Facing An Iron Wind

For his ninth book, historian Peter Fritzsche dove deep into the letters, diaries, and personal effects of men and women who tried to make sense of the world amidst terrifying chaos.
Written by Kim Schmidt
Peter Fritzsche. Photo by Brian Stauffer.

History isn’t only written on the battlefield or in the halls of government. It is scrawled on the backs of postcards and bound in the pages of journals hidden in desk drawers. Peter Fritzsche, W. D. and Sarah E. Trowbridge Professor of History at Illinois, is an expert in the European experience during World War II and for this, his ninth book, he consulted the letters, diaries, and personal effects of men and women to reveal their understanding of a world at war.

Fritzsche consulted published collections of diaries and letters as well as combed through digital and physical archives to build a history through the reflections of intimate personal experience. “People use a diary to put down their fears, their hopes, and their worries, so you get a far deeper mental picture—much more dimensional and varied. We know what happened in terms of high politics, but did people see what was happening? Could they comprehend? Were they indifferent? Were they scared? What kind of moral choices did they make? Were they opportunistic? Those are the kinds of questions that these sources allow us to answer,” he said.

An Iron Wind was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2016 by the New York Times

In one instance, he found himself opening sealed letters found in an archive. The letters had been returned because the soldier died. “Of course the wife didn’t reopen them. She kept them in the envelope—until I opened them 70 years later. In one case I found a wedding ring. It is really quite incredible.”

Along the way, he found himself honing in on people’s personal experience of God during an unspeakable assault against faith and humanity. Other historians have written about how churches and religious organizations addressed the Holocaust, but Fritzsche “was interested in how, in extreme situations, people’s relationship with God was negotiated. What happened to faith? How did they answer the question, where was God?”

Excerpt from An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler
by Peter Fritzsche

Ordinary people undertook a great deal of intellectual work to understand the war. Mostly, they talked. There was endless talk about the war, the aims of the Nazis and their relationship to the German people as a whole, the possibility of the war expanding over time and through space, and, of course, the prospects for a final victory. It consumed families over the rationed courses of dinner, it preoccupied shoppers standing in long lines curling out of the butcher’s or the baker’s, and it furnished rumors and jokes to travelers on railway journeys. At home people took up ambitious reading programs that gave books such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace unprecedented popularity, even as the large shelf of volumes on soldiers fighting World War I remained largely untouched. Victorious German soldiers pasted together commemorative photo albums right up until the point when they started to retreat. Indeed, much of the documentary evidence about the Holocaust comes from amateur photographers in the ranks of the German military. Millions and millions of pieces of mail were sent to and from the military fronts; battlefields were littered with the letters and notebooks that fallen soldiers had stuffed into their gear. Along the railroad tracks carrying the freight cars of deported Jews, passersby sometimes picked up and even posted crumpled letters that had been thrown through the cracks. Across Europe diarists recorded the conversations and rumors they heard and the impressions they gathered; especially in the Polish ghettos into which the Germans herded local Jews, everyone seemed to keep a diary. An astonishing number of these survived, since great care was taken not only to bear witness but also to preserve the text of witnessing. Indeed, many of the diaries that cover the years 1939 to 1945 were begun with the explicit intention to leave a record of wartime experience. War generated copy. Most of these personal papers have not been previously used in a critical or central way to tell the story of the war.

Witnesses wrote with a mixture of confusion and confidence, and both attitudes shaped ordinary people’s wartime experience and contributed to their ability to understand and act. In Jewish ghettos, for example, diarists trembled as they set pen to paper, they anguished over whether words existed to convey the terrifying realities unfolding around them, and they worried about the capacity of readers after the war to believe or comprehend the narratives they left behind. Sometimes they stopped writing because they were paralyzed or dispirited. At the same time, they could write only because they had some confidence that they were communicating with future readers. Diarists who recorded Germany’s implementation of the “final solution” contemplated the possibility that their experience would be forgotten entirely. But they nevertheless turned the page, because they believed there was a reasonable chance that their lives and their sufferings might be recognized and incorporated into a different kind of postwar history. Confusion created insight regarding the power and frailty of words and provided a glimpse into despair and fright. Confidence depended in large measure of worn clichés, consoling precedents, and conventional narratives that generated hope but did not always shed light.

Using the ordinary documents that observers created for themselves, I have tried to listen and to analyze how people made sense of the deadliest war in modern times. The dilemmas of choice, responsibility, and witnessing that World War II exposed still structure the intellectual world we live in today. In the most dramatic way, the war posed existential questions about the solidarities among men and women, the human capacity to accept evil, the existence of God, and the shortcomings of witnessing, many of the elements that make up our own postmodern sensibility. Whenever we turn to the terrible years 1939-1945, we are forced to wonder about what it is that makes us human and frail.

From An Iron Wind: Europe Under Hitler  by Peter Fritzsche, copyright © 2016. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.