How People Really Felt About World War II As It Was Happening

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Vote up the most surprising insights.

It's one thing to read firsthand accounts or histories of World War II decades after it ended, but another to look into what people were truly saying and thinking about events as they transpired. Few had a complete idea of what was really going on, but their stories give key insights into the true experience that well-researched historical texts or official documents never can.

This collection looks at a variety of accounts and opinions of people from all walks of life as events unfolded. From the students in Indiana who postulated about the postwar world, to the Russian teenager who just wanted to survive; from opinion polls that showed just how little the American public wanted to get involved, to how confident the British people were of victory - their stories will show what it was really like to be around in the 1940s. 

  • The British Secretly Recorded The Conversations Of German Generals Held At Trent Park
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, MSg 2 Bild-14835-09 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
    147 VOTES

    The British Secretly Recorded The Conversations Of German Generals Held At Trent Park

    High-profile German prisoners of war were held in Trent Park, an English country house situated on the outskirts of London. More than 80 generals and officers were interned there over the course of the war; they were treated quite well for prisoners of war, but unbeknownst to the officers, their rooms were bugged by the British. The secret intel gathered from the recordings gave insights into secret projects, and also a glimpse into the mindset of the German military elite.

    The recordings revealed the division in opinion the officers held about Hitler, the war effort, and Germany’s gloomy postwar prospects. They also shattered any illusions over the "honorable" manner in which the Wehrmacht fought. Many knew of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. A recorded conversation between officers in May 1945 revealed they were fully aware of the horrors of the concentration camps:

    Broich: I visited Dachau personally in ‘37. The commandant of the camp said to us: "If I had to spend a year here I would throw myself on the electric wire. I couldn’t stand it for longer than a year - nobody could."

    Holste: Some people stood it for 12 years.

    By late 1944, few were deluded enough to believe victory was possible, but some clung to the hope of settled peace. A recorded conversation between Rudiger von Heyking (pictured front row left), and Hermann-Eberhard Wildermuth (back row right) took place in December 1944:

    Heyking: No, no, I’m for sticking it out because I say the fellows won’t stay forever on a given frontier - the Americans no longer know what they’re fighting for, and if they suffer heavy casualties they’ll say: “Well, what am I really doing here?”

    Wildermuth: It will be over in the spring; they will get through in the spring at the latest. Then it is all over.

    Heyking: Really Herr Wildermuth, opinions like that!

    In June 1945, inmates of the camp watched a film of the concentration camps, and their reactions were recorded. The following exchange took place between two captured generals:

    Schlieben: That’s the only thing about the "thousand-year Reich" that will last for one thousand years. 

    Felbert: Yes, we are disgraced for all time.

    147 votes
  • A French Historian Wrote About France's Defeat In 1940
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    107 VOTES

    A French Historian Wrote About France's Defeat In 1940

    Marc Bloch (pictured) was a French soldier and historian who wrote an acclaimed account of France's defeat in WWII in its immediate aftermath. Bloch wrote Strange Defeat while the conflict was still raging; the book wasn't published in 1946, but one of the final lines was penned in 1940:

    Whatever form the final triumph may take, it will be many years before the stain of 1940 can be effaced.

    For Bloch, France lost in WWII because of a failure to learn from the lesson of its predecessor. The French High Command were old men who'd not realized how much the world had changed. Essentially, the French generals were enacting a do-over of WWI, but with better defenses:

    All of these officers had remained, though not always to the same extent, dominated by their memories of the last war.

    The oft-maligned Maginot Line actually held up its end of the bargain; it was supposed to be a means to buy time for mobilization and to force the actual combat to take place in the Low Countries, outside of France. As Bloch put it, the French "high command of old men" was bogged down by faulty teaching of history. While the Germans spent the interwar years innovating new methods of warfare, the French were too set in their ways. Even at the height of the crisis in 1940, the situation wasn't beyond repair if the French had been able to adapt. However, the rigidity of thinking allowed a tactical reversal to escalate into a strategic collapse. 

    Bloch wouldn't survive to see the liberation of France, as he was arrested by the Milice, a paramilitary branch of the collaborations Vichy government in March 1944. As a member of the French Resistance, he was subject to beatings and torture, but never gave up information. After D-Day, German occupying forces began to "liquidate" their captives on the way out; Bloch was slain just 10 days after the Allied invasion of France had begun. 

    107 votes
  • Interviews Of Students In Indiana Were Recorded Days After Pearl Harbor
    Photo: Imperial Japanese Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    109 VOTES

    Interviews Of Students In Indiana Were Recorded Days After Pearl Harbor

    A few days after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a local radio broadcaster in Indiana sought out the opinions of local college students, as they would be the ones most likely to bear the responsibility of actually fighting in the war. The students offered a perceptive insight into the diplomatic picture in the 1940s. 

    The interviews took place December 10, 1941. The general feeling was one of shock and anger that Japan had launched a surprise attack in the midst of negotiations. Some students suggested that the US had been naive and shouldn’t have been caught out, while others felt Japan’s treachery was to blame. 

    When the subject of how to deal with Germany came up, it should be noted that the German declaration of war would happen the following day, so at the time, there wasn’t a state of war between the US and Germany. Mike Fox argued for concentrating on Japan first:

    ...looking at the problem realistically and practically, I believe that as a military standpoint it is far better to fight on one front than on two. By concentrating our efforts on Japan, I am of the opinion that we can knock her out of the war much more rapidly than we can if our efforts our split by an AEF [American Expeditionary Force], for example, in Africa and an Atlantic fleet which must see action in the Atlantic.

    Another student, identified only as Mr. Russell, disagreed:

    Don't forget that's just exactly what Hitler wants us to do. If we concentrate entirely upon Japan, then we must stop our flow of goods to Great Britain and Russia. And evidently, the grand strategy pact of the Axis powers is to divert our flow of materials.

    Ultimately, the US went with a “Germany First” strategy. The Pacific was a secondary theater for the American war effort until Germany was knocked out of the conflict. Although they differed on how to achieve peace, the students all agreed that the Axis had to be defeated with American involvement.

    Despite the fact the war had only just begun, the students offered thoughts on to how to shape the postwar world. Citing the mistake of not participating in the League of Nations after WWI, Fox said:

    If we are going to set up an international association of nations, then we must be in it.

    109 votes
  • Éamon De Valera's Expression Of Sympathy For Hitler's Death Caused International Outrage In 1945 
    Photo: National Photo Company Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ireland was officially neutral in WWII, but in practice, it was "neutral" on the Allied side. The declaration of neutrality in 1939 was partly motivated by a desire to assert independence from Britain and because of the lack of viable air defenses. Dublin was in fact bombed by mistake, but the Germans apologized and paid compensation for the error. For the duration of the conflict, the Irish government simply referred to it as “the emergency.”

    Some 12,000 Irish citizens voluntarily joined the fight against Hitler, mostly and controversially for the British. Many returning veterans were scorned back home for serving with the British armed forces. At the governmental level, Irish neutrality irritated the Americans and the British. As the crisis deepened, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to be talked out of launching an incursion into Ireland to secure key ports. An offer of Irish unity after the war in exchange for ports was rejected. The Irish provided some assistance to the Allies by sharing information, and Allied airmen who crashed over Ireland were smuggled back over the border while their German counterparts were detained indefinitely. Some 260 German pilots were interned in Ireland.

    The Germans made some attempts to foment an uprising by the Irish Republican Army in order to divert Allied resources, but the efforts amounted to little. Éamon de Valera made an almighty diplomatic misstep in the wake of Hitler’s death in 1945. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) called upon the German minister to offer his condolences. de Valera argued he was simply observing diplomatic protocol, but the move caused a storm of criticism. A New York Times article from May 4, 1945 mentioned that he may have been following protocol, but:

    Considering the character and the record of the man for whose death he was expressing grief, there is obviously something wrong with the protocol, the neutrality of Mr. de Valera.

    A letter from a New Yorker named Angela D. Walsh reflected the fury of the American public:

    Have you seen the motion pictures of the victims of German concentration camps, de Valera? Have you seen the crematoriums? Have you seen the bodies of little children murdered by Nazi hands? Have you seen the flourishing cabbages - cabbages for German food - flourishing because of the fertiliser, human remains of citizens from almost completely Catholic countries like Poland? These were citizens of a conquered country - and ÉIRE might easily have been a conquered country, neutrality or no neutrality. Have you seen the living dead, de Valera? Skin stretched over bone, and too weak to walk?

    The diplomatic incident created an impression of Irish sympathy for the Axis that would have serious repercussions down the line. In the difficult immediate postwar years, frosty relations with London and Washington placed Ireland very much at the back of the line for supplies. The Soviet Union vetoed Ireland’s application to join the United Nations in 1946 and rebuffed further attempts until Ireland was finally permitted to join as part of a package deal of other nations in 1955.

    109 votes
  • People Went To Horrifying Extremes To Survive The Siege Of Leningrad
    Photo: Julius Jääskeläinen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0

    The Russian city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) endured a 900-day siege that began in September 1941; it was almost completely cut off from supplies. The Germans elected to condemn the city to starvation rather than move in and engage in costly street-fighting. Civilians of all ages and walks of life went to horrifying extremes to stay alive, including consumption of family pets, boiled sawdust, soup flavored with leather, carpenter's glue, and even deceased people.

    One who ultimately didn't make it was a 16-year-old named Yura Riabinkin. A precocious youth who enjoyed chess and wanted to join the navy, he kept a detailed diary of the siege that was uncovered, along with others, after its conclusion:

    Mother has already begun to tell me that we must get used to the idea that if a man is fed a bowl of soup a day, he should be satisfied with that. But suppose I can’t get used to such an idea? I don’t even eat a half, a quarter of the amount I need to feel full. Oh this war, this war!

    His struggles were just one of many stories of ordinary people thrust into a nightmare and doing anything to get by. Ultimately, starvation took its toll on the teenage Riabinkin; he simply didn't have the strength to move when the time came to evacuate the city. 

    94 votes
  • When the Second World War broke out, Papua New Guinea was a colonial province under an Australian administration. Sir John Guise, the Governor-General, recalled the scene when news of the war’s outbreak broke:

    I still remember the night of September 3, 1939, when there were a large group of Papuans including myself sitting beside a radio set belonging to another Papuan at Samarai. We listened with wonder, silence, and fear as Mr. Chamberlain declared war on Germany from London. We tried to make ourselves believe that the broadcast would not affect us at all in Papua but the feeling we had at the time was one of uneasiness.

    For the first years of the conflict, life carried on pretty much as normal. Few locals were even aware that there was a war in Europe, and even fewer paid it much mind. But by the summer of 1941, escalating tensions with Japan made the war seem very real. One English-language newspaper wrote dismissively of Japan’s military prowess in August 1941:

    In the early days, the Japanese soldiers were bow and arrow men like so many Papuans. But now they have warships, and cannons, and tanks, and airplanes. Perhaps this is a mistake as I do not think their warships and other fighting things are really as good as those of Europeans. And if they ever go to war against the Europeans they will soon find this out.

    By January 1942, the war came to Papua New Guinea. The Japanese launched an invasion that would see brutal fighting last for the rest of the conflict. When the capital city of Port Moresby was struck by the Japanese, chaos ensued. Looting by Australians and locals alike prompted one eyewitness’s stark reflection:

    Looted Moresby was a blood-chilling example of how thin the veneer of white civilization is in times of great stress and danger.

    Although wartime propaganda extolled the great loyalty of the local population, the reality wasn’t quite so polished. While not nearly as brutal as the Japanese, the Australians weren’t exactly sympathetic to the plight of Papuans caught up in the conflict. As one government official opined:

    ...these natives will respond to force and command, but they will not be coaxed.

    In the postwar years, Guise would write about the strong bonds formed between Australian and Papuan soldiers fighting together. Although they shared the same dangers and more than proved their worth in combat, they were still subject to segregation and discrimination. Even in things as seemingly benign as drinking water:

    Two tanks were installed near the wharf for drinking. Both full of the same chlorinated water but labelled respectively "European personnel" and "Natives only." As I pass one morning, I heard the ANGAU officer in charge of the natives wrongly abusing a private who had gone to the wrong tap. "Have you no pride or grace?" he asked. "Don't you realize that this water is for coons?"

    Few sought out the actual opinions of the local population until after the war, and researchers who tried to construct an oral history found that those who had lived through it just wanted the "whites" (that included the Japanese) to go away and leave them in peace.

    98 votes