An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler
© 2016 Peter Fritzsche
That crowds that cheered Neville Chamberlain’s return to England with a promise of peace in his hand are easy to condemn in hindsight. But no one in the 21st century experienced the Great War that loomed in that crowd’s mind — the war that emptied villages, destroyed families, and snuffed out millions of young lives before their time. Modern technology promised to complete what the Great War had started: military strategies, aviation experts, and the common chatter of civilians were uniform in their belief that mass bombings would obliterate the continent. Those fears were both new and rational: World War 2 was the first time the general populace looked at the prospects for war and realized that THEY would be the target, not just the men at the front lines. But while civilians would be the greatest casualties in the war to come, the conflict would be much different than expected, nothing like a twenty-year-old re-run. What Hitler sought was less a return of the German Empire, and more of the imposition of a new world order. In An Iron Wind, Peter Fritzsche uses the letter and literature written during the war to experience the first attempts to create this malicious order.
An Iron Wind is definitely not a conventional history of World War 2, and not only because it focuses on society rather than politics and military movement. The book often seems like a gathering of esoterica, at least until the Holocaust-heavy second half, because Fritsche covers sundry topics like the imposition of German time zones in France, patterns of graffiti throughout the war, and the spike in popularity of Tolstoy’s War and Peace which followed Hitler’s invasion of Soviet Russia. Fritzsche often emphasizes, however, Hitler’s break with the past and his desire to create a new vision of the state. Hitler mocked Switzerland as a museum antique, a fragile artifact of Victorian democracy that needed to accept the new way or prepare to be crushed by it. Fritzsche offers a view of the Holocaust that its atrocities were a deliberate baptism in blood for the new way Hitler wanted to create; to kill millions by cold, efficient bureaucracy — with deliberation and a vast array to dedicated infrastructure – was to forcefully reject all the mores of the past, and particular ideals like universal brotherhood. While fascism in Italy and Spain could coexist with the church, linked by common enemies like communism, Nazism regarded Christianity as enfeebling. Hitler and like-minded ideologues promoted a view of Germany as being encircled by enemies and riddled from within by others; his mission was to awaken and mobilize German to the threat, marshalling them for combat, with victory at any cost. Fritzsche also suggests that when Hitler launched his invasion of Poland, it was for him less a battle between states than a fight between tribes, as the conflict allowed him to target not just the Polish state (which he methodically disassembled), but diverse groups like the Romani (“gypsies”) which he held in contempt.
Although this is by no means essential reading for World War 2, it does explore topics that are obscure enough to have not been mentioned much elsewhere, but still have relevance for understanding the plight of people who were trying to make sense of what was happening both at home and across the continent.