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The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945, by Nicholas Stargardt, Basic Books, New York, 2015, $35

In May 1945, as Germans regarded the ruins of their devastated country, they faced history’s harsh judgment for the brutal and barbaric policies and actions of the Third Reich. At the time many Germans told Allied occupation authorities they had known nothing about the attempted extermination of the Jews or the widespread enslavement and mass murder of civilians in Poland and Russia. As early as the convening of the Nuremberg Trials in November 1945 Germans began drawing a sharp line of distinction between the “evil SS,” perpetrators of the aforementioned crimes, and the honorable Wehrmacht. The SS then, became the “alibi of the nation.” And indeed, without a strong conviction in the idea of the “clean Wehrmacht,” Germany and the NATO allies might not have been able to establish the Bundeswehr in 1955.

The “Good Germans vs. Nazis” dichotomy held up reasonably well for some 20 years, until the next German generation in the mid-1960s started questioning their parents’ accounts of life during the war. And although the immediate postwar rationalization hung on more or less for another two decades, it came increasingly under challenge. The turning point finally came in 1985, when German President Richard von Weizsäcker delivered a speech to the Bundestag proclaiming that May 8, 1945, had been the day of Germany’s liberation rather than the date of its surrender and occupation. From that point the social taboos about the Third Reich period started to crumble, and critical inquiry expanded. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust seriously undermined the assertion everyday Germans knew nothing about the genocide. Finally, between 2001 and 2004 the traveling Wehrmachtsausstellung exhibition in Germany examined the army’s complicity in the Holocaust and pretty well demolished the myth of the “clean Wehrmacht.”

Oxford professor Stargardt’s The German War offers the latest reassessment of life under the Third Reich. Rather than focusing exclusively on the experiences of either soldiers or civilians, he deftly weaves both sets of narratives into a rich and complex tapestry. Drawing from extensive archival records and the wartime letters and diaries of ordinary German citizens and soldiers, Stargardt builds his chronicle around the framework of the major military actions of the war, intertwined with stories on an individual level. Addressing such pivotal and traumatic events as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Babi Yar and Katyn massacres, Stalingrad, the large-scale bombing of German cities and the Normandy landings, he frames the key questions: Were the German people largely victims or perpetrators? What were the Germans saying during the war vs. after? How did they react as they came to understand the extent of the genocide being committed in their names? And why did they fight on as long as they did?

Stargardt strives, quite successfully, to achieve balance in his assessment. He identifies a complex and deeply rooted lack of “organic solidarity” that challenges the Nazi notion of a “national community.” But it also undermines the hypotheses of those historians who on the one hand see the Third Reich as a “consensual dictatorship,” and those who have portrayed it as a regime fighting against a continually growing sense of defeatism and social opposition. The reality was not so starkly black and white. But as Stargardt concludes, “So many German men and women played active roles in the mass organizations of the party that no sharp line can be drawn between regime and society.”

Offering essential insights into the collective German wartime psyche, The German War is an important book that will stand the test of time.

—David T. Zabecki