A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism

Image of A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism
Release Date: 
April 4, 2023
Pegasus Books
Reviewed by: 

“for anyone who understands the concept that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ will understand the concept ‘it takes an Auschwitz to understand a nation.’”

The fascination with Nazism continues unabated almost 80 years after its defeat. How could a nation that produced men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Goethe produce not merely lesser men but men so depraved and debased—men like Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler—that their names will be remembered a thousand years from now? One cannot be uninterested in the phenomenon of a megalomaniacal antisemitic thug dominating and mesmerizing a nation as culturally rich as Germany into barbarism and totalitarianism.

Tens of thousands of books were published about Nazi Germany since the end of the war. Every year more are published. Among them are Julia Boyd’s newest book and her Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism: 1919–1945 published in 2017 and reviewed here by Roger I. Adams.

The life of an individual or a village under Nazi rule was first explored in Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free. Later came William Sheridan Allen’s 1965 book The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935 whose subject matter was the town of Northeim in Lower Saxony.

Allen drew attention to the most spectacular Nazi device for raising funds and justifying their rule, the Eintopfgerichtsonntage or “Stew Sundays.”A brilliant propaganda idea, the idea was that on selected Sundays (usually once a month) every person in Germany would eat stew instead of his regular meal and then contribute the difference in cost to the Nazi Volk-Welfare Society (NSV). Many people who otherwise would never join the Nazi party joined the NSV because it seemed so apolitical and beneficial. This is not mentioned by Boyd.

In Boyd and Patel’s book the idyllic Alpine Bavarian village of Oberstdorf goes under the microscope. A chance encounter with an Oberstdorf native and local history researcher, co-author Angelika Patel, led to a collaboration. The town had a particularly well-maintained archive, containing a wealth of detail on almost every feature of village life under the Nazis.

Boyd and Patel also had access to diaries and letters from private collections and documents preserved in various national, state, and church archives, giving her a unique insight into the day-to-day challenges of life under the Nazis and a real sense of how ordinary Germans supported, adapted to, and survived a regime that after promising them so much, in the end delivered only anguish and devastation.

Her story introduces a plethora of characters, some 60 names in total, making it difficult for a reader to follow and determine who is “important” and who is not. Making sense of this story is perhaps helped by first reading Boyd and Patel’s short back story introductions beginning on page 383.

There is a built-in problem with these microstudies. At first glance one thinks “how fascinating,” but soon it becomes a feeling of “so what?” What are we to learn about the appeal and rise of Nazism by examining one small village in Bavaria, or Saxony, or anywhere for that matter, when it is a phenomenon repeated throughout Germany? Isn’t studying the macrohistory enough?

Boyd rightly sets the scene by introducing two all-important Nazi laws passed in 1933, the Enabling Act allowing the Hitler government to issue laws without the consent of Germany’s parliament, laying the foundation for the complete Nazification of German society and the Coordination Act (typically the Nazi term Gleichschaltung is left untranslated. It’s best to think of it as Nazification rather than the innocuous sounding “Coordination”). The concept of the Volk was central to Nazi ideology. All the German Volk—social, political, and cultural organizations—were to conform and merge with Nazi ideology and policy. All opposition to be eliminated. Boyd and Patel unfortunately does not explore the concept of the Volk which is foundational to Nazi philosophy.

As Oberstdorf's leaders had never shown much sympathy for left wing politics they had little reason to fear persecution. However, the Gleichaltung act was a different matter; it changed everything. The village—and Germany—were no longer free.

One senses that Boyd and Patel are looking for a hero. There are none. Even the most humanitarian of villagers, perhaps the schoolmaster Dr. Eduard Bessler or Nazi Mayor Fink, are still Nazi Party members, albeit “mild” ones. There are anti-Nazi grumblings for sure, but there are no anti-Nazi heros, at least not until the very end of the war.

Contrariwise to the book’s title, much of the story presented is devoted to events in Germany at the time and to the larger context whereby the reader can better understand where Oberstdorf lies within the wider picture. However, this often results in a “WWII for Dummies” feeling. One example will suffice. Boyd relates how the sheer power of the German force unleashed on Poland was a blitzkrieg. Later there are extended sections about the war in Russia, the plight of the Jews, always searching for at least one Oberstdorfer to mention. Perhaps a third of the book has nothing to do with Oberstdorf.

When we return to Oberstdorf the story again becomes enlivened. Chapter 12 begins thusly: “Between 20 January and 13 December 1940, the Nazis gassed 9,839 people at the Grafeneck euthanasia center. Theodor Weissenberger [19 years old] was one of them. He was murdered because he was blind.” We then learn a little about this old Oberstdorf family. However, the chapter is mostly devoted to the Nazi’s euthanasia program and child murder for which there already exists an extensive, if gruesome, history.          

Chapter 13 is devoted to the invasion of Russia in 1941, Operation Barbarossa, interspersed with entries from the diary of a soldier, Gerd Aurich, from a town near Oberstdorf, who is dead from his wounds by the end of the year. One perhaps expected this chapter to reveal more about Oberstdorfers response to the atrocity stories against Jews and Slavs told by soldiers on leave. There is almost nothing here about Oberstdorf’s reaction.

Chapter 15, Mt. Elbrus, is an interesting story in itself; the climbing of 18,000-foot Mt. Elbrus, the highest mountain in Russia and Europe, by members of the Wehrmacht’s mountain division, was a publicity stunt and seems to be included in this book simply because three of the climbers were from Oberstdorf. It otherwise serves no purpose in the book. Hitler was furious that this stunt was even attempted.

As Germany began to take a more prominent global role under Angela Merkel, its first chancellor born after World War II, interest in the “good Germans” from the Nazi era grew. There’s a palpable feeling that Village is a book in search of a Good German. There’s got to be at least one! Boyd is probably being too generous in this search. Maybe Oberstdorf was just like countless other German villages where self-interest and disinterest simply manifested itself in a willful moral blindness.

Throughout the book we read snippets of attitudes and events, but we are constantly wondering about Oberstdorf’s attitudes about the big picture, first, the degree and quality of support for the Nazis; second, antisemitism and extermination camps; and thirdly, the existence or degree of organized anti-Nazi resistance. Not until page 327 do we read the first mention that “the story of Oberstdorf anti-Nazi resistance movement, or the Heimatshutz (Homeland Security) as it was called, is for many reasons a complicated one.” It may be complicated but surely a researcher could untangle the story in the confines of a 400-page book.

Given the almost universal support of the Nazi regime, and its concomitant rapid collapse, it’s understandable that the German people were conflicted and confused about their loyalties and morals. After the war, anti-Nazi resistance was considered unpatriotic. For example, it was not until the 1970s that Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, leader of the July 20th assassination plot against Hitler, was seen as a hero not a traitor. Then we learn that this Oberstdorf “resistance” movement only became active in February 1945 as Germany was near its final collapse. To call it anti-Nazi resistance is somewhat laughable as its main purpose was to circumvent the fight-to-the-death SS orders and surrender Oberstdorf to the Allies without a fight.

Perhaps we demand too much to see every facet of Nazi Germany in terms of good and evil. There are many shades of gray, and Boyd and Patel have attempted to paint in those shades of gray. In fairness, the pointillist approach taken by the authors in their microhistory doesn’t necessarily mean a full picture emerges as it might from the broad-brush strokes of a macrohistory, but the attempt is valiant and the book interesting for the patient reader. However, for anyone who understands the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child,” will understand the concept “it takes an Auschwitz to understand a nation.”