Skip to main content

An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler book review

I first heard of University of Illinois Professor Peter Fritzsche's An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler earlier this fall when a slightly tongue-in-cheek recommendation online pointed out the similarities to our current political situation under President-elect Trump. As with the other history book I discussed recently, you can read several different reviews elsewhere so I won't seek to repeat what they say.

What I will say about An Iron Wind is that Fritzsche's story is tight, well-written, thoughtful, and takes an approach to history that desires to skip the "history." His focus is on the men and women witnessing daily life and leaving behind evidence of their views. You know what happened; he wants to write about what people then were thinking about what happened. And it's what makes the book fascinating. Probably one of my favorite books in years for the deeply psychological study of a major human event.
The Germans killed one of every five hundred people on the planet over the course of the summer and fall of 1941. -- page 150, The Machinery of Destruction
The experience of WWII was not the same for everyone. And this is perhaps what Fritzsche covers best in the book. In France, the "war" was over quickly. Most of the fighting happened early and the occupation meant the occupied peoples in Western Europe had plenty of time to consider their overlords. Defeat at the hands of the Nazis meant plenty of time to discuss and try to live life under the new regime in a careful dance of capitulation, disgust, understanding, and resistance. It was calculated and ultimately messier in some mental ways because German and French were living side by side in relatively stabilized social conditions.

For people in Eastern Europe, the war arrived as destruction, genocide, torture, and slavery as the Nazi ideology was far more hostile to the native populations of Poland, Russia, etc.. Not only did the Germans consider Eastern Europeans racially inferior compared to Western Europeans, the visions for the two regions were very different. Paris was to remain a kind of "resort town" for the Reich and Nazi culture shared cultural history. For the Nazis, they envisioned Eastern Europeans as people to be eradicated to free up German living space. There was to be no mercy. Hitler's killing machine chewed up civilization on the Eastern Front while the French had plenty of time to contemplate "good" and "bad" Germans.

Then there were the Swiss. Neutral. German ancestry. Dedicated to humanitarianism, democracy, and not at all comfortable with the brutality of their German cousins...but still friendly.
Some people collaborated, others resisted, but most wavered in a no-man's land between the two positions. Opportunism and greed motivated civilians, fear paralyzed them, and disregard for others blinded them. The war erased whole horizons of empathy as people crouched within their own little worlds of tenuous security. Neighbors failed one another. --page xiii, Introduction
One of the most compelling sections of the book is a group of Swiss medical staff--including a nurse I share a last name with--on a train heading to Smolensk with plenty of time to engage in a bit of philosophical thinking with their Nazi hosts. The utter disregard for humanity is a turn off, the massacres witnessed on the way repellent, and yet...the Germans share enough of a bond with their Swiss counterparts to show some trepidation and confusion over the deeply horrific acts they've been brainwashed and propagandized into. Even as Germany reaches the height of European domination, it becomes apparent that it now has too many enemies to finish what it started. The war effort is doomed to failure. Probably the creepiest moment in the whole book is when a Nazi talks openly about the lack of manpower to kill on the scale they want. Even if they were dedicated to the task of machine-gunning everyone they wished, there were not enough bullets or personnel. The Nazis, efficient as they were at murder, could not kill well enough to meet their own goals.

Ultimately, Fritzsche also explores the religious aspects of the war. Including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's point that God was not the real failure in WWII. It was mankind. And the frequent assumption that Germany and Germans were somehow responsible for the atrocities is perhaps countered by An Iron Wind having a larger point that all of Europe was in a shadow. Nazi ideology was more of an "end" of a story that began much earlier with WWI, Napoleon, the French Revolution. (Fritzsche returns to the War and Peace obsession of the time frequently.) Europeans, more than anything, were confused in a time when Nazis were not. Or, rather, Nazis could easily misplace blame for imagined grievances because the rest of Europe had the misfortune of being lackluster in their support for humanitarian/democratic institutions/ideals. And confused in their read of history about how events were likely to play out once set in motion. Many people being wrong about many things brought human annihilation.

The real lessons for today are less relevant to the American election specifically...or even Donald Trump...and more relevant to our post-modern lack of faith in each other. Suspicion and cynicism about major institutions leaves us vulnerable to perhaps not another WWII. But we're certainly vulnerable to abuse, power grabs, corruption, and more when we're not all in agreement about our core values of humanity and some level of egalitarianism.

Not only did the Nazis believe in inequality, they exploited it to their own advantage at the perfect time. This is perhaps the greatest warning from history when we listen to those who experienced it the first time around.