And so the months dragged on. Parcels and letters arrived – or didn’t – Riri and Fonfon talked about the monotony of their lives, and longed for home and nothing particular seemed to happen. How could I make this engaging I wondered. And then I realized that is exactly my point. In the midst of a cataclysmic World War, everywhere, from Dresden to Coventry, from Paris to the furthest corners of the rural Ardèche, ordinary people were just trying to get on with their lives as best they could under the circumstances.
Although the war placed constraints to varying degrees on everyone, by the nature of things daily life was very different in France and Germany. France was an occupied country with an uncertain future, Germany was convincing itself that the nation was engaged in an epic struggle for world dominance. The simplistic view is that Germany was different. Germany was the aggressor. Germany was brainwashed, fanatical and, until recently stupendously successful militarily. Without wishing to launch into a serious historical analysis, for which I am hardly qualified, it is worth thinking a little about Hitler’s rise to power and his policies before 1939 in order to get some sort of idea about the lives of the people Riri and Fonfon met during their time in Dresden.
Hitler was appointed German Chancellor in January 1933. In February, after the Reichstag fire, which may or may not have been orchestrated by the Nazis themselves, he persuaded President Hindenburg to publish the Reichstag Fire Decree, which allowed the Nazis to declare a state of emergency and abolished most civil liberties including the right to speak freely, assemble, protest, and the right of due process. Arrests, intimidation and purges of their political enemies began to gather pace.
In March Hitler made his next move and, through a process of intimidation and negotiation, was able to pass the Ermächtigungsgesetz, The Enabling Act, or to translate its heavily loaded full title “The Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich,” giving himself the power to enact laws without consulting either the parliament or the President and de facto without constitutional limitations. When Hindenburg died in 1934 Hitler combined for himself the roles of Chancellor and President, officially taking the title of Führer, meaning that only Hitler as head of state could dismiss Hitler as head of the government. Significantly all soldiers took the Hitler Oath on the day of Hindenburg’s death and thereafter throughout the war, swearing unconditional obedience to Hitler personally, not to the office or nation.
By the way, these soldiers are not doing a particularly sloppy Hitler salute as you might suppose, but the Germanic Schwurhand, or swearing-in gesture, which is still used in situations with the most impeccable credentials.
Germans did not all rally to the Nazi flag as soon as Hitler assumed complete control of the country but overt opposition had become impossible. Prof. Richard J Evans, a leading authority on the Third Reich deals with this issue in a BBC history programme* : “Most people wanted a quiet life. They wanted to get on with their jobs and their lives, raise their families. There was a certain retreat into private life under the Nazis, because to take part in public life, you had to be an active Nazi and do all sorts of things that many people really didn’t want to do”.
At the mass rallies Hitler skillfully mixed the message of an upright, moral, hardworking Germany which deserved its place in the family of nations with hysterical ravings of racial supremacy and the right to Lebensraum or territorial expansion. He harked back to the perceived treachery of the Generals who in 1918 had betrayed Germany by signing a humiliating Armistice, and to the Versailles Treaty, which deprived the country of her industrial heartland and large parts of her pre-war territory, and imposed crippling war reparation payments.
The pay-off for the population, the reward for their tacit or enthusiastic support, was an immediate and spectacular turn-around in the economic and social life of the country as they saw their bankrupt, defeated, demoralised nation transformed by successive 4-year plans. Unemployment practically disappeared as huge road and rail building projects were launched, lawlessness and violent demonstrations vanished from the streets, the currency stabilised.
True, one had to turn a blind eye to the violence of the SA troopers, the humiliation and despoliation of the Jews, the prison camps awaiting anyone who failed to conform to the Nazi ideology. True, it was no longer safe to speak openly, even at a ladies’ Kaffee und Kuchen afternoon party, but as long as another terrible war could be avoided this was just about an acceptable price to pay.
And after all, the appeasement policies of Ramsay Mc Donald, Baldwin, Chamberlain and Daladier would have been unthinkable if Hitler had not been able to present himself as a plausible advocate for peaceful and limited expansion and Germany’s right to Lebensraum.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were presented as a showcase for the new Germany, and to read the leaflet promoting the games which Markus picked up in a junk shop some years ago, is to understand how easy it is to be misled by history unfolding under one’s eyes.
In it Goebbels wrote: With the Olympic Games, Germany will be the centre of the world. What a proud thought for all Germans! Every nation will send the best of their sporting youth to our capital and from all over the globe they will come with high expectations and full of the joy of celebration. The German people are the hosts and the Führer will personally welcome them all. The New Germany will embrace them.
For a long time the Germans have contented themselves with being the world’s leading intellectual power – as other nations called us, a people of poets and thinkers. We have struggled long with the hard reality of gaining a political existence. The terrible fate that hit Germany has created a new generation that will stare unfalteringly into the eyes of facts and will not get lost in the world of illusions. The enthusiasm of young people has inspired us to bring sport to the forefront and to take our place in the first row of sporting nations. Training of the mind goes together with the training of the body. In 1936 we will pit ourselves against the peoples of the world to show them what strength the idea of German unity is capable of triggering. Germany has no interest in belligerent ambition but is looking for its fame in peaceful competition.
When the war did come, the initial successes of the Blitzgreig, the lightening advances and the occupation of countries bordering Germany meant that it was easy for the propaganda machine to trumpet Hitler’s vision. Throughout the conflict, right up until the bitter end, Germans were fed a news diet of military triumphs and exhorted to bear any sacrifices, however small or large, for the sake of their Führer, who would lead them to undoubted ultimate victory. It would take a certain type of insane bravery, from members of the old aristocracy, to make an attempt to cut off the madness at its head and plan the assassination of Hitler. A plan which failed and resulted in the horrific executions of the core group, along with around 5,000 of their associates.
The terrible crimes against humanity which would be revealed at the end of the war beg the question which is constantly asked: how could they, the German population, not have known what was happening? The general feeling amongst many historians of the period is that they did know, but were powerless to do anything about it and therefore turned a blind eye, or pretended to themselves that they did not see, did not know. After all, we too know and care about burning injustices, discrimination or the climate emergency but we are able to protest, to demonstrate or to take action in any cause about which we feel passionately. This freedom had been stolen from the Germans in 1933, as is the case under any totalitarian régime, then and now. On an individual level, although there are many documented cases in both countries of denunciations as a way of settling of old scores, for the majority of people in Germany as in France, their main preoccupation was to survive.
We do not choose the times into which we are born. Riri and Fonfon are surviving day to day in a reality which they would neither have expected nor wished for and, sadly, even this is soon to be dramatically disrupted.
Additional sources: Lizzie Collingham: The Taste of War. Richard J Evans: The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich in History and Memory.
Header image, Jeanne Mammen, Two Women Dancing, ©Volker-H Schneider, Berlin.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.