CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — World War II in Europe was an assault on civilians even more than a clash of arms. Civilians were uprooted, enslaved and massacred under a long Nazi occupation, with more lives lost there than in the fighting.
So how did these civilians come to grips with the cruelty and violence all around them? How did they wrestle with questions of humanity and even God?
“An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler” is being published in October by Basic Books.
Book cover image courtesy of Basic Books
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University of Illinois history professor Peter Fritzsche “listened in” on their wartime talk by way of diaries, letters and other first-person accounts. He describes what he found in “An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler,” being published in October by Basic Books.
Fritzsche’s account is focused on everyday lives and the perceptions of those living them. “I really try to stay at the street level. I try to get into the stairwells, try to watch people watching their neighbors through windows, onto courtyards.”
In the process, he finds some heroics, but also much despair, self-absorption and selfishness, as these civilians look at themselves and their frailties, compromises, betrayals and collaborations.
“People on the whole looked smaller in World War II,” Fritzsche said. “Lines of trust broke down, solidarity broke down, and people ruminated on that. It was an introspection into the soul of oneself and one’s neighbors … (asking) who was a friend, who was a neighbor, who was a stranger, who can we trust and who can’t we?”
Much of Fritzsche’s account is drawn from the writings of civilians in Paris and Warsaw, Poland – including the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw, where “everyone seemed to keep a diary.” He casts attention on Paris because France represents the German occupation for many Americans.
He focuses on Warsaw because Poland was “the heart of the war,” the site of what he terms a Polish genocide and then of the Jewish Holocaust, and “where the Germans learned to do everything” they would do elsewhere. It was a country where “the dangerousness of the Germans was a presence that seeped into the texture of everyday life,” and where nearly one in five civilians died, and nearly all the Jews.
The French did not face the same level of brutality, but were much more absorbed with what the German victory and occupation meant, Fritzsche said. They struggled with the question of whether this was a short-term condition or the beginning of a new era.
In the Warsaw ghettos, where Jews were walled off by the Germans before being shipped to death camps, a lot of intellectual labor centered around the question of God, Fritzsche said. About one-third of Polish Jews would lose their faith, and others would come to see their God as crippled, he said. “Some poets in the Warsaw ghetto put God on trial and put him into a gas chamber.”
Fritzsche adds another wrinkle to the God discussion by examining the correspondence of self-proclaimed religious soldiers on Germany’s eastern front, writing for pro- and anti-Nazi Christian newsletters later in the war, as their army was in retreat.
“An Iron Wind” is not the first time that Fritzsche has looked to the first-person accounts of average citizens as an essential source for understanding history. Diaries and letters were also a central part of his "Life and Death in the Third Reich," which attempted to trace the appeal of Nazism among Germans.
He also has written about a prolific German diarist, and translated for a book detailing the exchange of letters between four generations of a German family separated by Nazi-era politics.
What comes through in “An Iron Wind” is the corrosive effect of the occupation on many who endured it. Saul Friedländer, the leading American historian on the Holocaust, calls it a “searing book.”
“The war erased whole horizons of empathy as people crouched within their own little worlds of tenuous security,” Fritzsche writes. Adapting to physical and mental borders established by their occupiers, and seeing the need to remain silent, they “accepted the proposition that their own survival depended in large part on the death sentences meted out to others.”
“Whenever we return to the terrible years 1939-1945,” Fritzsche writes, “we are forced to wonder about what it is that makes us human and frail.”