Life and Death in the Third Reich

Life and Death in the Third Reich
© 2009 Peter Fritzsche
384 pages

A few years ago I read Peter Fritzsche’s An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler, which examined how the Nazi conquest of most of Europe permeated into its culture in the late thirties and forties. Life and Death in the Third Reich does something similar, but focuses more sharply on the culture of Germany. In particular, Fritzsche explores the creation of the Volksgemeinschaft, “The People’s Community”, and how Hitler and his kameraden transformed the land of poets and thinkers into an abattoir for two thirds of Europe’s Jews. He draws heavily on letters and diaries, to follow how German identity became more politicized and the Aryan myth embraced — to the detriment of Germany’s Jews, who became an Other even to Germans who did not accept Hitler’s hostility towards them. It’s both sobering and insightful.

Arguably the most important aspect of Life and Death is the appeal of the People’s Community. Although this can be defined narrowly as a racial community, the idea of the People’s Community came into being at the outbreak of the Great War, when Germans rallied together regardless of religion or politics to defend Germany against its encircling foes. The volksgemeinschaft was a sustaining vision of German society in which everyone included as ‘the people’ were united, along with their interests; capitalists and labor would not be foes arrayed in opposition against one another, but would exist in solidarity: their identity as a middle-class Berliner or a working-class Frankfurter would be overwhelmed by their status as members of the Volk. It’s easy to understand the appeal of this: virtually everyone wants to Belong to something greater than them; it’s why tribes and nation-states (not to be confused with more ideologically-rooted states like DC and the Soviet Union) exist. Most of us also despair of strife and antagonism; we long for peace, and for the people of Germany this would have been a particularly salient desire, accustomed as they were to goon squads of various political parties fighting in the streets, intimidating not only their rivals but the un-aligned who just wanted a cup of coffee. Hitler’s attempted to create this community both through the ideology of German aryan-ness, envisioning Germans as a distinct and superior Race among Europe and the world’s populations, and through politics and economics: fascism promised to align economic interests with those of the nation and its people, and most of society was ‘coordinated’ along the lines of national socialism — schools, civic groups, unions, etc. The idea of national unity was so popular that even those who disliked Hitler and others in the government supported the system he was creating, and the revolution in thinking and doing that he was imposing. It was suddenly springtime for Germany — Germany was restored from its losses-by-treaty twenty years before, redeemed from the shame of Versailles, recovering from the Weimar financial chaos. Such enthusiasm made it easy to ignore those had suddenly been determined to be un-völkisch, chiefly the Jews — especially after the war started. Fritzsche documents the irregular growth of the Holocaust, as both Hitler’s plans and his timing to effect them were greatly altered by Germany’s successes or losses in the fields. By the time the war turned badly for Germany, virtually all of German Jewry was gone, and the concerns of German citizens had turned to themselves — suddenly the target of Anglo-American bombers. Although there was widespread knowledge of something happening in the east (Germans participated in public auctions of Jewish goods, and the sprawling system of export and death required civilian logistical support), the campaign of ‘othering’ the Jews and the collective hardship of enduring the war (one perpetuated, propaganda said, by those wicked capitalist Jews in the West and the wicked communist Jews in the East) diluted the impact. It reminded me a bit of the revelations of grotesque prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib in the immediate post-9/11 period: most Americans would have ordinarily been scandalized and horrified to learn this was happening in their name, but between the overwhelming memory of 9/11 and the sudden war-footing mentality, virtually no one cared. It was happening to reichsfeinden, so — best let The People in Charge handle it. They know what they’re doing, surely.

Life and Death in the Third Reich is a most interesting book, disturbing in its study of how ordinary men, women, and children could become the willing builders of a revolution and a state so terrible that, 90 years later, they remain the face of evil in the west, despite far more murderous states existing then (Soviet Russia) and afterwards (red China, Mao to the present). Moderns who believe themselves too savvy for this sort of thing, who believe they’d never go along with it, are fooling themselves: we all have hunger that politicians claim they can fill, and we will ignore the poison provided it’s coated with enough sugar. We will happily “other” people: in the past two years people have grown to hate one another for not wearing masks, or for not accepting Pfizer’s jab as their lord and savior –and we will ignore great offenses given sufficient distraction or incentive. Beyond the serious lessons offered by this book, it also offers a glimpse into the everyday live of Germans, sharped as it was by Nazism — creating newfound support for hobbies like genealogy (necessary to prove one’s Aryan credentials) and photography, for documenting the ‘people’s revolution’ as it happened, of being both participants in and documenters of, ‘History in the making’.

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933- 1945. Milton Mayer.
Black Edelweiss: A Memoir of Combat and Conscience by a Soldier of the Waffen-SS, Johann Voss. One of the more eye-opening and disturbing books I’ve ever read: Voss’s family were middle class and respectable, and disliked Hitler — but they regarded the dangers he was a safeguard against as more important than his own limitations.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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1 Response to Life and Death in the Third Reich

  1. Pingback: October 2022 in Review | Reading Freely

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