To understand something as enormous as World War II, go small. Focus on one person, one sliver of time, or — as in the case of the terrific "A Village in the Third Reich" — one town.

British writer Julia Boyd takes readers from the demoralizing end of World War I, to the rise of Adolf Hitler, then straight through World War II — all through the experiences of the residents of the small Bavarian town of Oberstdorf.

Boyd's research is impeccable, drawing on extensive village archives, as well as diaries, interviews, newspaper accounts, letters and unpublished memoirs. What emerges is a clear picture of a traditional Alpine village, with its cows and festivals and deep Catholic faith, and the immense changes it went through in the 1930s and '40s. Its young people were compelled to join the Hitler Youth, its few Jewish residents were persecuted, its men were sent off to war — including young Claudius Asal, killed just 12 days before the war's end, at age 16. And, after the war, the starving village was occupied by French, Moroccan and American troops and flooded with thousands of traumatized refugees.

Like most people across Germany, the citizens of Oberstdorf had felt humiliated by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the first world war and "the realization that their country was now a global outcast." And so they were primed for a strong leader when Hitler promised prosperity and order.

Almost immediately, he insinuated himself into daily life through the 1933 Equalization Act, which required every organization — from government bodies to the smallest musical group — to dissolve and reform as a Nazi organization, with a Nazi leader, a swastika on display, and "Heil Hitler!" to conclude each meeting.

"It was the means by which Nazi tentacles would reach into every last corner of society," Boyd writes, and it worked, normalizing obedience to the regime.

Focusing on one village was a brilliant way to understand the Third Reich on a human, day-to-day level. It wasn't Boyd's idea, though, and she gives full credit to Angelika Patel, the Oberstdorf woman who wrote about this as a civic history project and then later offered her research and assistance to Boyd.

Boyd's prose is clear, confident and measured, connecting national events to Oberstdorf as often as possible, a device that never feels forced — only human. She consistently uses the word "murder" to describe the actions of the Nazis. They didn't kill, or exterminate — they murdered. The stark word carries a little more power each time she writes it.

The chapter about the murder of thousands of disabled children (each of whom was labeled "a life unworthy of life") is excruciating. It focuses on a dearly loved blind child from Oberstdorf named Theodor Weissenberger, who was removed from his family and gassed to death in a retrofitted hunting lodge that was a precursor to the concentration camps' death chambers.

As horrifying as that chapter is — and it is truly horrifying — Boyd writes with humanity and compassion, and in subsequent chapters frequently addresses the complexities of life under the Nazis. She writes about doctors, schoolteachers and others who were Nazis but who behaved according to their own moral code.

"While we know there were plenty of 'good Germans' in the Third Reich, the concept of 'good Nazis' is hard to swallow," she writes. Yet "there were at least some Nazis in top jobs capable of putting morality before the party and behaving honorably, even as their colleagues committed the most horrific crimes against humanity."

This included Oberstdorf Mayor Ludwig Fink, an "ardent Nazi" but one who also protected Jews and warned citizens of danger.

As Patel notes in her afterword, "Exploring the Third Reich among the people I grew up with — not anonymous monsters — taught me how fragile civilization is. It also taught me that humble individuals can — and do — create pockets of humanity in inhuman times."

This book illustrates exactly that.

Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.

A Village in the Third Reich

By: Julia Boyd and Angelika Patel.

Publisher: Pegasus, 459 pages, $35.