The distinguished historian Konrad Jarausch’s new book is a German narrative, told through the stories of ordinary people who lived through his chosen period. Six dozen Germans — mostly from the generation born in the 1920s — testify through their memoirs to how it was to be Christian or Jewish, working-class or upper- middle-class, a young Nazi or a young anti-Nazi. The main characters constitute, as Jarausch explains it, ‘a stratified sample of individuals who represent a broad range of personal and collective experiences’ seen from the bottom.
The book begins with the grand-parents of this generation, and the stability of Wilhelmine Germany with its pre-1914 confidence and prosperity. War, social dislocation and crisis follow — but, oddly, the young people born as the generation of the 1920s still seem to live in peace.
The Nazi seizure of power changes things. Teenage girls are swept away by Hitler, and record his greatness in religious terms. They join the various Nazi clubs and movements with enthusiasm. Jews begin to suffer, and they record their alienation. Then the war comes, and with it the sudden ecstasy of victories beyond belief. The greatness of the Führer has no limits.
Who are these people and how were they chosen? The central group belongs to a cohort and — as Jarausch asserts, though he offers no evidence for the claim — are in some way ‘typical’ of the generation he presents. How are they identified? How many in each group? None of this is entirely established. Is there any way to say with certainty what they really did, what they added to their memoirs or erased and left out? This is a particularly unsettling question when it comes to the Nazis. Jarausch quotes from diaries and postwar recollections, but there is no way to know if those who were active Nazis tell the truth in their diaries.
Jarausch opens his chapters about the war after 1940 with the experiences of young men. The Stalingrad horrors, the terrible atrocities committed, the brutal treatment and the spread of bestial acts, enemies murdered in horrible ways as revenge. Young soldiers whom we have met and come to know in the preceding pages have been turned, or turned themselves, into killing machines. As Jarausch observes: ‘None of the memoirists admits to having been personally involved, but their texts do reveal a widespread knowledge of the project of Nazi annihilation.’
It was not just young men. Women supplied half the votes for the Nazi party and much of the public enthusiasm. Their accounts testify to Hitler’s charisma. Lore Walb gushed to her diary in October 1933: ‘I have seen our Führer! He stood in his car with his right arm raised, so serious, so strong and so great.’ In the summer of 1943, Renate Finckh participated in the ‘noble mission’ of transferring conquered territory into German land. Shocked by the dirt of the settlers, who had ‘medieval notions of hygiene’, she started to clean up the farmstead. Only by ramming her knee into the groin of the local Nazi peasant leader did she escape being raped. She was just 13.
The tragedy of the young Jews becomes clear in the 1930s. In her private school, Gisela Grothus met the daughter of a Protestant family of Jewish extraction: ‘In this manner I gained my first close school friendship with “Martchen” and often played with her.’ Jarausch — whether consciously or not — sees the Jews as by nature different; not quite German, perhaps:
The young Jew Werner Warmbrunn first befriended a ‘blond, athletic… leader of the neighbourhood gang’ and later admired a ‘free spirit’ who, as the scion of a noble Nazi family, ‘cared little for what others thought of him and his actions’.
Jarausch’s steady technique gives the story continuity, as he traces the experiences of these young people coping with their inclusion into Nazi life. On the other hand, as I say, there is no way of knowing how representative they are. Could not once enthusiastic Nazis have been tempted to distort their loyalty to the regime as part of postwar rehabilitation? Eva Peters seems to have kept a ledger of the pro- and anti-Nazi activities of people in her neighbourhood. But what does that mean? Were these merely private observations, without any consequences?
These witnesses also offer a vivid and detailed account of the end of the second world war, life in the four occupation zones and the options the young soldiers faced. Life gradually returns to normal in both East and West. But the witnesses no longer provide a unified account: as ordinary citizens in different states they do not share a central common experience. Once Germany is divided, once the Cold War begins, there is no coherent story.
That said, the chapter on ‘communist disappointment’ provides a sensitive and balanced insight into the failure of East Germany’s Socialist Unity party in 1989. Jarausch quotes East German intellectuals, many of whom believed in communism as a future, but also gives voice to the hopes and enthusiasms of the supporters of reform.
The memoirs suggest that the legal process of reunification took place over the heads of people in complex negotiations that nonetheless had major consequences for ordinary lives.
The story ends with the aged, and their memories of ‘broken’ lives. Jarausch recognises that he too has become one of the aged, as has your reviewer. The texts remain. But the real meaning cannot be assessed by simply presenting them.