What Life Was Like Under Nazi Occupation

On September 1, 1939, nearly seven years after Hitler became chancellor, Germany invaded Poland. Over the next six years, Nazis invaded, occupied, and brutalized a considerable amount of Europe and Northern Africa. The German brand of military-industrial fascism imposed radical changes in the daily life of all those who came under its reign, though these changes were often specific to context. For instance, life in occupied France was very different from life in Poland under German occupation, which was different than the experiences of Norway or the Balkans. There were, however, some consistencies: food shortages, rape committed by German soldiers, the persecution of Jews, shipping Jews who weren't killed on the stop to concentration camps, and radom acts of senseless violence.

Yet not every city or country with a major Nazi presence faced such bleak conditions. The German high command respected Paris as a center of culture and society and sought to use it as a massive luxury estate of sorts, going so far as to encourage the arts (in limited capacity) as a propaganda tool to show how society could flourish under Nazism. Marcel Carne and Robert Bresson made classic French films during Nazi occupation, though at least one of those films, Carne's all-time classic Children of Paradise, was an act of defiance against German authorities. Yet while the French were afforded relative freedoms, many Poles were treated like slaves. 

The German-occupied countries of World War II showed tremendous strength and resilience, even through the countless hardships they faced.

  • The Nazis Loved Paris, And Promised It Would Be A Cultural Hub In Their New World Order

    In 1941, a journalist for The Observer wrote:

    "The suggestion is implied that Paris, with its historical, cultural and entertainment value, is to become the chief center of recreation and relaxation for the German overlords of the future."

    The German strategy was to flatter Parisians and motivate them to collaborate. The Nazis praised Paris's arts scene, including its film industry, singers, writers, and actors, as well as the expected cultural cornerstones (cafes, bread, etc.) and historical monuments.

    This was done to endear Nazis to the French and create a propaganda campaign to show how art and society flourished under Nazi occupation.

    The piece from The Observer concludes: 

    "The surprising feature of this German campaign is the persistent emphasis placed upon the future role of German-France as the holiday resort for the Nazi Herrenvolk, and the new attempt to win Paris by flattery instead of by repression."

  • North African Jews Were Humiliated And Interned In Forced-Labor Camps, And Tunisia Was A Training Ground For The SS

    The Germans made incursions into several countries in North Africa, including Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Algeria, though only Tunisia was directly occupied by Nazis. 

    Relatively few Jews were killed in Africa, though more than 10,000 were put in forced labor camps and striped of their basic rights and freedoms.

    As the Jewish Virtual Library states: 

    "Particularly hard hit was Tunisia, the only Arab country to come under direct German occupation. In just six months, from November 1942 to May 1943, the Germans and their local collaborators implemented a forced-labor regime, confiscations of property, hostage-taking, mass extortion, deportations, and executions. They required thousands of Jews in the countryside to wear the Star of David, and they created special Judenrat-like committees of Jewish leaders to implement Nazi policies under threat of imprisonment or death. Tunisia was also the training ground for some of the most notorious Nazi killers — like SS Colonel Walter Rauff, who had earlier invented the mobile death-gas van."

    The populations of Jewish people in North Africa stretched back over 2,000 years, and historians fear that if the war had not ended when it did, they would have all met the same tragic fate as the European Jews.

  • The Nazi Propaganda Machine Tightly Controlled All Media And The Flow Of Public Information

    In the occupied portions of France, the media was extremely repressed. A new newspaper called Pariser Zeitung ("Paris Newspaper") was published in German, with only a small insert providing the information in French, leaving ordinary French citizens with basically no way of knowing what was actually going on in the world; Nazi-occupied France became a completely controlled fascist media state.

    In part, Pariser Zeitung existed to psychologically separate France under German occupation from Vichy France (the southern portion of France, which was "self-governed" under agreement with Germany). As a contemporary report states: 

    "This paper, the only source of information for the French people and the German army of occupation in northern France, has its 'own correspondent' in Vichy (it does not circulate in unoccupied France) who summarizes the Vichy press as though it were the press of a foreign country." 

    The media propaganda appparatus bombarded German soldiers and French citizens with pleasant tales of the "friendship" between France and Germany, providing examples of how the two nations could help each other. Pariser Zeitung included loads of flattery of the French, as well as a daily anti-British cartoon.

  • Nazi-Sponsored Pogroms, Such As Those In Lviv, Saw Citizens Murdering One Another In The Streets 
    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nazi-Sponsored Pogroms, Such As Those In Lviv, Saw Citizens Murdering One Another In The Streets 

    In Nazi-controlled areas of Eastern Europe, mass murder was common. German officers killed thousands of Jews in the middle of city streets in a series of pogroms (an organized massacre of an ethnic group) across the Baltic states, Poland, and Soviet territory.

    Take, for instance, the Lviv pogroms (also called the Lvov pogroms), which took place in what was then Lwów, Poland, and what is now Lviv, Ukraine. Over separate three- and four-day stretches in June and July, 1941, at least 4,000 Jews were murdered by Nazis and collaborating Ukrainian nationalists. People were arrested and pulled from their homes, or attacked by fellow citizens, like the woman in the photo.

    These pogroms were carried out thanks to a number of excuses trotted about by Nazis - imagined (or in rare cases real) assassination plots involving Jews, Jewish involvement in communist groups, and so on and so forth. 

  • The Annexation Of Austria Emboldened Citizens To Carry Out Brazen Acts Of Antisemitic Violence 
    Photo: Author Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    The Annexation Of Austria Emboldened Citizens To Carry Out Brazen Acts Of Antisemitic Violence 

    The Anschluss, or German annexation of Austria, took place on March 12, 1938. In the days leading up to the annexation, Hitler bullied Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg into appointing Nazis to his cabinet then ceding his country to German control. 

    Many Austrian citizens gathered in the street to applaud as the Nazi military apparatus occupied their country, as is documented in old films of Austrians greeting Hitler's motorcade with smiles and salutes. Not long thereafter, Antisemitic violence began in Vienna, where citizens attacked Jews and damaged their businesses. This swept throughout Austria and Germany (then called the Greater German Reich), and crescendoed with Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night", ironically named after broke glass littering the streets).

    On November 9, 1938, and continuing into the 10 and several days thereafter in some areas, Nazis and citizens banded together to attack Jews and their businesses, ostensibly in reprisal for the assassination of a diplomat by a Polish Jew on November 7. Police were sent out to arrest victims, and fire departments were on standby in case fires set in Jewish businesses threatened nearby "Aryan" shops. At least 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed by rioters; schools, synagogues, cemeteries, and homes were attacked; around 100 Jews were murdered; and about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested. 

  • Famine Was So Pervasive 30,000 People Starved To Death In Greece Over A Single Winter
    Photo: Author Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

    Famine Was So Pervasive 30,000 People Starved To Death In Greece Over A Single Winter

    The Nazi high command was concerned with food from the moment plans of global domination began. Soldiers need food, and so do citizens, unless you want a revolt on your hands. As the BBC points out, food rationing in Germany began on August 27, 1939, a few days prior to the invasion of Poland. The Nazis implemented a system called food entitlements, which was composed of classes such as normal consumers, heavy workers, very heavy workers, children, and pregnant women. Each class received food supplies based on what the party decided was needed. Jews received less food than Aryans.

    Occupied territories suffered from terrible famines, in part because the Nazis were taking food out of those nations for themselves. Germany also punished nations that helped the Allies or otherwise resisted Nazi control by stopping food imports. In the winter of 1941 - 1942, more than 30,000 people starved to death in occupied Greece. In December '41, 300 people died each day in Athens. In the Netherlands, railway workers went on strike to help the Allies. Germany cut off the country's food supply. By May '45, when the country was liberated, 20,000 had starved to death. 

    In Norway, food was very strictly rationed. Citizens in major cities like Oslo were hit hardest. Many Norwegians tore up ornamental garden plots to grow vegetables like carrots, turnips, and potatoes.