I don’t think we can ever understand too much about how the Second World War and the Holocaust happened – nor can we ever reach a complete understanding of these events. The approach Stargardt uses in this masterly, sweeping portrait of the German nation during the war is to describe events through the diaries and letters of ordinary German people. In the book’s opening he describes these as a “cast” of ‘dramatis personae’. In so far as such a thing is possible, these are a diverse range of people – farmers, artisans, veterans, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, men and women. Stargardt overlays their stories onto the events of the war itself.
This approach immediately destroys the simplistic notion that there is such a thing as a single, coherent German perception of Nazism – they all experience it differently, from enthusiastic nationalistic support through passive grudging acceptance, to resistance. Even within each personal experience perceptions change over time and the course of the war, so passionate Nazis eventually become reluctant defeatists.
There are inevitably shocking moments in a history of these events. For me two sections stood out, both related to the holocaust. The first is how widely the holocaust was known about. Stargardt illustrates this by showing that references to the extermination of European Jewry pervaded throughout German society, even down to playground chants and jokes. However powerful the German propaganda ministry may have been, it was powerless to prevent German soldiers taking photographs of mass graves and sending them home to be processed and shared. This may not be a new historical perspective – I understand from reading other reviews such as this fascinating account in the New York Times that the fact that the genocide was widely know about throughout German society has been demonstrated by earlier historians – but it was the first time I had read the detail of how commonly known the holocaust was. Of course it was in German post-war society’s interest to cover this up, developing the myth that the Nazi’s were some alien force that had been inflicted on the otherwise honourable German peoples, but to see in black and white the evidence that the holocaust was an accepted fact throughout Germany, and indeed the rest of Europe, was for me shocking and distressing.
I am also aware of the long running debate about the extent to which the Catholic Church in Germany (and Italy) collaborated with the Nazis. Again this book developed that debate further for me with its chapters on how the church responded to the Nazis programme of killing ‘defective’ patients in mental and maternity hospitals. Some Catholic bishops preached against this murder from their pulpits, and the Nazis briefly pulled back. The killings didn’t stop, they simply became more discrete and less open, and t
he clergy knew they were continuing – but for some this intervention probably saved their lives. Yet no similar intervention ever happened for the Jews, despite specific please for help – in fact the church spent most of its time justifying the defence of the fatherland from the atheistic Bolsheviks.
It is always a useful exercise to try to see events from another perspective. It is no surprise that the German people saw the war differently from the Allies – for example, the invasion of Poland was a response to incursions by Polish forces into Germany, and to prevent attacks on German nationals living in Polish territory; the blitz was bringing Britain to the brink of revolution, and was simply a response to terror attacks on German cities by the RAF, and so on. Sometimes this was simply a matter of Nazis propaganda being swallowed uncritically; but at other times it was a more complex working out of the contradictions that inevitably arose when German culpability could not be avoided.
This is not a conventional history of the Second World War, the German War as Stargardt describes it, and it is certainly not an easy read – the paperback runs to over 700 pages, with more than 100 pages of notes, bibliography and references. The material is inevitably almost unremittingly bleak and hard to read, but there are lighter moments, occasionally, and some touches of humanity. Despite all this it is an important story – perhaps now more than ever with a demagogue looking to demonise minorities entering the White House – and I can’t recommend it highly enough.