After the Reich

 
 

Giles MacDonogh is a bon viveur and a historian of wine and gastronomy, but in this book, pursuing his other consuming interest – German history – he serves a dish to turn the strongest of stomachs. It makes particularly uncomfortable reading for those who compare the disastrous occupation of Iraq unfavorably to the post-war settlement of Germany and Austria.

MacDonogh has written a grueling but important book. This unhappy story has long been shrouded in silence since telling it suited no one. Not the Allies (USA, USSR, GB, France and surely not Israel), because it exposed them to be worse than the Nazis; nor did it suit the Germans, because they did not wish to be accused of whitewashing Hitler by highlighting what was, by any standard, a war crime. This writer has told a very inconvenient truth.

Giles MacDonogh’s ambitious mission was to offer a comprehensive, unsparing account of what happened to the German people when the tables were turned. He assembled a massive indictment of the victors, and his array of detail and individual stories is both impressive and exhausting.

The book tells of the gruesome last chapter of World War II, the bloodiest war in history. During the forced expulsions of about 12 million Germans from the Reich’s eastern provinces, mostly from territory that became part of the newly reconstituted states of Poland and Czechoslovakia, about 2 million died. Imprisonment in former Nazi concentration camps, death marches, starvation, beatings, rapes and outright murder were all commonplace. As the Allies and many local inhabitants saw it, this was justifiable revenge for Germany’s monstrous crimes.

 

MacDonogh argues that the months that followed May 1945 brought no peace to the shattered skeleton of Hitler’s Reich, but suffering even worse than the destruction wrought by the war. After the atrocities that the Nazis had visited on Europe, some degree of justified vengeance by their victims was inevitable, but the appalling bestialities that MacDonogh documents so soberly went far beyond that. The first 200 pages of his brave book are an almost unbearable chronicle of human suffering

His best estimate is that some three million Germans died unnecessarily after the official end of hostilities. A million soldiers vanished before they could creep back to the ruins that had been their homes. The majority of them died in Soviet captivity (of the 90,000 who surrendered at Stalingrad, only 5,000 eventually came home) but, shamingly, many thousands perished as prisoners of the Anglo-Americans. Herded into cages along the Rhine, with no shelter and very little food, they dropped like flies. Others, more fortunate, toiled as slave labor in a score of Allied countries, often for years. Incredibly, some Germans were still being held in Allied countries as late as 1979.

 

Finally, it was Realpolitik, not humanitarian concern that caused a shift in western attitudes towards their former foes. Fear of Communism spreading into the heart of Europe, and the barbarities of the Russians – who kidnapped and killed hundreds of their perceived enemies from the western zones of Berlin and Vienna – belatedly made the West realise that they had beaten one totalitarian power only to be threatened by another.

 

 

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