Off the Shelf: What the Germans Knew

German troops march through Warsaw, Poland, September 1939 (National Archives)
And how they experienced World War II — a review of books, including Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.


I started listening to as much media from Europe as I could a few years ago. And doing so crystallized what I found so frustrating about American press coverage of Europe.

To my ears, it seemed as if the top reporters in Washington, New York, London, and Berlin exist within the same class — that is, they generally shared the same prejudices and dispositions, and they generally subscribed to the post–Cold War orthodoxies about politics. Governments were here to facilitate the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people. Society was to become ever more secular. And ever more “cosmopolitain,” in a shallow way: cultivating an interest in foreign cultures sufficient only to fill up a drawer of take-out menus.

But the national cultures still mattered in that reporters tended to restrain their biases about the direction of history when reporting on their own country, where they had a deeper sense of social realities and of the shortcomings of their native liberal politicians. That realism would cease to operate when people went abroad. When Europeans reported on American politics, they often seemed to replicate and amplify the biases of American media for their European audience. So, too, American reporters in Europe. Stateside, many were surprised by Donald Trump’s election. But most of my European friends and family were staggered by the result. Their newspapers and radio stations had not prepared them at all.

Anyway, if you pay fanatical attention to bylines, datelines, and the character of foreign dispatches, you can can begin convincing yourself that you have a sense of whether that reporter is fluent in the local language or just hanging out with ex-pats and Anglophone members of the native establishment. The bias effect is worst where the languages are most difficult to learn. I could get mad about this, but I know people are often doing their best. And if they had the kind of language skills, sense of history, and judgment I wish they had, they probably wouldn’t be reporters but working at the top of a diplomatic service or in a more lucrative corporate gig.

So I’ve always thought contrarianism is a good starting point. A recent example: When mainstreams were saying Xi Jinnping was a liberal reformer, I thought he was probably just the opposite.

But you have to do the work.

One of my recent intentions has been to read much more German and Polish history. I’ve come to think that the conflict between these nations is profoundly important in shaping the future of Europe. And mainstream media biases on these countries are almost beyond caricature. I’ve joked that we’re now at the point where any Polish resistance to the will of the German chancellor, presumed master of Europe, is characterized as Nazism on the part of the Poles. Even the most careful contrarian can’t calibrate against that.

So, it was ze Germans this week for me. How about a general national history, to start? And then something awful from World War II, to finish? I tried to read Steven Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress (2004), It begins with a beautiful introductory essay outlining the duties of a historian writing a national history and the particular challenges of writing a German national history; one is tempted to write the whole of it as if every moment had a logic that found its final outworking in the enormities of the 20th century. He rejects that approach, wisely. Even so, those enormities shape readers as well. “Like all nations that take their destiny into their own hands, a reunified Germany must also confront its history,” Ozment writes. “Because that history has been alternately Western Europe’s most successful and threatening, the world understandably holds its breath when Germans take counsel with themselves.”

Despite all the evidence of Ozment’s being a wonderful and sensitive guide to German history, I found I kept putting his book down and not picking it up again. In his telling, I made it only to Otto beating up on the Magyars. I hope to come back to it in a few months and use it for real note-taking on German history. Maybe, dear reader, you’ll be better than my own will at holding me to such good intentions. In any case, it was just the wrong pace for me this week.

Instead of Ozment, I got my sweeping national-history fix from The Shortest History of Germany (2017), by James Hawes. The author is is often glib. The very first sentence describes the Germans as “barbarian asylum seekers” that Rome feared. There are dozens of little references to current events to help the reader through the book.

Some examples:

Back in Germania, despite the abandoned campaign, Romanisation continued apace. Cassius Dio wrote that cities were being founded. The barbarians were becoming used to holding markets, and were meeting in peaceful assemblies. This sounds rather like Dick Cheney’s idyllic dream of a post–Desert Storm Iraq, and traditionally it’s been dismissed as gross exaggeration. Recently, though, archaeologists have found clear evidence that the Romans truly were constructing Germania.


A low-wage, low-domestic-consumption, state-disciplined, state-aided, tariff-protected economy needs a fat, rich consumer economy without its own tariff barriers to buy its exports. In the 1890s, that great consumer market was Britain. Such one-sided trade relationships, though, are liable to cause friction, just as now between the US and China.

Eventually, I found this kind of fun, even though it annoyed me at first. But Hawes has virtues as a simplifier. There are a few themes running through German history that really matter to Hawes, the permanent interests that grow out of geography, resources, and rivalry.

The relationship to Rome. German warriors were used as elite guards in the Roman Empire. And in the Middle Ages, German leaders would strike uneasy relationships with the papacy. For the legitimacy the papacy could offer, a German leader might give military protection. These arrangements could distract German kings with Roman business, and it could impede the ability of Rome to govern the Church to its liking in Germania. Hawes doesn’t take it this far, but something like this dynamic still exists today, where the German ability to administrate — reflected in the church tax — seems to have a distorting effect on the Roman Church’s ability to impose, or even hold on to, traditional Catholic doctrine when it comes to marriage and divorce.

The relationship to France, the allies. When French leaders are at their absolute zenith, in Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Napoleon, or after World War II (in combination with the Allies), they end up re-creating a prosperous, westward-facing Germany that exists up to but not beyond the Elbe. I wonder if there are lessons here for Macron, if Germany can ever put a functioning government together.

The disproportionate power of East Elbia/Prussia/Junckers. Hawes recalls the attitude of Konrad Adenauer toward the type of German from over there: “Having failed to split western Germany off, he was said to close the curtains in his train compartment whenever he passed eastwards across the Elbe, muttering, Here we go, Asia again (Schon wieder Asien).”

One of the things that was most surprising and refreshing in Hawes’s book is his overweening partisanship for Germany west of the Elbe and his hatred for Prussia to the East.

One of the things that was most surprising and refreshing in Hawes’s book is his overweening partisanship for Germany west of the Elbe and his hatred for Prussia to the East. It impels him to view the unification of Germany under the Juncker figure of Otto von Bismark as a disaster for Germany. The post–1871 Germany has a double mind. The West is growing, mostly Catholic, humanistic, and industrial, and it wants to take its place as a great power with France and Britain. But the Juncker social class that dominates the military comes from the East. They are deeply pessimistic, their population is shrinking, and they fear being overwhelmed by Slavs. They are so obsessed with the problem of Poland that they are constantly tempted to cut deals with Moscow to dismember it. But then they also fear the Russians, too.

Hawes is quick to point out that it was the division within western Germany, and the relative unity of east Germany, that gave the Nazis their power, and this is being replicated today with the Alternative für Deutschland. You could read this book in one long lazy day and have at least something minimally intelligent to say about Germany for the rest of your life.

If Hawes’s book amplifies a general bias with its simplicity, Nicholas Stargardt’s book The German War (2015) settles us into the lived details. Stargardt’s aim is to give us the fullest picture yet of the German people’s experience of World War II. And his achievement is everything a nearly 700-page doorstopper should be. Stargardt picks over a dozen “dramatis personae” who represent different sections of German citizenry and delves deeply into their years-long correspondences and diary-keeping. We learn their doubts and fears, their hopes for the war, their annoyances with propaganda. And Stargardt is very sensitive about what we can infer from their silences as well. He introduces scores of other, smaller characters and cuts in the well-documented thoughts of senior government officials. Reading The German War feels like the experience of omniscience about Germany.

It’s also difficult work and depressing. There were many details about the Third Reich I did not know about, such as the relatively early beheadings of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to be drafted into military service. It is impossible not to admire their adamantine courage to be pacifists, a quality that had been lost in the surviving congregations of Germany’s radical Protestant sects.

Joseph Goebbels gave instructions to his men: ‘The primary rule is just don’t be boring. I prioritize this above everything else.’

Conditioned by years of World War II documentaries on the History Channel, I tended to assume that all German propaganda was as dramatic as the clips from Leni Refinshtal’s films, which these documentaries use so generously. It was not the case. Even in 1939, most Germans dreaded the idea of war with Britain and France. The regime was careful with these feelings and used early German victories to maximum effect.

It is no small thing to recruit the emotions and aspirations of an enormous and cultivated nation into such a long, costly war, and one that was executed with such meanness. Joseph Goebbels gave instructions to his men: “The primary rule is just don’t be boring. I prioritize this above everything else. Whatever you do, do not broadcast tedium, do not present the desired attitude on a silver platter, do not think that one can best serve the national government by playing thunderous military marches every evening.” In October 1939, the most popular prime-time radio show was the Request Concert for the Wehmarcht, on which soldiers and citizens could send out hearfelt dedications to one other.

Early in the war, Catholic medical personnel and prelates helped to expose and condemn the murder of the “mentally unfit,” and Stargardt’s’s accounts of these cases seem to confirm some of the prejudices in Hawes’s book. Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen gives brave, even incendiary sermons denouncing this government policy, and these were widely distributed. Joseph Goebbels has to convince Hitler not to have von Galen removed from his bishopric and beheaded, fearing the loss of loyalty in all of Westphalia.

But it’s depressing to see that when Hitler’s war machine finally turns on Russia, Bishop von Galen finds a way of showing his fundamental loyalty to the government, fully embracing the anti-Semitic terms encouraged by the regime, cheering the fight against “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

The contrast between the western and the eastern front is stark. In France and Austria, German soldiers are using their overinflated currency to buy artwork, rugs, fine china, and the comfort offered by prostitutes. In Poland, soldiers are raping women and then executing them, burning their homes down with their children in them. They are sending Polish men to Germany to work; if caught with German women, the men will be ritually executed in public. Stargardt traces every dip in morale as the Soviets make their first successful counterattacks

The eighth chapter begins in a haunting way:

If the German armies had disintegrated like Napoleon’s Grande Armée in the winter of 1941, and the Third Reich had sued for peace, most of the soldiers and civilians who were to die in the Second World War would have lived. Germany’s cities and the country’s infrastructure might have emerged virtually unscathed from the bombing; as in 1918, the battle had been fought beyond its own borders. There would have been tales of Nazi atrocities: of the gassing of German and Polish psychiatric patients, mass shootings of Poles and Jews, the burning of Russian and Ukrainian villages and towns and the starving to death of 2.5 million Red Army prisoners. This would already have taken Hitler’s war beyond any precedent, but far greater destruction was to come. At the beginning of 1943, most of Europe’s Jews were still alive; by the end of the year, the majority were not.

And what we’re introduced to afterward does shed some light on recent controversies. Ben Sixsmith wrote a column last week that reflects my own views on recent Polish laws governing scholarship about the Holocaust. It’s wrong for legislatures to try to govern the conclusions of scholarship. Academia and the judgment of subsequent generations of scholars are the appropriate courts for judgement in these matters. At the same time, there is something deeply bigoted and ignorant about much of the commentary that has come out in recent weeks. Angela Merkel offered the sanest comment: “Without directly interfering in the legislation in Poland, I would like to say the following very clearly as German chancellor: We as Germans are responsible for what happened during the Holocaust, the Shoah, under National Socialism [Nazism].”

Why was Poland the theater of the Holocaust? Hawes gets to the heart of the question, and the decisive factor was not native attitudes.

So why was Poland the theater of the Holocaust? Hawes gets to the heart of the question, and the decisive factor was not native attitudes. Germans had no respect for Polish attitudes, as evidenced by their policy of liquidating Poles. No, it was something else:

The SS needed somewhere no turbulent priests would interfere, where their work could be kept really secret, where European civilisation had already ceased to exist. By late 1941, with Poland and swathes of western Russia in their hands, they had just the place. When, on 20 January 1942, senior Nazi officialdom gathered to coordinate strategies for the eradication of Europe’s Jews (the so-called Endlösung, or Final Solution) at the Wannsee Conference, the SS No. 2 Reinhard Heydrich spoke pointedly of “our new prospects in the East.” In that conquered and shattered wasteland, his words implied, no one was going to object.

Poland and Hungary differ in this. Almost wherever you find a functioning Polish institution — like the Polish government in exile — you find some level of resistance to the Holocaust. In Hungary, by contrast, which had its own Fascist government, the state cooperated fully and enthusiastically.

One of the things that stands out in Stargardt’s book is the way Germans handled their knowledge of the Holocaust, and how they responded to the revelation that their war was a genocidal one. Gradually many Germans began to talk of the hardships and terrors of war that were coming to Germany as proportional responses to what they had done. Germans in 1943 were openly complaining that “if we hadn’t treated the Jews so badly, we wouldn’t have to suffer so from the terror attacks.”

One soldier’s letter that Stargardt finds vividly connects the violence on the eastern front to anticipated violence at home.

One is accustomed to male corpses, they have long belonged to the natural order. But when you still recognize the once radiant beauty among the mangled remains of women, a completely different, loving harmless life; still more, when you find children whose innocence draws my most intense love even in the darkest hours irrespective of their appearance or language. . . . You will already see — and said I shouldn’t and oughtn’t to write about.

The letter writer goes on to argue with “men who forbid their own and women in general from reading books about war,” because “you also need to have your eyes opened and need to know the danger.” Other soldiers, contemplating the possibility of Polish or Russian violence that might one day be visited on their loved ones back home, castigated themselves for their lack of required “mercilessness” in the eastern front, even as they described their unit’s burning a church where hundreds had been sheltered.

The German War is extremely readable for a book of its scope, subject, and size. But it is grim. On top of it, the kids have been battling the flu this week. And I’ve been battling the verbal noun in my Irish lessons, which I’ve barely fit in. Tá tú ag briseadh mo chroí. You are breaking my heart.

Originally I had planned to read The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and Poles in the Second World War next week. It is the same scope as that of The German War. But, I may try something else. Highmindedly, there are some unread volumes of essays by Jacques Barzun, Allen Tate, and Christopher Dawson. But it’s also spring training, games are starting. New baseball biographies are surely out.

Until next week.