If you plan to read one history book this year, I strongly recommend Nicholas Stargardt's The German War : A Nation Under Arms 1939-1945. The Oxford historian Stargardt has written the definitive work on the the German Home Front - how ordinary people lived during wartime Germany, what they thought, what they knew. He bases his research on the letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews with average citizens, but the book is also anchored with frequent references to the voluminous diaries of Joseph Goebbels and the surprisingly frank reports on public sentiment by Himmler's Sicherheitsdienst ("Security Service").
What is clear from The German War is that when Hitler launched his attack on Poland in 1939 there was not widespread enthusiasm among the broad populace for war. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Germans believed the propaganda that it was a legitimate war of national defense - defense against Bolshevism and "the international Jewry." And this sense of legitimacy persisted to the very end in 1945 and beyond. “The worse their war went, the more obviously ‘defensive’ it became,” Stargardt writes. Also, there was the collective belief that the “cowardly submission” of 1918 must never be repeated. Even after Stalingrad, when it was apparent to many (most?) Germans that the nation was facing defeat there was little resistance against the regime. “However unpopular the war became, it still remained legitimate—more so than Nazism itself.”
Even the Church (both Catholic and Protestant denominations) was a steadfast supporter of the war effort. This is one of the more depressing parts to read. I had always admired Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen - the "Lion of Münster" for speaking out forcibly against the Nazi program of euthanizing mentally ill and physically disabled German children (and adults - more than 200,000). But Galen refused to speak out on behalf of murdered Jews, and even after the war defended the campaign against "Judaeo-Bolshevism."
There were distressingly few examples of resistance. Stargardt follows a young Jewish woman - Marianne Strauss - who had gone into hiding in 1943 when her family had been deported. She was passed from house to house by an underground network of socialists - the "Bund" - and managed to survive until liberated by American forces. Then, of course, there was the group of aristocrats around Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, whose botched July 20 coup was too little and too late to succeed.
Stargardt spends much of the book exploring the question: when and what did the German people know about about the mass killing of Poles and Russians in the east and then the mass extermination of millions of Jews? Early on and quite a bit, is the answer. German soldiers were often "execution tourists" who eagerly photographed the mass killing of Polish and Russian citizens ("Partisans"); the rolls of film were sent home to be developed, and the prints were widely circulated among families and neighbors. Millions of Germans witnessed or participated in the mass deportations of German Jews, and then squabbled over the left-behind possessions. Hitler left little doubt as to the fate of these deported Jews, boasting in radio broadcasts to the nation of the Ausrottung ("extermination") of Jews as revenge for their treachery against the German Volk. When British and American bombs rained down on German cities, this was seen by the population as Vergeltung ("Payback") for the treatment of Jews:
"Time and again people linked the bombing to the pogrom of November 1938, a connection which might seem strange in a society awash with rumors about the mass killing of Jews in the east. But 1938 had been the last anti-Semitic action which many people had witnessed and actively participated in throughout Germany: in its aftermath, most of the Jews who remained in the Reich had moved to larger cities. In some places there was also a direct connection to the bombing war.: in Wetzlar, Braunschweig, Solingen, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Siegen, Cologne, Emden and Hamburg, massive concrete bunker towers had been erected on vacant sites where synagogues had stood until November 1938. In Cologne and Aachen, people connected the burnt synagogues with the churches destroyed in the air raids, evoking a sense of divine retribution. As a clerical informer summarized such views for the local Gestapo: 'Yes, it's deserved...everything avenges itself on earth.' Thus, many people saw 1938 as the start of the German war against the Jews, which set in motion the chain of escalating mutual retaliation. By the late summer and autumn (of 1943) such hitherto rare admissions of German responsibility and guilt had spread to parts of Germany which had not been bombed at all."
This, according to Stargardt, was the main reason why the war effort was supported long after it was apparently a lost cause: Germany's enemies (primarily the "Bolsheviks and World Jewry) would exact revenge on the people for what Germany had done to then, and therefore the "defensive" war must continue. And this view persisted long after Germany's unconditional surrender. A survey conducted in 1946 found that 37% of respondents believed that 'the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans' had been necessary for 'the security of the Germans.' By 1947 a clear majority of Germans believed that "National Socialism had been a good idea carried out badly." It would not be long before the myth of Germany as Opfer - with its double connotation of sacrifice and victim - began to seep into the national conscience.
See also my reviews of:
Peter Longerich, Davon haben wir nichts gewusst
Bajohr & Pohl, Massenmord und schlechtes Gewissen
Ian Kershaw, The End