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Germany 1945: From War to Peace

By Richard Bessel. 544 pp. Harper, 2009. $28.99.

A leading authority on 20th-century Germany combines scholarship and readability in this analysis of “Year Zero,” the turning point in the history of the German people. In 1945 they faced a stark choice: they could identify with the past and join Adolf Hitler in his proposed collective suicide, leaving the conquerors only ashes and corpses, or they could come to terms with the horrors of the Third Reich and move forward.

Richard Bessel shows that neither path was easy. The Nazi government did not surrender, and the Wehrmacht fought to the finish. By V-E Day Germany had become a land of death and devastation. More Germans died in the war’s last year than in any other. Villages and cities alike lay in ruins. An epigram left on the remains of Cologne Cathedral put the matter starkly: “You asked for it, and you got it.”

Societies and individuals alike can die from a broken mainspring, the loss of will to continue. Yet within a generation Germans—in the west, at least— were enjoying peace, prosperity, and democracy. And though Bessel stresses the influence of the Allies’ “iron tutelage,” he portrays the achievement as arising from Germany’s own decision to abandon the racism and imperialism that had shaped its modern experience.

Bessel identifies five key elements in this process. First was the completeness of the German defeat—this time, there was no room for stab-in-the-back legends or dreams of a future restoration. That segues into the second point: the total moral and material bankruptcy of Nazism. In 1933 Hitler proclaimed, “Give me ten years and you will not recognize Germany.” By 1945 it was impossible to deny that the führer had kept his promise. No less unmistakable was the evidence of the National Socialist assault on human values, from the corpses in the concentration camps to the memories of lowly Wehrmacht privates.

The third element in Germany’s postwar development was the harshness of the Allied occupation. Even in the American zone cigarettes and nylons were hardly the norm. The Germans were reminded daily who was master— and how harsh their masters could be.

Fourth was the sheer magnitude of German losses and dispossessions. Millions were dead; millions more were missing and dispersed. With the economy reduced to barter and subsistence levels, survival demanded so much will and intelligence that thoughts of vengeance faded, then dissolved.

Which leads to what Bessel sees as the final contributor to Germany’s rehabilitation: the overwhelming need of its citizens to concentrate on everyday concerns. Finding food and work, discovering the fate of relatives, trying to keep warm as winter set in: the time required to make these efforts reinforced a tendency developed during the war to mind one’s own business and avoid asking questions.

These forces created a new Germany eventually capable of integrating even the dead-end German Democratic Republic. Contemporary critics may assert the persistence of incomplete repentance, of limited atonement for the crimes of the Reich and its people. Yet it is impossible to deny that Germany has changed, and for the better. Bessel firmly roots this “life after death” in the events of 1945.


Originally published in the February 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here