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
    Jan 2007, 528 pages

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On 5 October Warsaw surrendered, bringing hostilities to a close. But by mid-October, Poland had already become a non-subject in Germany and an undercover reporter for the German Social Democrats could find "hardly a single person who still spoke of the ‘victory'." Some hoped that now that the dispute over Poland had been settled with the country's dismemberment, peaceful relations with the Western powers could be restored. And Hitler played to such sentiments when he addressed the German Reichstag on 6 October. Insisting once again that he had no territorial claims against Britain and France, the Führer suggested that, with Poland's demise, the casus belli had also disappeared. This was a line the German public was more likely to appreciate than the French or British. When Daladier and Chamberlain rejected Hitler's olive branch, many German citizens joined Liese and her father in concluding that it was primarily British intransigence that was preventing a settlement. By mid-October, children were singing ditties about Chamberlain in the street and mimicking his famous habit of carrying an umbrella.

However much the regime might insist that the British and French declaration of war on 3 September, rather than Germany's attack on Poland, had started a conflict which the German government was only too anxious to end, nothing could conceal the fact that the war was not yet popular at home. Even some of his military commanders had openly warned Hitler that Germany could not expect to defeat France and Britain. Hitler's foreign policy triumphs had done much to realign public opinion during the three years before the war, but they had not removed the fear of war itself. When German troops had marched across the Rhine in 1936, working-class districts, renowned for their earlier anti-Nazi sentiments, had hung out swastika flags for the first time. Few objected to rolling back the conditions the Allies had imposed on Germany and Austria after their defeat in 1918. Hitler's success in reversing Bismarck's "Little German" unification of 1871 by drawing Austria back into a "Greater German Reich" was an achievement German and Austrian Social Democrats could also endorse. After all, they had themselves attempted it at the end of the First World War, only to be thwarted by the Allies. Whether they believed in the pan-German creed of bringing all Germans "home" into the Reich, or in restoring Prussia's and Austria's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century territories at the expense of the East European successor states, or simply subscribed to Nazi demands for colonial "living space," by 1938 and 1939 few Germans objected in principle to Hitler's demands against Czechoslovakia or Poland. Success had nurtured both ambition and a growing complacency among the population at large.

But the Czech crisis had lasted long enough—from May to October 1938—to reveal just how much the German people feared a new conflict on the scale of the First World War. At the height of the crisis, the regime staged a grand military parade in Berlin on 27 September 1938 to impress the world with Germany's might, but there were no crowds, with passers-by literally ducking into doorways to avoid the spectacle. When the Munich Agreement was signed three days later, Hitler might storm in private that he had been "cheated" of his war, but almost everyone else was deeply relieved. Goebbels had to give explicit instructions to the German press to remind the population of the "world historic" achievement of Munich, to counter the universal rejoicing that war had been averted.

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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