Books about ordinary German life pre-WWII
December 3, 2014 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books about the daily lives of ordinary, non-Jewish Germans in the run-up to WWII. Ideally about someone who wasn't that interested or involved in politics and didn't have any strong feelings about Jews, Roma or other Nazi targets. Specific questions inside.

How was that person's life affected by Hitler's rise to power? How were their thoughts and feelings towards targeted groups shaped by propaganda? How much did he or she know about Nazi plans for territorial expansion and genocide? What was life like during the war? How likely were men to have been drafted? If extremely likely, then what were women's lives like?

Looking for English-language books; I cannot read German at all and my French is intermediate.
posted by desjardins to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I immediately thought of Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. It's fiction but based on actual events. It's very compelling, but it is also every bit as dark as you'd expect it to be from the title and the subject matter.
posted by workerant at 1:01 PM on December 3, 2014

The Jews and Germans of Hamburg is what you are looking for.
posted by janey47 at 1:08 PM on December 3, 2014

Defying Hitler, by Sebastian Haffner, comes to mind.

Also this one, although it does not quite meet your search, A Dictator's Apprenticeship I really did find it very insightful into Vienna at the time before Hitler came to power.
posted by 15L06 at 1:12 PM on December 3, 2014

I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941 by Victor Klemperer—‘A Dresden Jew, a veteran of World War I, a man of letters and historian of great sophistication, Klemperer recognized the danger of Hitler as early as 1933. His diaries, written in secrecy, provide a vivid account of everyday life in Hitler's Germany. What makes this book so remarkable, aside from its literary distinction, is Klemperer's preoccupation with the thoughts and actions of ordinary Germans: Berger the greengrocer, who was given Klemperer’s house (“anti-Hitlerist, but of course pleased at the good exchange”), the fishmonger, the baker, the much-visited dentist…’
posted by misteraitch at 1:33 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just finished the excellent short novel Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck. It's more of a broad survey of german history, but some of it feels relevant. From a Guardian review:

Visitation's central character is a place. In a grand house and its grounds, by a lake in Brandenburg, a succession of occupants dislodge each other, borne along by the political calamities of 20th century Europe. The Jewish family who own the property in the 1930s are forced to sell while they wait for visas out of the Third Reich. An architect renovates the house; at the end of the second world war, it's requisitioned by the Russian army; then, under the GDR, the architect has to flee for having done illegal business with the west. The place is reclaimed by returning exiles from Siberia, then resold by estate agents.
Visitation is foreign in the profoundest sense of that word. We are shown no dramatic meetings, no fraught conversations, between the architect and the Jews he supplants; we only see him taking a swim and wiping himself dry with one of the towels that are still hanging in the bathing-house "before it could occur to his wife to wash them". He congratulates himself for having given the Jews the full half market-value set by the law, and for helping them escape persecution. "Strange towels," he reflects. "Cloth manufacturers, these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods."
Quotes like this, while they hint at the troubling finesse of Erpenbeck's touch, don't do justice to the true subtlety of her fiction. It's common for literary authors to give objectionable characters a veneer of decency for us to see through; that's not what Erpenbeck is aiming for. She immerses us so deeply in the worldview of each protagonist that we grow fond of them all, worry about the things that worry them, cease to see the things that they ignore. We want them all to hold on to their home.

posted by you're a kitty! at 2:17 PM on December 3, 2014

Little Man, What Now? By Hans Fallada
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:40 PM on December 3, 2014

They Thought They Were Free - The Germans, 1933-45 from 1966, by Milton Mayer.
posted by Rash at 4:45 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Nazi Seizure of Power is a classic in this area. It's a deep description of one town's slow turn toward Nazism.
posted by MrBobinski at 5:18 PM on December 3, 2014

Courtesy of another Mefite, I own not one, but two books that are possibly relevant to you (though I've read neither):
Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany
Life and Death in the Third Reich

I think I'm getting my world wars mixed up, so I'm not sure offhand how much of the male population would have been conscripted at any one time, but compulsory military service was reintroduced in 1935.
posted by hoyland at 8:02 PM on December 3, 2014

This recent book Thomas Kohut, German Generations develops a really innovative approach to trying to understand the experience and psychology of 'ordinary Germans' [using multiple oral history interviews to create composite portraits] and would answer very specifically many of the questions about feelings and responses your post raises. Aside from the fact that it responds precisely to your question, it's one of the most interesting historical studies I've read recently.
posted by melisande at 6:45 AM on December 4, 2014

I just read the novel Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kastner, based on the author's experience in Germany during the early 1930s as unemployment was rising. Excellent book.
posted by perhapses at 10:50 AM on December 4, 2014

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