After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation
By Giles MacDonogh. 618 pp. Basic Books, 2007. $32.
Many of you won’t like this book, but that’s all the more reason to read it. After the Reich casts a dark shadow over the tale of the “Greatest Generation.” That tale, captured some years ago by Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, was a feel-good story about the generation that fought, died, and sacrificed during World War II. MacDonogh’s story begins where Brokaw’s leaves off and offers us little to feel good about, recounting the innumerable crimes, including rape and murder, that the “Greatest Generation” and its European allies perpetrated against German and Austrian civilians. Soviet brutalities have already been well documented, and are especially familiar to a generation brought up on the History Channel. But even today American, British, and French excesses are less well-known—and less widely acknowledged. That makes After the Reich an important contribution to the ever-growing literature on World War II.
The book is fluidly written and well-organized, taking the reader from the initial political, economic, and social chaos that followed the German-Austrian surrender in 1945 all the way to the Berlin Airlift (June 1948 to May 1949). But it is only passably documented. The author sometimes relies too much on memoirs and personal accounts. While these sources can put a human face on the past, they are virtually impossible to verify. One Berlin woman, for instance, claimed to have been raped more than sixty times. She may well have been telling the truth. But we may never know.
MacDonogh is on more solid ground when he recounts the many crimes committed by Allied troops, because of the records kept by military and civilian courts. But the numbers he offers for forced expulsions and relocations are only guesstimates—nearly impossible to confirm. If he appears to accept all negative accounts of the Allied occupation at face value, perhaps it is because his main interest is in telling the story, and especially in telling it from a German-Austrian perspective. This narrow viewpoint is the chief weakness of the book, and must be kept in mind. After the Reich is not intended to be objective about the Allied occupation. You will not find any mention of the many acts of individual kindness and organizational charity the Allies performed. Instead, this book is about advancing a perspective that, in the author’s eyes at least, has long been overlooked. And that is the book’s major strength: it offers us that view.
What we do with that view—whether we accept it in whole, in part, or not at all—is our choice. In truth, MacDonogh’s evidence is good enough that we should accept at least parts of what he advances. It’s hard not to believe much of what he relates, even if the details became embellished with successive retellings over the years. The essential fact is that when the Allies entered Germany, they came as conquerors, not as liberators. By 1945, the Allied powers had suffered military and civilian casualties on a scale incomprehensible by today’s standards. One way or another, retribution was going to be had.
Nevertheless, because of its one-sided perspective, After the Reich makes many dubious claims, such as this one: “In May 1945…the vast majority of Germans had already come to the conclusion that [National Socialism] had been founded on a terrible fallacy.” In fact, impending military defeat did not eradicate the emotional hold of Nazism’s principal tenets, which were based on the notions of antiBolshevism, anti-Semitism, Aryan racial superiority, and the dream of a thousand-year Reich. But it did convince many that Hitler or his generals, or both, had botched the execution of the master plan, and so now the German (and some Austrian) people were “in for it.”
So beware: After the Reich does cast a shadow over the Greatest Generation. But how dark that shadow appears is up to MacDonogh’s readers to conclude.
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.