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Europe at War:
Germany 1939-45

What were the experiences of Germans during World War II?

Civilian populations in Western Europe endured shortages, rationing, restrictions on liberty, extended working hours, bombing, as well as the emotional strain of loved ones risking death in battle. Technological advances, in particular the bomber, brought war to ordinary people far from front lines to an extent that had been impossible a generation before.

By 1939, Germans had already experienced 6 years of totalitarian Nazi rule; the militarisation of society, rearmament, greater government control of labour and the economy, the violent suppression of opposition, propaganda, and restrictions on personal liberty. Therefore, the outbreak of war did not require the radical changes in government powers that were experienced in liberal democracies such as Britain. However, food rationing was introduced immediately at the outbreak of war; meat was in particularly short supply though chronic food shortages were not experienced until 1944. The conquests of 1939-41 allowed Nazi Germany to live off the wealth of its victims, but severe shortages were experienced as the expanse of occupied territory contracted. Soap, clothing and cigarettes all became subject to restrictions. Germany’s lack of natural resources, especially oil, led to fuel shortages for civilians and the military, a situation that worsened when Romania, an oil producing ally of Germany, dropped out of the War in 1944.

For all the powers of coercion, persecution and terror at their disposal, Nazi leaders could not completely ignore the importance of civilian morale. The collapse of the Home Front had been a factor in Germany’s defeat in World War One. Indeed a great deal of energy was expended on maintaining domestic support for the War and though it is difficult to quantify, it is unsurprising that levels of morale should correlate directly with military success and failure. Support for the war was strongest in the early years but by 1943 following the defeat at Stalingrad, the Nazis found it harder to counteract war-weariness, political jokes, criticism and despair, to the extent that the regime was obliged to make ‘defeatism’ a criminal offence, punishable by death. By 1944, the regime was imposing the death penalty on children as young as 14. “The Gestapo also took an ever more active role in enforcing discipline at work. In 1942, 7,311 workers were arrested by the Gestapo for breaches of labour discipline but by 1944 the figure had risen to 42,505.” M Roseman, Total War and Historical Change: Europe, 1914-1955. Open University Press. Philadelphia. 2001. P: 243.

The Nazi state encouraged women to conform to the roles of mothers and home-makers, offering loans and rewards to those starting families. From 1939, young, unmarried women were compelled to undertake a year’s labour service, often agricultural work. Throughout the War, the demand for more labour eroded the Nazi ‘children, church and kitchen’ female role and women increasingly took on jobs in industry, administration, auxiliary military units, signals and anti-aircraft units. Such burdens were in addition to the struggle to acquire daily rations and maintain homes for the family.

The labour shortage undermined Hitler’s core belief that Germany was a people without land, deserving of ever more Lebensraum. As more and more Germans were called up to the military, it soon became evident that Germany was in fact a land in need of more people. Franco’s Spain provided 100,000 Falange coordinated volunteer workers in 1941 but this did not even begin to address the problem. After the ‘total war’ orders of 1943 which increased the working week to 60 hours and raised the age-limit for calling up women to work to 50, there was little more that could be done to extract labour from the German population. The introduction of foreign labour was initially resisted as a threat to the ‘racial hygiene’ of the German nation, as well as an unwelcome security threat. The demands of the war economy overcame these reservations to the extent that by the end of the War there were over 7 million foreign workers in Germany. These labourers were subjected to a complex system of racial hierarchy. The pay, conditions, food, accommodation, freedom, and punishment an individual worker could expect were related to his or her standing in Nazi ideology, from skilled North Europeans down to the murderous slavery imposed on Jews, Poles and Russian prisoners of war.

German wartime propaganda aimed to reinforce morale on the home front, to justify Nazi policies, and to encourage defeatism among the enemy. Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels, extended state control over all forms of media, art and entertainment relentlessly expounding the Nazi world-view. Many artists and writers had fled Germany; those that remained were restricted to churning out crude Nazi-approved propaganda.

The glorification of Nazism was most successfully achieved at the mass Party rallies at Nuremburg. The innovative films of Leni Riefenstahl, demonstrated in The Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1937) are among the few examples of Nazi era art of lasting merit. The hysterical dishonesty of Nazi newspapers, news films and radio became less plausible as Germany’s military campaigns faltered and led many to risk listening to foreign broadcasts from more trustworthy sources such as the BBC, an offence punishable by death.


Internal opponents of the regime faced enormous risks and required extraordinary courage to organise against the Nazi State.  The most serious attempt at deposing Hitler was ‘Operation Valkyrie’, a plot to place a bomb in Hitler’s headquarters in July 1944. The conspiracy was developed by military officers disillusioned at the course of the War, including Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who was to deliver the bomb. Although the bomb exploded, Hitler was shielded from the blast by the solid oak table under which the bomb had been placed, and suffered only minor injuries. Von Stauffenberg was captured and shot that night; his fellow suspects were arrested and tortured, disclosing further names. Death sentences were carried out by firing squad, beheading and strangulation. It is said that Hitler watched home movies of the victims’ executions throughout the night of their deaths.

The ‘White Rose’ movement of students at Munich University opposed the regime by distributing leaflets protesting against Nazi atrocities. By 1943, the group had become increasingly bold in their activities and in February of that year the leading members including siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested. In court, as they were sentenced to death, Sophie accused the court of agreeing with the White Rose but lacking the courage to admit it.

Hans and Sophie, along with their friend Christoph Probst (left) were beheaded in the courtyard of Stadelheim Prison on February 22nd, 1943.  The bravery of those prepared to confront the Nazi regime is extraordinary, but neither the students’ nor the Army officers’ movements had deep roots among the people.

The Church produced some opponents to Hitler; brave individuals, Catholic and Protestant, denounced the evils of Nazism. At an institutional level, however, potential opposition from the Catholic Church was undermined by the Concordat (1933) with the Nazi State which guaranteed some protection for the Church in return for non-interference in political matters. Pope Pius XII’s apparent indifference to the suffering of the Jews has since been the subject of particular controversy. The creation of a new Reich Church enticed sufficient Protestant clergy to weaken efforts to establish a united Christian opposition movement.  Political opponents were also fragmented and ineffective. Prominent communists and socialists were among the first to be arrested on the Nazi seizure of power. Many of those who avoided prison were forced into exile, often choosing to oppose Fascism by fighting for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Potential Communist opposition was particularly stifled in the years 1939-41 by the compromises of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Trade Unions had been consolidated into the German Labour Front in 1934. The constraints of this system were offset by the Nazis’ achievements in providing full employment and routes to upward social mobility based on race, Party membership, civil service or military careers. 


To what extent was Germany changed as a result of World War II?

Historians A. Marwick and C. Emsley (Total War and Historical Change: Europe, 1914-1955. Open University Press. Philadelphia. 2001. p. 1.)  define ten broad areas in which war can act as a catalyst for social change. These provide some useful criteria by which we can identify the social consequences of war and allow us to create a well planned essay in response to the question above. As you work through this chapter complete as much of the table as possible – some sections will require further research.



Social Geography (basic population statistics, urban/rural distribution)


Economic and technological change


Social structure (including questions of class)


National cohesion (including ethnic composition)


Social reform and welfare policies


Material conditions


Customs and behaviour


The role and status of women


High and popular culture


Institutions and values



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