As I mentioned last week, I recently had the occasion to read a very good book: William Hitchcock’s 2008 opus The Bitter Road to Freedom: The Human Cost of Allied Victory in World War II Europe. An online forum invited me to comment on it, and I thought I’d share my remarks with you. Here is Part 2 of my remarks on the book:
It is during Hitchcock’s discussion of the Allied arrival in Germany that his book really comes alive.
The “good guys” did not come to Germany as liberators, after all, but as conquerors and perhaps also as chastisers, a latter-day flagellum dei to show the German people the error of their militarist ways. If there was one motto that Allied commanders at all levels pounded into the heads of their soldiers before they reached Germany, it was “No fraternization!” And yet, Allied soldiers fraternized from the moment they entered Germany, they kept doing so no matter how many warnings they received, and eventually General Eisenhower simply decided to drop the proscription altogether. His alternative, arresting every soldier under his command, seemed unworkable. The Germans struck the American occupiers as “people like them.” They were well-fed. Orderly. Obedient. Dignified even in defeat. All in all, a pleasant change from the starving and ragged scarecrows that Allied soldiers had met in the occupied countries. Of course, this was no accident. Germany had looted its conquered lands for just this purpose: to keep living standards in the Reich as high as possible in order to forestall the kind of revolutionary disturbances that had swept the country at the end of World War I. Hitler swore that there would never be another November 1918 in German history, and that was one promise he kept.
Partially as a result of these affinities, friendships, and sexual encounters between Allied soldiers and German civilians, Allied policy soon changed. No longer was the emphasis on punishing or re-educating the Germans; now it was on feeding them and bringing the German economy back from the precipice. Pressure from the bottom-up was not the only story, however. There were pressures from the top down, as well. In what could best be described as the “proto-Cold War” era, a functioning, prosperous and reasonably happy Germany soon became a sine qua non of U.S. policy. It seemed to be the best guarantee that the conquered Reich would not fall prey to chaos or–even worse–to communism.
So, here’s how things added up. If you were a German civilian, life was hard that first winter of 1945-46, but it gradually returned to “normal”. If, however, you were one of the millions of victims of Nazi policy unfortunate enough to be caught inside Germany at the end of the war–prisoners or war, let us say, or slave laborers, or even Jews–then you just had to wait your turn. Those who have never read the history of the immediate postwar era and the ordeal of the “displaced person” (DP) will be justifiably shocked by Hitchcock’s descriptions: the German people going about their daily lives, gradually getting healthier and wealthier, while Jews were still being held in “camps” behind barbed wire and Allied armed guards.
To be fair, of course, these were no longer “concentration camps” or “death camps,” but neither did they represent “freedom” or “liberation” to most of the unfortunate victims of Nazi oppression. The Allies wanted to return Europe to normalcy as soon as possible, and that meant returning refugees to their country of origin ASAP. Most Jews had no desire to return to homes from which they had been hounded during the war, often with the connivance of their non-Jewish neighbors. Allied policy, however, and especially British policy, was not about to let them go to their destination of choice: Palestine. It would take years to sort out, if indeed that problem has ever really been sorted out.
Hitchcock tells all this with deep research, excellent writing, and a humane sensibility. He has written a fine book, and students of the war will be reading it for a long time. There are times, perhaps, when he draws his heroes (United Nations relief workers, for example) and his goats (mid-range U.S. Army officers) a bit too vividly, and it’s clear for whom we’re supposed to be rooting. As he readily admits, however, both sides had their point of view–the army to restore order and get people back to their homes, the humanitarian agencies to provide for body and soul. Also, the very nature of the book makes it seems as if “liberation” was a misfortune that simply dropped out of the sky one day. Reading the book, however, should remind us that while “War” in the abstract is the enemy of all humanity, real-world “wars” break out for various reasons, however, and some of them are just reasons. This war happened because Nazi Germany tried to conquer its neighbors. It was as clear-cut a war of aggression as human history has to offer. A shifting coterie of Allies (France went out, the USSR and USA came in) resisted, eventually gained the upper hand, and won it. In so doing they ripped apart a continent, yes, but given the situation and the current level of technology, it is not easy to see how it could have ended much differently, or how liberation could have been smoother, gentler, or more sensitive to the needs of the civilian population.
These are minor points, however, thrown out more for discussion than as serious criticism. After reading Hitchcock’s very fine exposition of the problems and absurdities of the final year of war and the first year of peace, I was shocked at my reaction. I found myself developing an unexpected fondness for absolute monarchy. Kings and queens back in the day believed that war should be the ultima ratio–the final argument, something that you resorted to only when everything else had failed. Maybe they weren’t as backward as we like to think they were.
For more discussion of the war, the latest news, and announcements, be sure to visit World War II Magazine’s Facebook page.