German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler's Third Reich
(University of California Press)
US: May 2011
Once upon a time in high school, I took German language for a semester. I mention this not because I plan to sprinkle the following review with apposite quotations from Goethe; the most I remember is how to pronounce that little ‘no’—it’s not a capital ‘B’ symbol.
What I do remember is my teacher, one Remembrance Day (aka Veteran’s Day), abruptly revealing, to his preppy poppy-wearing class, a hidden minefield of jingoistic passion behind his usual coolly intellectual obsession with umlauts. All very well to celebrate the Allied victory, he told us… but for the Allies to claim the moral high ground on top of it was something else, again.
He went on—the wrong of it all rising steadily in his voice as he spoke—to describe the bombings of Hamburg and Dresden (terrible events, yes, which were key to finally ending German aggression)—and in such detail that it produced a lifelong impression. It was the beginning my interest in poking about the grey areas of history, and the genesis for reading Frederic Tubach’s German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich, which is exactly what it claims to be on the dust jacket; no more and, fairly crucially as it turns out, no less.
Now, I feel the need—as Tubach likewise does at several points in the opening chapters—to pause here (if for no other reason than for respect for my grandfather, veteran of the WWII RAF) and reaffirm that ‘Nazi ideology’ obviously equates to profoundly wrong, not to say scary, and the ultimate expression of same to evil on the grand scale.
The great issue Tubach considers is in need of an entire book’s worth of exposition, even considering the many dozens of historical and sociological treatises on this time period, and it lies in the need to separate the way Nazis thought of Germany from the way the average German perceived things at that time. There is little hard historical data in German Voices, and what sociopolitical analysis there is, is not particularly in-depth; the assumption is that the reader knows well the story, at least from the outside, and they will find no revisionist arguments, here.
Tubach’s mission is simply to present what he sees as the overlooked insider’s POV on the Third Reich, as seen from ground-level, free of both apology and ideology. It’s not all that hard to grasp in the essentials: this was a nation of renowned and ancient ancestry, of rich traditions, proud aristocrats, solid burghers and fertile fields. These were the people who had been militarily broken, economically ravaged and just generally reduced to Europe’s chew toy since 1918… and were now being told by a very convincing persona, that things would get better. That they deserved better.
(There’s a famous 1918 political cartoon demonstrating that at least some realized the inevitability of this scenario long prior. As the victors leave the Treaty of Versailles conference, one turns to the other: “Curious, I seem to hear a child crying…” Above them hovers the wistful spirit of the ‘Class of 1940’.)
It’s a point that’s worth making for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that the human mind naturally seeks shortcuts, for easy ways to define the indefinable, and the rise of Nazism makes for a lot of straight to the point shortcuts. Especially as the generations slip past, and these shortcuts become not only part of but a way of dealing with everyday life (try Googling ‘Godwin’s Law’)—it becomes more and more valuable to have a reminder that the truth of the rise of the Third Reich was complex, and that Nazis could not have gotten as far as they did had they not convinced good, sane, reasonable people—people very much like ourselves—that they had something to offer.
German Voices describes the Nazi party’s efforts in some detail, up to and including collection boxes set up on street corners as a state-sponsored effort to donate pennies to the poor. The Nazis told even the lowliest German that they mattered – never mind why, or to what end all this ultimately tended (hint: taking over the world first requires a healthy united army…). Chilling stuff… especially anecdotes like the story of Tubach’s quiet, gentle, homebody auntie, who wrote poems commemorating family events, and wrote at the bottom of each, ‘Heil Hitler!’, because as she saw it, Hitler fed the poor.
Tubach approaches his mission with a nice, unobtrusive blend of sympathetic warmth and scholarly detachment. He grew up during this time period himself, leaving for the US and an eventual teaching career at age 18, just prior to the war. The stories he has collected from those left behind may not represent a fully comprehensive cross-section of all facets of German life at the time, but they are for the most part convincing—and then compelling—precisely because they are relateable on a fundamental level. There’s an almost novelistic tension created here by the complexity of the subjects’ inability to see what the reader is expecting to be plainly obvious.
During the heyday of the Third Reich’s efforts to ‘side with the angels’, if you will, Tubach argues, only the ‘extraordinarily sensitive… observer’, inside or out of the Fatherland, would even have the tools to realise that anything was wrong—and indeed, those few who tried were accused of spoiling the party. The more outré bits of State policy – like the attempt to replace the existing marriage ceremony with a Nazi version – were irrelevant enough to be easily ignored… at least, at first. That’s another awkwardly relateable facet of human nature that crops up when trying to enforce nobility, or for that matter blame; think back to the last time you worried about what your political party’s ideology really meant, compared to how often you worried about money and other everyday matters.
Thus at first, what the Nazi hierarchy couldn’t accomplish with altruism, it could neatly patch over with propaganda. To that end, the great milestone event in German Voices is the 1936 Olympics: the same show that the Allies remember as ‘the one where Hitler was embarrassed by Jesse Owens’, Germans of the time saw as their undisputedly triumphant return to the world stage, with the Fuhrer, great savior of the Germanic peoples, at its spotless, efficient centre – where he had of course, positioned himself.
By the time the first serious rumblings of discontent among the German people found voice, the instruments of repression were firmly in place: first the brutish SA, generally despised as recruited from the lower classes, and then their executive arm, the truly feared and hated SS. Then Kristallnacht, the ultimate statement of the Nazi party’s priorities. And then…
And then. Readers of this review will likely have noted already that there is a huge anti-Semitic elephant in this room. Regrettably, while fully acknowledged, it is not handled with full assurance in German Voices; this is both a noticeable and partially understandable omission in a book which pauses frequently to note how its subjects must search for ways to justify their own memories.
Tubach does discuss the issue in terms of abstract root causes, and comes up with a fairly convincing, if not at all surprising, pro forma case for Nazism playing off the pre-existing view of Jews as the Other, the alien, the purveyors of modern and ‘perverted’ ideas. At worst they were reprehensible, and at best they were no meaningful part of the workaday Germanic world. (Or, for that matter, of that of most Europeans; check out this cultural Other’s casual appearance in contemporary popular works by notable authors such as Dorothy Sayers.)
But despite one searing description of one neighborhood in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, and some generalised references in the quoted letters from the frontlines that make up the last chapter, somehow Tubach never quite manages to bring this greatest of deviations from the civilised norm down to intimate experience—which is, after all, his stated purpose in for this book. He is careful to note that many Germans pitied and helped their Jewish neighbors in the early stages of the Third Reich, but this is apparently not something he delved into with his many interview subjects – let alone their particular attitudes to the Gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs and other ‘undesirables’ who explicitly would not share in their new world of promise.
The overall attitude seems to be, again, that the wrong is so well-known and so obvious it needs no explanation, let alone should one be dragged wholesale from these very nice, very average people, who regardless of their feelings about the Others, would certainly not have consented to drive them to death en masse. For that very reason, it is a documented fact, the average German citizen knew very little about the Final Solution even as it was being implemented. And this book is, after all, intended as a primary historical source—it’s explicitly about the memories of some individuals, not the analysis thereof.
The thing is, though, you can only take ordinariness so far as a defense, let alone as an obfuscation. There’s no way to tell these people how to deal with their memories, of course; but the reader who does not share the Germanic immersion in the subject, both pre- and post-Third Reich, is almost inevitably going to go into this book specifically looking for answers beyond what homely anecdotes can provide, and they are quite possibly going to feel like the main point is being evaded.
This, I think, is a failure not so much of courage but of perspective; there is a chaotic feel to the book’s structure, an almost restless switching back-and-forth from the larger to the smaller stage, that suggests a struggle with focus never fully resolved. Ultimately it feels like Tubach may be just a bit too close to his subject, too involved with nostalgic minutiae, to get its point across fully to those frankly unable to make allowance one way or another for the Germanic culture of blame.
The best recommendation I can make—and it is a warm one—is that readers go into German Voices prepared to treat it as one facet of a larger investigation into the phenomenon that was the Third Reich—as a uniquely accessible, honest and frequently thought-provoking window enabling some valuable ground-level insight into the much larger evil behavior that prevailed—until it imploded.