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

At the same time, the postwar years witnessed a strong sense of German victimhood, at the hands of both the Nazis and the Allies, which helped to ease the path away from any fond memories of the Hitler regime or any fantasies of military revival. Revanchism in the interwar years had brought the crisis of 1945 in the first place; the people of Germany did not want to make the same mistake twice. The European world after 1945 was not disturbed again by German violence.

But above all, the Germans, trying to make sense of their lives in 1945, all shared one thing in common: they had survived. And survivors can remember, mourn, regret and then move on. For ordinary Germans there was no other way out but to try to make something of their lives. Though this proved possible only because the Allies wanted a Germany that contributed something to the world economy and that would also play a part in the Cold War once two separate states were created in 1949, it does not change the fact that Germans prospered. And part of the explanation for the continuous, uninterrupted move away from violence is no doubt material as well as psychological. The two Germanies-even Communist East Germany-became economic success stories, and the hardships of the interwar and wartime years slowly disappeared.

By the 1950s, it was possible to arm both German states once more without any sense of threat. The Federal Republic (and later a united Germany) has been a model member of the society of democratic nations ever since. Inhabiting Germany in the early twenty-first century, it is difficult to imagine that this was a society which only seventy years before could unleash such terrible violence and disorder, and have terrible violence and disorder inflicted upon it in return.


The issue of recovery from the damaging effects of war has a strong contemporary resonance. There were plenty of references to Hitler and appeasement in the run-up to the final decision to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The resemblances were trite, superficial, but the rhetoric was instrumental in persuading at least a fraction of Western opinion that this was a just war like that of 1939. By implication, the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime was designed to clear the way for Iraq to enjoy Western-style democracy. This was an outcome that had not been thought through very effectively. For better or worse, the Iraqi people have suffered something of what the German people suffered in 1945-shortages of food, medical supplies, effective schooling, clean water and economic opportunities. The Iraqi people were not supposed to be treated like the Germans had been (and there has been a much-higher level of resistance and retaliatory violence in postwar Iraq than in postwar Germany), but the net result has been to make a large proportion of the Iraqi people suffer for their liberation from dictatorship.

Of course, in the end Germany did prosper and become an effective democracy, but it would be a mistake to imagine that this outcome can be easily exported to other conflicts. It would not be out of place to suggest that Bessel's book should be compulsory reading for politicians and officials who hope that war might provide an easy political dividend.


BUT BESSEL'S work is also a remedy for the exaggerated fears that plague the modern Western world. We are awash in anxiety-inducing scenarios: terrorists with weapons of mass destruction; computer viruses that will destroy the delicate web of modern communication; global warming that in a century may create a methane explosion, obliterating life; and all the rest. And though cinemas are currently flooded with movies showing urban wastelands and terror-struck stars that could be mistaken for images of war-torn Germany in 1945 (and many other parts of Europe as well), the fact remains that nothing the Western world currently faces carries more than a small percentage of the menace confronting the collapsed international order of the 1930s and 1940s. We need to put the threats we do face into perspective.

The fear that even moderate dislocation (economic or otherwise) cannot easily be supported by democratic electorates has created a paradox of capitalism shored up by the state, and of extensive (though often-trivial) levels of surveillance and coercion in the name of preserving the liberties these very policies undermine. Democratic populations have to accept fingerprinting, bag searching, DNA sampling and police stop-and-search routines as if none of these infringed upon personal liberty more than the danger of a handful of fanatics. It has also resulted in a long-drawn-out campaign in southern Afghanistan in which the casualties and destruction inflicted on Afghan society are seen as necessary conditions for the preservation of Western freedom. This is a line of argument which might well have been understood in the aftermath of World War II, when Western notions of freedom had clearly been under threat, or in the Cold War, when nuclear confrontation brought the entire globe face-to-face with the prospect of widespread obliteration. But in the context of a small army of guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan it makes almost no sense at all.

One of the evident lessons from the history of Germany's experience in 1945 is the extraordinary survivability of human societies under the most extreme stresses. This is certainly not to argue that the West ought to experience some real hardship in order to put popular public fears into perspective, but it is important to recognize that even limited levels of damage do not unhinge the whole edifice. A sense of proportion and of acceptable risk is fast disappearing in a Western world that wishes to exert control over its populations or to project power abroad. The dangers are greatly exaggerated, but the consequences of exaggeration might perhaps in the end be even more dangerous.

In place of fear there are plenty of positive strategies that could be pursued, as there were in the efforts of German society to drag itself out of the ruins. Above all, the Western world needs to understand not only the limited nature of the threats it confronts but also the extent to which societies are able to adjust to crisis rather than simply be overwhelmed by it. The aftermath of war is an acute example of that capacity to adapt; it imposes on those who suffer the experience the need to evolve a complex series of adaptive strategies, both material and psychological. The damage is real enough and often long lasting, but the German example shows that a necessary amnesia makes it possible to engage fully in the present without the otherwise-debilitating effects of vivid and unhappy recollection. It was possible for ordinary Germans to negotiate their way out of the moral and material morass of 1945 and move on-so much so that it was possible for the Nuremberg City Council to plan to construct a monument to the German victims of air attacks out of the stones taken from the demolished Jewish synagogue without a twinge of conscience.2

Nothing on this scale afflicts Western society, and we would do well to acknowledge that fact more fully. The constant memorialization of World War II has created a misplaced sense that the war for civilization is still being fought out today as it was seventy years ago. It is not. Moreover, as Bessel's grim text reveals, civilization was capable of endorsing a great deal of barbarous activity in its own defense. The war created the possibility of gross inhumanity and sustained its grim imperative even during the early months of peace. But the conditions that gave occasion to global war and the necessities that fueled its growing barbarization are part of a past history. There is nothing to be gained from reviving the discourse of crisis that German defeat in 1945 brought to an end. The narrative of that earlier apocalyptic struggle and its savage aftermath should be seen as a sobering corrective to the self-indulgent belief that our age has as great a measure of crisis as the age of total war.


Richard Overy is a professor of history at the University of Exeter. He is the author of numerous books on the Third Reich and the Second World War.


1 Only in the last few years has the bombing of Germany become a matter for argument with the publication of the German historian Jörg Friedrich's controversial book The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, with its implicit assumption that British bombing in particular had a genocidal character. For the first half century after 1945, this was not something Germans could easily argue.

2 See Neil Gregor's recent study of the city of Nuremberg in the aftermath of war, Haunted City: Nuremberg and the Nazi Past.

Essay Types: Book Review