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Book Reviews

Book cover: GERMANY 1945 ~ FROM WAR TO PEACE

GERMANY 1945 ~ FROM WAR TO PEACE, by Richard Bessel

Reviewed by Ben Lombardi

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by Richard Bessel
New York: Harper Collins, 2009
xvi & 522 pp., US$28.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-054036-4

Reviewed by Ben Lombardi

Based upon a broad array of personal testimony, secondary sources, and archival material, Richard Bessel’s Germany 1945 describes in detail that pivotal year. While recent publications, such as Gregor Dallas’s Poisoned Peace (2005), or David Stafford’s Endgame 1945 (2007), have tended to examine the months surrounding the capitulation of the Third Reich from a European perspective, Bessel focuses entirely upon events inside Germany and how the German people experienced that year. This narrower focus necessarily obscures other equally compelling and tragic developments elsewhere, but it nonetheless provides the reader with a detailed account of what the war wrought to the country that initiated it. Written for an audience unable to access similar German-language studies, Germany 1945 is a valuable addition to the scholarly literature.

In 1945, Bessel observes, the war finally came to Germany in a maelstrom of violence and seemingly unstoppable bloodletting and destruction – the scale of which is difficult to fathom today. He writes, “... [that] never has there been a killing frenzy to match what occurred in Germany at the beginning of 1945.” More German soldiers (450,000) were killed in January than the US or Britain lost during the entire war; more German soldiers were killed in the first four months of that year than were lost in 1942 and 1943; and, perhaps, most telling, most of these deaths occurred on German soil. Many German civilians were executed in an effort to extinguish any flicker of defeatism. With defeat unavoidable, the Nazi regime was engaged in a “…suicidal strategy of self-destruction.”

In early 1945, the Reich was being squeezed as both the Anglo-American and Soviet armies began their final assault. Germany still had a large number of troops in the field, but the collapse of the transportation system (as a result of the strategic bombing campaign) meant that they could no longer be supplied or armed. Command and control was breaking down. In the west, US and British forces entering Germany encountered often ferocious resistance, but a population that, although subject to some excesses by the invading forces, largely stayed put. The situation was very different in the east, where the population was brutalized by the Red Army’s campaign of murder, rape, and pillage. Jürgen Thorwald’s Flight in Winter (1951), and The German Expellees (1986) by Alfred de Zayas, have already described these events, but Bessel does a much better job of embedding them in a comprehensive history of the collapsing Reich.

The flight of millions of terror-stricken civilians, left to fend for themselves as Nazi officials suddenly abandoned their posts, provides the backdrop for much that was to follow. And, far from the traditional image of the Wehrmacht fighting heroically in the east to allow those desperate civilians to escape, Bessel uses German documents to reveal that military commanders often saw the refugees as little more than an impediment to the retreat of their battered and overwhelmingly outnumbered forces. After Hitler’s suicide, this approach was also sanctioned by the successor government of Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Preservation of as much of the Wehrmacht as possible was considered essential if the Reich was to be restored – a goal that many senior serving officers and Nazi ‘hangers-on’ endorsed. In one sense, it was also remarkably successful. Despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of the Wehrmacht had been engaged on the Eastern Front, when the fighting ended on 9 May only 30 percent of these forces were in Soviet captivity, the rest having surrendered to the Western allies. The same could not be said for the plight of civilians. Of the 11.5 million Germans that had been uprooted, many found themselves at the mercy of Soviet military units, and there would never be an accounting for at least 500,000 of them. These tragic details are not cited to elicit sympathy. The author frequently observes that what was done to Germany in early 1945 was similar to what others had suffered under Nazi rule. Moreover, the tremendous suffering of ordinary Germans as a consequence of defeat meant that most nostalgia for Hitler’s regime was effectively burned away. Unlike what had happened in 1918, when the Weimar Republic’s first president had greeted the returning armies by stating that they “…had never been beaten,” in 1945, Germany’s debacle could not be denied.

The resettlement of displaced persons and refugees, the insurance of adequate food, the reconstruction of infrastructure and the economy, and the process of denazification were all to be addressed in one manner or another by the Four Occupying Powers after Germany surrendered. Nevertheless, they quickly recognized that the harsh measures the powers first intended to impose would not work. The strict non-fraternization policy initially adopted by the US was quickly set aside. The wholesale purging of Nazi-era officials was abandoned (or, in the Soviet sector, never fully implemented) as being counter-productive, due to a shortage of qualified administrative personnel. There were disagreements among the Four Powers over reparations. The USSR deployed 20,000 personnel as ‘dismantlers’ who stripped anything productive from the Eastern zone, including nearly 50 percent of the railway tracks. France used production in its sector to buttress its own national economy, while the American and British zones had such pressing economic problems that reparations became a much lower priority. In all four zones, combating lawlessness and reopening schools were priorities, but there were no agreed-upon procedures for local policing and the restoration of education systems purged of Nazi ideology.

Besides the uncertainties attached to the occupation, Bessel argues that those persons situated in Germany after May 1945 – Germans and non-Germans alike – were fundamentally disoriented. For the few Jews who had evaded death, their families and communities were gone. Anti-Semitism survived, however, with Polish and Jewish inmates in refugee camps often engaging in violent confrontations. For slave labourers deported to the Reich, vengeance against their former masters competed with a desire to return home. For the German refugees, the loss of Heimat (homeland) was a psychological blow that took decades from which to recover. Territories that had been part of Deutschtum (‘Germandom’) for centuries, such as East Prussia and Silesia, were stripped away. In other places, such as Transylvania, German communities were forcibly expelled. Violent rage in the former Sudetenland and in Poland (manipulated in the latter country by communist officials) led to more atrocities and civilians fleeing the area. Family relations in Germany were often severely strained, and traditional social values collapsed. And, there was a profound distance between the emerging post-Nazi German leadership (some of whom had spent years in concentration camps or in exile), and a population that the former regarded as morally complicit in the crimes of Hitler’s regime.

According to Bessel, Germany was the first country in modern history to “…achieve total defeat.” One might quibble with that assertion – the Confederate States of America is an earlier example – but the scale of the defeat in 1945, as he describes it, is staggering. Unlike what had happened after 1918, however, less than a decade later Germany had emerged as a liberal democracy. The author presents five reasons for that outcome: the completeness of the defeat; the obvious bankruptcy of National Socialism; the harshness of the occupation; the extent of the human and territorial losses; and the focus of Germans upon day-to-day needs.

Overall, Bessel’s use of sources is superb, and readers will be quickly absorbed by this book. Given the complexity of the topic, there is some unavoidable repetition of details, but that is easily overlooked, given the author’s evident mastery of the historical record. This study goes far in explaining why modern German political and strategic cultures have diverged so sharply from what existed prior to 1945. Germany 1945 should, in particular, be read by anyone interested in the early history of postwar Europe.

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Ben Lombardi, PhD, is a defence strategic analyst with the Centre for Operational Research and Analysis at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC).

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