Surviving Hitler's War: Family Life in Germany, 1939-48, By Hester Vaizey

Even tyrants have families to support
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The Independent Culture

Eighteen million German men left their families from 1939 to serve in the armed forces.

Five million never came back from the Second World War and 11 million were held in prisoner of war camps after 1945. Forced to be self-reliant, did German wives also take this opportunity to claim, then build on, a new sense of empowerment unthinkable before?

Hester Vaizey, the author of this meticulously researched work, will have none of it. She argues that because conditions were so extremely burdensome for the wives at home, one way of keeping their strength up was to dream of one day relinquishing every one of the new responsibilities they had been forced to take on. Any pride in achieving such heavily qualified liberation was miles from reality, leading some contemporary feminist historians to lament this missed chance to change gender relationships. The absent husbands too, dreamed and wrote of a return to pre-war normality. Those who survived sometimes found domestic life problematic, but there was no dramatic leap in divorce rates in the next decade.

All this goes back to the fact that by 1942, living conditions in Germany had begun a long period of deterioration. The most basic food became increasingly scarce, homelessness due to bombing was rife, and advancing armies from Russia went in for mass rape, an atrocity that continued to be a threat in East Germany up to the founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949. Letters to and from the front, which form the basis for this study, became increasingly irregular, neither party knowing whether the other was alive, sometimes for months on end. And there was always the chance of being denounced by a child or neighbour, although Vaizey believes the fear of this happening was more in evidence than its actual occurrence.

Letters from the crumbling Eastern front were particularly at risk, with the Russians after the war initially banning any correspondence with those still in prison camps. So Vaizey has based this study on life in western Germany, home to three-quarters of the population. Hers is very much an academic study, high in tables and graphs, dry in tone and low on illustrations. There is little about children's experience, mass entertainment, education, or the world of work. But the lengthily quoted correspondence between husbands and wives is moving, even taking into account some of the enormities the soldiers concerned may also have perpetrated. Letters from fighting men, as with the British forces, were censored, but even so, many expressions of unhappiness and longing to get home, sometimes to see children for the first time, still got through.

Affectionate recall of aspects of life on the home front during the the Second World War has been a common theme in British mass entertainment for some years now. On the basis of this book, this would seem very unlikely ever to be the case in Germany.