Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Nicholas Stargardt's The German War

There's a scene in Roman Polanski's The Pianist in which the protagonist, Władysław Szpilman, gets discovered by a Nazi captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, in the ruins of a house in Warsaw in which the former is hiding. After a tense pause in which the viewer is left guessing about the outcome of that encounter the German officer decides to hide the pianist and later even starts to regularly bring him food. Hosenfeld's actions have a certain quality that you don't normally associate with heroism, sneakiness. I remember wondering about what drove him to take such enormous risks keeping the pianist alive through the war. Did he save other jews too? For someone with a conscience how conflicting was it to dispense his duties to such a monstrous regime? I've wondered what it would be like to get into the heads of everyday Germans as they waddled through a war that they had thrust upon the world.

Nicholas Stargardt's "The German War" tries to do that. Quoting letters and diaries written by ordinary Germans through the war, the book offers a glimpse of how everyday citizens interpreted the goings-on. It's easy to think of the second world war as an episode involving wily generals, scheming mad-men, marauding war machines, and ruthless strategies, but underneath it all were a billion little human dramas being played out. The letters chosen in the book provide fascinating answers to questions I have often chewed on. What did the ordinary Germans think about their role in the war? Or about the holocaust? What did the soldiers think about invading Poland? Or later, Russia? What did liberal Germans think about the racial discourse of the time? What was the church's role in all of it? Where were the conscientious objectors?

There are people of all shades who turn up in the book. There are a few who live in denial, continuing to believe till the end that Germany was the true victim, first of Versailles, then of "World Jewry and Bolshevism" and later of the Allies' attacks. There are those that are downright evil (Goebbel's diary is quoted liberally). There are other willing folks of varying degrees of complicity who approve of the conduct of their country. There are the mere pawns of a vile system who get driven into being hapless accomplices, or as Wiesenthal called them, "desk murderers". There are the supremely lucky ones, such as one Jewish man who manages to take on an Aryan identity through the entire duration of the war. And then there are the understated heroes like Hosenfeld. None of these stories make it easier to understand the war, though. Hosenfeld, the rare hero in a messed up time, for example, lands up in a Soviet PoW camp and dies a dishonorable death, probably during the course of torture by the "good" guys of the war. Reading this book was a strange experience. It made history seem richer. It didn't make the war seem any less absurd. It convinces me that civilization is such a thin veneer, waiting for the next perfect storm or the next great manipulator to peel it off.

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