People at War
By Patrick F. Cannon
Two books I read recently shed some light on how war affects a wide cross section of the people who live through it – The German War, by Nicholas Stargardt; and Paris at War, by David Drake.
I’ve read widely on the history of World War II, including what led up to it. While the primary focus of many of these books has been political and military, all necessarily pay some attention to the attitudes and experiences of those we might describe as average citizens. The subject books reverse that emphasis.
Stargardt looks at Germany as a whole, while Drake concerns himself mainly with Paris, although not Paris in a vacuum. Although this would change over time, Germany was of course initially the victor and France the defeated, with all that that implies.
With access to the letters and diaries of typical citizens, both books look at the totality of the home front experience, but I’ll focus on the fate of their Jewish citizens. 130,000 German Jews were killed, representing 55% of the pre-Nazi Jewish population. Since there was only a relative handful left in Germany at the end of the war in 1945, what happened to the rest? The reason is related to the undoubted fact that the majority of Germans supported and indeed participated in the elimination of Jews and other “alien” groups.
From the beginning of his political career in the mid-1920s to his formation of a minority government in 1933, Hitler’s constant refrain was to blame the Jews for everything from Germany’s defeat in 1918, to its economic collapse during the Weimar Republic. He also equated the Jews with Bolshevism; indeed, the pairing became ubiquitous in his rhetoric and that of his henchmen. Ridding the Reich of the alien Jews would help to put real Germans back to work and return Germany to greatness. As a result, German (and Austrian) Jews, who saw the writing on the wall as more and more anti-Jewish measures were enacted, began to leave. Tragically, many who stayed could not convince themselves that the measures would go beyond discrimination to outright murder.
Unless they were directly involved with the extermination – the SS and Gestapo for example – most Germans didn’t directly witness the killing of their German Jewish neighbors. Many, in the army and related organizations, did witness the killing of Polish (2.9 million!) and other Jews. Amazingly, there was little censorship of letters sent by soldiers to their friends and families back home. They were good tourists, too, and actually inserted photos of Jews being killed with their letters. Some expressed regret, not that it was being done, but that is was necessary!
Hitler’s elimination of “undesirables” as a means of purifying the German/Aryan race actually began with the systematic euthanizing of the mentally ill and disabled. Initially, the Roman Catholic and other Christian hierarchies objected, but this faded away as the regime agreed to soften its stance against the established religions. Constant and consistent propaganda extolling the superiority of the German race and inferiority of the Jews and other so-called mongrel races became widely accepted. While individuals like Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued to protest, he and the more vociferous – and there were very few of them – became victims themselves.
While there was some underground resistance, ironically the only plot that came close to succeeding was the attempt by a group of Army officers in July, 1944 to assassinate Hitler. Ironically, it came only after some officers concluded that the war was lost, and they hoped that the elimination of Hitler would help them get better terms from the Americans and British. No such thoughts entered their mind while they were winning. They even harbored the vain hope that an armistice in the west would permit them to concentrate their efforts in holding off the Russians.
As the tide of war turned against the Germans after 1942, daily life for the average German began to deteriorate. In Paris, deterioration began with the German victory in June, 1940. The French, who had enjoyed an often messy democracy since the establishment of the Third Republic in 1870, began to resist the German occupation almost immediately, and the resistance continued to gain momentum until Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. Every attack on the German occupiers was met with brutal retaliation, yet the resisters persisted, eventually with the help of the Allies.
Of course, there were collaborators. 90,000 French Jews lost their lives, but this represented only 26% of the prewar population. (The Roman Catholic Hierarchy’s record was little better here than in Germany.) While a handful of German Jews were hidden by friends and survived the war, many more survived in France or managed to escape. Shamefully, those who were deported to the death camps were rounded up by the French police, on the orders of the puppet Vichy government. Many of the police and other collaborators who cast their lot with the Germans would be executed after the war.
And while France did not have a perfect record of resistance, at least they had one. After the war ended, Germans were forced to come face to face with what their government had done in their name and even with their support and approval. They would be forced in the years ahead to attempt to justify to their children and their children’s children what they had done or failed to do. But how do you explain away the deaths of six million of your neighbors?
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon