Book Review: A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives Were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism


by Julia Boyd & Angelika Patel

New York: Pegasus Books, 2023. Pp. xx, 460+. Illus., maps, personae, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 1639363785

A Bavarian Village Under the Nazi Regime

There is apparently a law in Germany requiring every town government to maintain a detailed and up-to-date municipal history. A Village in the Third Reich grew out of just such a project. A remote Bavarian ski-resort in the Allgäu region, Oberstdorf is Germany’s southernmost village. After the economic devastation of World War I, the town struggled to regain some measure of prosperity as an attractive tourist destination. Once Hitler was voted into power, it survived as a resort by cooperating with Nazi rule—or didn’t it?

Ein Dorf im Spiegel Seiner Zeit (2010) was compiled by Angelika Patel, a native of Oberstdorf. This fifth volume of the town history covers the years 1918 to 1952 and forms the factual basis for A Village in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd, a British non-fiction writer. It is not clear how closely the latter work follows the earlier, which has not been published in the US.

Angelika Patel is no typical Bavarian: She is married to a man who is half Indian and half Jewish and she has lived abroad since 1968. She is a member of the Geschwender family, whose roots in Oberstdorf date back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. The family patriarch, Fritz Geschwender, held the unenviable position of mayor during World War I, and in 1940 his blind grandson was deemed “unworthy of life” and gassed under Hitler’s wide-reaching “euthanasia” program. Patel’s primary purpose in undertaking this project - beyond her commission as chronicler - was to understand why “ordinary, decent people” with dearly held Catholic beliefs, living quietly in a remote mountain village, would have freely voted for Hitler in 1933. And how, she asks further, did Hitler’s accession to power subsequently affect the idyllic life of the village, when so many of its residents evolved into - and remained - proud and engaged members of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party) and Hitler Youth.

The question as to how and why Hitler was democratically elected to power in the land of Goethe and Schiller is by no means new. Since the Nüremberg trials, it has been a pet topic for historians, novelists, and purveyors of media in English-speaking countries, many of whom - like their German counterparts - have opted for facile rationalization.

German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (management of Germany’s past) has had a complicated trajectory, with the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic and Germany’s position in the European Union weighing in. However, in the United States the shift away from the good-versus-evil approach in favor of a gray miasma of moral relativism has coincided with the purchase of major American publishing houses by German firms, while German influence over European and British film and television production has expanded by an exponential function.

Julia Boyd’s goals are far more ambitious than those of her co-author, as she commits herself in the Introduction to proving that Oberstdorf had its share of “good Nazis.” This, too, is nothing new. For the past thirty years the image of the “good” Nazi Party functionary has been etched into our collective understanding of World War II via the blockbuster Schindler’s List. The small-format embodiment of this phenomenon in Oberstdorf was its “devoted Nazi” Mayor, Ludwig Fink. In addition to using his party affiliation to make life a little easier for his fellow villagers, Fink occasionally permitted Jews to settle in Oberstdorf without always requiring that their papers indicate their Jewish identities -- a transgression for which he could have suffered “severe penalties,” had he been caught.

Boyd is a good writer with a previous work on the Third Reich to her name, but although 52% of Oberstdorf’s electorate voted the Hitler-Hindenburg ticket on March 5, 1933, she provides only the same tired explanations that have been proffered since 1945: Germans were weary of the “political chaos” of the Weimar years, financially hard hit by the Wall Street crash of 1929, and appalled at the burning of the Reichstag by communists. She never convincingly demonstrates how “political chaos” in 1930s Berlin directly affected villagers in bucolic Oberstdorf. Instead, she devotes one of the longest chapters in the book to the trivialities of an intra-Nazi power squabble shortly after the NSDAP takeover of the town.

While the asymmetrical focus on petty village politics drags at first, Boyd later proves adept at merging the lives of the villagers into the wider panorama of the war so compellingly that one almost has the feeling of being drawn into a fast-paced docudrama, enhanced by the small but haunting collection of photographs. A chronological progression underpins the narrative with chapters thematically organized, many of which provide an informative read, even with occasional factual errors (e.g., reference on p. 225 to the “Western Front” in 1941).

“God and Hitler” deals with the NSDAP attempt to subvert the mainstream churches – an understudied aspect of WWII. Replete with moving anecdotes about the struggles of Catholic clergy to survive with the help of devoted villagers, this chapter opens with the claim that the Nazis “wasted no time in abolishing” sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What the author fails to mention is that, unlike the Lutheran and most Catholic clergy, the Witnesses steadfastly and unilaterally refused to acquiesce to Nazi authorities, even after they were sent to the camps.

Chapters describing how Germany’s “Collapse” and “Surrender” played out in Oberstdorf are page-turners, but Boyd is at her narrative best in “Theodore Weissenberger, in Memoriam,” which tells the gruesome story of how her co-writer’s blind relative became a victim of Aktion T4. Although Hitler’s centralized “euthanasia” program began with the lethal medication and systematic starvation of handicapped children, it ultimately resorted to gas chambers and crematoria for adult “undesirables,” with this method later being deployed on a much larger scale in the death camps. Boyd’s statistic for those murdered under Aktion T4 may be considerably off, as she apparently relied upon estimates that were accepted prior to the opening of archives in the former East Germany, which revealed a far greater number of victims spread over a much larger stretch of territory, including Austria and Nazi-occupied Poland.

Historians of Nazism writing for a non-German readership are confronted with an immense challenge when translating Nazi legal jargon, which has no equivalent in any language. This is especially the case with the Nüremberg laws, which were promulgated for the purpose of codifying the treatment of Germany’s highly assimilated Jewish population. The author understandably avoids this problem by almost completely excluding the original Nazi terminology from the text. In “The Jews” she goes directly to English to explain how the “racial” and “hygiene” laws did – or did not – affect the handful of intermarried and half-Jews residing in Oberstdorf. However, without inclusion of the original German the historical context is lost, as the English fails to communicate the pseudoscientific dogma that formed the basis for the corruption of the German legal system.

It is easy to find on the web the famous photograph of the three best-known members of the Munich-based “White Rose” student movement. Siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, together with their friend Christoph Probst – all in their twenties and all having been members of the Hitler Youth - were apprehended by the Gestapo a few weeks after the German defeat at Stalingrad for distributing flyers calling for resistance to the Nazis. Tried by the Volksgerichtshof, they were guillotined the same day they were sentenced for treason. The author only mentions the White Rose obliquely, because one of Oberstdorf’s vacationers allegedly had a connection to it.

This begs the question as to what it means for future generations – and not just in Germany – if the blood sacrifices of truly brave and decent people like the Scholls are now being cheapened, or fully ignored, in the push to hold up as exemplary individuals such as Oberstdorf’s Mayor Fink, who on March 5, 1933 was the problem, not the solution.

Notwithstanding the reservations stated above, A Village in the Third Reich is recommended for those with a keen interest in World War II.


Our Reviewer: Deborah Duerksen's documentary We Were In It, Too!: American-Jewish Women Veterans Remember World War II, was broadcast on major PBS affiliates, including WLIW. She did her masters thesis on the 18th- and 19th-century military history of Governors Island and lectured for the National Park Service summer program on the island. Her articles on American military history and British war poetry have appeared in American and British publications.



Note: A Village in the Third Reich is also available in paperback & e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Deborah Duerksen.    

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