Witnesses to the Nazi war machine experienced “illusion, hope, anguish, and indifference.”
In this startlingly illuminating history, Fritzsche (History/Univ. of Illinois; Life and Death in the Third Reich, 2008, etc.) draws on copious diaries, letters, and memoirs to convey the texture of everyday life for French, Polish, and Swiss citizens during World War II. As late as September 1939, the author discovered, Europeans deeply feared another war; many felt willing to accommodate the Third Reich, “not least because they imagined ordinary Germans to be as peace loving as they themselves were” and misunderstood Hitler’s “imperial intentions.” But Nazi brutality soon became terrifyingly real. In the summer and fall of 1941, Germans had “killed one of every five hundred people on the planet” and embarked upon their extermination of Jews. Yet even when Jews were rounded up on street corners and transported in buses and trains, and even when the bodies of men, women, and children were dumped into ditches, ordinary citizens, and Jews themselves, struggled to piece together a coherent sense of what was happening. Rumor, gossip, and illegal BBC radio broadcasts provided shards of information, but these did not necessarily add up “to the systematic mass murder that the Germans were in fact carrying out.” French citizens became used to rationed food and fuel and to shivering through the coldest winters they could remember. Poles became inured to atrocity: “People walking on the street are so used to seeing corpses on the sidewalks that they pass by without any emotion,” one man confided to his diary. Besides confessing overwhelming fear and suffering, Fritzsche’s sources reflect on God: most Jews remained believers, convinced that the existence of a Jewish God “could not be imagined without the presence of Jewish believers.” Nazi soldiers wore a belt buckle stamped with the phrase “God with us.”
As Elie Wiesel once said, the question after Auschwitz is not “How is it possible to believe in God?” but “how can one believe in man?” That question is at the heart of this powerful, riveting, wrenching history.