What was life like in Hitler’s Germany? This question has long fascinated authors and readers alike, as books like Alone in Berlin, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and The Book Thief bear witness.
What was life like in Hitler’s Germany? This question has long fascinated authors and readers alike, as books like Alone in Berlin, The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and The Book Thief bear witness. Nazi Germany, it has often been argued, was a totalitarian dictatorship. Through force, indoctrination and even common consent, such an interpretation contends, Hitler wielded total power and had complete control of the German population.
But were the tentacles of the Nazi state as strong as this understanding suggests? Were Germans simply passive pawns who submitted to the will of the regime? Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War overturns these common assumptions about the function of the Nazi regime. It shows that there was no single uniform experience of Nazism, and that crucially, among ordinary Germans, a reservoir of opinion counter to Nazi ideology continued to exist in the Third Reich.
Wolfram Aichele, the author’s father-in-law, was a young boy when Hitler came to power. He had an unconventional upbringing in a free-thinking artistic family, where his parents encouraged him to work things out for himself. This non-conformity and independence of mind ran entirely counter to the Nazi leadership’s desire for total control of the populace, and would see Wolfram’s parents get into trouble for failing to put up the Nazi flag on the days that the regime demanded this. Nazi rhetoric may have implied that the Party had total control, but as Wolfram’s story shows, rhetoric and reality were not the same thing. Indeed, even after membership of the Hitler Youth became compulsory for young Germans in 1936, Wolfram’s father colluded with a sympathetic doctor to secure a sick note for his son. Whilst maybe not representative of the wider picture, the story of the Aichele family reveals an undercurrent of passive resistance that existed among ordinary Germans.
Histories of Nazism and the second world war so often employ the dichotomous categorisations of victims or perpetrators in their analyses. In considering what Germans went through during the war, Milton’s book shows that our understanding should not be so clear cut. With the horrific memories of the first world war still fresh in their minds, most Germans did not want to fight in 1939, a fact that was reflected in the muted response to its outbreak in September that year. Many men like Wolfram then were called up to the Wehrmacht to fight for a cause they did not believe in. Not only this; Milton’s account reveals that Germans, too, experienced real suffering in wartime, whether it was through separation from loved ones, chronic food shortages or the Allied bombing. Without forgetting or denying the crimes perpetrated in Nazi death camps, Milton’s close analysis of the experiences of Germans demonstrates that they too could be victims of the war.
The impact of Nazism certainly did not end with defeat in May 1945. Imagine, for example, how young Germans growing up in the immediate post-war era coped with the realisation that their families had been complicit with the Nazi regime. Their parents often brushed this subject under the carpet after 1945, wanting to put some distance between themselves and the past. But as the post-war baby-boomers came of age in the 1960s they became increasingly critical of the previous generation, who, they felt, had failed to examine critically their role in the Third Reich.
If the 1960s was a period of acrimonious recriminations and generational conflict, what happened to those whose parents had died in the war? One and a quarter million German children were rendered fatherless. Their fathers simply were not there to ask or challenge. The author of Reluctant Accomplice, the acclaimed German historian Konrad Jarausch, was one such semi-orphan, as his father died of typhoid in Russia at the beginning of 1942. He recalls how his memory was sanctified, and the issue of his father’s involvement with the Nazis became too sensitive to ask his mother about. Indeed Jarausch explains that the reason he ended up as a historian of Nazi Germany and its aftermath was his determination to understand why educated Germans like his father had supported Hitler.
His father’s letters from the field, which form the main body of The Reluctant Accomplice, offer a contradictory picture, of one man’s simultaneous consent to and consternation about the Nazi war. Jarausch’s father, also named Konrad, served in the reserve battalion of the German Army in Poland and Russia. As a particularly high-minded secondary school teacher, his correspondence is unusually reflective about the war. While his patriotic support for German territorial expansion is palpable in the early letters, by 1941, when he is charged with feeding up to 20, 000 starving Russian prisoners of war every day, his certainty in the rectitude of the cause begins to waver. Like many others, Konrad senior was frustrated that doing his duty left little or no time for doing the things that interested him, namely reading works by the likes of Aristotle.
But for all his complaints about the lack of free time, Konrad was evidently fascinated by the local languages and cultures, both in Poland and Russia. He asked his wife to send books that would allow him to understand better the psyche of the people among whom he was stationed. Indeed, amid the chaos of distributing too little food to too many prisoners, he got to know some of the Russians, eagerly recounting what he learned to his wife via letter. And with the help of a few prisoners he also began to learn Russian.
It was his close contact with Russian prisoners of war, whose quarters were rife with disease, which probably contributed to his early death from typhoid. But it was also this close contact with thousands of starving prisoners which led him to question the morality of the Nazi mission. The Russians he encountered were first and foremost people rather than a Slavic enemy, and thus the polarising discourse of the National Socialists lost its resonance. And yet despite his desire to ensure that the prisoners all received their daily rations, the supplies allocated to them were inadequate, and there was little he could do to prevent their eventual starvation.
German soldiers had a spectrum of beliefs and experiences: from Wolfram, who hailed from a non-conformist anti-Nazi family, to Konrad, who supported Nazi goals but whose compassion for individual Russians led him to question National Socialist ends. If two accounts of life under Nazism throw up such different pictures, this suggests that hasty categorisations of ‘bad Germans’ mask a far more complex reality.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.