Book Review of "The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945"
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945
By: Nicholas Stargardt
Throughout Nicholas Stargardt’s book, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, the author offers an examination of World War Two through the perspective and experiences of ordinary German soldiers and citizens. Specifically, Stargardt focuses his attention on the mentality of the German people, their reactions to various stages of the war, and why they continued to fight a war clearly lost by the early 1940s. What accounts for their desire to fight to the bitter end in 1945? Did the use of “fear” and “terror” by the Nazi regime coerce innocent German citizens and soldiers to fight against impossible odds? Moreover, did this fear cause Germans to commit atrocities that they otherwise would have never committed?
Stargardt's Main Points
Historians over the years have often answered these questions by positing that not all German citizens and soldiers were to blame for the policies and atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. However, Stargardt challenges such sentiments by offering a completely different interpretation of German culpability. Stargardt asks: How far does culpability for the war truly go? Is it limited to just the Nazi regime? Or does it encompass something much larger? Specifically, are the German people as much to blame for the war and its atrocities as the Nazi leadership?
In response to these questions, Stargardt argues the point that it is a fallacy to try and distinguish between good and bad Germans during the war. Instead, he equally places the blame for the destructive nature of World War Two on the German people, collectively. Why? Stargardt points out that Nazi propaganda promulgated a sense of victimhood that portrayed the German side of the war as a defensive and legitimate effort against hostile neighbors. German citizens and soldiers readily accepted these sentiments, especially as the destructive elements of the war reached the German nation itself. Although Germans were initially wary of war (as a result of WWI), Germans fought with great intensity as a result of deep-rooted feelings which included thoughts of revenge, hatred, and fear (as a result of the impending doom they foresaw as a result of their genocidal actions). As Stargardt argues, killing Jews and committing acts of genocide were not viewed in a positive light by all Germans. However, a great majority still viewed it as a means of protecting the fatherland from enemies bent on their overall destruction. Moreover, fighting to the bitter end was seen as a means of preserving the German people against the Allied forces, whom they felt only desired to annihilate Germans and German society. Thus, as the author points out, to argue that the Germans only followed Nazism because they feared the repercussions of challenging Hitler is both fallacious and deceptive.
Stargardt’s main argument is both informative and compelling. His heavy reliance on primary source material adds a heightened level of credibility to his overarching thesis. Moreover, his intervention within the existing historiography is substantial, given the massive amount of works already devoted to Germany and World War Two. Another thing I really enjoy about this book is how easy this book reads from cover to cover. It is easy to get lost in the details of a book this size, but Stargardt does an impressive job of presenting his overall thesis in a narrative-driven manner that is easy to follow.
Overall, I give this book a 4/5 Star rating and highly recommend it to those interested in the history of World War Two, Nazism, 20th Century Germany, and European History.
Questions for Discussion
1.) Did the Cold War help absolve Germans for their atrocities due to the American propaganda surrounding West Germany and its rehabilitation? Is this why so many historians of the past have promulgated the idea that Germans were victims of Nazism?
2.) What role did Nazi propaganda play in facilitating their ideology, and what effect did this have on the German people?
3.) What role did religion play in Nazi ideology? Was it a hindrance or supporter?
4.) Was Nazi ideology a response to events of years prior?
Suggestions for Further Reading
Baranowski, Shelly. Strength Through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Boyer, John W. and Michael Geyer. Resistance Against the Third Reich: 1933-1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.
Dennis, David. Inhumanities: Nazi Interpretations of Western Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Goldhagen, Daniel. Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Lower, Wendy. Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.
"Adolf Hitler." Adolf Hitler | eHISTORY. Accessed December 21, 2016. https://ehistory.osu.edu/biographies/adolf-hitler
Stargardt, Nicholas. The German War: A Nation Under Arms: 1939-1945. (New York: Basic Books, 2015).