The Ger­man War: A Nation Under Arms 1939 – 1945

Nicholas Star­gardt
  • Review
By – February 22, 2016

Nicholas Star­gardt, a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry at Oxford’s Mag­dalen Col­lege, presents an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the study of what ordi­nary Ger­mans believed they were fight­ing for dur­ing World War II and why they con­tin­ued to show their loy­al­ty long after it was appar­ent that Ger­many would lose the war, as well as what moti­vat­ed the Wehrma­cht and Ein­satz­grup­pen to mur­der Jews dur­ing the Holocaust.

In The Ger­man War, Star­gardt con­tends that Ger­man sol­diers fight­ing in the East were pri­mar­i­ly moti­vat­ed to kill Jews because they believed in Hitler as a sav­ior who would deliv­er Ger­many from the threat of Judeo-Bol­she­vism. Nazi pro­pa­gan­da per­suad­ed Ger­man cit­i­zens and sol­diers that Jews were behind the humil­i­at­ing sur­ren­der to the Allies in Novem­ber 1918, and framed the war as revenge against the per­fid­i­ous Jews” who betrayed Ger­many. Above all, whether sol­diers were Nazi, anti-Nazi, or sim­ply with­out a polit­i­cal con­vic­tion, they were guid­ed by patri­o­tism to Ger­many. Even if they were hor­ri­fied by the mur­der of their vic­tims, duty to the nation trumped their conscience.

Draw­ing on a wealth of first­hand tes­ti­mo­ny includ­ing per­son­al diaries, court records, and mil­i­tary cor­re­spon­dence, Star­gardt describes not only Ger­man civil­ian expe­ri­ence of the war but their reac­tion to news about the mur­der of the Jews fol­low­ing the Nazi inva­sion of the Sovi­et Union. The con­tro­ver­sy over how much the Ger­man peo­ple know about what was hap­pen­ing to the Jews in East­ern Europe per­sists, but Star­gardt asserts that aware­ness was wide­spread: let­ters from the war­front, return­ing wound­ed sol­diers, and even cam­era pho­tos of the Jew­ish dead made its way into Germany’s pub­lic domain. The Ger­man civil­ian response to the intense bomb­ing of Ger­man cities between 1941 and 1944 was viewed as a retal­i­a­tion by both the Unit­ed States and Great Britain for the Nazi mur­der of the Jews. Iron­i­cal­ly, Ger­mans who sur­vived these bomb­ings com­pared them­selves as vic­tims, com­par­ing their suf­fer­ing to that of the Jews.

The Ger­man War is an impor­tant book which, to the best of my knowl­edge, answers many of ques­tions that his­to­ri­ans have asked, name­ly: how did a civ­i­lized soci­ety like Ger­many become a nation con­don­ing geno­cide under Hitler?

Relat­ed Content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions