For German families living under the threat of mass bombing, many experiences of everyday living were similar to those known in Britain. The blackout was strictly enforced, for example, and people had to get used to finding their way round in the dark, sometimes wearing luminous patches or using feebly glowing torches. Gas masks were issued and German children, like their british counterparts, took furtive delight in blowing rude noises through their rubbery cheek pieces.
Curious-looking hand-sirens, mounted on tripods, were distributed to towns and villages to warn of air raids. There was also a device called the Drahtfunk (cable radio) attached to the family wireless set which was kept switched on and went ‘ping pong’ whenever enemy bombers approached.
During the first week of war, ration cards were delivered to houses by Nazi officials. There were blue cards for meat, red for groceries, pink for bread and flour, and yellow for butter and other fats. Children under 16 years received double rations of butter. The weekly meat ration was 450 g per person – somewhat less than the British allocation. Foul-tasting ersatz (substitute) coffee was one of the most memorable introductions, made from acorns and billed as gesund, starkend und schmackhaft (healthy, strength-giving and tasty). A soap that made lather only after much effort and a tobacco likened to low-grade mattress-filling also made their appearance.
In Hitler’s Reich, as elsewhere, people gave up garden railings to help the war effort. Once a week children carried bags of scrap iron, silver paper, rags, bones, waste paper and other materials into school where they were carefully weighed. Points were awarded, and those who had the most points were given a rousing cheer by their schoolmates.
In the early days, however, the mass of the people experienced no great hardship. Through the euphoric year of 1940, German soldiers started coming home on leave, brown and fit from their devastating Blitzkrieg victories, and all sorts of foreign luxuries found their way into German homes: furs from Norway; coffee, chocolate and tea from Holland and Belgium; perfume and lingerie from France.
The Nazi Government positively encouraged extravagant enjoyment during this period, and the newsreels playing in packed cinemas at Christmas showed propaganda minister Josef Goebbels handing out parcels like Santa Claus. There was immense relief that the war seemed to have ended so quickly for, despite the Führer’s grandiose ambitions for his Reich, the German economy was not geared up for anything more than a short, sharp war. No preparations had been made for the long struggle that was to come.
Factories were still turning out peacetime consumer goods. Though petrol rationing allowed fuel only for vehicles used in the national interest, magazines still featured the new Volkswagen (‘people’s car’), which cost 975 marks and could be bought on an easy purchase system with weekly payments of 5 marks. It was envisaged that there would be hundreds of thousands of them after the war. Hitler’s aim was to put his nation on wheels as Henry Ford has done in the United States (motorway-building was pioneered in Hitler’s Germany – the Reich had 2300 miles of Autobahn before World War II broke out).
For millions throughout the Fatherland, Hitler was a focus of loyalty bordering on religious devotion. To a defeated nation, riven by bitterness and unrest, he had brought order and a new sense of collective pride. Massive unemployment had been solved by the Nazi’s vast programme of public works. At the gigantic public rallies staged by the Reich in peacetime, Hitler appeared to the people as saviour, sorcerer – even messiah.
The cult of the Führer had, however, eroded precious individual liberties. In Hitler’s Reich, democratic elections had long since ceased to exist. The gestapo, or secret police, had access to people’s private lives on a disquieting scale and to oppose the Nazi authorities invited denunciation by anyone from the next-door neighbour to a local member of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) or Bund deutscher Mädchen (German Girl’s League). Denunciation of parents, even, by their own children were not unknown.
The Nazi’s paid particular attention to the indoctrination of young Germans, who were marched and drilled and taught Party songs in the youth movements. Physical fitness was especially prized, as was ‘hardness’. Character-building mottoes, written on blackboards for children to copy in their exercise books, included ‘A German should be tough as leather, quick as a greyhound, and hard as Krupp steel’. At Hitler Youth camps the strength of a member’s will power could be confirmed by eating a tin of boot polish.
Members of the Girl’s League were taught all about Hitler’s life and went on youth hostel weekends where they were made to run 60 meters in 12 seconds, swim 100 metres and throw a ball over 20 metres. Kraft durch freude (Strength through Joy) was the great slogan of the Nazi organisation promoting sporting activities, vacations and excursions.
‘You are nothing, the Volk [People] is everything’ was another favourite Nazi motto. And there can be no doubt that many children enjoyed the team-spiritedness, the marching and the songs as well as the colourful paraphenalia of banners, uniforms, badges and lanyards. What they lost, under the intense pressure to conform, was the opportunity to develop a critical adult intelligence. deviation from Nazi norms quickly brought mockery and humiliation. Among adults, it led swiftly to the sinister attentions of the Party officials – or of the Gestapo.
Teachers and all other people in the state jobs had to be members of the Party. Elsbeth Emmerich, a schoolgirl in wartime Germany, described how pressure was routinely applied. Her mother, a keen sportswoman, took up coaching young athletes during the early war years. Not long after, there was a knock at the door.
‘Enter a stranger. A strange man with notebook and pencil and a Nazi pin in his lapel. He said that he’d heard about my mother and her achievements. he had assumed that she was a member of the Party and only found out that she was not when he checked his records.’ (Of course, anyone who referred to the Party meant the Nazi Party, there was only one.) No doubt that was just an oversight, he went on, and would she join? He had his pencil at the ready but my mother froze over and said firmly “NO”. She did not want to become a member of the Party. He wanted to know her reasons, and she said that she had reasons of her own. He didn’t understand. “You realize you cannot keep your position as coach to our young girls, unless you are a member of the Party?” My mum said surely coaching had nothing to do with politics, and that being a Party member would not make her a better coach. However, the man with the Party pin in his lapel knew better and my mother had to give up a much cherished job.’
People were reprimanded for failing to give the Heil Hitler salute. names were taken of housholders who did not have the obligatory portrait of the Führer on their walls. Failure to put out a Nazi flag on Hitler’s birthday brought a knock at the door.
Quite appaert from the nightmares of the gestapo cells and the concentration camps, the first of which was set up in Germany in 1933, daily life under the Third Reich was irksome and restrictive in a multitude of ways. The young women, for example, made hard and fit by their training in the Girl’s League, were then relegated to the kitchen by the Nazi ideology that believed their only role was to be a housewife. Women held no leading positions in the party hierarchy. Married women doctors and civil servants were dismissed from their posts. Under Nazism, German women were ineligible for jury service.
There was, however, massive official encouragement to bear children for the Fatherland – even if mother was unmarried – and a ‘Cross of Motherhood’ was awarded to women with large families. Ernst Kaltenbrunner of the SS announced: ‘All single and married women up to age of thirty-five who do not already have four children should be obliged to produce four children by racially pure, exceptionable German men. Whether these men are married is without significance.’ Eugenics – the attempt to improve the German race by controlled, selective breeding – created all kinds of problems. Some German women shunned marriage because of the sheer amount of paperwork involved in certifying their Aryan ancestry.
Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were just a few of the groups marginalised and persecuted by the Reich authorities. But none suffered more than the Jews, whose martyrdom in Germany began long before war broke out.
The Nazis’ racial laws officially sanctioned acts of vandalism and violence against them, and there was no redress. In a famous photograph from peacetime Germany, the Munich lawyer Dr Spiegel was shown walking barefoot through the streets of his city – followed by Stormtroopers – with a placard around his neck. ‘I shall never complain to the police again’, read the text.
Jews were banned from the medical profession, from university posts and legal offices. Signs in municipal parks and on public benches announced, ‘For Aryans Only’. Marriage between Jews and people of german blood was forbidden. Street posters called for a boycott of Jewish shops, and the climax of the pre-war persecution was the nationwide violence of the Kristallnacht (night of Broken Glass) when Jewish-owned shops were smashed and synagogues burnt to the ground.
In 1941 things went further. It was decreed that all Jews in Germany over the age of six were forbidden to appear in public without a yellow Jewish star bearing the inscription ‘Jew’ in black. ‘It has to be worn on the left breast of the clothing, clearly visible and strongly sewn on.’ The decree brought surprises. ‘I must tell you what a shock my boss got when I turned up wearing the Jew’s star,’ recalled one half-Jewish woman who worked for a staunchly Nazi firm of picture-framers which sold portraits of Hitler and other Party leader. ‘I can still see their astonished faces today when they heard that their model German working girl was really born of “the lazy race of parasites that were feeding off the body of the German people”. They didn’t say a word as I packed up my things; they just stared at me…’ Made to join a Jewish forced-labour squad, she was transported the next year to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.
The extermination camps were located in Poland, but even in germany there were many concentration camps – places of mass imprisonment – that became death centres later in the war: Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Dachau were among them.
Few german civilians knew precisely what went on in the camps, but the wartime ordeals of the Jews could not be kept entirely secret. A Düsseldorf housewife wrote in her diary for April 1942, ‘Once again there are huge columns of Jews passing our house. The suffering of these poor tottering figures is indescribable. They stop to rest outside our house. They just flop down in the roadway. Many are so exhausted they can’t get up again. Often they are too weary to carry their bundles any further, and just leave them lying in the road. Mothers comfort crying children. Old men are helped along by sons and daughters. Sheer misery stares out of the eyes of every one of them. I heard a German woman in the street say, “Pray God we never have to answer for this”.’
The ‘Final Solution’ of mass extermination was planned at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. It was kept in secret, but even when whispers about the gas chambers began to circulate, most Germans who heard them preferred not to listen. It was dangerous even to know such things – to talk about them could prove disastrous. And besides, with the Allied bombing campaign stepping up and with worsening news from the eastern Front, German civilians were facing new problems of their own.
It was in the winter of 1941-42 that shortages on the German home front began to bite, while no amount of propaganda could disguise the fact that the Reich was meeting its first reverses in the field. The government appealed for furs and warm coats to be sent to the soldiers on the Russian front. Bread, meat and fat rations were reduced. And, with more farmer workers being called up, potatoes had to be rationed too.
While the daily diet worsened, German housewives got used to making do. ‘You could hardly get anything worth having for your clothing coupons,’ recalled Sigrid Wendt from Brunswick, ‘so we had to find our own solutions. Make eyes at the shopkeeper on the corner and you could get an empty flour or sugar-sack. Sugar-bags were the best for unravelling. You got piles of shiny, silky strands which could be knitted or crocheted into lovely pullovers and jackets.’
Also in 1942, Allied strategic bombing offensives began to bring devastation to German cities, with the specific aim of breaking civilian morale. Wounded soldiers started to appear in the streets, and so many troops were killed in action that the newspapers were forbidden to print more than a handful of death notices in each issue.
The radio, always a key instrument of Nazi propaganda, had never be more important. For each block of houses or apartment building there was a ‘radio warden’ – a Party member whose task was to encourage neighbours to listen to propaganda broadcasts. The radio wardens sometimes lent money to help people to buy wireless sets, and also reported on people’s reactions to the latest speeches. Now, as people came to doubt the inevitability of victory and to question official versions of the war’s progress, more and more Germans tuned in to the foreign stations – especially the BBC. harsh prison sentences (and even a death penalty) were meted out to those found guilty of listening to foreign broadcasts. The local radio warden had a job of reporting offenders.
Crouching over their sets, with the volume at barely audible levels, millions of Germans defied the government prohibition. As the war progressed, the news worsened. january 1943 brought crushing German defeat at Stalingrad – the turning point of the war – when 300,000 starving Wermacht men were killed or captured. At home, the bombing intensified. In July that year, for example, Hamburg was shattered by the first combined offensive of the British and American air forces: the USAAF bombed by day and RAF by night, leaving more than 45,000 people dead in their wake. The Nazi Government afterwards ordered 1.2 million inhabitants to be evacuated from the flattened city, but the evacuees often failed to adapt to life in rural southern Germany where their hosts were generally unsympathetic towards the town dwellers. There was tension with farmers who were exempt from rationing: ‘They eat like kings and live like pigs.’ was the common complaint of evacuees.
Many children were sent from the blitzed towns to special evacuation centres where their habits of crying, bedwetting, teenage moodiness and cheekiness created as much friction with hosts as they had in Britain. As in Britain, too, there was a drift back to towns and the life of comradeship under the bombs. People washed up together at roadside water pumps. Chains of ‘rubble women’ became a common sight, clearing debris from bomb-damaged building.
Propaganda minister Josef Goebbels was often photographed giving encouragement to survivors, but Hitler refused to visit any bombed-out towns. After Stalingrad, the Führer lived an increasingly isolated life, chiefly at his headquarters at Wolfsschanze in a remote part of East Prussia.
His harsh voice was occasionally heard over the radio, preceded by the words Der Führer Spricht (the leader speaks), restaurants throughout the Reich were supposed to turn up their loudspeakers, and customers to fall silent. But he was not an especially good broadcaster. The days of the mass rellies had gone – Hitler mad few public speeches in wartime and did not attempt to display magnetic powers he had once exercised as an orator.
It was only in 1943, after defeat at Stalingrad, that the Nazi leadership belatedly tried to gear up the entire german economy for the war effort. Typically, it was Goebbels who procclaimed the policy of ‘total war’, in a blistering speech at Berlin’s sports stadium. ‘Now, nation, arise! let the storm break loose!’ he exhorted.
Under the new policy, the production of civilian goods were neglected in favour of arms manufacture. While tanks and aircraft started rolling off the assembly lines in increasing numbers, all men between 16 and 65 not in uniform were registred for the compulsory labour – even criminals were put on war work – and the Hitler Youth was drafted to help out on farms. However, Nazi teaching about the women’s role in the home meant that the female workforce – so vital to the war economies of other nations – was mobilised only slowly.
The most distinctive feature of life in Germany was the enormous influx of foreign labourers. It is an irony of history that Hitler, who had dreamed of creating a ‘racially pure’ Reich, ended up flooding the nation with multitudes of workers from abroad. By 1944, over 7 million foreign men and women had been brought into Germany from the defeated nations. Civilian workers, concentration camp inmates and prisoners-of-war together made up an immense, cosmopolitan army. Forced labour was employed by electrical firms such as Siemens and Telefunken; by the motor manufacturers Daimler-Benz and BMW; by aircraft manufacturers Messerschmitt, Heinkel and Junkers; and in the collosal arms plants of Krupp.
The most despised races – Jews, Poles and Russians – were treated as slave labourers and regarded as wholly dispensable. Others were given more consideration, especially those with the valued skills of electricians, mechanics, die-makers and so on. Conscripted labourers worked as servants in many homes. Some 500,000 Ukrainian girls were imported to bolster numbers in domestic service, and many top Nazis had Russian women working in their homes. The majority, though, lived in the barrack blocks of labour camps where, with their own canteens and newspapers, they formed a separate society within the Reich. German civilians had little direct contact with them, though they were often glimpsed – a disquieting presence – at the margin of everyday life.
Elsbeth Emmerich remembers how gas was installed in her house: ‘One day a young Polish prisoner of war came to dig a trench outside. At lunchtime Mum went down to him and made signs for him to come up for something to eat. That was strictly against the rules. No mixing with the enemy or people from the work camps! Mum didn’t take much notice of such rules so he was soon sat at our dinner table. He didn’t say a word. He seemed frightened. What if he decided to attack us? Of course he didn’t!’
The concentration camps farmed out their inmates to enterprises such as the I.G.Farben rubber and chemical works (near Auschwitz), where 30,000 people died. Fearing towards the end of the war that their victims should fall alive into Allied hands, the SS in Poland forces their remaining prisoners onto the roads leading back to the Germany. The emaciated figures in their threadbare clothes were pushed along at a hellish pace, encouraged with truncheons and whips. Anyone who lagged behind was shot.
By now the whole fabric of social life was falling apart. While the bombing of German towns reached horrific levels, refugees streaming in from the east brought with them stories of rape and other atrocities committed by the Red Army. Weariness and cynicism spread among the great queues of homeless people waiting for hot meals in the emergency kitchens set up by the army. With the daily diet below subsistence level, mobs started to pilfer stores and to derail trains for food. ‘Enjoy the war – the peace will be awful’, was the rueful quip on everyone’s lips.
The Nazi leadership responded by intensifying their terror. While the defence of the nation was left increasingly to fanatical Hitler Youth and aged Volkssturm (Home Guard) members, SS teams were everywhere, shooting deserters, looters and anyone charged with defeatist talk. In Berlin, hardly a building was left intact by Allied bombs, bullets and shells. The people took to their cellars and waited in terror for the hammering of rifle butts against the cellar doors.