Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany

exorcisinghitlerThe period in German history following the Second World War is probably one of the most neglected in terms of popular history, far overshadowed by the war itself and frequently overlooked as a mere footnote to the origins of the Cold War. Yet the fascinating question remains as to why the peace following the First World War contributed to the beginnings of the Second, whilst the policies following the latter led to one of the longest periods of peace on the continent.

How the victors handled their policy of ‘unconditional surrender’, and what this entailed for occupied Germany, is the subject of Frederick Taylor’s book. His book covers the final stages of the war, as the Allied and Soviet forces prepared to attack and occupy Germany proper. Military actions only play a background role in the narrative, Taylor focussing only on interactions with the civilians, including the atrocities most severely carried out on the Eastern Front, as well as retaliatory attacks by Nazi fanatics and so called ‘Werwolf’ units.

Where this book shines is in Taylor’s ability to compare and contrast the widely differing policies and practices of the occupying forces. Despite the complexity of the subject, the book highlights the differences between those directing policy and those governing forces on the ground, between those espousing punitive policies and those wishing to see a rapidly rehabilitated Germany, and between the Soviet, American, British and French zones. It becomes clear just how much of a challenge the question of denazification posed to the victors, which ostensibly remained an inflexible goal of all parties. The totalitarian nature of the Nazi Party meant that virtually no one had remained completely aloof of the system, leaving policy planners the major task of separating hardline Nazis from ‘career Nazis’, ‘muss Nazis’ or fellow travellers. Taylor treats each of the occupying zones separately, and looks at the systems put in place and measures their successes and failures, not just in terms of raw numbers weeding out devout Nazis, but also the impact of these policies on the German population, and to what extent these changes were lasting.

Unfortunately, this book has one major failing, and that lies in its title. Subtitled “The Occupation and Denazification of Germany”, there feels to be rather too much of the former and not enough of the latter to justify the name. Taylor does spend a lot of time dealing with the occupiers’ attempts to remove Nazis themselves from positions of influence in German society, but there is little to nothing on their own and subsequent German policies as regards dealing with Nazism as an ideology. There is surprisingly little on areas such as education, the media and law, or even such mundane things as the renaming of streets or the treatment of the swastika are left out. Even the Psychological Warfare Division responsible for Allied propaganda goes unmentioned in the index (albeit some of their actions are covered). Aside from this, it is also disappointing that there are virtually no comparisons to occupation and denazification policies in other countries after the Second World War, e.g. Austria or France, or similar ‘purification’ actions during other periods (Taylor mentions the de-Ba’athification policy of the Iraq War a few times, without making any direct allusions). However given the scope of the book, the omission can be understood. Finally as another commenter pointed out, it seems that someone working for the publisher decided that the book would sell better with HITLER written in large letters across the front, which is at once no doubt true, but all the same bitterly depressing.

For all this, Exorcising Hitler is an extremely well-written and well-researched account of immediate post-war Germany. No apologist, Taylor points out appalling conditions in Western POW camps, engineered through pure legal sophistry, the mass rapes and atrocities in the East, and the sufferings of refugees and ‘displaced persons’ driven from their territories and turned back from others. A potentially bewildering subject, Taylor takes the issue of denazification apart and analyses each policy and practical element in turn, comparing and contrasting the different approaches, and examining the successes and failures of the post-war occupation. The book’s epilogue ties the whole together with an excellent summary of the reactions to and effects of these policies in post-war Germany right through to the present day.

Random Quote

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

— Oscar Wilde