Reviewed by Andrew Nagorski
Sunday, August 26, 2007
AFTER THE REICH
The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation
By Giles MacDonogh
Basic. 618 pp. $32
There's a gruesome last chapter to 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 Red Army and many local inhabitants saw it, this was justifiable revenge for Germany's monstrous crimes. The Americans, Brits and French didn't engage in violence on anything close to that scale, but they, too, sometimes let their desire for revenge get the better of them.
For a long time, this record of retribution was a taboo topic outside of Germany. Even the Germans worried that emphasizing their suffering could open them to accusations of rewriting history to cast themselves as equal victims. But since the collapse of communist regimes in their countries in 1989, at least some Poles and Czechs have been confronting that history. (Don't expect anything of the sort from Putin's Russia, where Stalin is glorified once again.) And in the West, this is a painful subject that has been attracting more attention.
In After the Reich, Giles MacDonogh, a British author of several books about German history, chronicles the final weeks of the war and the occupation that followed. His ambitious mission: to offer a comprehensive, unsparing account of what happened to the German people when the tables were turned. MacDonogh works to assemble a massive indictment of the victors, and his array of detail and individual stories is both impressive and exhausting. But he's far less successful in navigating the tricky moral terrain that such a subject inevitably occupies. As a result, his is a deeply flawed book.
It's misleading to talk about German suffering without referring to the Nazi record, but MacDonogh offers only the most perfunctory nods in that direction. "I make no excuses for the crimes the Nazis committed," he writes. What's troubling is his willingness to leave unchallenged some of the most dubious if understandable assertions of those Germans who suffered, his eagerness to trumpet any acts of brutality by Allied forces as the rule rather than the exception, and his propensity for highly questionable, sweeping generalizations.
MacDonogh informs us that 1.8 million German civilians had perished by the end of the war. Here, at least, one would expect a couple of comparisons that are glaringly absent: the death toll for the Soviet Union (an estimated 26 million, more than half of them civilians) and Poland (nearly 6 million, half of them Polish Jews). True, that's not the subject of his book, but some context is needed.
When a German woman expelled from Czech lands compares her people's plight to that of the Jews under the Nazis, MacDonogh offers no comment. Of course the expulsions were anything but the "orderly and humane" action promised by the Potsdam Agreement. That doesn't make them anything like the Holocaust. The well-documented cases of mass rape by Red Army soldiers -- incidentally, not just of Germans but also of women of many nationalities in "liberated" territories -- make for chilling reading. But MacDonogh seems eager to treat the incomparably less frequent cases of rape and torture by U.S. troops as evidence that they were almost equally vengeful.
There's more than a passing whiff of contemporary anti-Americanism in the casual way that he throws around terms such as "the inhumane approach" of the American victors toward the Germans. MacDonogh sees no contradiction in mentioning that the United States honored its promise to quickly release German POWs, or in both chastising the Americans for initiating a too-sweeping de-Nazification effort and then for not persistently nailing more Nazis. He off-handedly mentions the remarkable reconstruction of Germany -- the result of the most generous occupation policy the world had ever seen -- yet seems determined to emphasize everything that went awry. The Americans were too harsh or too soft, according to MacDonogh, but almost never right. The problem with After the Reich is that it gets so much of the big picture so wrong. ï¿½
Andrew Nagorski, a Newsweek International senior editor, is the author of the forthcoming book "The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II."