Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Guest Review: Life and Death in the Third Reich


Today I'll be introducing Sarah @ NZ Book Lovers blog, who will be reviewing Life and Death in the Third Reich! Her review is really informative, and also incredibly interesting, so I urge you to read this! Also as a reminder, you can comment on this post, follow NZ Book Lovers via Twitter and visit their Facebook, and have that all count towards entries in the event's giveaway!

Life and Death in the Third Reich by Peter Fritzsche
Publisher: Belknap Press
Release Date: September 1st, 2009
368 pages


On January 30, 1933, hearing about the celebrations for Hitler s assumption of power, Erich Ebermayer remarked bitterly in his diary, We are the losers, definitely the losers. Learning of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, which made Jews non-citizens, he raged, hate is sown a million-fold. Yet in March 1938, he wept for joy at the Anschluss with Austria: Not to want it just because it has been achieved by Hitler would be folly.

In a masterful work, Peter Fritzsche deciphers the puzzle of Nazism s ideological grip. Its basic appeal lay in the Volksgemeinschaft a people s community that appealed to Germans to be part of a great project to redress the wrongs of the Versailles treaty, make the country strong and vital, and rid the body politic of unhealthy elements. The goal was to create a new national and racial self-consciousness among Germans. For Germany to live, others especially Jews had to die. Diaries and letters reveal Germans fears, desires, and reservations, while showing how Nazi concepts saturated everyday life. Fritzsche examines the efforts of Germans to adjust to new racial identities, to believe in the necessity of war, to accept the dynamic of unconditional destruction in short, to become Nazis.

Powerful and provocative, "Life and Death in the Third Reich" is a chilling portrait of how ideology takes hold.

Part of what makes the Holocaust so incomprehensible, at least for me, is the sheer magnitude of the event itself: not just in the number of those who died but in the number of those who were involved in the systematic extermination of these so-called “undesirables” in German society. Understandably, accounts of the war from the German perspective are fairly difficult to come by, partly because many were ashamed of or did not understand the extent of their involvement, and partly because the focus of history has been primarily on the survivors and victims rather than the persecutors. What drew me to Peter Fritzsche’s book was that it attempted to explain, using a variety of primary sources, how the Germans regarded Hitler and the Nazi Party and to what extent they were, generally speaking, aware of and involved in the deportation and execution of their neighbours. In other words, Fritzsche attempts to provide an explanation for the Holocaust that is rooted not in the actions of political leaders or the machinations of Great Men, but in the needs, wants and beliefs of the people themselves.

How far he succeeds in doing this is of course an open question. As Fritzsche himself writes in his concluding chapter, “[part] of the knowledge about life and death in the Third Reich is the lasting incompleteness of explanation” (p.307). That being said, however, I came away from the book feeling as if I understood something about the Holocaust which I had never fully grasped before. Most popular depictions of the Germans of the period show them as devoted Nazis, oblivious observers, or cowed collaborators, with the occasional resistance fighter thrown in for good measure. One thing I noticed about Fritzsche's sources, however, was that many of them were ambivalent towards Nazism, or went through periods of self-doubt or extended self-analysis in which they struggled to re-negotiate their own moral and personal identities in order to accommodate their new reality. Even among the higher echelons of the Nazi Party and the SS, officers struggled with what they were being asked to do even as they went ahead and forced themselves to do it. It wasn’t simply fear or peer pressure which made them work to cooperate, either: part of it was also rooted in their own self-image. As Fritzsche describes, after World War I many Germans came to view the Treaty of Versailles as a “stab in the back,” and themselves as victims of secret Jewish and Communist machinations. With the help of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, many ordinary Germans came to see themselves as participating in a racial struggle, such that being German came to be associated with being a National Socialist, even if an individual rejected specific tenets or the behaviour of the leaders. They came to view their work as part of a heroic history which was worthy of sacrifice and documentation (one of the most shocking descriptions Fritzsche provides is of soldiers photographing the systematic massacre of the Jews at places such as Babi Yar).

What I found perhaps the most interesting was Fritzsche’s analysis of Goebbels’ propaganda campaign and its impact. His discussion of the “Heil Hitler!” greeting and its fluctuating popularity, the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft or People's Community, and what he refers to as Nazism’s “audiovisual space,” struck me as eerily familiar in our era of political rhetoric and public relations campaigns, even down to some of the language and concepts still used today. Other writers have even compared reactions to the current refugee crisis to the pre-war years in Germany, though not without skepticism and questions regarding their moral equivalence. In any event, for me at least reading Fritzsche’s analysis made it easier to understand how something like the Holocaust could occur, and consequently how depressingly not incomprehensible or unrepeatable it really was.

Fritzsche writes clearly and quite accessibly, although he does tend to bounce around between dates and times a little within sections which can get a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the general timeline of the Second World War. Apart from that, though, I found it a compelling and informative read and would definitely recommend it highly to anyone interested in the German experience of World War II.

Sarah has recently completed a double degree in Law, English and Linguistics and is about to move on to postgraduate study, with the goal of eventually obtaining a PhD. As a reader, she enjoys magical realism and literary fiction, as well as Jane Austen and the occasional adventure novel. In her spare time she also writes historical fiction, which she hopes to get published in the not-too-distant future. You can find her at NZ Book Lovers!