What Were They Fighting For? German Soldiers in World War II

To inaugurate this fall’s Center for German and European Studies (CGES) Lecture Series on September 27, IES welcomed Nicholas Stargardt, Professor of Modern European History at Oxford University. His book, entitled The German War, incorporates a number of primary sources, including diaries, in order to to explore the various motives for fighting for Germany in the Second World War.

Before discussing the violence of the war itself, Stargardt began by examining the role of the past in motivating Germans to fight. Through an examination of the repercussions of the First World War in the 1930s, he argued that the prospect of going to war a second time was seen as something terrible that should be avoided at all costs. With the invasion of Poland and its subsequent portrayal as a counterattack, however, the Second World War was presented as an inevitable means of national defense. Thus, there resulted widespread fear and internalized responsibility amongst families of the First World War’s “front generation,” as they did not want the outcome of this second war to echo that of the first. By using diaries, Stargardt hoped to provide a better understanding of how people understood their present options, how they reasoned it morally, and how such moralizations evolved as circumstances changed.

The next section of the talk focused on the violence directed towards Jews and the progression of knowledge of such horrors from mere rumor to something publicly acknowledged. With bombings, particularly those in Hamburg, sweeping across Germany in the summer of 1943, conversations began to focus on how such attacks of terror had resulted from the treatment of the Jewish population. Over time, this perspective, along with other political and societal changes, led to an evolution of the discussion from one focused on a reversal of the Holocaust to one much more interested in addressing a problematic regime.

In the final section, Stargardt highlighted the ways in which people dealt with war in terms of personal relationships and love. To begin, he discussed the Wehrmacht Request Concert organized to fundraise for the winter relief efforts. The concert enabled people to request songs in honor of loved ones fighting on the front. Then, through his citation of letters written by three different couples, he illustrated a number of effects war had on relationships, most notably the reality that, while many soldiers might have been fighting to keep relationships alive, such goals could not always be realized. To conclude, he argued that the Wehrmacht retained the support of the German populace in such a way that motivated Germany to continue fighting until it was militarily defeated. Following his detailed presentation, audience members asked a number of questions, which led to a discussion that began with the current political situation in the United States and ended with a contemplation of the (de)moralizing capacity of human beings.