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Tag: Second World War

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.

Citizen Soldiers: U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge, to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945

Citizen SoldiersThis is the only Stephen Ambrose book I’ve read, spurred on by recently rewatching Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers. A look at the American soldiers in the European theatre from D-Day to the end of the war, the book is based on oodles of research and countless memoirs, oral and written, from the people who were actually there. It doesn’t go into the actual events of the war in any detail, so it would behoove readers to have some background knowledge, but Ambrose does a decent job of sketching out the general situation.

Technically, this book should have been easy to whole-heartedly recommend. Ambrose has sewn together an extremely important collection of memories, thoughts and feelings of the troops on the front lines of the last war, allowing the people who were actually there to tell their stories. Whilst some have criticised the relative paucity of attention to the other Allies, other theatres, the Germans etc., that is precisely because they fall outside this book’s remit. Concentrating on the written and oral memories of US soldiers, Ambrose nevertheless weaves them into the course of the war, so even people relatively unfamiliar with events on the Western front should not get lost.

One particular strength of the book is its organisation. The different campaigns during the war are dealt with separately, as one might expect, but there is also a whole part dedicated to different groups and aspects of the war. It is very welcome that chapters are dedicated to such oft ignored facets as the ‘Medics, nurses and doctors’, ‘Prisoners of war’ and especially a chapter on the uglier side of war, on the criminals, profiteers and racists. Aside from these specific chapters, there are plenty of other interesting titbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the reports of dud ammunition (sadly not researched, but backed up in a letter to the author from a Jewish slave labourer in a German concentration camp in the afterword), the fanaticism of some of the SS troops (one is mentioned dying after refusing a transfusion from a US medic, on the chance it might contain Jewish blood), or the German soldier executed for spying when caught with forged papers (the original reading “Not a Pass–For Indentification Only”, and the forger having corrected the spelling mistake).

Sadly, for all this the book is not without its flaws. Another reviewer, when trying to come up with a single word to sum up the book decided on ‘frustrating’, and I think this rather hits the nail on the head. This book is well written, well compiled, well researched, but unfortunately it isn’t a great piece of history, when if very much should have been. Ambrose writes with an agenda, one that is seldom disguised, seldom explored, rarely supported. He seems to have a personal vendetta against Montgomery, and on numerous occasions quotes sources to the effect that he was responsible for much of the mishandling of the war effort. Granted, the work is entirely concentrated on the US army’s endeavours, but such focus is also combined with a very dismissive attitude to the soldiers of the other nations. The one great hypothesis that Ambrose seems wont to flaunt is that the greatest capitalist democratic economy simply produced the best soldiers in the world, despite the very same book deriding the army’s lack of training, the system of replacements, the ignorance of the army commanders, the poor or unsuited equipment etc. Given the otherwise relatively sober portrayal of events from the eyes of those who fought, such jingoist conclusions are unfitting and unnecessary.

Rumours of plagiarism aside (Ambrose states clearly in the introduction that his aim was to “let [his] characters speak for themselves by quoting them liberally”), there is also call to believe that some of his quotes are taken well out of context to further his agenda. I don’t believe for a second that this is particularly warranted, but his openly opinionated comments unfortunately lead to such nagging suspicions. Finally, there were apparently also numerous obvious inaccuracies in the book, the sort of figures and facts which most WW2 enthusiasts soon spot, and which also detract from its overall image (I think these errors were corrected in the version I read, which included an afterword dealing with the many letters the author had received).

Ultimately, as a testament to the people who fought, this book is an important and engaging work, and well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the Second World War, the US army, or wartime and soldiering in general. It is well organised, well structured and relatively readable, despite occasionally having too many different opinions and quotes tied into a handful of paragraphs. The accompanying maps and pictures are also a welcome complement to the stories and eyewitness accounts. But unfortunately the author’s reputation and his rather opinionated style detract from all of this, and leave something of a sour aftertaste to what is otherwise a very mature and sobering story.

Jeder stirbt für sich allein

Jeden stirbt für sich alleinThis is a truly fascinating story, an insight into the lives of those who endured the excesses of the Nazi state at the height of its power. Fallada wrote this book shortly after the war in less than a month, a novel inspired by reading through Gestapo files. It was his last, but one he was very proud to have written.

At heart, the book deals with one couple’s private campaign of resistance to the Nazi regime. As Fallada wrote in an article about the novel, “Über den doch vorhandenen Widerstand der Deutschen gegen den Hitlerterror”, his writings were dedicated to their sacrifice that it not be in vain. The core of the book centres on the Quangels, a couple who lose their son during Hitler’s invasion of France, and who strive to offer a token of resistance, by way of writing postcards and letters denouncing the Nazi acts. These political flyers almost unswervingly end in the arms of the Gestapo, who catalogue this defiance and use their ruthless methods in pursuit of the perpetrators, destroying lives as they do so. This, in my opinion, is one of the book’s greatest strengths, its depth of living characters, almost reminiscent to me of a Dickensian world, each role played by a figure of flesh and blood, and not merely props for the main actors to play up against. Thus the novel details episodes in the lives of thieves and prostitutes, Jews and Gestapo inspectors, youth and the permanently unemployed.

Aside from the insight into what life was like under the Nazis, the book also offers this strong message of hope. The very premise of the powerless individual trying to make a difference against the faceless society is a strong one. During the sham trial, the farcical nature of events finally sees the otherwise stoical Otto Quangel laughing at his prosecutor, something which many of us should no doubt revel in. It’s also fitting that Fallada should choose to end the novel with a look towards the future, at the youth who would inherit the responsibility for Germany in post-war Europe.

All in all a heartily recommendable read. The glimpse of life in Nazi-run Berlin is fascinating, and the police and courtroom scenery definitely sits in companion to the likes of Arthur Koestler’s portrayal of Soviet excesses in Sonnenfinsternis. It was a surprise to me to learn that the book was only recently translated into English.

Finally, a word about the language. As another commenter has written, there is a fair amount of Berlin dialect in the book which for makes for a challenge for non-native speakers and advanced learners, and given the book’s age there are also a fair number of old-fashioned or unusual turns of phrase, but the book is otherwise written in a fairly straightforward style.

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