'An Iron Wind' is an unsparing, riveting examination of life under Hitler

This is a book about how people behave when a kind of moral plague sweeps through their world.

An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler By Peter Fritzsche Basic Books 376 pp.

The “iron wind” referred to in the title of historian Peter Fritzsche's riveting, important new book An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler refers the inscription on Stalingrad's World War II memorial: “An iron wind beat into their faces,” followed by “but they all kept marching on.” The sentiment will be familiar to survivors of the war and their many commemorators, the idea of people pulling together against formidable odds, against the threat of the world's ending. This sentiment holds unchanged across ideological boundaries – Germans in the Nazi fatherland and warriors on the front lines of the Japanese Empire told themselves that they were feeling the same sense of shouldering-together against the iron wind of war.

But the reality for civilians was quite different, and although Fritzsche isn't the first historian to point this out, "An Iron Wind" is the most bracing and unsparing dissection of the subject to appear in many years. Fritzsche's previous book, "The Life and Death of the Third Reich," was likewise a granular study of the individual people caught up in national trauma, but in "An Iron Wind" the canvas is broader and the shading is even darker. This is a fiercely unsettling book, demonstrating in every page the undiminished power of World War II to bring fundamental certainties into question.

Fritzsche begins by reminding his readers that the war was mostly a civilian concern, both physically and psychologically: Civilians were by far the greatest victims of the war's violence, and, as "An Iron Wind" relentlessly makes clear, they were also the greatest facilitators of that violence. The war was “an extraordinary assault on civilians,” he writes. “Civilians constituted the great majority of the victims in the war, but they also deliberately refused to see or they misunderstood what they did see.” The war brought its savagery, its privations, and its blunt ideologies directly into the civilian spheres of life in ways that hadn't been seen in the First World War; ordinary non-combatants were first hemmed in by violence and then expected to “do their part” in furthering that violence on the home front, where “trouble in the streets, noises in the stairwell, and wartime curfews” increasingly forced people to look inward in an attempt to understand how their worlds had changed.

Those inward glimpses were recorded in diaries and letters, including thousands of letters sent to soldiers in the field, or forlornly mailed off by deported Jews on their way to their fates. As Fritzsche writes, “war generated copy,” and he sifts through that copy in some new and fascinating ways, tracing patterns of denial and hope in sources that haven't been scrutinized in quite this way before.

The composite that emerges is a grim picture of how badly that iron wind of war ripped through the lives of the people in its path. Words, in wartime, were “broken off and broken,” Fritzsche tells us, and during the war “horizons of empathy” were limited and very selectively narrowed – often pushed along by state effort. As an example, Fritzsche points to the Nazi denial of the existence of “mankind” itself. “Man as such does not exist,” pronounced Walter Gross, head of Germany's Office of Racial Policy. “The notion of species, or humanity, was dropped in favor of race,” Fritzsche writes. “It followed that universal principles did not apply.” This kind of split thinking was likewise prevalent in occupied France, where attempts by the civilian population to concentrate on the idea of “the good German” were complicated by “feelings of shame about the defeat of France, its political divisions before the war, its collaborationist tendencies, and even its anti-Semitism.”

“People helped each other, but they also betrayed each other,” Fritzsche writes, and nowhere was this more appallingly evident than in Germany itself, where friends and neighbors, spurred on both by enflamed old prejudices and more pragmatic situational fears, turned on – and in many cases turned in – people they'd known for years. Even now, after nearly a century, the dissonance is painful to read in the passages our author has unearthed, as in the case of a Stuttgart Nazi party member who wrote to his local newspaper: “An effective means to curb false pity and false feelings of humanity is my habit of long standing not even to see the Jew, to see right through him as if he were made of glass, or rather as if he were thin air.”

The iron wind of Fritzsche's book laid bare those “false feelings of humanity,” and the account leaves more comfortable Greatest Generation narratives in tatters. His pages are full of collaborators and suborners, full of traitors surprised by their own weakness, full of moral compromises of a kind that can often feel disarmingly relevant to contemporary times. This is a book about how people behave when a kind of moral plague sweeps through their world: some turn away from the afflicted, others hoard medicine for themselves, a precious few risk everything to render aid. It's a gripping performance.

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