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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What Germans had feared in September 1938 came to pass in September 1939. As Hitler set out to address the Reichstag on 1 September, formations of storm troopers lined both sides of his route from the Reich Chancellery to the Kroll Opera House, but the crowds stayed away. In other big cities it was the same: the streets remained empty and deserted, as the period of painless and peaceful Führer miracles abruptly ended. At work, at school and at home, Germans gathered around the radio instead.

Images of the blood-letting and chronic shortages of the First World War haunted national consciousness, and people of all walks of life, one Social Democrat noted wryly in his secret report on public opinion, "speak far more about provisioning than about politics. Each person is entirely taken up with how to get his ration. How can I get something extra?" After only a few weeks of rationing, the Sunday trains were full of people leaving the towns to go "hamstering" for foodstuffs in the countryside. Teenagers did not even bother to change out of their Hitler Youth uniforms before going. Ditties started to circulate in Cologne about the utter failure of the local Gauleiter, Josef Grohé, to set a good example for modest living, while neighbours began to fear that someone in their block of flats would denounce them to the police for having succeeded in laying by soap, clothes or—best of all—shoes. People who had lost their savings twice before feared wartime inflation and rushed to turn their cash into anything that could be traded later on. All unrationed luxury items, such as furs, swiftly sold out. By October 1939, the conviction was already growing that the country would not be able to hold out as long as in the last war "because there's already nothing left to eat." Only the soldiers, everyone agreed, had enough.

Grumbling and anxiety do not make a revolution, but the Gestapo was taking no chances and had swiftly arrested all the former Reichstag deputies from the Left. Yet socialists, who had hoped for the last six years that war would bring down the Nazi dictatorship, had to admit in late October 1939 that it would take a great deal more than a few shortages: "Only if famine takes hold and has worn their nerves down, and, above all, if the Western powers succeed in gaining successes in the West and in occupying large portions of German territory, may the time for a revolution begin to ripen." Not until early 1945 would such conditions prevail, and by then much had happened to make a German revolution an improbable outcome of this war. In this respect at least, Hitler would have his wish: there would be "no second 1918."

For now, the government did all it could to reassure the population that the war had made little change to life. While snaking lines of London children, cardboard labels slung round their necks as they clutched their small suitcases and gas masks, provided the media with its first vivid images of the British war, in Germany there was no mass evacuation of children from the cities. Hermann Göring was so confident in the power of the Luftwaffe he had built up, he joked that if a single German city was bombed, then people could call him "Meier." Still hopeful of negotiating a peace settlement with Britain, Hitler explicitly reserved to himself any decision to commence what he called the "terror bombing" of its civilian population.

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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