Steege on Stargardt, 'The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945'

Nicholas Stargardt
Paul Steege

Nicholas Stargardt. The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945. New York: Basic Books, 2015. Illustrations. 760 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-01899-4.

Reviewed by Paul Steege (Villanova University) Published on H-Nationalism (July, 2017) Commissioned by Cristian Cercel

In his 2001 book on the Federal Republic’s search for a “usable past” (War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany), Robert G. Moeller explores how West Germans told “war stories” to selectively remember the Third Reich and to distance themselves from being implicated in its genocidal politics. Nicholas Stargardt has written an important book that relocates our understanding of Germans’ war stories, recognizing them not just as a retrospective phenomenon of the postwar decades but rather as vital components of how Germans experienced and fought the Second World War. In this expansive and engrossing book, Stargardt draws on wide-ranging state and personal sources—especially letter collections that present both sides of wartime correspondence—to reconstruct individual war stories from multiple perspectives. Using these “private prisms through which individuals viewed major events” (p. xxiv), Stargardt traces the war’s dramatic course from mobilization and early German military victories in Poland, through a period of crisis following the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943, to the diverse experiences of total defeat and ambiguous liberation in 1945.

Stargardt argues that for most Germans, the war proved more legitimate than Nazism, but that observation also frames his response to a core question that guides his analysis: “How did it affect Germans to gradually realise that they were fighting a genocidal war” (p. 6)? In providing its answer, this book explores how the rhetorical and symbolic formulations that abetted genocidal violence extended deep into people’s everyday lives as well as into personal and familial relationships that outlasted the war. It also examines how they surfaced in public exchanges recorded by state and party officials at the time. Many Germans explained their own wartime suffering, especially in air raids on German cities, by using a rhetoric of retaliation. They described Anglo-American “terror bombing” as a response to what Germany had done to Europe’s Jews. Such declarations made visible these Germans’ awareness of that violence even as they implied that those crimes mattered only to the extent they helped to explain what was now happening to them.

Stargardt puts the July 1943 bombing of Hamburg at the center of his account. His point is not to posit Germans as victims but rather to explain how German experiences of war framed their narratives of violence, including especially the genocidal effort to murder Europe’s Jews. Initially, Nazi leaders feared that urban Germans’ experience of aerial bombardment might turn people against the regime. A woman riding a train out of Hamburg spotted the mayor of Göttingen’s golden party badge and held her sleeve to his face to confront him with the smell of smoke from the fires that had destroyed the city. Since the first day of the raids on Hamburg coincided with the ouster of Benito Mussolini in Italy, that sort of personal confrontation suggested to Nazi officials a potential for political opposition. By fall 1943, however, most Germans remained committed to the war, especially the war against the Soviet Union. “It took the mass bombing of 1943 and the military defeats of 1944 to make large numbers of Germans share in their Führer’s apocalyptic vision of ‘victory or annihilation’” (p. 463). In other words, popular commitment to a war going badly facilitated Germans’ embrace of the genocidal violence that accompanied it.

While Stargardt is hardly the first historian to link German claims of wartime suffering to German practices of genocidal violence,[1] The German War effectively draws out the story lines that Germans used over the course of the war to knit together the diverse geography and chronology of their experiences. Even at its outset that war encompassed relentless brutality: in the first eight weeks of the German attack on Poland, German forces executed as many as 27,000 Poles and burned 531 villages (p. 38). Until the end of 1940, the war’s violence was hardly noticeable for most Germans, at least by the measure of deaths caused by air raids on German cities. After nearly a year-and-a-half of war, only 975 people had been killed (p. 123). Stargardt provides these figures, but he also gives us voices that, haltingly at times, translated those experiences from the front to families at home and back again.

At the outset, Stargardt introduces his readers to the twenty-four “dramatis personae” whose stories weave in and out of the subsequent pages (p. xxvii). They are hardly the only people we encounter in the book, and at times it proves difficult to keep the characters straight (the “ends” of their respective stories are scattered throughout the text), but this strategy proves an effective reminder that the war and its mass violence was also personal. Perhaps even more importantly, this cast list pushes back against any easy notion of who, in fact, comprised the Germans whose war he investigates. It includes familiar and unfamiliar names, men and women, soldiers and civilians, Jewish and non-Jewish characters, their identifying traits summed up in a few sentences and inviting further exploration of their wartime dramas set to begin a few pages later.

In a fascinating detail, Stargardt notes that wartime calendars recorded September 3, when France and Britain had declared war on Germany, as the day on which the war began. The German attack on Poland two days before thus fell outside of the day-to-day record defining the Germans’ war. As much as German war stories may also have retrospectively tried to frame the war as something that happened to them, Stargardt underscores how all-inclusive their wartime stories proved. Ernst and Irene Guicking, a couple whose exchange of letters introduces German mobilization at the start of chapter 1, reappear at the end of the epilogue (“Crossing the Abyss”). Looking back after a postwar life that saw many of her family’s private dreams realized, Irene wanted their wartime letters archived and published to record how their love triumphed in the midst of war. Stargardt reminds us about their 1942 letters that discussed “the deportation of the Jews and what happened to them in the east” (p. 570). By emphasizing to readers the residual presence of those particular forms of violence in even the most personal sorts of war stories, Stargardt challenges us to investigate further the blurred lines between complicity and resistance in the midst of everyday life where Germans found plenty of room for war—and all that it entailed.


[1]. Nearly a decade ago, Peter Fritzsche explored how Germans explained their support of genocidal politics in terms of an alleged threat to their own existence: Peter Fritzsche, Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008). More recently, Mary Fulbrook explored “overlapping stories” of victimhood and violence in an area of Poland annexed by Germany following its 1939 invasion: Mary Fulbrook, A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). On the ways that Germans throughout the Reich responded with violence to experiences and stories of Allied bombardment, see Georg Hoffmann, Fliegerlynchjustiz: Gewalt gegen abgeschossene alliierte Flugzeugbesatzungen 1943–1945 (Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2015).

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Citation: Paul Steege. Review of Stargardt, Nicholas, The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939-1945. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL:

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