An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler, by Peter Fritzsche
If a grim book about the life of ordinary people in occupied and neutral Germany sounds appealing to you, this book is certainly a very excellent one. The author has set for himself a challenging task and accomplished it with a great deal of flair–how does one convey the complex experience of people under the rule of a genocidal dictator while doing justice to the complexity of the people involved as well? There is, though, a deep tension at the heart of this work, and that is the way that the author voices the claim (at the end of this book) about how difficult it is to convey the truth of life under German dominance and occupation while itself being discussed in fluent and detailed prose. The book does not demonstrate the broken words of speaking about the Holocaust even as it says that survivors had a difficult time conveying their experiences. To be sure, writing about a horrific event decades after the fact as someone who was not a participant or eyewitness does make it easier to find the words, but it also undercuts the author’s claims that words cannot be found to talk about something when the author demonstrates himself very able to grasp and communicate the complexity of the times.
This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into nine chapters. The author begins with a preface and introduction that set the ambitions of this work to record what life was life for ordinary people in Europe. After that the author discusses talk in wartime and what it meant depending on where one happened to be (1) as well as the understanding even before World War II that Hitler meant war (2), which proved to be the case. The author reflects on the thoughts that people had about there being a coming authoritarian age (3) as well as what it required to live with the Germans (4) during the time. The author looks at Germans themselves in the invasion of Russia (5) as well as a dark chapter on the fate of the Jews in Hitler’s Europe (6) before discussing the complex views about God that people had during the time (7). Finally, the author discusses the destruction of humanity that was involved in World War II (8) as well as the broken words of those who were caught up in the meat grinder (9) before ending with notes and an index.
This book is a classic example of the benefits that can come from a war & society approach to military history. The author clearly and obviously wishes to avoid focusing attention on the elites of the time, as many of them have been extensively written about. This is clearly an attempt to provide a history of World War II from below, and it works well. There are a lot of poignant references in this book to the diaries and letters and other writings that survived when the people who wrote them were snuffed out in some death camp, as is often the case here. The author also not only seeks to explore what would seem like obvious questions of civilian life (the views of German soldiers or Jews facing extermination) but also questions about how neutral citizens in places like Switzerland handled the threat of World War II and accommodated or resisted the historical trends that were going on at the time. The cross-currents that affected Europe during World War II demonstrate the complexity and the humanity of everyone who had to deal with it, and prevents us from making comforting statements that would distance ourselves and our own troubled times from reflection on the evils that mankind is subject to.