This edited collection discusses the civilian during World War II in eight countries--Britain, Germany, the USSR, the United States, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and France. As is typical of collections by different writers, the quality and scope is a bit uneven, and the whole doesn’t quite hang together. Still, there’s a lot to think about here.
In the introduction to the volume, the editor discusses some key differences between World Wars I and II. The former reaped havoc on some nations, sparking revolution (most notably in the USSR), while strangely, the latter in fact seemed mostly to inspire national unity. Why the difference? The editor makes a point that it had to do with morale, and each nation, conscious of problems created in the First World War did its utmost to keep the morale of the citizenry high. And strangely, though the Second World War involved more civilian casualties (it was, in fact, even more of a “total war”), citizens didn’t by and large react against their governments. Rather, they worked for their governments.
This focus on morale is sustained throughout the earlier essays in the collection and then seems to fall away as one proceeds through the book. Britain, the first nation covered, kept morale high through fuller employment, increased wages, maintaining food supply, providing entertainment, and keeping hope alive. The same could be said for the United States to a large extent, though its experience was markedly different, since its citizens bore so little of the war’s violence directly. That essay instead focuses on how, despite this, the war changed social circumstances in America, leading to the changes in civil rights and women’s rights that would rock the country in the years after the war.
Germany’s citizenry felt the war very directly. There, the government maintained conditions that were relatively good for Germans but poor for most others. Basing its laws on the idea that the Germans were the supreme race, all other ethnic groups suffered from poorer working conditions and smaller rations, in descending order depending on how inferior a given race was. Labor shortages throughout the war meant that Germany was constantly have to import or enslave foreignors.
Views of Russian citizenry are somewhat hard to come by, but in general the USSR too suffered from various shortages of food and material, as it lost land to the Germans and as the government attempted to take more from its farmers, whose yields actually decreased during the conflict (especially as men were drafted into the army). Regulations regarding the church and other pre-Soviet national traditions were relaxed in part to help instill more desire to fight for the nation (whereas before the communist regime would have put the kabash on such things). Stalin was elevated to heroic status and consolidated power via the war.
Japan’s citizenry was largely kept in the dark about the war by the state media. While young men were trained from school age in a national militaristic agenda and people were told that all was well abroad, the common person felt the effects of the war through various shortages and eventually bombing.
Italy’s position is unique in that its citizens ended up split between the Allies and the Axis. Having never really united as a country, it sort of fell apart into regions and civil war. In this sense, Italy’s experience of World War II would seem to me to be more like many national experiences of World War I.
The Netherlands fell quickly and early, surprised to be attacked, having stayed out of the First World War as neutral and intending to do so throughout the Second. As one of Hitler’s “superior” races, the Dutch were treated better than many other conquered nations--but as shortages began to manifest themselves later in the war, the Dutch suffered first, since resources were held for German needs. Many Dutch, drafted into the German labor pool, opted to go into hiding or find other ways to avoid laboring for Germany. They turned out not to be so compliant as Hitler had expected.
The Poles were the exact opposite on Hitler’s scale of ethnicities, and Hitler essentially desired to wipe them off the map. In addition, Polish citizens experienced three different types of war--as part of a formally adopted portion of Germany, as a remnant of Poland controlled by Germany, and as a formally adopted part of the USSR. In all cases, though to differing extents, the Poles had to maintain their culture in secret, as they found their language and so on banned.
The article on France was a strange fit for this book, as it focused mostly on women during war--and the fact that women were encouraged to do their part for the war domestically but not much in terms of taking an active military role.