World War Two’s Effect on the German Home Front

17 Jun

The home front in Germany during the Second World War was discernibly characterized by both its wartime economy; an economy led by the Nazi-driven industrial production of war materiel, and that of an existence under the continued uncertainty and terror imposed by the Allied bombing campaign. It is in the convergence of these two physiognomies which comprise the thesis for this research paper. Nearly all other attendant attributes of the German home front can be traced back to these two characteristics and their relationships will be highlighted herein.

Wartime Economy Becomes a Way of Life

Richard Overy, in The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, in outlining the paths taken by both leaders of their totalitarian dictatorships, notes that economics was central to their goals but not a means to an end – Hitler and anti-capitalist: “[Hitler] regarded a healthy economy as the indispensable foundation for the achievement of other priorities: the construction of the social utopias, the military defense of the dictatorships, the achievement of social peace, a distant future age of perpetual prosperity.”[1] Hitler’s Germany was the second largest industrial power and trader in the world prior to the First World War but had suffered a precipitous drop between 1919 and the Second World War.[2] The continued build-up of war-related industry continued in Germany throughout the 1930s and “… suggests that in excess of 70 per cent of all industrial investment in Germany by 1938-9 anticipated the waging of war.”[3]

It is in this war-dominated economy that the German citizens sacrificed and ultimately suffered the most. Rationing which had started in the 1930s continued from 1939 to 1945. As William L. Shirer offers in The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, the German citizens were willing to sacrifice, before the war started, for a better life: “This was what most Germans wanted and they were willing to make sacrifices to get it: the loss of personal freedom, a Spartan diet (‘Guns before Butter’) and hard work.”[4] This attitude changed however as the war quickly found its way to the German homeland.

Outside of the terrorization and murder of Jews throughout Europe by the Nazi extermination process, the other focus on the German home front was one of survival – a survival of diet and rationing. All of the authors concur that the continued hardships endured by the citizens was grueling. The minimalist diets imposed was only surpassed by the uncertainties brought on from air raid sirens and the impending bombardments. The frustration of German citizens was meted out on downed American and R.A.F. pilots who were unfortunate enough to find themselves unable to evade capture. Richard J. Evans, in The Third Reich at War, notes that “The Party Regional Leader for southern Westphalia ordered on 25 February 1945 that pilots ‘who have been shot down are not to be protected from the people’s anger’. Altogether at least 350 Allied airmen were lynched in the last two years of the war and a sixty or so injured without being killed.”[5] While only representing 1 per cent of all downed and captured Allied pilots in Germany, the nature of this particular war crime was egregious.[6]

The Bombing Campaign and the German Home Front

The home front became a changing landscape as the war progressed. The impact of the destruction was felt by both German soldiers and civilians alike:

Of course, the impact of bombing was not confined to the home front, but began to affect military morale. For if troops on leave from the Eastern Front sowed despondency about the fighting qualities of the Red Army, so they themselves wondered what they were fighting for when they found their homes in ruins.[7]

As early as March of 1942, the bombing of Germany was taking a disastrous toll on the homeland. Raids on Lubeck, Augsburg, Munich and Nuremberg resulted in the deaths of 305,000 and close to 800,000 injured. 1.8 million homes were destroyed, 20 million deprived of basic utilities, and 5 million evacuated to inadequate emergency shelters.[8] Richard Overy notes in The Dictators that life in the countryside was “generally preferable” to life in the city because of the Allied targeting of industrial areas; of which, were near in proximity to densely populated areas.[9] Michael Burleigh in The Third Reich: A New History and Gerhard L. Weinberg in A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II agree that the Allied bombing of Germany had an initial effect on morale; but, ultimately became an attitude of apathy and concern for survival.[10] Quite interestingly, Burleigh adds that “The effects of bombing on popular morale are harder to determine. The British Bombing Survey Unit concluded that ‘there is no indication that his morale reached breaking-point as a result of air attacks…. Even the mounting toll of casualties failed to break the hold which the Nazi Party had over the German population.”[11]

Shirer’s treatment of the Allied bombing campaign in his epic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a bit more fragmented. Written in 1959, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was written as a primary source and the Allied bombings were noted as they occurred, as well as in-context. The brilliance of Shirer’s accounts of the Allied bombing over Germany is in his recollection and description of the citizen’s reactions. Shirer, in describing the aftermath of the very first R.A.F. bombing of Berlin, noted that this retaliatory attack was in response to errant Luftwaffe bombing over London which killed civilians: “The Berliners are stunned [I wrote in my diary the next day, August 26]. They did not think it could ever happen. When this war began, Goering assured them it couldn’t … They believed him. Their disillusionment today therefore is all the greater. You have to see their faces to measure it.”[12]

The Allied bombing campaign had an impact on Germany’s war-time production and the resulting effect on both fronts. Notes Overy in The Dictators: “German industry continued to produce equipment of very high technical quality throughout the war. By comparison with the Soviet Union, Germany was rich in resources and free to exploit them fully before the onset of large-scale allied bombing in 1944. All authors noted in this paper; Burleigh, Evans, Overy, Shirer, and Weinberg all agree that 1944 was a pivotal year for the war in Europe. The Allied invasion in France, the heightened bombing of Germany, and the Soviet push westward all contributed to an accelerated defeat of Germany.  Burleigh adds that Germany in 1944 was “virtually defenseless in the air for the rest of the war. The consequences for the civilian population were terrible.”[13] Richard J. Evans in The Third Reich at War notes the economic effect imparted by the Allied bombing: “People’s lives in Germany’s towns and cities during the second half of the war were increasingly lived for much, even most, of the time in air-raid shelters, bunkers and cellars… The disruption to people’s daily lives, to their sleep, to the economy, was enormous and in the final months of the war in many places it became almost unbearable.”[14] The literature suggests that the German people may have been apathetic towards the war and their condition, but they were certainly concerned for their lives in general – waiting for Hitler’s Nazi regime to extinguish both itself and the European firestorm it had created.

Each author’s individual contribution to the literature all support the same premise; that, the bombing campaign had a devastating effect on the industry, infrastructure, and economy in Germany, chiefly in the latter half of the war. What the authors also agree on is that debate persists as to the bombing’s effect on civilian morale – that effect seen as one of degree. Evans in The Third Reich at War offers this statement, a statistic taken after war: “Asked after the war what the hardest thing had been for civilians in Germany to put up with, 91 per cent said the bombing; and more than a third said it had lowered people’s morale, including their own.”[15]

The Nature of Home Fronts

Previous research conducted on various topics in World War II history has shown that other countries closely embrace their wartime heritage – for better or worse. The former Soviet Union; Russia now, refers to the Second World War as their ‘Great Patriotic War’. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Western France also celebrate their close ties to this desperate history. Where suffering, death, destruction, and an imperious evil threaten to eradicate an entire population chasing a misguided ideology – a surviving country is galvanized, and, in most instances strengthened. Such is the nature of a ‘home front’ – even 66 years later.

The undercurrent in the works of these historians highlights the desperate attempts at survival for the German people. Not all German citizens embraced their leader and his view of a new “Germania.” In my estimation, William L. Shirer most eloquently captured the history of the Third Reich’s home front; having benefitted from residing in Berlin and surviving the tumultuous history of which he wrote. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich offered the least volume of actionable data on the Allied bombing campaign; however, Shirer offers the richest images of what the German home front was like. Burleigh’s The Third Reich and Evans’ The Third Reich at War offer excellent insight into the characteristics of the wartime home front. Weinberg’s A World at Arms is the best single-volume history of World War II I’ve read; and that is esteemed company when one considers Murray and Millet’s A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War. While Weinberg does not explore Germany’s home front as in-depth as the other historians, his brilliance is in his writing and ‘putting the subject matter in to context’.

New Questions Raised

Shirer adds a worthy yet chilling ‘Afterword’ to the 1990 edition of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In it, he raises the question, with history as an indicator, could Germany once again rise to challenge for dominance in Europe: “Have the Germans changed?” and “Is there a solution to the German problem?” [16] Shirer answers, in 1990, that solution would have been a nuclear response to another aggressive Germany. Moving ten years forward, Burleigh in The Third Reich’s conclusion, sees the question and challenge as one of European integration and compassion for modern Germany; exhorting the reader to remember that young Germans should not pay for the sins of the past.[17] Current debate suggests that Germans themselves are regarded as victims of the Second World War; concludes Evans, in 2009’s The Third Reich at War.[18] For some, it appears, the home front still exists.


Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. Page references are to the 2001 edition.

Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War. New York, Penguin Press, 2009.

Overy, Richard. The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Page references are to the 2006 edition.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959. Page references are to the 1990 edition.

Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Page references are to the 2005 edition.

[1] Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) 398-399.

[2] Ibid., 393.

[3] Ibid., 424.

[4] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959) 231.

[5] Evans, Richard J., The Third Reich at War (New York, Penguin Press, 2009) 465.

[6] Ibid., 466.

[7] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) 766.

[8] Ibid., 761.

[9] Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) 509.

[10] Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 480.

[11] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) 763.

[12] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959) 778.

[13] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000) 762.

[14] Evans, Richard J., The Third Reich at War (New York, Penguin Press, 2009) 455-456.

[15] Ibid., 463.

[16] William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959) 1147.

[17] Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000)

[18] Evans, Richard J., The Third Reich at War (New York, Penguin Press, 2009) 763.


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