The perception of war changes, remarked the poet Robert Graves, when ‘your Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher, is as likely to be killed as a soldier in battle’.
The perception of war changes, remarked the poet Robert Graves, when ‘your Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher, is as likely to be killed as a soldier in battle’. Scrutinising the home front, checking for evidence of low morale, accounting for that of high, measuring the effect of wartime regulations and deprivations, calculating the long-term impact of continuous bombardment and destruction on civilians, in sum, accounting for the implications of the phrase ‘total war’ to describe the second world war, has been an occupation for social historians of Britain since the late 1960s when Angus Calder’s magisterial account of life on the Home Front was published. Since then there has been a stream of accounts of various aspects, from evacuation, rationing, Civil Defence, crime, music, sport, wireless-listening, cinema-going — and of course frequent probes of the much evoked ‘Blitz spirit’. More recently, several books have appeared linking the military and the civilian experience by recounting how it was when the soldiers, the sailors and the airmen came back from war.
But how exceptional was the British experience? How did the German Home Front compare with that in Britain? For non-German readers this has been hard to know. And although the purpose of Hester Vaizey’s new book is not to answer that particular question, since it is a study of German family life both during the second world war and into the first troubled years of peace, there are many similarities to be found — certainly at the level at which she recounts this experience.
Eighteen million Germans eventually fought for the Fatherland, meaning that a preponderance of two-parent families became one-parent families for the duration. And it is a sample of these families from what is now West Germany that Vaizey examines. Hers is primarily an account of the emotions of war, how people felt, and the sources she uses are mainly the letters from the men away fighting to their families and what their wives — and sometimes children — wrote to them. The letters from the soldiers (and it is mainly soldiers whose testimony is presented) are invariably guarded, particularly those serving on the gruelling Eastern Front against Russia. This was partly for reasons of censorship, partly to protect their families and partly because the horrors were literally unspeakable.
‘I will tell of it later’ is a recurrent phrase. The letters speak of missing and longing, of regret that the men cannot watch their children growing up; sometimes they offer advice and admonition, sometimes reveal anxieties about the fidelity of their women as the war dragged on over the years. Letters the other way give family news, complain about hardships, offer reassurance that the family talks often of the absent father, keeping his photograph in a prominent position, worrying when he will come home, and that he will stay faithful. For every such German communication, a British counterpart could be found. These are the universal letters of war.
In neither country does patriotism or glory shine through, just a dogged desire to get on with the war and get it over, to get home. And when the forces returned, the story was much the same: pleasure to be home tempered by all the predictable difficulties of readjustment from men who had become institutionalised by war, who were anxious about the future and their place in it. Families thankful to have a husband and father back, some women worn out by hard work, anxiety and responsibility, longing to share the burden, while others found it hard to cede the wartime independence they had had to develop.
This is the agenda of Vaizey’s book: she wishes to demolish what she sees as the myth of the ‘Hour of the Woman’, that the war had empowered women — exemplified by the Trümmerfrauen, ‘women of the rubble’ who were literally deployed in clearing up the devastation of war — and thus emasculated men already diminished by suffering and defeat, and that this led to a crisis of the family in the postwar years. She, however, is anxious to emphasise its stability, how seamlessly the waters closed over the separation and trauma of war, how the ‘domestic goddess’ of 1950s Germany could be detected in the granite of the previous dangerous and austere decade.
The most telling description of the mood of the British Home Front is endurance and defiance. Vaizey has chosen survival for her title. For Germany it was not just a question of enduring the ravages of war, but also the assault of Nazism, the ideological justification for that devastation. Yet this particular iteration of the quotidian experiences of ordinary German families adds little to an understanding of this. Normalising emotional histories can only be one piece in the complex jigsaw of war.