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Witnesses of War: Children's Lives under the Nazisby Nicholas Stargardt
The Home Front
Germans at war
Janina came out of the privy at the bottom of her grandparents’ garden on the morning of 1 September 1939 to see two planes circling overhead. The sound of their machine guns opening up brought her parents, grandparents and brothers running out of the house to join her. Then they all rushed back inside again to listen to the radio. They just caught the announcement of the German attack on Poland, which had begun at daybreak, then the voice faded away as the batteries died. “Grandpa turned the switch off and looked at our anguished faces,” ten-year-old Janina noted in her diary at the end of that long day. “He knelt in front of the picture of Jesus Christ and started to pray aloud.” They joined him in the Lord’s Prayer. Janina had been expecting to return with her parents from the little village of Borowa-Góra, where they had spent the summer holidays with her grandparents, to Warsaw for the start of school on 4 September, and had been happily anticipating the set of new school books they had promised to buy her. The ten-year-old knew that something momentous had just occurred, but had no images yet of war. Even those adults who had lived through the First World War in Poland could have no conception of what the second would be like.
That September the start of the new autumn term was seriously disrupted across Europe. In Germany, schools remained closed at the end of the summer holidays and children hung around the gates to catch a glimpse of reservists as they poured in to register at these temporary mobilisation centres. In the rural calm of the Eifel, west of the Rhine, two little girls enjoyed the envy of all their friends for being allowed to stand in the village square with a bag of apples and throw them to the passing troops. Unfortunately, for many older children, like sixteen-year-old Gretel Bechtold, the excitement soon died down: the French fired no shots at the West Wall and soon she had to go back to school.
As street lights were turned off and windows blacked out, Germany’s towns and cities were plunged into a night-time darkness they had not experienced at night since the pre-industrial era. In Essen, little girls started pretending to be the nightwatchman who patrolled the streets reminding people to conceal their lights by calling out “Blackout! Blackout!” All too soon classes began again. Dangling gas masks and satchels over their shoulders on the way to school, many children found they had to write assignments when they got there about blacking out and other measures of civil defence against air attack. What with trams and trucks colliding in the unlit streets and pedestrians missing their footing as they stepped off the kerb, the most significant change to strike one Hamburg boy, after four months at war, was the increase in traffic accidents.
In September 1939, there were no scenes in Germany reminiscent of the jubilation of August 1914, however short-lived and partial that mood of public ecstasy may in fact have been. Even strongly Nazi families were unsure how to view the outbreak of war. As fourteen-year-old Liese listened to the radio broadcast of the Führer’s Reichstag speech in Thuringia in central Germany, she squealed with pleasure. But after only two weeks of war, she was asking her father what he thought the chances were of bringing things to a speedy conclusion:
If we get into a real war with England, don’t you think it will last at least two years? For once he starts a war the Englishman throws everything into it and mobilises his whole empire, for the Englishman has never lost a war yet.
Her father, a reserve officer who strongly supported the regime, agreed. As might be expected from someone with experience of the terrible blood-letting of the First World War, he told her that France remained the key. Meanwhile, Liese’s mother purchased a good-quality radio, a Telefunken-Super, and they set up a map of Poland next to it so that—just like in schools across the Reich—they could mark the advance of the German troops on it with little swastika flags after each news broadcast.
When the German attack began at dawn on 1 September, the Wehrmacht found the Polish Army still in the midst of mobilisation. With the advantage of surprise, the Luftwaffe destroyed many of the 400 largely obsolete planes of the Polish Air Force on the ground, gaining immediate air supremacy. Thereafter, its 2,000 aircraft practised their new tactics of war, giving battlefield support to the German Army, while its sixty well-armed divisions swept over the borders from East Prussia in the north, Slovakia and the recently occupied Czech lands in the south, and along a broad front in the west stretching from Silesia to Pomerania. Defending such borders was impossible, and the Polish High Command abandoned its attempt to do so on 6 September. Even the attempt by the Poles to defend the major industrial and urban centres involved spreading their forty ill-equipped divisions and 150 tanks too thinly; the Wehrmacht could pick out its battleground and concentrate its 2,600 tanks there.
As Germans flocked to the cinemas, far more eager to see the newsreels of the war—the Wochenschau—than the feature films which
followed, their senses were bombarded with a new and sensually stimulating kind of photography. Aerial photography had been tried out since the First World War, but now the spectators could feel themselves being swept downwards in a furious nosedive, at a speed of over 330 miles per hour. For once, police reports showed satisfied audiences, as they viewed the Polish campaign through the eyes of the German dive-bomber pilots. Small children in Essen queued up to jump off the chicken coop, screeching “Stuka!” as they mimicked their screaming wail. By late September 1939, the well-informed American journalist William Shirer could find no one in Berlin, “even among those who don’t like the regime, who sees anything wrong in the German destruction of Poland.”
Marion Lubien from Essen was one of many German teenagers who kept war diaries. On 3 September, she noted the capture of Tschenstochau (CzeÛstochowa), on 6 September, “the industrial area of Upper Silesia virtually unharmed in German hands,” and on the 9 September her bulletin read, “Lodz occupied. The Führer in Lodz.” But this fourteen-year-old girl kept to the clipped and stilted language of the Wehrmacht bulletins to the home front. Like most of the rest of the country, she may have been glued to the radio, fascinated by the first newsreel images, and temporarily intoxicated with a sense of victorious power—but the war itself remained distant and unemotional. Not until the first bombs fell near her house in October 1940 would her chronicle of the war leap into the first person.
On 5 October Warsaw surrendered, bringing hostilities to a close. But by mid-October, Poland had already become a non-subject in Germany and an undercover reporter for the German Social Democrats could find “hardly a single person who still spoke of the ‘victory’.” Some hoped that now that the dispute over Poland had been settled with the country’s dismemberment, peaceful relations with the Western powers could be restored. And Hitler played to such sentiments when he addressed the German Reichstag on 6 October. Insisting once again that he had no territorial claims against Britain and France, the Führer suggested that, with Poland’s demise, the casus belli had also disappeared. This was a line the German public was more likely to appreciate than the French or British. When Daladier and Chamberlain rejected Hitler’s olive branch, many German citizens joined Liese and her father in concluding that it was primarily British intransigence that was preventing a settlement. By mid-October, children were singing ditties about Chamberlain in the street and mimicking his famous habit of carrying an umbrella.
However much the regime might insist that the British and French declaration of war on 3 September, rather than Germany’s attack on Poland, had started a conflict which the German government was only too anxious to end, nothing could conceal the fact that the war was not yet popular at home. Even some of his military commanders had openly warned Hitler that Germany could not expect to defeat France and Britain. Hitler’s foreign policy triumphs had done much to realign public opinion during the three years before the war, but they had not removed the fear of war itself. When German troops had marched across the Rhine in 1936, working-class districts, renowned for their earlier anti-Nazi sentiments, had hung out swastika flags for the first time. Few objected to rolling back the conditions the Allies had imposed on Germany and Austria after their defeat in 1918. Hitler’s success in reversing Bismarck’s “Little German” unification of 1871 by drawing Austria back into a “Greater German Reich” was an achievement German and Austrian Social Democrats could also endorse. After all, they had themselves attempted it at the end of the First World War, only to be thwarted by the Allies. Whether they believed in the pan-German creed of bringing all Germans “home” into the Reich, or in restoring Prussia’s and Austria’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century territories at the expense of the East European successor states, or simply subscribed to Nazi demands for colonial “living space,” by 1938 and 1939 few Germans objected in principle to Hitler’s demands against Czechoslovakia or Poland. Success had nurtured both ambition and a growing complacency among the population at large.
But the Czech crisis had lasted long enough—from May to October 1938—to reveal just how much the German people feared a new conflict on the scale of the First World War. At the height of the crisis, the regime staged a grand military parade in Berlin on 27 September 1938 to impress the world with Germany’s might, but there were no crowds, with passers-by literally ducking into doorways to avoid the spectacle. When the Munich Agreement was signed three days later, Hitler might storm in private that he had been “cheated” of his war, but almost everyone else was deeply relieved. Goebbels had to give explicit instructions to the German press to remind the population of the “world historic” achievement of Munich, to counter the universal rejoicing that war had been averted.
What Germans had feared in September 1938 came to pass in September 1939. As Hitler set out to address the Reichstag on 1 September, formations of storm troopers lined both sides of his route from the Reich Chancellery to the Kroll Opera House, but the crowds stayed away. In other big cities it was the same: the streets remained empty and deserted, as the period of painless and peaceful Führer miracles abruptly ended. At work, at school and at home, Germans gathered around the radio instead.
Images of the blood-letting and chronic shortages of the First World War haunted national consciousness, and people of all walks of life, one Social Democrat noted wryly in his secret report on public opinion, “speak far more about provisioning than about politics. Each person is entirely taken up with how to get his ration. How can I get something extra?” After only a few weeks of rationing, the Sunday trains were full of people leaving the towns to go “hamstering” for foodstuffs in the countryside. Teenagers did not even bother to change out of their Hitler Youth uniforms before going. Ditties started to circulate in Cologne about the utter failure of the local Gauleiter, Josef Grohé, to set a good example for modest living, while neighbours began to fear that someone in their block of flats would denounce them to the police for having succeeded in laying by soap, clothes or—best of all—shoes. People who had lost their savings twice before feared wartime inflation and rushed to turn their cash into anything that could be traded later on. All unrationed luxury items, such as furs, swiftly sold out. By October 1939, the conviction was already growing that the country would not be able to hold out as long as in the last war “because there’s already nothing left to eat.” Only the soldiers, everyone agreed, had enough.
Grumbling and anxiety do not make a revolution, but the Gestapo was taking no chances and had swiftly arrested all the former Reichstag deputies from the Left. Yet socialists, who had hoped for the last six years that war would bring down the Nazi dictatorship, had to admit in late October 1939 that it would take a great deal more than a few shortages: “Only if famine takes hold and has worn their nerves down, and, above all, if the Western powers succeed in gaining successes in the West and in occupying large portions of German territory, may the time for a revolution begin to ripen.” Not until early 1945 would such conditions prevail, and by then much had happened to make a German revolution an improbable outcome of this war. In this respect at least, Hitler would have his wish: there would be “no second 1918.”
For now, the government did all it could to reassure the population that the war had made little change to life. While snaking lines of
London children, cardboard labels slung round their necks as they clutched their small suitcases and gas masks, provided the media with its first vivid images of the British war, in Germany there was no mass evacuation of children from the cities. Hermann Göring was so confident in the power of the Luftwaffe he had built up, he joked that if a single German city was bombed, then people could call him “Meier.” Still hopeful of negotiating a peace settlement with Britain, Hitler explicitly reserved to himself any decision to commence what he called the “terror bombing” of its civilian population.
Fearing the Luftwaffe’s air supremacy, the British government was not prepared to launch air strikes on German civilian or industrial targets for fear of sparking German retaliation. So, despite all the evidence of German bombing raids on Polish cities, during the first winter of the war, the RAF largely confined itself to dropping millions of leaflets on Germany explaining the causes of the war in the hope of winning over German hearts and minds. As Carola Reissner picked them up in Essen, her bewilderment turned to outrage. “They are apparently trying to inflame the population,” she wrote to her relatives, adding meaningfully, “these are obviously Jewish ploys.” The thought came naturally, for she had heard for years how the Jews had manipulated and tricked their way to power and influence in Germany. In a barrage of publications, including the lavish photo collection of Die verlorene Insel (The Doomed Island), German propaganda extended these images to Britain, revealing the Jewish huckster, the freshly minted aristocrat of city finance, as the true enemy who was busily winding up the creaking clockwork mechanism of the English class system and exploiting Germany’s “blood brothers” across the North Sea.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Stargardt
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