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Book review

German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich (2011). F. C. Tubach

German Voices is an important contribution to a relatively overlooked niche of Third Reich literature: the experiences of ordinary German citizens. Tubach presents original research, comprising of interviews with German and US residents who lived during Hitler’s rule. This information is presented both as short excerpts supporting the themes of a given chapter, and as a selection of full stories illuminating contrasting experiences. This book does not aim to vindicate the lack of resistance, or the active collaboration, of ordinary citizens. It does illustrate that resistance was very difficult, and thereby raises a key ethical question: Is a human being dutybound, at risk of his own life and his family’s, to protect the lives of strangers?

Born in 1930, Frederic C. Tubach grew up in Nazi Germany. Now he teaches German at the University of California, Berkeley. His 2001 book, An Uncommon Friendship, explored his friendship with a Holocaust survivor, when both men had emigrated to the US. German Voices the lives of ordinary Third Reich citizens. This is a wide-ranging book, offering historical perspective on less-studied aspects of life in Nazi Germany; substantial life-stories collected from interviews; and the contemporary American or German context in which the interviews were collected. Tubach weaves these strands into a narrative that will compel anyone curious about the lives of ordinary citizens during extraordinary times.

German Voices preempts early any expectations about tales of heroism – though in fact the book does offer a couple. The Introduction states: “In 1933, collective resistance became impossible for non-Nazi Germans; individual resistance was a form of suicide.” Tubach explores the interplay of brilliantly staged propaganda events and of violence that occurred, from the beginning (Dachau was inaugurated in early 1933) and increasingly, away from public view. “The subtle interplay of show — a kind of Nazi virtual reality — on the one hand, and violent oppression, on the other, proved very effective. The vast majority of Germans were caught in the tight vise of persuasion counterpoised against coercion. Options and alternatives disappeared in very short order.”

The book’s five chapters consist of the author’s recollections, interviewees’ stories, and historical commentary on four subjects: the economy, the Jungvolk and Hitler Youth, the Holocaust, and WW2. Chapters Four and Five allow individuals to narrate at length their experiences during peace and war respectively.

Tubach reminds us how successful Hitler’s Four-Year Plan was at resurrecting a country beaten down by economic crises, a gutted middle class, a changing world economy, chronic unemployment, and war debt:

“Work was promised and work was created. Now we know the reasons why work was created. But you have to see it from the point of view of the father of a family, who had been unemployed for three, four, five, seven years and had to make do with a few pennies from social welfare. The Nazis gave him a uniform and boots. Hunger is what churned around in my stomach and intestines. Mother cried because she was unable to feed us four children.”

Other interviewees share their experiences of Nazi socioeconomic programmes such as Strength Through Joy, which sponsored novel cultural experiences and vacations for workers. Strength Through Joy had “little explicit political content.” Meanwhile, sports organisations tried actively to “erase individual identity and expression through collective strength.”

To a country ravaged by economic turbulence, the Nazis’ economic promises, on which they to some degree delivered, were often sufficient to build allegiance. One of the author’s relatives, “a gentle old woman, wrote ‘Heil Hitler’ at the bottom of the page of each of her poems. Her world was simple. She liked Hitler because he fed the poor.” Elsewhere, Tubach observes: “Many Germans, their roots deeply embedded in Christian ethics, were originally attracted to Nazism because of the movement’s social programmes to provide for the poor and the sick.”

Tubach explores the various ways in which the Nazis controlled reality – both through repression, and through manufacturing their own alternative. The nationalisation and repression of the press and other media is wellknown. Tubach also offers insights into the brilliant parades and unanimously enthusiastic crowds familiar to us from Nazi documentaries: “[The] large numbers [at rallies] did not necessarily appear spontaneously; rather, Nazi organisers closed schools, offices, and often factories in advance. and ordered the local population to appear at these events. Hannelore Schmidt, wife of the former chancellor of the Federal Republic, Helmut Schmidt, notes that attendance at the rallies was more or less mandatory.”

The chapter on the Hitler Youth organisations opens with this insight: “The older generation were impressed by Hitler’s economic gains; for the younger generation, Hitler himself was the draw… His presentations to the young were performance-oriented rather than content-driven, effectively neutralising any critical reflections that might have arisen.”

The author’s recollections, and excerpts from interviews, illustrate the quasi-religious nature of these rituals, and the role the Hitler Youth played in perpetuating the Hitler myth. As a 10-year-old member of the Jungvolk (Hitler Youth Junior), Tubach recited the mantra: “[Hitler’s] stature reaches the very stars, but deep down he is just like you and me.” Hitler Youth boys memorised a stylised version of Hitler’s history.

This version was aligned with the highly redacted, sometimes inaccurate, biography that Hitler himself presented in Mein Kampf: a version that the Nazi authorities promoted as the only acceptable one. (In Austria, post-Anschluss, for instance, Brigitte Hamann notes that the authorities made efforts to erase records about the vagrant young Hitler’s actual residences in Vienna.) Hitler himself participated actively in this mythmaking, remarking in 1930: “People should not know who I am. They should not know where I come from and from which family.” If Hitler demanded that his subjects sacrifice their individual and familial identities, he was the first to undertake this step – astutely realising that a man of the people must erase his personal history, that his personal life must be conducted away from the public eye, reinforcing the myth of the appealing bachelor.

This myth of the man who originated from nowhere, and by his own efforts became a demigod, helps explain why, even at the end of WW2 – when Allied bombing had reduced many German cities to ruins and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, when Hitler had sacrificed millions of German soldiers to his own vanity and stubbornness, when the borders of the ephemeral German Empire had shrunk back to the capital – so many Germans remained loyal to Hitler. A few years of real prosperity, and a decade of fantastical propaganda, had convinced them that Hitler was invincible, was merely waiting – as he claimed – for the right moment to unleash on the Allies his latest miracle weapon.

Anecdotes from the Hitler Youth chapter illustrate the intoxicating effect that power had on the privileged young members of these Nazi organisations. One former Hitler Youth leader observes: “There is no way to explain to someone raised in the spirit of democracy what it means to a sixteen-year-old to lead 480 young Germans and to march in front of them in a parade.”

The Reichspogromnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, “marked the beginning of political consciousness for many Germans,” and made war a real possibility. To the pogrom itself, the typical German response, Tubach says, was one of scepticism: “Anti-Semitism— that’s fine, but not like that.” Again, dissent was not really an option: not only Jews, but many gentiles sympathetic with Jews lost their jobs after this crackdown.

Even under such conditions, heroism emerged, often in the form of individuals merely performing their duties conscientiously. A policeman in Kleinheubach, the small town where the author grew up, awoke on 09 November, 1938, to find SA men vandalising Jewish homes and shops. Despite explicit orders not to interfere with this activity, the policeman intervened to mitigate the damage caused by the rowdies.

If most Germans were reluctant were helpless participants in the Reichspogromnacht, this was even truer for WW2. Most Germans would have preferred to stay home and enjoy the prosperity Hitler had created – though partly on the back of forced labour and accumulating massive debt. However, even early in the war, when the Nazis went from triumph to triumph, expressing doubts about Nazi victory was a punishable offence. Germans innovated ways to express their scepticism. As the tide turned, Germans sheltered in the air-raid shelters, Luftschutzraum, abbreviated LSR. Witty Germans rendered LSR as: Lernt schnell Russisch (Learn Russian quickly). Similarly, the promise Hitler had made when passing his Four-Year Plan – “Give me four years and you won’t recognise Germany” was considered fulfilled, given the relentless and devastating Allied bombing of Germany. Such anecdotes prove two things: Germans do have a sense of humour; and even in the most repressed regimes, citizens find ways to express dissent.

Tubach traces the steps involved in the Final Solution: beginning with the gradually growing power of the secret police organisations. The 1930s involved a gradual transfer of power from  the SA to the SS and Gestapo; eventually, the Gestapo would have 32,000 secret, well-trained, highly-trained agents. This ever-watchful organisation chastised any criticism of the regime with draconian punishment: e.g. in 1944 pastor Josef Muller, who made a joke about a soldier’s wish to be “buried with a picture of Hitler and Göring on each side, so that he could die like Jesus on the cross,” was executed.

The Gestapo’s relatively small size was supplemented by a much larger network of informers, who often exploited the police state to air or avenge petty private grievances.

Tubach also offers anecdotal insights into the degree to which the Final Solution was screened from its victims, not to mention from ordinary citizens. Many Jews really believed they were being relocated; wealthier individuals had their hair done as before a vacation, and demanded first-class tickets on the train. There are many interesting details, too, regarding the chemists and doctors working at labour and death camps, and the elaborate measures taken to preserve secrecy about the kind of work ongoing there. Most Germans, therefore, claims Tubach, became aware of the Holocaust only when the US army posted photographs. While it remains a contentious question whether ordinary Germans knew about the Holocaust while it was ongoing, Tubach’s perspective is compelling and credible.

The two final chapters offer the lifestories of a range of individuals living in Nazi Germany: farmers and tradesmen, National Socialists and political dissidents, farmers and aristocrats, and soldiers writing home. Tubach has collected the full wartime correspondence of several soldiers varying in rank, location of primary posting, and political conviction. There are letters an officer wrote home to his wife; there are letters that two dissident artists, one posted on the eastern front, the other in France, wrote to one another. These letters record the Germans’ encounters with the Russian peasants’ incredible poverty; their responses to the brutality of Operation Barbarossa; the tedium and privations of the front; and the hope of victory, increasingly narrowing to a hope that the writer might someday be reunited with his family.

Tubach says one of his motives in German Voices was to offer a forum to ordinary German citizens, whose stories are less-known in the Third Reich literature. German Voices fulfills this aim, constituting an important document that should supplement and refine our knowledge of how dictatorships gain and keep power. German Voices also invites the reader to examine the numerous ways in which ordinary individuals can be coopted into repressive, belligerent, destructive regimes. Read German Voices for free here. Read in soft copy to save trees and save money.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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