In 1940, when Stephen Spender heard a German bomber diving down towards London, he calmed himself by imagining that there were no houses, and that the bomber was ‘gyring and diving over an empty plain covered in darkness’. The image consoled Spender with his ‘smallness as a target, compared with the immensity of London’. But it also exposed the ‘submission of human beings to the mechanical forces that they had called into being’. It seemed to Spender that entire nations were gripped by the ‘magnetic force of power’. People ‘no longer had wills of their own’.
As Tolstoy complained in the second epilogue to War and Peace, this sort of thinking is tautological. The people transfer their ‘collective will’ to a leader, on the condition that the leader expresses the collective will. The Germans followed Hitler; Hitler led the Germans. ‘That is, power is power: in other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.’ Our attempts to explain the malignant power of Nazi Germany resemble
theodicy: the manifestation and conquest of evil, the exposure of Leopold von Ranke’s ‘holy hieroglyph’, the inner meaning and moral of history. In other words, how could this have happened?
The War in the West is the first part of a projected trilogy by the popular historian James Holland. Power here means organisation and logistics: the conversion of civilian industries to military production. Holland, who has previously ripped the yarns of the siege of Malta, the dam busters and the Battle of Britain, weaves between the abstractions of the ‘operational level’ and the chaotic, dangerous experiences of a wide cast of civilians and soldiers: between ingenious administrators like Lord Beaverbrook and Bill Knudsen, the president of General Motors, and ‘the smell of rotting flesh, dust, burnt powder, smoke and petrol’.
The metaphors are mixed too. Britain takes its ‘bloody noses’, but ‘on the chin’. A wheelchair-bound Roosevelt resists the ‘tide of public opinion’ and risks ‘political suicide’ by ‘walking on glass’. The ‘sartorially impeccable’ Wehrmacht rocks ‘innovative sub-machine guns’ with an ‘old school’ mash-up of ‘baggy-thigh breeches’ and ‘high-collared tunics’.
Holland lobs some analytical incendiaries at our ‘mythical’ impressions. The German army that invaded France in May 1940 was not invincible. Half of its men were new conscripts; a quarter were over 40 years old. The blitzkrieg merely replayed the Prussian strategy of bewegungskrieg, the ‘war of movement’, with a new weapon, air power, and 20,000 amphetamine pills for the Panzer crews. The French ‘could and should have’ stopped the Germans at ‘Sedan and Dinant and Monthermé’. Goering lost the Battle of Britain in advance, by building dive bombers. Dowding and Beaverbrook won it in advance by adaptive planning. Germany could not have starved Britain with a ‘handful of U-boats’.
None of this armchair generalship explains why the war started. Still, an army of British men will carry Holland’s book as an essential piece of kit in next summer’s struggle for the beaches of southern Europe. They would do better to take The German War. History is wisdom after the fact, and Nicholas Stargardt, a professor of modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford, has created a wise book from the facts of German life under Hitler. The Germans had wills of their own. They embraced the Nazi ‘revolution of feeling’. By 1939, two thirds of Germans belonged to at least one Nazi organisation. The majority of Germans and Austrians were thrilled by a ‘national revolution’ that lifted the economy and humbled the Jews. Big events do not require great causes: the Germans were bitter, vain and petty.
Hitler was dedicated to ‘refighting, and this time winning’ the first world war. His people were less enthusiastic, but gambled on a short, winnable war. Instead, by December 1941, they were back in 1917: war against Russia, America and Britain, shortages of food, and terrible losses. Complicit, they ‘could not escape the consequences of a ruthless racial war of their own making’. Nor did they try too hard. In January 1942, the majority of Europe’s Jews were still alive. By the end of the year, most of them were dead. Gas and burning flesh could be smelt at the railhead 20 kilometres from the camp at Belzec — the home front knew what was happening. Hitler spoke of Ausmerzung (‘extermination’). Photographs of mass executions circulated. The BBC broadcast eyewitness reports. Jewish property was publicly auctioned and Jewish homes were given to bombed-out Aryans. ‘The Jews are being completely exterminated,’ a reserve policeman from Bremen wrote to his wife from the front, ‘please don’t think about it, that’s how it has to be.’
A nation of war criminals buried the enormity in ‘collusive semi-secrecy’, and a ‘spiral of silence’ about the ‘half-articulated, often discomforting awareness of how imperial and genocidal their war had become’. But collective guilt resurrected the image of the crime in paranoid fantasies of ‘Jewish retaliation’. Even before America had entered the war, many Germans believed a rumour about ‘all Germans in America having to wear a swastika on their left breast’ as a punishment ‘because the Jews have been treated so badly in Germany’. The RAF’s campaign of demolition was widely seen as ‘Jewish terror bombing’. In 1944, when Bomber Command had trouble dropping bombs within the prescribed three-mile radius of its targets, many Berliners succumbed to Stephen Spender’s fear, and believed that the British were targeting particular streets and neighbourhoods for their crimes against the Jews.
The worse the war went, the greater the intensification of Nazi ideology and methods, and the deeper the existential complicity of the people. Before the war, Hitler had suspected that the Germans would not be up to their historic destiny, but they embraced his sub-Wagnerian apocalypse of ‘victory or annihilation’, and went down with him to the end. In early April 1945, Victor Klemperer and his non-Jewish wife, masquerading as the Aryan ‘Kleinpeters’, listened as train passengers blamed ‘Bolshevism and international Jewry’, and averred their trust in the Führer. Defeat suited the Nazi world view: as the ‘Asiatic’ horde of Bolsheviks rampaged westwards, ‘Jewish’ capitalism filled the skies with American and British bombers.
The ‘dissonant dualism of German guilt’ began its long chorus. At first, ‘guilt’ meant identifying ‘the agents of Germany’s greatest disaster’. The arrival of the Americans and Russians reminded Germans of another guilt, genocide. Like Spender under the bombs, most Germans experienced their diminishment as diminished responsibility. Not everyone felt guilty, even after the American re-education campaigns of 1945 and 1946. In August 1947, when openly endorsing National Socialism was a capital crime, American investigators reported that 55 per cent of Germans considered National Socialism ‘a good idea that had been carried out badly’. Among respondents who were under 30, or had completed a high-school education, or were Protestants or West Berliners, this figure reached 60–68 per cent. ‘What a disgrace and what a humiliation to have been born amongst the Germans,’ the writer and publisher Hermann Kasack admitted.
Disgrace, humiliation, envy, resentment: power is a word whose meaning and motives we know too well. Superbly researched and clearly written, The German War is an important and significant book. The unholy hieroglyph at the heart of the 20th-century catastrophe has always been in plain sight.