Nicholas Stargardt has read through and incorporated into his narrative the enormous secondary literature on the Second World War, but his primary sources are the letters that German soldiers exchanged with their families. Both sides of this epistolary conversation reveal their doubts about the official line produced by Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda.
Stargardt, Professor of European History at Oxford University, points out that there were more German psychiatric patients murdered by the Nazis than German Jews! German public opinion reacted publically to their family members being sent from German asylums to the new killing centers, beginning in 1939. Had there been a similar public mobilization, could at least some of German Jewry been saved? However, that public response was absent when the killing of adult psychiatric patients resumed two years later. Nor did any collective opposition stop the killing of children with mental and physical handicaps.
There was also considerable public qualms expressed in these family letters about the war with France and Britain. German citizens and soldiers, for the most part, had accepted Goebbels’s assurance of the necessity for the assault on Poland in September 1939. But there was nothing like the bellicose crowds of Germans who welcomed the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.
The German War suggests that its “turning points” came much earlier than is generally assumed. The failure of the Wehrmacht to reach Moscow in October 1941 Stargardt argues, was an early turning point. The German defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943, perhaps the greatest Russian victory of the War, and generally regarded as a turning point, came well after the failure of the more significant Wehrmacht drive toward the vital Russian oil fields near Grozny in August 1942.
The surrender at Stalingrad resulted in 91,000 German POWS including the army’s commander, Marshall Friedrich Paulus. Hitler had assumed that Paulus would commit suicide rather than accept captivity. Suicide was the end game for German valor on the battlefield.
The Germans blew an opportunity to “liberate” Poles, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians, many of whom were not interested in the Russians’ return. Instead the Germans imposed a destructive and deadly occupation. The Wehrmacht burned villages with little provocation and carried on massive retaliation with any sign of resistance.
Much has been said about the involvement of the Wehrmacht and East European nationals, particularly the Poles, in the murder of Jews during the German invasion of Russia. Equally appalling was the death of a million Russian prisoners-of-war captured during Operation Barbarossa.
Another turning point in the war was the intensification of the Royal Air Force raids on German urban areas beginning in 1943. The Ruhr city of Essen was perhaps the earlies target of the RAF’s blanket bombing; the Krupp works were there. Cologne followed. The city of Wuppertal was destroyed in May 1943. Berlin was tougher for Bomber Command. It was steel and concrete rather than wood and plaster, hence less flammable, and also farther from air bases in Britain.
Much has been written about the differing strategies of the British and American air warfare. The Brits purposely targeted housing to disrupt the lives of German workers crucial to war production, “blanket bombing.” The Americans chose instead what they called “pinpoint bombing”, of specific industrial targets. The trouble was that those targets were heavily defended, and despite the damage soon became operational again. Stargardt sides with the Brits; the attacks on urban Germany had the greater impact on war production.
The bombing of the cities produced huge numbers of women and children evacuees. Generally the evacuees moved south and east, from urban to rural areas, the better off Germans to refuge in more modest homes and farms. These regional and class differences produced considerable strife. They were exaggerated by the work demands made on the evacuees. Mass evacuation may have been an organizational triumph of the national government; it was not a victory for the German “national community.”
German morale remained high almost to the end. There were promises that new weaponry would turn the tide of war in favor of Germany. And they were real: the V2 rockets rained down on London toward the war’s end, and jet fighter aircraft were better able to intercept Allied bombers.
There were also atrocity stories to discourage “defeatism”, some accurate such as the mass rape of German women by Russian troops. In February 1943 a mass grave was discovered in Katyn Forest near Smolensk. An examination of the bodies dated the massacre to the Soviet occupation of Poland. In an effort to decapitate the Polish military elite and commissars, hundreds had been executed by the Russians. German propagandists suggested that this would be the fate of the Wehrmacht officer class and civil servants should Germany loose its battle with the Red Army.
By the end of the war, Germans were convinced that their trust in Hitler had been misplaced. Bitterness and even rage were openly expressed. White flags were appearing. And shame, shame at having supported a war that had killed and destroyed so many sons, fathers, and husbands and much of what Germans admired of their “national community.”