1939

From The Wall Street Journal:

On April 27, 1939, the British government announced plans to conscript young men for military training. It was a dramatic departure: Never previously in its modern history had the nation conscripted men for the military in time of peace. As the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, explained to the public, however, with countries all over Europe preparing for battle, and everyone fearing a war might start at any moment, “no one can pretend that this is peacetime in any sense in which the term could fairly be used.”

This liminal period, starting with the sighs of relief at the signing of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, is the subject of Frederick Taylor’s “1939: A People’s History of the Coming of the Second World War.” Mr. Taylor, whose previous works about the period include “Coventry: November 14, 1940” and “Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945,” charts the escalating tensions as Hitler’s brinkmanship pushed Europe to the edge of war, and the insidious onset of a “wartime” mood across Europe, even before German forces invaded Poland. The book concerns the United Kingdom and Germany, and it intersperses clear explanations of the decisions being taken by statesmen with the way these were experienced by “ordinary” people in both countries.

Rich in social and cultural details that bring the era to life, “1939” makes use of a range of eyewitness testimony and contemporary assessments of public opinion, which together illuminate the variety of individual experience within a historic moment in international affairs. Discussions of the ways that new forms of entertainment, such as television and cheap holiday camps, appeared in Germany and in Britain illuminate both the similarities among European experiences and the stark cultural and political differences. Though each chapter deals with a month, Mr. Taylor dives back into the 1930s to explain the back story of that final year of “peace.”

But Mr. Taylor’s inverted commas on “ordinary” are necessary. The figures to whose testimony Mr. Taylor returns throughout the book are German: the journalist (and later anti-Nazi resister) Ruth Andreas-Friedrich and the well-connected novelist and screenwriter Erich Ebermayer. Their diary accounts provide the self-scrutinizing outsiders’ view of the mainstream that, for the British part of his story, comes from the more numerous contributors to the social research project Mass-Observation, the surviving archives of which are such a boon for historians of this period.

. . . .

Mr. Taylor [keeps] up the momentum of a much-told story—the coming of the European war—while conveying a powerful sense of what it felt like to watch the precipice approach.

For some, the drop had already begun. Matching up the dynamics of genocide and war, Mr. Taylor explains how ordinary Germans carried on as attacks on Jews became part of national and civic life. The author is very good at showing the fear and horror produced by escalating Nazi violence, as well as the bizarre dualities that resulted as everyday routines continued around them. Walking to church or the cinema over the smashed glass from shop windows and through the smoke from burning synagogues, gentile Germans managed not to feel that their world was disintegrating around them. Even Britons who got past the casual anti-Semitism typical of the age to offer aid to Jewish refugees, meanwhile, remained remarkably convinced that decent Germans would one day reject Nazi brutality.

What worried everyone was the onset of another world war, when the last one was fresh in memory. Mr. Taylor quotes one report from a local Nazi party official about popular reactions to the invasion of Poland in the Westphalian city of Bielefeld: The last great war, the document observed, had “returned remarkably vividly to people’s memories, its misery, its four-year duration, its two million German fallen. No enthusiasm for war at all.” That the German people acquiesced speaks not only to the power of Nazi propaganda, which used modern means to tap into deeper strands of European anti-Semitism, but also to the degree to which life was already militarized by September 1939. For all the horror at the slaughter a generation before, mobilizing to fight was something that this state—and this society—knew how to do.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

1 thought on “1939”

  1. Recently finished David M. Kennedy’s history of the American People in the Great Depression. The last chapters of the book do a fair job of describing isolationism in America and how it hamstrung Roosevelt’s ability to act before Pearl Harbor.

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