- - Tuesday, October 13, 2015



By Nicholas Stargardt

Basic Books, $35, 704 pages

Given German barbarity, I shan’t feign concern for the discomforts suffered by the country’s citizens during World War II, whose active participation and support kept the horrendous conflict alive to the bitter end. Even the supposedly fanatical Japanese did not fight to the gates of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo as the Germans fought for the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

Nicholas Stargardt, a British historian, records that Hitler’s minister of armaments, Fritz Todt, conceded on Nov. 29, 1941, that “this war can no longer be won by military means.” Yet Hitler and the German military persisted in fighting for three and a half more years. Hitler was bolstered by “overwhelming public support” — even when each day of fighting “cost the lives of 10,000 German soldiers.”

The current “victim narrative” pushed by many Germans equates the firebombing of Dresden and other cities with the murder of the Jews. (For whatever perverted reasons, many “historians” in the West, both in the United States and Britain, swallow this odious thesis without a token look at reality.)

Based on a painstaking study of diaries and letters from frontline soldiers, which spoke candidly of mass murders in Poland and elsewhere, Mr. Stargardt flatly refutes the “good German/bad German” distinction claimed in the postwar period and beyond. The general populace was aware early on what was happening in the death camps and elsewhere. Yet the majority of Germans continued blind support of Hitler and his regime.

Be forewarned that Mr. Stargardt’s book is sickening reading. As a German report stated, “Women on the train [to work camps] gave birth to children who were tossed from the open window.” More than 40 offenses warranted the death sentence — for instance, telling jokes “that undermined the morale of the armed forces,” listening to foreign radio, or refusing to work on Sundays. But the regime was careful to steer clear of the “social majority,” concentrating the most draconian measures against such “undesirables” as Jews, communists and homosexuals.

Surprisingly, a large police force was not required, for lay citizens were happy to do the dirty work. The understaffed Gestapo “depended to a large extent on public compliance and denunciations to assist it in spotting transgressors.”

Psychiatric patients were a special target, with life or death decisions being made “by medical doctors and bureaucrats working in the normal health and provincial administrations.” Beginning in 1939, physicians were required to report “all newborn children suffering from idiocy, Down’s syndrome spastic paralysis or missing limbs.” Some 30 psychiatric asylums established special units where “they killed children through a mixture of drugs and starvation.” By May 1945, at least 246,000 persons had been killed, according to German records found by Mr. Stargardt.

Chronic food shortages were the norm. By devastating agricultural regions of western Russian, Germany could no longer rely on imports of grain and meat. Queues formed as early as 2 a.m. Meat, milk and fresh vegetables vanished from most menus. “Meatballs” were fashioned from potatoes, lentils and white cabbage.

The regime relied heavily on lies to bolter morale. Newsreels showed long-range German guns firing across the English channel at Dover, and squadrons of planes attacking the mainland. (Lacking authentic footage, these presentations relied on inserts of circus performance, football, “and, of course, the Fuhrer.” )

Bogus reports spoke of the “imminent invasion of Britain.” Mr. Stargardt quotes a “wit” as saying, “they lie, and we are lying also.”

What immediate lesson did Germans learn from the tragedy they inflicted on the world? Not much, according to public opinion surveys conducted by U.S. intelligence soon after the war. As Mr. Stargardt writes, “Interviewers found that the ‘Jewish war’ still provided the key explanation for American actions against Germany. Further, the German defeat seemed only to have enhanced the “power of world Jewry.” A large minority of the respondents — 37 percent — still endorsed the view that “the extermination of the Jews and the Poles and other non-Aryans had been necessary for the security of the Germans.”

As late of August 1947, 55 percent of those polled endorsed the proposition that National Socialism had been a “good idea carried out badly.” The level supporting this view was even higher — 60 to 68 percent — among persons under 30 years of age. As Mr. Stargardt notes, these views were expressed “at a time when openly advocating National Socialism still potentially carried the death penalty.”

Thankfully, Germany was soon to rejoin the fraternity of decent nations. Although no further opinion polls concerning lingering support of Nazism are cited, Germany eventually achieved tight political bonds with former adversaries such as the United States, whose occupation policies kept ardent Nazis out of public life. Flickering support of the war effort are still seen from time to time.

But can Germans get away with the excuse that they were unaware of the atrocities committed in their name? Such a self-serving (and false) shield crumbles under the impact of evidence — 133 pages of notes — amassed in Mr. Stargardt’s exhaustive book. A first-rate historical read.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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