Excerpt from Witnesses At War by Nicholas Stargardt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Witnesses At War

Children's Lives Under the Nazis

by Nicholas Stargardt

Witnesses At War
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2007, 528 pages

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If we get into a real war with England, don't you think it will last at least two years? For once he starts a war the Englishman throws everything into it and mobilises his whole empire, for the Englishman has never lost a war yet.

Her father, a reserve officer who strongly supported the regime, agreed. As might be expected from someone with experience of the terrible blood-letting of the First World War, he told her that France remained the key. Meanwhile, Liese's mother purchased a good-quality radio, a Telefunken-Super, and they set up a map of Poland next to it so that—just like in schools across the Reich—they could mark the advance of the German troops on it with little swastika flags after each news broadcast.

When the German attack began at dawn on 1 September, the Wehrmacht found the Polish Army still in the midst of mobilisation. With the advantage of surprise, the Luftwaffe destroyed many of the 400 largely obsolete planes of the Polish Air Force on the ground, gaining immediate air supremacy. Thereafter, its 2,000 aircraft practised their new tactics of war, giving battlefield support to the German Army, while its sixty well-armed divisions swept over the borders from East Prussia in the north, Slovakia and the recently occupied Czech lands in the south, and along a broad front in the west stretching from Silesia to Pomerania. Defending such borders was impossible, and the Polish High Command abandoned its attempt to do so on 6 September. Even the attempt by the Poles to defend the major industrial and urban centres involved spreading their forty ill-equipped divisions and 150 tanks too thinly; the Wehrmacht could pick out its battleground and concentrate its 2,600 tanks there.

As Germans flocked to the cinemas, far more eager to see the newsreels of the war—the Wochenschau—than the feature films which followed, their senses were bombarded with a new and sensually stimulating kind of photography. Aerial photography had been tried out since the First World War, but now the spectators could feel themselves being swept downwards in a furious nosedive, at a speed of over 330 miles per hour. For once, police reports showed satisfied audiences, as they viewed the Polish campaign through the eyes of the German dive-bomber pilots. Small children in Essen queued up to jump off the chicken coop, screeching "Stuka!" as they mimicked their screaming wail. By late September 1939, the well-informed American journalist William Shirer could find no one in Berlin, "even among those who don't like the regime, who sees anything wrong in the German destruction of Poland."

Marion Lubien from Essen was one of many German teenagers who kept war diaries. On 3 September, she noted the capture of Tschenstochau (CzeÛstochowa), on 6 September, "the industrial area of Upper Silesia virtually unharmed in German hands," and on the 9 September her bulletin read, "Lodz occupied. The Führer in Lodz." But this fourteen-year-old girl kept to the clipped and stilted language of the Wehrmacht bulletins to the home front. Like most of the rest of the country, she may have been glued to the radio, fascinated by the first newsreel images, and temporarily intoxicated with a sense of victorious power—but the war itself remained distant and unemotional. Not until the first bombs fell near her house in October 1940 would her chronicle of the war leap into the first person.

Excerpted from Witnesses of War by Nicholas Stargardt Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Stargardt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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