I’ve been reading an interesting book that takes a look at how ordinary Germans lived during World War II and how they thought about the events they were experiencing.
It is drawn in part from contemporary news reports and news reels along with reports from police, local government officials, and intelligence agencies. But its most important source is letters between friends and lovers separated by the war.
I picked up this book mostly to try to understand how a culturally advanced country could take such a dark and barbaric turn in such short order. But now, about a quarter of the way through the book, the most interesting thing I am finding is something that should be blindingly obvious, but really isn’t: these people had no idea how things were going to end up.
We tend to look back on history and see logical chains of events, so logical that they almost seem predestined: Of course Rome would fall. Naturally the economically powerful North would crush the underdeveloped South in the Civil War. There’s no way that Germany, a nation of less than 70 million could beat the combined powers of Europe.
That’s not at all how people saw things at the time, however.
In this case, it is clear that Germans were wary of war in 1939, with the memory of World War I still fresh, but at the same time, they were riled up by government propaganda blaming Britain and the Poles for the outbreak of the fighting. The book chronicles their worries as troops mobilized, their occasional qualms about the brutality of the opening campaign, and their growing rage at Allied air raids on German cities.
Then suddenly, the unthinkable happened – France surrendered, several smaller nations fell with hardly a fight, and Britain was isolated and seemingly without hope. The war was all but over and Germans began planning for a peaceful, powerful future. You can feel their relief and giddy delight that things didn’t go as badly as they had feared.
As a reader, we all know that’s not how it turned out at all, but none of these people, planning family reunions or happy post-war careers in 1940 and ‘41 had the faintest inkling of what was about to happen to them, which is sad and fascinating. It is a reminder that as we live in the moment, we have no idea how things will play out in the future.
I’ve been digging back in the Register’s archives lately for a variety of projects and it is most interesting to see how we reported on events long ago. In February of 1968, for example, in the wake of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, we were reporting that “Allied troops are battering withdrawing Reds,” suggesting that U.S. military authorities were still viewing the event as a victory, which in a narrow sense it was. They didn’t yet know that the Tet Offensive would be an appalling shock to the public back home and become a turning point in the political mood of the country.
In February of 1918, meanwhile, we reported on Russia withdrawing from the war, quoting the obscure new leader of the government, “Lenine.”
All of this has made me think more deeply about the times we’re living in now. It’s clear we’re in a time of tremendous change, a time that will be pored over by historians in great detail. How many of the news stories we see and hear seem banal and trivial today, but will turn out to have earth-shaking significance, like that Lenine fellow? How many of the stories of today that seem significant now will turn out to be of no consequence at all, or wildly off base?
It’s often been said that journalism is the rough draft of history. And it’s true: we’re cataloging the events that will one day make up history, but unlike the people who will write those thick history books, we lack that comforting benefit of hindsight.