An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler
“An Iron Wind is a thoroughly worked example of social history at its most valuable. It could serve as a model for studies of our own times.”
In researching his earlier book on the Third Reich, Peter Fritzsche observed a largely undiscovered dimension of World War II, the contemporary writings of the people of Europe. They sought to "make sense of the murderous events occurring around them" and to write "what had not been recorded, what could not be said."
The author tries to "understand what people thought they were seeing," however often wrong they were. People had misguided faith in hope, justice, government propaganda, religion, and rumor from which they would build postwar myths.
An Iron Wind is not just about Hitler's occupied Europe and Germany. Switzerland, neutral in both World Wars, serves as his baseline for studying Europe as a whole. Memories of the First World War were still fresh in 1939 and the consequences everywhere.
Timely reporting on radio and a genre of literary works, most famously Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front came out in the interim years "to expose falseness and hypocrisy" so much so as to help to make the next war inevitable, as with the public call for avoiding American intervention by Charles Lindbergh.
Consequently, World War II Europe left a rich legacy of documentary material as its literate witnesses recognized the significance of their times. In much of Europe, expression of thought could be dangerous if not fatal. Writing also had the additional problem of sometimes creating a community "nexus of communication" of groups and individuals "that often ignored the suffering of others."
Fritzsche "explores the lessons civilians learned as they learned of war" and analyzes "what it is that makes us human frail." He is leery of "the power and frailty of words," however, believing that at best they "contribute to that record by offering a rallying myth for those who did resist."
"Words in wartime were broken off and broken" leading to such excuses as that women and children must die to protect the children of the oppressors from future revenge. The wholesale mass murder of Jews has received the most attention but it was all so much more.
Refugees became so common and so multicultural that the roads and trains brought together the peoples of Europe on a scale never before possible. New horrors were expected and imagined even as they were yet to arrive.
They came to believe that their suffering and the war as having no end. Only when finally forced to move did they find hope by "traveling to a place where everyone else would meet up, post-catastrophe."
In the conflict that followed, these peoples collaborated, died, fled, profited, refuged, resisted, and victimized. They were most of the 20 million lives lost in that war. They could be heroes or traitors in different ways.
Exposure to violence and death among civilians did reach unimagined levels. The civilian population even learned that fear and stress are boring, as they suffered through a continental scale trauma epidemic. Bombings, executions, hostages, impressed labor, rationing, starvation, and torture are also remarkably lacking in entertainment value.
The research and writing of this work lives up to the high standards set by the author, even in its sophisticated but highly readable words. An Iron Wind is a thoroughly worked example of social history at its most valuable. It could serve as a model for studies of our own times.