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On New Year's Eve, 1938, Christian Diestl, a Bavarian shoemaker and part-time ski instructor, is romancing American Margaret Freemantle at a party. When Margaret asks Christian if he is a Nazi party member, he replies that he is not at all political but believes that the Nazis stand for something hopeful in Germany. He explains that he had to abandon his medical studies due to the lack of free universities in Germany, and that Hitler has promised to change that. Margaret is dismayed by Christian's affiliation and leaves the party early. World War II begins, and on 24 Jun 1940, when France surrenders to Germany, Christian, now a Nazi lieutenant, reports to Captain Hardenburg on the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris.
In New York, singer Michael Whiteacre, hoping to be exempted from army service, is examined by the draft board and told to report for induction in about three months' time. At the draft board, Michael meets Noah Ackerman, who has recently arrived in New York from California. Michael invites Noah to a party that evening where he meets Margaret, now Michael's girlfriend, and is introduced to Hope Plowman, who is from Vermont. Noah escorts Hope to her temporary home in Brooklyn and instantly falls in love with her. In Paris, Christian's fellow officer Brandt has arranged a blind date for him with Françoise, a friend of the French woman, Simone, he is seeing. Although Françoise at first asks Christian how many Frenchmen he has killed, she later apologizes, explaining that her husband was killed in Belgium. Christian walks her home and asks to see her again. In Vermont, Hope nervously introduces Noah to her father, having told him beforehand that Noah is Jewish. Mr. Plowman and Noah walk around the small town, steeped in Puritan tradition, and as they return to Hope, Mr. Plowman tells Noah that he has never known a Jew and agrees to their marriage. In Paris, Christian asks for a transfer as he dislikes having been assigned to round up children for labor duties and is beginning to doubt his country's purpose. Hardenburg gives Christian leave to go to Berlin and asks him to deliver a present to his wife Gretchen. Gretchen seduces Christian and tells him that she knows someone on Rommel's staff who can arrange a transfer of duty.
In New York, Michael has been unable to pull any strings to keep himself out of the army and must report for basic training. Margaret, who is working for the Office of War Information, is being posted overseas and wants to get married, but Michael is unwilling. The next day, Noah leaves Hope to report to the army. In North Africa, Christian and Hardenburg execute a dawn raid on an encampment of British soldiers. Hardenburg carries the attack to excess, and orders all the wounded to be killed, but Christian finds himself unable to follow that order. Noah and Michael end up in the same army platoon, where Noah is subjected to harassment by Captain Colclough, who makes him the scapegoat for the confinement of the entire platoon to the barracks for a weekend. The other soldiers try to intimidate Noah with veiled ethnic slurs. Later, when Noah discovers that money he has been saving for a birthday present for Hope has been stolen from his footlocker, he issues a challenge to the unknown thief to fight him, and when four of the largest men in the platoon admit to the theft, Noah asks Michael to be his second. When Michael reports to Capt. Colclough that Noah has been badly beaten in three fights and asks him to put a stop to it, the captain warns Michael that he has been instructed by the colonel to approve or disapprove a request to have him transferred to Special Services in London, but should he complain to the colonel about Noah's treatment, the transfer will not go through. The transfer papers come in, but Michael elects not to leave as Noah still has one more fight. Noah wins that one and then goes A.W.O.L.
In North Africa, the German troops are attacked by British and American forces, but Christian and Hardenburg escape on a motorcycle. After Christian tells him that he is sick of the "great German army," Hardenburg replies that he should have shot him earlier when he disobeyed a command. The motorcycle hits a land mine. In America, a pregnant Hope visits Noah in army detention and tells him that a lawyer has indicated to her that if he returns to his old company, he will not go to prison. Noah goes back and faces the wrath of Colclough, who fully expects to continue his persecution of Noah; however, the colonel informs him that he will be court-martialed for his actions against Noah and Michael. Noah's fellow soldiers welcome him back and present him with a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses , which Colclough had confiscated, and inside it, the money he lost. Christian, now a captain, visits Hardenburg in a hospital and finds him with his head totally bandaged. Hardenburg asks him to visit Gretchen again to reassure her that he is "salvageable." He also asks Christian to bring him a bayonet with which to kill a fellow patient, who is beyond hope and wants to die. In Berlin, before visiting Gretchen, Christian witnesses the devastation and misery of the city. Gretchen tells him that her husband has killed himself with a bayonet, adding that she had written to him telling him not to return, that he would be better off in a permanent veterans' hospital. When Gretchen propositions him, Christian pushes her away in disgust and leaves. Christian meets Brandt again and they drive back to Paris to meet Simone and Françoise. Brandt tells Christian that Germany has lost the war and that he intends to desert. Christian tells Françoise that the thought of seeing her again kept him going through the horrors he has witnessed. She urges him to desert, but during the night he leaves a farewell note to her, "Forgive me, I love you but I am a German soldier."
In London, Michael and Margaret are together in a club during an air raid. Michael has turned down promotions, choosing to remain a private, but feeling guilt about having Noah and the others do his fighting for him, decides to return to his old company, now fighting in Normandy. He tells Margaret they will get married upon his return. In Vermont, Hope, now the mother of a baby girl, receives a letter from Noah promising to return to them. In Normandy, when they are pinned down by enemy fire, Noah, with Michael's help, rescues several of the men who had fought him. In Germany, when the retreating convoy with which Christian is now fighting is strafed by a plane, he wanders away and comes upon the Nackerholtz concentration camp. The camp's commander complains to him about the difficulties of running such a camp and receives orders, by phone, to kill every man, woman and child in the camp, 6,000 people, before the American troops arrive. The commandant encourages Christian to face the enemy when they arrive, doing his duty for the fatherland, but Christian wanders on very distraught and despairing. Noah and Michael's company liberate the camp and bring the local mayor to witness the horror therein. A rabbi, a former prisoner, asks permission of the company's captain to hold a religious service in the camp, and the captain guarantees that he can, over the protests of the mayor who states that this will cause riots. Noah and Michael are walking in the woods around the camp when the sound of Christian destroying his machine gun against a tree stump attracts them. As Christian walks toward them, Michael shoots and kills him. The war ends and Noah returns to New York to Hope and his daughter.