the most distinguished statesmen in American history, his high quality especially manifested in the June 1950 Korean crisis. In July 1945, he impressed Europeans as a solid, decent, and trustworthy US leader. But the only participant in the conference entitled to rejoice at getting everything he wanted was Joseph Stalin. World War II achieved its real conclusion not at Potsdam, but with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent collapse of Stalin’s empire.
Many Americans, both at the time and since, have viewed Britain’s wartime governance through a Churchillian prism. It is certainly true that the prime minister dominated his nation’s affairs more than did Roosevelt those of the United States. But Jonathan Schneer’s book, Ministers at War, provides a corrective, emphasizing the important parts played by the War Cabinet, a supporting cast of five to eight members, to whom Churchill had the good sense to delegate many matters in which he was uninterested, and which he knew himself unqualified to arbitrate.
Sir John Anderson, the career civil servant who served as lord president of the council and latterly as chancellor of the exchequer, was mocked by Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken as “Pomposo,” and indeed Anderson was an arid, lofty figure. But he was an exceptionally able administrator, unafraid of standing up to his leader.
Ernest Bevin, minister of labor, was born into poverty in 1881, worked as a Bristol docker, then rose to become the most powerful trade unionist in Europe, leading the five million members of the Transport and General Workers Union. Bevin, a passionate anti-Communist, was perhaps the only man in Britain with the moral and political authority to sustain working-class support for what might otherwise have been deemed a “Tory war.” There were wartime strikes in plenty, but this rough, tough, chunky man with great hands likened to bunches of bananas earned the respect as well as affection of all those who served with him.
Except, perhaps, Sir Stafford Cripps. The two men hated each other. Cripps was an upper-middle-class Marxist ascetic who had been a highly successful lawyer before entering Labour politics in 1928. He served in 1940–1941 as British ambassador in Moscow, but Stalin vastly preferred the company of Lord Beaverbrook, the capitalist red in tooth and claw, to that of Cripps the would-be champion of the proletariat. Schneer reminds us that, extraordinary as it now seems, at a low point of Churchill’s fortunes as prime minister in 1942, for a time it seemed as if Cripps might supplant him—especially to Cripps.
The prime minister detested the man: “he has all of the virtues I dislike, and none of the vices I admire,” but felt obliged to admit him to the War Cabinet in February 1942 as Lord Privy Seal and leader of the Commons. Cripps’s stock fell, however, when he led a mission to India, in a vain attempt to persuade its nationalists to postpone independence until the war ended. On his return, he made repeated foolish demands—for instance, for an immediate general election, and for the creation of a three-man “military directorate” to oversee the chiefs of staff, one of whom would be himself.
He antagonized a host of humble British people by proclaiming his opposition to their favorite sports—boxing, horse and dog racing. Cripps was a clever, honest man bereft of wisdom. He kept threatening to resign, but fatally delayed doing so until after the November El Alamein offensive, the success of which made Churchill politically invulnerable.
Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party and deputy prime minister, played a thankless role, subject to many indignities at his chief’s hands. But Attlee gained the respect of all who worked with him for his patience, loyalty, modesty, and hard work in support of the war effort, especially chairing Cabinet committees. It is good that he secures his due from this book by Schneer, as does the villainous Lord Beaverbrook.
“The Beaver,” a press baron to whom Churchill felt closer than any other man after the death of Lord Birkenhead, commanded the prime minister’s fascination for his wit and wealth. He enjoyed a brief moment of glory as minister of aircraft production in 1940–1941, hastening Spitfire and Hurricane production through the Battle of Britain. But many historians believe that his achievement was greater as a self-publicist and impresario than as an industrial manager.
Thereafter, Beaverbrook drifted in and out of office as the mood suited him, indulged by Churchill in repeated acts of treachery, especially his noisy campaign for a premature second front in France. Schneer writes: “Beaverbrook did not so much crave the top position—although occasionally he thought he could fill it better than anyone else—as crave excitement.” Beaverbrook was a clever but unprincipled man, unworthy of Churchill’s intimacy.
Schneer concludes: “It is useful to remember that Churchill’s colleagues did not treat him with the reverence he so often receives today.” If the War Cabinet had bowed and scraped rather than argued, its members would have been undeserving of credit. The author salutes these “giants as they really were, harnessed together to a common purpose, but often pulling in opposite directions.” He justly concludes that Churchill’s choice of such men for his War Cabinet, and skillful management of them in office, constituted an important element of his own greatness as national leader in his finest years. Whatever the limits of Britain’s military contribution to victory, it could boast the most impressive machine for managing the war effort of any belligerent nation.