The best books on life in Nazi Germany

Moritz Föllmer Author Of Culture in the Third Reich
By Moritz Föllmer

Who am I?

As a historian at the University of Amsterdam, one of my concerns is to understand why so many Germans supported and participated in Adolf Hitler’s atrocious political project. I am equally interested in the other side: the Nazis’ political opponents and victims. In two decades of researching, writing, and teaching, I have read large numbers of official documents, newspapers, diaries, novels, and memoirs. These contemporary texts have made me vividly aware of how different people lived through the Nazi years, how they envisioned their lives, and how they remembered them after World War II. The questions they faced and the solutions they found continue to challenge and disconcert me.  

I wrote...

Culture in the Third Reich

By Moritz Föllmer,

Book cover of Culture in the Third Reich

What is my book about?

“It’s like being in a dream,” commented Joseph Goebbels visiting Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940. Dream and reality intermingled in the Third Reich: fantasies of imperial rule and racist domination came true; so did the worst fears of the regime’s opponents and victims. And culture was central to what the Nazis set out to do in a country that had long considered itself more cultured than most. Theater, film, and music galvanized Germans’ imaginations and offered them reassurance and distraction. My book elucidates a potent blend of extreme-right utopianism, middle-brow conventionality, and modern mass culture, while also covering the Jews and antifascists who drew on culture for consolation or strength to resist. The story it tells is disturbing throughout and culminates in a nightmare of destruction.   

The books I picked & why

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Life and Death in the Third Reich

By Peter Fritzsche,

Book cover of Life and Death in the Third Reich

Why this book?

A book that discusses perpetrators, bystanders, and victims while covering both Germany and the countries it invaded, and all in just over 300 pages? This could have been a dense, dry affair—but it emphatically isn’t. Peter Fritzsche, a leading historian of the Weimar and Nazi periods, skillfully weaves letters, diaries, and novels into a compelling account from which you come away with an understanding of what the Third Reich really meant for a variety of different people. Some enjoyed a feeling of mission and power; some muddled through and hoped to survive the war; some came to realize that they were about to be murdered. Most importantly, Fritzsche shows how many Germans came to endorse the Nazi vision of life as a never-ending emergency. 

Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany

By Marion A. Kaplan,

Book cover of Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany

Why this book?

How did Nazi antisemitism affect German Jews? To answer this question Marion Kaplan delves into the social, domestic, and emotional lives of the persecuted one-percent minority. She reveals how Jews felt when hit with yet another restrictive or punitive measure, when neighbors and friends turned away, when deportation loomed. Crucially, the pioneering feminist historian distinguishes between male and female experiences. Having been less involved in professional and public life, women reacted more flexibly to an unprecedented situation than their menfolk. They were less tied to German culture and more capable of grasping the new realities. Even so, when couples and families finally decided to emigrate, it was often too late: potential host countries were reluctant to allow them in, and Nazi antisemitism soon turned into a policy of mass murder. 

A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany

By Mark Roseman,

Book cover of A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany

Why this book?

Historian Mark Roseman interviewed Marianne Ellenbogen née Strauss in a suburban house near Liverpool. After she passed away, her son shared with him the diaries and letters he found in the attic. In the summer of 1943 Marianne escaped deportation and hid in various places across Germany, supported by a little-known network of unorthodox socialists. Her life under Nazism was horrible—yet strangely liberating. She flourished away from her strict parents but was still traumatized at leaving them behind. The fate of someone who repeatedly changed her German, Jewish, political, and indeed personal identity will move you emotionally as well as stimulate you intellectually. All along, Marianne struggled to maintain control over her own story—which makes A Past in Hiding a brilliant title for an outstanding book.   

After Midnight

By Irmgard Keun, Anthea Bell (translator),

Book cover of After Midnight

Why this book?

Prefer to learn about Nazi Germany through literature? Try this novel by Irmgard Keun, who excelled at writing from the perspective of different young women. Here, nineteen-year-old Sanna relates how her life has changed under the Third Reich. She encounters people who express unqualified admiration for Adolf Hitler or at least concede that the Nazis are right about many things, who enjoy denouncing others or adapting to the new rules of the game. With her naïve understanding and unsophisticated language, Sanna lays bare vain pretensions, catchy slogans, and ponderous pseudo-profundities. She can’t understand why she should listen to Nazi speeches and avoid Jews. Contacts with critical friends finally compel her to leave Germany—just like her literary creator, who published her novel in exile in the Netherlands. 

Defying Hitler: A Memoir

By Sebastian Haffner, Oliver Pretzel (translator),

Book cover of Defying Hitler: A Memoir

Why this book?

How do people react when a dictatorship forces them to make choices? To learn more, read this brilliant memoir by a journalist looking back on his life in 1930s Berlin. Happily focused on his legal training and circle of friends, Sebastian Haffner at first showed little interest in politics and rejected the Nazis out of instinct rather than principle. Disgusted but powerless, he was content to keep a low profile under the new regime. To his own lasting shame, however, he one day answered “yes” when an SA stormtrooper demanded to know if he was “Aryan.” But Haffner’s friendships and liaisons with Jews, and his belief in the rule of law, ultimately made him realize that he couldn’t live in Nazi Germany. His final choice? Exile in Britain.   

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