In the Shadow of War

December 29, 2009 Topics: Society Regions: Germany Tags: World War IWorld War II

In the Shadow of War

Mini Teaser: Western society tends to see disaster all around, from climate change to terrorism. But we live in a time of unbridled prosperity. Our age has nowhere near as great a measure of crisis as the age of total war.

by Author(s): Richard Overy

Richard Bessel, Germany 1945: From War to Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) 544 pp., $28.99.


[amazon 0060540362 full] THE CURRENT fashion for seeing disaster .all around us in the Western world, from climate change to "global" terrorism, needs to be tempered by some solid understanding of just what disaster is really like. The current fears reflect the fact that for more than half a century the West has been sheltered from the violence and hardships of many of the less fortunate areas of the world. An age of unprecedented economic growth and personal security, the absence of major wars among the great powers, the current concern with rights and enablement, all these have contributed to an exaggerated sensitivity to risk.

It is timely to recall that the violence and economic deprivation of the generation or so after 1914 overshadows everything we worry about today. The two devastating world wars are remembered as symbolic reference points in support of national myths of triumph or victimhood; the suffering is memorialized or commercialized. Children visiting museums are invited to enjoy the "blitz experience" or the "trench experience" (though neither is in fact experienced at all). But the raw reality of what happened in Europe and in Asia almost defies the modern imagination. How would the modern world cope now with the World War II death toll of 55 million (or more) and the tens of millions of displaced, disabled, psychologically damaged and homeless people who stood among the ruins of their cities in 1945?

The publication of Richard Bessel's harrowing and intelligent account of the end of World War II in Europe, Germany 1945, is an important corrective to the self-indulgent panic of the present day. The portrait he paints of a Germany in the very depths of an abyss of violence and social disaster is a necessary curative to the often-passive way in which defeated Germans are portrayed in triumphalist military histories of Allied victory. Germans were people too, and the terrible things that happened in their country in the final months of defeat and the years of slow readjustment to peace exposes the shallowness of the view, widely held among the Allied populations, that Germany just had to be brought to his knees to make the world a better place. The suffering experienced by ordinary Germans was a very human suffering, visible since 1945 in a hundred other civil wars and wars of liberation where the civilian population has been abused, bombed, deported or forced to flee.


BESSEL'S ACCOUNT is not an attempt to revisit the theme of "Germans as victims" in which victimhood is shared irrespective of the historical circumstances that produce it. The mass murder of millions of Jewish and non-Jewish Europeans is victimization of a quite-different kind. It cannot be thought of in the same terms as the messy consequences of defeat experienced by the society that generated the mass murder in the first place. What Bessel does is simply record what a society facing exceptional violence and social crisis is like. The situation in Germany was unique. No other state in World War II fought to the very end. No other state turned its own territory into the site of battle and its own population into the object of terrible violence. Italy and Japan both surrendered before that happened (although half of Italy was made a German battlefield between 1943 and 1945 and both societies were heavily bombed). Millions of German soldiers died in defense of their homeland in battles in the eastern part of the country and the storming of Berlin; German civilian casualties were twenty times as high as those of Italy and six times those of Japan. But, the German armed forces and German society continued to function and fight until the very day that the Wehrmacht unconditionally surrendered on May 7, 1945. The experience was unparalleled in another sense too. Not since the wars of Napoleon, and perhaps not even then, was defeat so complete.

The seismic nature of the German defeat, a social earthquake unprecedented in modern times, can be expressed in statistical form. Bessel observes that German casualties among soldiers and civilians reached a hideous crescendo in the last year of the war. In January 1945, four hundred fifty thousand German servicemen died; in the few months of war in 1945, over one-quarter of all German military losses were recorded, most of them on German soil. In the last year of war, the Allies dropped more bombs on Germany than during the whole of the rest of the conflict. In Dresden alone, in February 1945, twenty-five to thirty thousand people died in a single attack. Millions were rendered homeless, while millions more fled westward in front of the Soviet army. Almost 9 million were evacuated from the cities. Germany was a country of bodies, bombed buildings and people on the move; those who lacked the opportunity or will to flee stayed where they were, apathetic, hungry and fearful. When the Red Army arrived, hundreds of thousands of German women of all ages were gang-raped and in some cases murdered in the process (though Red Army soldiers did not stop short in raping Germans, but also Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs and so on). Germany by the end of the war was a grim science-fiction landscape of human and material destruction.

Bessel does not forget that this was also a society bent on victimizing others to the final day of the war. The seven hundred thousand in the camps were subject to murderous work assignments, then to "death marches" where those who could not continue died by the roadside or were finished off with a shot to the head. An estimated three hundred fifty thousand prisoners never made it through to the end of the war. In some cases, more important political prisoners, who might once have had some value for the regime alive, were killed in the last weeks of conflict.

More menacingly, the regime allowed a wave of state lawlessness to spread over society as the Gestapo, military police and local vigilantes murdered, often without any formal proceeding, all so-called defeatists or alleged looters. Germany was full of over 7 million forced workers who proved a dangerous cohort of hostages by the end of the war. When peace came, forced workers took revenge on the local population, stealing from them, raping German women and murdering their former tormentors. Among the ruined cities (more than 50 percent of the major urban areas were destroyed), there was played out an awful Hobbesian parody among the vanquished and desperate population, the captive labor force, the surviving prisoners and the residues of the National Socialist state. Death in this cruel environment was arbitrary and immanent.


THE QUESTION that interests Bessel is more universal than simply the defeat of Hitler's Germany. How does any society which suffers this degree of destruction, dislocation and death find the material and psychological resources to function again? And not only to function, but to become, as the western zones of Germany became, a model democracy and an economic superpower?

The background to this remarkable change was not propitious. The Allies took extensive reparations. The Soviet side collected the largest share from its zone of occupation, both in machinery and technical equipment, but also the scientists necessary to the Soviet rocket program. There was a good deal of technical and material gain for the Western allies too, particularly France, which got access once again to the coal and steel resources of the Saarland, as it did in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles. The breakdown of the German state meant that the population was dependent on what the Allies chose to give them. Somehow employment continued and production was got going again, but most Germans were underemployed and poor. Inflation destroyed what savings had been amassed from the Third Reich; other wealth was looted by the occupiers or traded for desperately needed food. The biggest problem was feeding the German people, who were not at the top of the Allied list. In 1945-46 there was widespread malnutrition, made worse by the collapse of medical services. Bessel cites the city of Trier, in western Germany, where in 1945 one-third of all infants died in their first year. Many Germans lived in rough huts or the cellars of destroyed houses; women traded sex for food; children returned only slowly to school and quickly toward delinquency; and theft multiplied.

The psychological damage done by the final months of war and defeat lingered on for years. One German psychotherapist, working with older Germans who remembered the bombing as children, has recently unearthed a great deal of hidden trauma which for decades went undiagnosed. The experience of the end of the war may have been so distorting psychologically that it had to be repressed. Bessel observes how ordinary Germans for obvious reasons became obsessed with the details of daily survival in the years after the war rather than engaging in political conflict or confrontation with the authorities. He also argues that the very harshness of the Allied occupation was key to stamping out any sense of resistance or argument from the German population, forcing them to accept the reality of defeat. Bombing, for example, did not provoke cries of revenge but was seen as an opportunity to reconstruct cities in useful ways. In the last stages of the bombing campaign there were German diarists who speculated that bombing was something the Germans deserved, and might be a way of expiating their own guilt. The sense that the violence was a necessary experience to rid Germany of its demons and to pave the way for a new society was captured in the German term for the moment of defeat, "Zero Hour." The violence in Germany was so traumatic and extensive that it created a powerful predisposition never to experience it again.1

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