Magazine article The Spectator

What We Did to Them . .

Magazine article The Spectator

What We Did to Them . .

Article excerpt

Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life in Germany, 1939-48

by Hester Vaizey

Palgrave Macmillan, £55, pp. 252,

ISBN 9780230251489

The perception of war changes, remarked the poet Robert Graves, when 'your Aunt Fanny, the firewatcher, is as likely to be killed as a soldier in battle'. Scrutinising the home front, checking for evidence of low morale, accounting for that of high, measuring the effect of wartime regulations and deprivations, calculating the long-term impact of continuous bombardment and destruction on civilians, in sum, accounting for the implications of the phrase 'total war' to describe the second world war, has been an occupation for social historians of Britain since the late 1960s when Angus Calder's magisterial account of life on the Home Front was published. Since then there has been a stream of accounts of various aspects, from evacuation, rationing, Civil Defence, crime, music, sport, wireless-listening, cinema-going - and of course frequent probes of the much evoked 'Blitz spirit'. More recently, several books have appeared linking the military and the civilian experience by recounting how it was when the soldiers, the sailors and the airmen came back from war.

But how exceptional was the British experience? How did the German Home Front compare with that in Britain? For non-German readers this has been hard to know. And although the purpose of Hester Vaizey's new book is not to answer that particular question, since it is a study of German family life both during the second world war and into the first troubled years of peace, there are many similarities to be found - certainly at the level at which she recounts this experience.

Eighteen million Germans eventually fought for the Fatherland, meaning that a preponderance of two-parent families became one-parent families for the duration. And it is a sample of these families from what is now West Germany that Vaizey examines. Hers is primarily an account of the emotions of war, how people felt, and the sources she uses are mainly the letters from the men away fighting to their families and what their wives - and sometimes children - wrote to them. The letters from the soldiers (and it is mainly soldiers whose testimony is presented) are invariably guarded, particularly those serving on the gruelling Eastern Front against Russia. This was partly for reasons of censorship, partly to protect their families and partly because the horrors were literally unspeakable. …

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