An Iron Wind

Europe Under Hitler


By Peter Fritzsche

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A vivid account of German-occupied Europe during World War II that reveals civilians’ struggle to understand the terrifying chaos of war

In An Iron Wind, prize-winning historian Peter Fritzsche draws diaries, letters, and other first-person accounts to show how civilians in occupied Europe tried to make sense of World War II. As the Third Reich targeted Europe’s Jews for deportation and death, confusion and mistrust reigned. What were Hitler’s aims? Did Germany’s rapid early victories mark the start of an enduring new era? Was collaboration or resistance the wisest response to occupation? How far should solidarity and empathy extend? And where was God? People desperately tried to understand the horrors around them, but the stories they told themselves often justified a selfish indifference to their neighbors’ fates.

Piecing together the broken words of the war’s witnesses and victims, Fritzsche offers a haunting picture of the most violent conflict in modern history.



Talk in Wartime

ENGLISH WRITER LEONARD WOOLF DESCRIBED THE EXPERIENCE OF the new war as something like “endlessly waiting in a dirty, grey railway station waiting-room, with nothing to do but wait endlessly for the next catastrophe.” Woolf’s repetition—“waiting . . . waiting . . . wait”—suggests his sense of complete arrest. Woolf’s anticipation and apprehension were rooted in his keen understanding of the “terrible difference” between August 1914, when ideas of armed conflict remained wrongly scaled to events that had occurred at Austerlitz and Waterloo one hundred years earlier, and September 1939, when, as a result of the war of 1914–1918, people now knew “exactly” the “horrors of death and destruction, wounds and pain and bereavement and brutality.” Across Europe when war was declared in 1939 for the second time in a lifetime, there was no sign of the lighthearted, celebratory mood that had rushed over the capital cities twenty-five years earlier. Families still grieved for sons and brothers and fathers who had fallen in the Great War. You could see men missing legs or arms walk across all scenes of everyday life. Now the next trainload of events was rolling into the station. Woolf’s “exactly” bespoke his expectation of terrible things oncoming: call-up orders, memorized song, pale lies, casualty lists, tear-streaked faces. But in fact the Great War did not furnish exact knowledge about the next much greater war that was on its way.1

The difference between August 1914 and September 1939 was not just better knowledge of the costs of war. The new conflict appeared more omnivorous because it was poised to destroy homes and neighborhoods, not just soldiers on the front. In September 1939, civilians thought not only about loved ones in uniform, but also about themselves. Writer Virginia Woolf, Leonard’s wife, remarked on the domestic state of the emergency, describing “heaps of sandbags in the streets,” “men digging trenches” in the parks, “lorries delivering planks” on corners. Indeed, in the fall of 1940 the Woolfs lost their home in London in an aerial bombardment, and they continued to be menaced by the “wail of the sirens” and the “drone of the German planes flying in from the sea” after they had retreated to the country in Sussex. Not least because she feared that German soldiers would follow German airplanes, Virginia Woolf committed suicide at the end of March 1941. What was different about World War II was that war came in “from the sea,” across the borders that separated the battlefront from the home front, that it swept into domestic lives, and that it kept coming as one danger waved in the next.2

The sense of being assaulted but not knowing when “the next catastrophe” would come or from where created the feeling of being stuck in a “railway station waiting-room.” The wait was not only endless but all-enveloping. It was a new sort of self-consciousness: the war threatened to “become all you know.” Virginia Woolf herself had for a long time tried to stay clear of the waiting room, remaining an outsider to the war. Who could “care one straw,” she asked in 1938, about a future war? “We know winning means nothing.” But when air war did come from across the Channel, it spread like a “terrible disease.” Suddenly, the outsider was inside. Woolf wrote about “our wounded,” “our men,” “our majestic city.” She soon felt trapped inside: after the defeat of France in June 1940, she wrote, “We’re fighting alone with our back to the wall.”3

In the uncertain wait for the “next catastrophe,” wartime stretched out the present moment so very far that it felt like an eternity. “Time since the armistice” between France and Germany in June 1940, remarked writer Léon Werth, this time from Lyons in 1941, “has not been real time”; it has simply been a “time of waiting.” Using the same metaphor as Leonard Woolf, he wrote, “We can classify it as the category of time which one spends in a train station waiting for a train.”4 It was a time that both annihilated and stayed, cutting away the past, postponing the future, and elongating the present amid an unceasing barrage of events. And as in any “railway station waiting-room,” the stranded travelers read timetables, they reread bulletins, they peered down the tracks, and they talked constantly among themselves about the next train. They waited for the wail of the siren, anticipated the drone of the bomber, and wondered when soldiers would invade. In World War II, the waiting and waiting-room chatter went on and on.

The stretched-out present was time without a frame, terrain without a horizon. Normal timetables no longer applied. In Dresden Victor Klemperer, a professor of literature and a German Jew, who was protected by his marriage to a Catholic, waited for some sort of conclusion—not so much a sign on the horizon as a sign of the horizon. Surely, the terrible laws in September 1941 requiring Jews to wear yellow stars represented “the final act,” his friend Missy Meyerhof, writing from Berlin, argued: “I too believe it is the fifth act.” Klemperer agreed. But unlike Shakespeare’s plays, he noted, “some plays in world literature, e.g., Hugo’s Cromwell, have six acts.” Would there be another catastrophe after the star decree? In Paris, a year later, in July 1942, another student of literature, Hélène Berr, herself already wearing the yellow Jewish star, suspected that “something is brewing.” She figured that the “next catastrophe” would certainly be “a tragedy” for fellow Jews, but she did not know whether it would it be “the tragedy.”5 Would the fifth act be the final act? And would the final act bring an end to the war, or would it bring an end to the travelers in the railway station waiting room? This confusion was the condition of endlessly waiting for the next catastrophe.

Contemporaries such as Leonard Woolf, Léon Werth, Victor Klemperer, and Hélène Berr talked without end about the end of the war, and they searched for signs—the “vox populi,” in Klemperer’s words—that might help them reach some sort of conclusion. However, what they found were often “voces populi,” a confusing array of contradictory data. Very little was predictable or certain. The first season of the war in the autumn of 1939 was quickly designated as the “phony war” because the expected air bombardments of London, Paris, and Berlin failed to materialize. The fall of France to Germany in June 1940 was supposed by many to end in a scenario in which Britain would be knocked out of the war, but this did not happen either. Germany’s “Blitzkrieg” offensives against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and again a year later ended neither in defeat nor in victory. The dramatic events of the year 1943, after Germany suffered huge losses at Stalingrad and Italy turned against its coalition partner, did not bring about Germany’s capitulation, as many observers had assumed. What is more, the Allies did not open a second front in 1942 or 1943, as promised. And when it did come at last, in June 1944 with the invasion of Normandy, predictions by military commanders that Germany would surrender by Christmas proved to be wrong. “Logistical planning in the Second World War was a nightmare,” concludes one historian.6 This nightmare had the effect of making talk in wartime more animated, more obsessive, and more inconclusive.

Woolf’s “railway station” image is especially apt because opinions about the “next catastrophe” were frequently expressed in actual train stations and on trains. Trains and stations were places where one was likely to have time on one’s hands, to meet strangers who might have heard something new, and to pick up threads of wartime talk. One could literally take a train between 1939 to 1945, whether it was an express from Warsaw, a local out of Bourg, a German army transport to Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine, or a tram around Amsterdam, and hear constant chatter about the war: the summer offensive, the second front, and the end of the war; food shortages, the black market, and the cold of winter; the depredations of soldiers and the deportation of Jews. Trains, train stations, and waiting rooms were garrulous spaces, and diarists often read the signs of the war by reporting on conversations among travelers. Other public spaces such as food lines and air-raid shelters similarly conferred anonymity and stopped time, making the people in their confines more approachable to one another.

The Gestapo went precisely to these places—“the streetcar, railway station waiting rooms, taverns, cafes, cinemas, markets, swimming pools, factory courtyards, canteens,” and air-raid shelters—to report on morale. Occupation authorities in Paris supposedly recruited local agents to stand undercover in food lines where they might hear anti-German remarks.7 French satirical novelist Marcel Aymé, a great skeptic of loyalty to anything but the foibles of ordinary people, placed talkative, complaining countrymen in a food line in order to capture in short story form the degraded condition of France during the war (“Do you think the war will go on long?”)—though the fourteenth person in line ended up saying nothing, “for she had just died all of a sudden” of “poverty, fear, and exhaustion.” Across the frontier, Swiss officials focused their concerns about loose talk that might offend German visitors on dangerous places, including “restaurants, trains, etc.” In such locations, authorities hung posters with statements warning citizens to hold their tongues: “Keep your mouth shut, or else you’ll hurt the homeland.” Less concerned about offending German feelings than bolstering Swiss morale, exiled theologian Karl Barth believed that it made a great difference to public order whether the “grumbling, muttering, and gossiping” one could hear everywhere, “in the tavern, on the tramway, in the stores,” was expressed in a “resolute or a worn out manner.” His written admonition, however, was censored.8 The war’s waiting room was oppressive, not least because it was so noisy and redundant—and a bit rebellious.

The railway station waiting room was a place for talk, but it also was a way station for millions of Europeans who found themselves on the move during the war, displaced from home, separated from family, and often unable to return to the places they had come from. War made the extraordinary scale of dislocation plain to see. Wilm Hosenfeld, an observant Catholic and one of the few Wehrmacht officers to come to the aid of Polish Jews—including pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, later the subject of the film The Pianist—reckoned quite accurately that “since the earth has existed, there has not been such a movement of masses as in this war.” Writing in 1944, he actually knew where to begin:

Beginning with the Poles fleeing and flooding back to the border regions, the resettled ethnic Germans, the refugees in France, and now in Italy and Russia, where people have been chased out two or three times. What Russ. civilians have endured is excruciating. Then the extermination of several million Jews, the destruction of German cities and the dispersion of their inhabitants, in addition to millions of foreigners who have forced to come to Germany and work. Everywhere, millions of troops of the warring nations face off to destroy each other—a revolution and catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.9

Stationed in Poland since the beginning of the war, Hosenfeld was well placed to construct a clear picture, giving a complete summary of the extraordinary racial ambitions of Germany’s empire builders. His account is noteworthy because it was not seen solely through the self-centered perspective of mounting German losses: after January 1945, millions more German civilians would join the exodus of refugees that had begun in Polish towns and villages in September 1939. What he saw, which most contemporaries did not, was more turbulence from beginning to end.

Most refugees had no real destination, which intensified the nervous dislocations of the waiting-room war. Once families set on the road, they frequently forfeited the ability to return home. German and Soviet annexations made former homes off-limits to thousands of Poles. Already in 1939, Zygmunt Klukowski, a good-hearted small-town doctor called up as a reserve officer in the Polish army and himself on the road without a plan, remarked that masses of “people, seized with panic, were going ahead, without knowing where or why, and without any knowledge of where the exodus would end.” Polish civilians commandeered city buses from Lodz, Kraków, and Warsaw or set out on “all types of motorized vehicles” or “horse-drawn wagons”; “people on foot and on bicycles added to the confusion.”10 Some went east, others west. Baggage was quickly abandoned because it was too heavy. Bundles of possessions grew smaller and smaller. Nine months later, refugees from Belgium and France sought to escape the advancing German armies, moving south and west along the main roads that they shared with mobilized military units until they were overtaken either by the victorious Wehrmacht or by the fact of the armistice. Jews, as well as French Africans and Algerians, who had fled to the unoccupied zone in southern France were not allowed to return to the German occupied zone. And even though most other French citizens were able to return home in a few months, families remained broken apart. The majority of French soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans, nearly 2 million, did not come home until 1945. Dislocation as much as waiting defined the experience of occupation.

When the Germans restarted the war of movement with the invasion of Yugoslavia, Greece, and then the Soviet Union in the spring and summer of 1941, roads were overrun with exhausted refugees who filed past the corpses of starved Russian soldiers taken prisoner or simply shot as stragglers. Charkov, the second-largest city in Ukraine, was captured and recaptured three times by the Germans between 1941 and 1943 before the Red Army finally liberated the almost deserted city in August 1943. The Germans transported millions of conscript workers from across Europe into the Reich and threw Jews, Poles, and others out of the territories they annexed. At the other end of the war, German civilians fleeing the Russian advance in the winter of 1945 crowded into Berlin, where psychologist Matthais Menzel saw them waiting “for trains which don’t depart, headed for destinations which no longer make sense.” As refugees waited to move on, farther westward, “the howling and whining of the air-raid sirens drive them with kit and caboodle into bunkers and basements.” Only a few lucky refugees escaped Europe’s war altogether, some of them reaching Lisbon, “this last open port,” in engagé novelist Arthur Koestler’s description, “Europe’s gaping mouth, vomiting the contents of her poisoned stomach.”11

The massive, involuntary movement of so many people jumbled travelers in the corridors of trains. Within the Third Reich, one Swiss journalist came across a strikingly polyglot scene, a din of “Italian and French”—“the Balkans are also abundantly represented”—that contradicted the picture of racial homogeneity that the Nazis had so carefully arranged. A French prisoner assigned to a farm or a serving girl recruited from a concentration camp could be easily folded into familiar domestic routines. But Germans who watched workers impressed from Poland and Ukraine standing “in clumps” outside train stations, “dirty, freezing, almost all of them without coats,” found the sight disturbing, a sign of general squalor. For Lisa de Boor, a journalist from Marburg, the presence of so many people stranded by war caught her by surprise: it was “something I had not seen before.” For the most part, however, travelers in the Reich saw the movement around them in an exclusively German frame. But what appeared to de Boor at first to be terribly exciting, as German soldiers journeyed “for days” across “enormous distances” that used to exist only in Russia (to which, she left unsaid, Germany’s fate had now been yoked), looked very different in 1943.

In March 1943, de Boor found herself once traveling by train. She described “the difficult lives of all these people around me!” but contemplated only German tragedies:

The couple evacuated from Cologne with kids, the husband on leave from Africa waiting on the platform in Kassel. Next to him, a blinded soldier, on his way to the School for the Blind in Marburg, greedily smoking the cigarette that his companion has stuck in his mouth. Then a big, fat soldier on crutches, without shoes, his feet wrapped in bandages, the frozen toes having been amputated. Next to him, two soldiers from around Vjasma; they have been on the road for seven days, their homes in Cologne are burned out, their families don’t have a roof over their heads. Children from cities in the West evacuated to the countryside. Hitler Youth, called up to a military training camp, pore over guidebooks on the proper use of a submachine gun. An SS officer dozing next to his very beloved bride. A Ukrainian who has been traveling for twelve days to locate relatives in his homeland but is unable to get there.12

Although de Boor noticed the Ukrainian, who was one among millions of foreign workers conscripted into the Third Reich, her sightseeing was basically in German.

This partial view, which made some things visible and obscured others, was typical of train travel. Not being able to see was part of the overall feeling of dislocation. As soldiers, refugees, and other travelers journeyed across the greater German Empire, they saw supply trains rumbling to the eastern front; coal cars in which only the heads of Russian prisoners of war were visible in the frigid winter air; trains to the camps at Westerbork, at Treblinka, at Auschwitz; wagonloads of ethnic Germans resettled to and then evacuated from White Russia; the “humming and rolling of trains” with “tired, war-weary soldiers”; the arrival in Warsaw of hospital trains full of Wehrmacht with “crumpled-up overcoats and dead-faced expressions”—“rabanka,” or chopped meat, the Poles said. It was not uncommon to see work details of Jewish forced laborers shoveling snow along the main streets or concentration camp inmates in tattered uniforms and wooden shoes repairing infrastructure. Yet most diarists did not mention these sights. There are far more references to the departure of French men rounded up to work in Germany, leaving the stations at Dijon and Montluçon in carriages chalked with slogans like “Down with the unjust Relève! Down with Laval!” and singing “The Internationale,” than there are to the deportation trains carrying French Jews to the assembly camp at Drancy, outside Paris. Shoveling snow at Bucharest’s Grivita Station, Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian felt himself “becoming a railway worker—worse, a platform sweeper and track clearer.” At one point, he could see “the Constanta train passing a few hundred meters away” and thought, “Two years back I could have been one of its passengers, one of those looking from a carriage window at men on the line with pick and shovel.” But would he have seen them? As a Jew, perhaps. Did others see him on his snow-clearing day in March 1942? Probably not. Hitler actually had the blinds pulled down when his train stopped alongside a transport of wounded German soldiers.13 There was much to see from the railway station waiting room, but not everyone looked.

Likewise, there were many people who heard only what they wanted to hear. Any consideration of wartime talk has to take note of the hush that fell when Hitler spoke. Broadcast over the radio and even over loudspeakers set up in train stations, Hitler’s speeches were national occasions, and Germans knew quite well that their far-flung friends and relatives had also tuned in. “All of Germany hears the Führer” was the official watchword. “Mother just telephoned to say that the Führer will speak in 5 minutes,” one German wrote, explaining why her letter had to be completed quickly. Another mother wrote the last lines of her letter right on time as well: “Tonight Hitler addresses the ‘foreign press.’ I definitely have to hear that.” The next day impressions would be shared; it was “totally enthralling and overwhelming,” “very confident and completely overwhelming,” or simply “grand.”14 The words suggested the desire to stand firm and be enrolled in the nation.

To a Swiss observer, a driver working for a team of Swiss doctors on the eastern front who found himself among German soldiers in Warsaw, the “call-and-response” that characterized Hitler’s addresses displayed a certain mindlessness. Writing under the pseudonym Franz Blättler, he recorded his impressions of experiencing Hitler talk as an outsider:

When we entered the canteen, it was already completely full. . . . With the first notes of the national anthem, everyone stands up, takes up position with the right hand stretched out, and sings. . . . Then the Führer speaks. Quiet as a mouse, everyone sits on their chair so they can catch every word. I think that Hitler’s words are a religion for them. . . . He lists off the latest victories. You can actually see how every single breast swells up. Once in a while someone throws a knowing glance at us or at the three places we have left demonstratively unoccupied. The meaning is clear: Watch yourselves, you little shepherd boys, your time will come soon enough. The Führer then moves on to the topic of Churchill and you can hear loud laughter through the loudspeaker. All at once, the whole canteen is laughing. If the radio broadcasts a “boo,” a loud “boo” echoes to my left and my right as well as behind and in front of me. It gets really dramatic when the choir on radio starts up with “Sieg Heil.” Then there are no bounds to the enthusiasm of the audience. Everyone stands up and adds their “Siegs” and their “Heils.”

Blättler was glad to be “little shepherd boy and not a member of this herd here.”15 And indeed, German soldiers and civilians routinely let the Führer talk through them, expressing their opinions by quoting what Hitler said and consulting his pronouncements for guidance.

The blaring German loudspeaker serves as a reminder of how uncomfortable many citizens were speaking their own minds in the midst of so much simulated unanimity. Given that he was surrounded by people who appeared to be completely “beclouded, befogged,” “blinded and seduced,” small-town German bureaucrat Friedrich Kellner, an old Social Democrat, believed he had to exercise “extreme caution” when talking to acquaintances. Police even brought him in for questioning at the end of January 1940. Loose talk was probably less tolerated by friends and neighbors at the beginning of the war than at the end, when doubts about victory and even the Führer’s speeches had accumulated. But by that time, the police and the Gestapo were also much more vigilant about defeatist attitudes, so an “objective” point of view or simply words of “caution” could be construed by the authorities as the “first step toward treason,” as Kellner put it. He, in any case, became more rather than less outspoken, despite the risks.16

Hitler’s loud and long speeches, the authority and banality of the radio, the allegedly ever-present Gestapo, the exercise of self-caution among strangers with divided political loyalties—all this deformed and diminished speech. In contrast to the revolutionary years after 1789 when the “flood of French speech” Thomas Carlyle described could hardly be stanched, or the years after 1917 when “The Talk” in Petrograd never stopped “spurting up,” in John Reed’s words, people in the years 1939–1945 did not feel at liberty to frankly debate the issues swirling around them.17 But self-absorption with one’s own fate was just as important as circumspection in shaping wartime conversations. Although civilians were in fact arrested for telling barbed jokes, the rapid and smooth circulation of the same series of wartime jokes indicates that the trouble with wartime talk was not simply how dangerous it was. As people talked incessantly about the war, the cold winters, and food; exchanged rumors, predictions, and jokes; and passed on the latest news, they created a nexus of communication “between ourselves” that often ignored the suffering of others. Talk could express shock, but it could also serve as a shock absorber.

Civilians bore the brunt of Germany’s occupation regimes, with their food rationing, labor impressments, political purges, and racial selections. One of the characteristics of this brutal war against civilians was that the worse the situation got, the more unlikely it seemed that it would last. The model was very simple: what goes up must come down, and the higher the war stacked up its tower of difficulties, the sooner it seemed it must tumble down of its own accord. The notion that “it can’t go on like this” measured the gap between the awful expansion of the conflict and the assumption that the war had to come to an end. Rumors created an alternative reality in which this gap might be closed. News bulletins announced the successes of the German war machine, while rumors cut it back down to size. Wartime talk was ultimately about the life and death of war.

In an extraordinary collection of the “myths of war,” psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte analyzed the stories that were frequently told and retold by people in the war’s figurative railway station waiting rooms. Often, they involved actual train travelers. Bonaparte was the great-granddaughter of Lucien Bonaparte, one of Napoleon’s younger brothers who remained more committed to the revolutionary (and Corsican) cause, to the emperor’s irritation. Although mistrusted by Napoleon and later by the restored Bourbon monarchs, the family retained enough money across the revolutions of nineteenth-century France to make Marie a plausible match to one of the younger sons of Greece’s King George I. So it was Princess Marie Bonaparte who studied psychoanalysis, and though not an accredited professional, she undertook serious research into sexual frigidity in order to find a cure for her own. She even sought out Sigmund Freud and paid the “exit tax” that allowed him to leave Vienna for London after the Anschluss in 1938.18 Thereafter, she took up the study of wartime rumors.


  • A New York Times Notable Book

    One of Christian Science Monitor's 15 Best Nonfiction Books of 2016
  • "A profoundly significant exploration of how Europeans--both Germans and those under German occupation--struggled to make sense of the conflict."—Richard Overy, Wall Street Journal
  • "A work of deep reflection by an experienced historian."—Timothy Snyder, New York Times Book Review
  • "Riveting, important...the most bracing and unsparing dissection of the subject to appear in many years."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "Powerfully written....Fritzsche renders a tremendous service in his portrayal of human beings in wartime."—CHOICE
  • "A thoroughly worked example of social history at its most valuable. It could serve as a model for studies of our own times."—New York Journal of Books
  • "Startlingly illuminating....Fritzsche draws on copious diaries, letters, and memoirs to convey the texture of everyday life for French, Polish, and Swiss citizens during World War II...[a] powerful, riveting, wrenching history."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

On Sale
Apr 3, 2018
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Peter Fritzsche

About the Author

Peter Fritzsche is the W. D. & Sarah E. Trowbridge Professor of History at the University of Illinois and the author of ten previous books, including An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler and the award-winning Life and Death in the Third Reich. He lives in Urbana, Illinois.

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