Looking back on the 1930s, Peter Fritzsche believes that we underestimate the support that Adolf Hitler had for the National Socialist plan to reshape Europe. He uses various kinds of resources to justify that contention, but particularly memoirs and diaries to ascertain what Europeans were thinking about the future and whether there was any possibility that there could be some kind of accommodation to Hitler ambitious plans for a new age.
The story varies as we peer into those private thoughts of Europeans in the 1930s: France and its notion of cooperation with the German occupation differed from Poland with its large Polish/Jewish community. We listen to the German rejoicing in their occupation of Paris, a city which they much admired, and the account of the German treatment of Russian civilians and prisoners of war on the Eastern front and hits administrative structure, the General Govenorate. The murderous response to Polish resistance and the accommodations which the German occupation made to French public opinion.
In both the fronts, there is little to be said for the common theme, “we didn’t know.” There is rare mention of the Jewish round ups in Paris in the sources Fritzsche uses. Nor much concern about the fate of Polish Jews amongst the Polish underground, the Home Guard, or the Polish Government in Exile in London. We hear no mention of the packed train stations and trains in the East. The transports of Jews to detention centers and concentration camps was there for everyone to see. They were driven to the central market in their towns, often with whips. There is mention frequently of Jewish placidity but rarely any mention of the silence of the Poles as they watched the fate of their fellow citizens.
Fritzsche has included an interesting account of a group of Swiss volunteers, doctors and medical personnel who would travel with the German forces as they drove deep into Russia. These volunteers were no doubt the Swiss way of dealing with their neutrality. They understood their vulnerability to German invasion, and so this was an opportunity to keep their version of neutrality in their hands. And minds. They kept their mouths shut and their industries supplied the German armies in Russia.
When you follow the German land armies as they invade Russia, literally what the Swiss volunteers were doing, there is no hiding the arbitrary violence of the Germans. The German administrative structure that followed the German army, and established the General Government did not like the arbitrary violence and particularly as it became clear that Russia would not easily be conquered. The Germans resisted Napoleonic parallels, when the snows began and food became scarce. German difficulties before Leningrad and particularly their defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943.
The German treatment of Russian prisoners of war is perhaps the most notorious part of the Eastern Front. And we only recently are we beginning to understand the contribution of the Russian army to Germany’s defeat.
An Iron Wind; Europe Under Hitler has little to say about the position of the Catholic Church. Surely Europeans asked Where is God? Catholics still used the rituals of the church to celebrate baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. The scale of the European disaster resulted in no immediate answer. Also Church people were worried about what the Nazi response might be to an resistance and quickly and violently suppressed in evidence.
Fritzsche mentions the silence that often fell over individuals and groups as the best means of avoiding any complications. Stay out of the way; keep to old friends. Listen but do not talk. Even though that silence could often be interpreted as collaboration. And collaborationists were executed without much fanfare. Parisians were watched.
Adolf Hitler’s radio speeches filled the public square. In Germany of course, but in occupied Europe as well. Radio ownership had expanded in Germany and elsewhere. And radio made the broadcasts of his speeches “spell binding.” At times Hitler became almost deranged, but his speeches were carefully written and planned. They were broadcast in Britain and even on American radio. And particularly as the war news turned less favorable, his speeches sustained many hopeful Germans.
Hitler alternated between international triumphs –union with Austria, the demilitarization of the Rhur, the crisis over the Sudeten Germans. But also the appeal of marching men on the streets of German cities, motorized units, tanks and trucks and flights of German bombers overhead. The lists of war casualties caused great sorrow, but a soldier’s death, Hitler insisted was the most honorable of deaths.
Fritzsche talks about silence; he also talks about noise, both representing power.