The summer of 1939

Contemporary records from the start of the second world war
August 27, 2009
Virginia Woolf, novelist, 57. Monday, 28th August 1939, at her cottage in Sussex

“I stay out here, after bowls, to say—what? on this possibly last night of peace. Will the 9 o’clock bulletin end it all?—our lives, oh yes, and everything for the next fifty years? Everyone’s writing I suppose about this last day. I walked on the downs, lay under a cornstack and looked at the empty land and the pinkish clouds in a perfect blue summer afternoon sky. Not a sound. Workmen discussing war on the road—one for it, one against. For us it’s like being on a small island. Neither of us has any physical fear. Why should we? But there’s a vast cold gloom. And the strain. Like waiting for a doctor’s verdict.”

Ernst Jünger, German writer, 44, a much decorated veteran of the first world war, is mobilised and rejoins the ranks at Celle. Wednesday, 30th August 1939

“I look at myself in the mirror, in the uniform of a lieutenant, not without irony. But this is doubtless now the experience of a great many men in Europe who never thought they would ever again take up arms. In my own case, I attribute it partly to the influence of Cancer in my horoscope…. When I came downstairs I found a telegram from Brauchitsch informing me that I had been promoted to captain. I took this as a sign that Mars, in the intervening years, has not withdrawn his favour. I presented myself to the commandant of the reserve battalion at the immense barracks at Landes to which all the mobilised men were reporting. At dinner I met some of the officers, most of them decorated in the last war. Several of them were appeal court judges.”

Mihail Sebastian, 31, a Jewish writer in Bucharest. Saturday, 2nd September 1939

“Strange days of war. The first moment was overwhelming: when the first despatches appeared yesterday morning about the bombing of Warsaw, I felt that everything was crashing down. I quickly wrote a letter to Poldy [a friend who had volunteered] not even knowing whether it would reach him, but feeling a need to say something, to embrace him and offer my best wishes. But I didn’t have it in me to finish the letter. I couldn’t find a word that said everything. I had an intense and painful feeling of farewell—and broke into tears alone. “Everything is confused and uncertain, still not started, still not decided. What I find completely implausible is this brightly lit Bucharest, animated and filled with people, with packed restaurants and lively streets, a Bucharest at best curious about what is happening but not panic-stricken and not aware that a tragedy has begun. I don’t know how to pass the time.”

Victor Klemperer, 57, a Jewish academic in Dresden. Sunday, 3rd September 1939

“After a big washing-up, I went to the Plauen station. I bought a bar of chocolate and asked the elderly assistant about broadcast news. She reported the English/French ultimatum. I asked; Rejected? She smiled as if I were a bit simple, shrugged her shoulders: But of course.”