The book is based on a series of interviewers with five survivors of the German occupation of Smolensk carried out by the author. The material from these five eyewitnesses is supported by evidence from other interviews including some recorded in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Smolensk is a good choice of location. The city was fought over twice, and remained in German hands long enough for patterns to emerge and for the nature of the occupation to evolve. It was close to the Katyn Forest, site of a Soviet-era mass grave of murdered Poles, later discovered by the Germans and used for propaganda purposes. Our witnesses were aware of the discovery of the graves, and some were aware of the earlier Soviet activities in the forest. Smolensk also had a Jewish ghetto and its own holocaust, which one of our interviewees survived.
One of the most valuable aspects of this work is that it doesn’t just look at the atrocities and brutality of the German occupation, but also at what remained of normal every-day life. A key question throughout the book is how did people survive under a regime that had no real interest in their fate? Another good decision was to start with the interviewees pre-war life, to establish what they had seen as normal before the Germans came, and to trace their fate after the Soviets returned.
The key thing to emerge is that there really was no normality. Everything from finding somewhere undamaged to live and finding work and food to avoiding being caught up in the forced labour programme or one of the German atrocities made life difficult, and people retreated into themselves, avoiding going out as much as possible. Both sides put a great deal of effort into propaganda, but it doesn't appear to have had much impact, with the problems of daily survival overwhelming it. The interviewees view of the Germans is interesting - after an early period of fear it became clear that most Germans were just normal people, and they were judged as individuals rather than as a group.
This is a serious study of a very serious topic. It probably isn't for the casual reader, but anyone with a deeper interest in the impact of warfare and in particular of the German occupation of large parts of the Soviet Union will find it utterly invaluable.
Part 1: Methodologies
1 - Oral, Gender and Everyday Life Histories in a German-Soviet-War Context
Part 2: A Record of War and Occupation
2 - Between Invasion and Liberation: Everyday Life and Loyalties Prior to the German-Soviet War
3 - Defence and Surrender of Smolensk
4 - 'Normalcy'
5 - Occupation Atrocities and War Crimes
Part 3: Popular Attitudes, Propaganda, and Enemy Imagery
6 - Between Stalinists and Nazis: The Long Term Aims and Long-Lasting Effects of Occupation
7 - Propaganda and Persuasion
8 - Group Perceptions, Oral Narratives
9 - Sex/ Gender Relations and Youth Experiences
Part 4: Restoration and Reconstruction
10 - Liberation and Revival
11 - Interrogation, War Crimes Trials and the Making of War History
Author: Laurie R. Cohen
Publisher: University of Rochester Press