Book Review: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–-1945 by Nicholas Stargardt

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

There have been thousands if not hundreds of thousands of books written about World War II and Germany since 1945. There have even been social histories written in the seemingly never ending attempts to fathom how a nation like Germany supported Hitler and his murderous regime. The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–-1945 seeks to explain not the how, but the what. As in what was it like under the Nazis and what did the average German see and feel.
The book is a pretty hefty tome at 570 pages of text. It includes a list of maps, illustrations, a Dramatis Personae, almost 70 pages of notes, a 44 page bibliography, and an index. The book is organized chronologically into 16 chapters in 6 parts not including the introduction and epilogue. There are three different sections of illustrations and the map section at the front has some first class maps.

This is not the typical book about the German people during the war. I have always had the impression that most books that discuss the “average” German in World War II are trying to do one of two things indict the Germans as a whole or apologize for them. This book does neither. It presents portraits of individuals while also discussing Germany as a whole.

It is probably impossible to fully imagine what life was like under Nazism unless you actually experienced it. Even those who experienced communism had a different experience because the nature of communist regimes was different than that of the Nazi’s. What many people fail to appreciate and this book makes perfectly clear is that the Nazis were an organic outgrowth of German experience in the early 20th century. That does not make Germany special, if anything, it makes them unlucky. This book only reinforces something I have thought for a long time. The rise of Nazism could have happened in any country given the same circumstance, but it did happen in Germany.

What you appreciate through the portraits of the individual presented in this book is that the motivation of everybody is different. It was possible to support the German war effort without supporting the extermination of the Jews as contradictory as that may sound. There were those that loved their country but hated the Nazis just as those that loved there country and were ardent Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. I think what came through most clearly is that many Germans knew what the Reich was doing and chose to ignore it. Does that make them culpable as a people? To that I have no answer because I have not experienced the unparalleled oppression wartime Germany lived under. What is clear is that ever German, Nazi supporter or not just tried to get by in the face of Nazi oppression.
Perhaps what comes out most clearly in the book is that opposition was pointless once the Nazis solidified their power, no German wanted a repeat of 1918, and virtually all were willing to fight to the bitter end rather than surrender. The Germans were not a monolithic mass of Nazis but they were also not riddled by dissent. The Germans were normal people experiencing an abnormal regime and trying to get by as best they could. If nothing else, this book should put to bed the myth of inherent German militarism that even today clutters up history books.

I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking to understand why the Germans fought so hard in World War II. It is neither sympathetic nor accusatory, it is simply descriptive. The research that went into the book is top notch and Dr. Stargardt has written the, to date, definitive history of the wartime German experience. An outstanding book.