Forget what you know, or you think you know about Europe after the war. It is commonly viewed, as para-phrased by Hermann Göring and picked up by Winston Churchill that history is written by the victors. In the introduction to his book, Giles MacDonogh, in his book originally published in 2008, the author states that he had spent many years living in Germany and was struck by many of the stories he heard regarding people’s experiences. I too lived in Germany for 8 years and have my own experiences of the people of Germany. My observations, though my contact with Germans was limited, was they, particularly those of an elder generation was guarded and apologetic in equal measure. In Germany there are strict rules about how children put up their hands in class, how Nazi memorabilia (which is plentiful in antique shops) is sold with stickers over the swastikas (while pornography is sold legally and openly) and the display of Nazi imagery is censured. Conversely, school children have the history of the Third Reich thrust upon them and visit former concentration camps as a part of the school curriculum. In addition many German cities have Documentation Centres educating people on the Nazi history and stolperstein, brass cobbles are widely visible as public memorials in front of houses where former Jewish people evicted from their homes and where they were sent to for extermination. These are displayed all over Germany and the rest of the former occupied Europe. By contrast, Austria has been in a state of denial about its past and MacDonogh illustrates that this began from the moment the country was liberated; it conveniently forgot that Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, many camp commandants and leading SS figures as well as the top man himself, Adolf Hitler were Austrian. This book focuses on the fate of the German people after the war, a history mostly denied even to Germans.
This history of German collective guilt was brilliantly highlighted in Gitta Sereny’s book, ‘The German Trauma’, but Giles MacDonogh’s book, ‘After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift’ seeks to explore the terrible events in the last days of the war, the first weeks, months and years after liberation from Nazism with few Germans left unaffected. The book opens with the liberation of Vienna and the hammering the city took in the final days by Soviet forces. It was, as the character Holly Martins, says in the film ‘The Third Man’ (1949), that Vienna was like many other cities in Europe, “knocked about a bit”. The shots in the film's opening show a city almost flattened. Everywhere in areas liberated by the Soviets it was the same: industrial scale rape, theft, stolen watches, out of hand shooting of citizens and drunkenness. It also sowed the seed for the later issues surrounding zones of control in post-war Germany. This pattern continued until the German Götterdämmerung that led to the end of Berlin and the final death rattle of the Nazi regime, fulfilling its prediction of bringing down the German people with them.
For the first two thirds of the book what unfolds is a gargantuan human tragedy where the German people are now the victims on a grand scale. Now, of course it could be argued that “the German people brought this upon themselves”. It could also be said that in 1933 and thereafter you could not find a person in Germany who were against the Nazis and after 1945 you could not find anyone who supported them. They just evaporated. For me, I read this book after reading Max Hasting’s equally brilliant book, ‘Armageddon’ about the final year of the war from after D-Day to the end of the war. The biggest unfolding tragedy in that book, among many, is the tragedy that occurred in East Prussia and Konigsberg. ‘After the Reich’ demonstrates the horrors both the soldiers and the civilians suffered continued on an unbelievable scale. This tragedy continued in Berlin where Germans rightly feared the Russians who, as well as envious of the relative riches the German people had they robbed, plundered, stole and destroyed, as well as revenge for the suffering the Russians endured with 20 million dead. The spoils of war if you like.
Over the following months, even years the tally of German dead continued to increase. Of course in Poland the Soviets encouraged Polish (communists) to take over and push out the German citizens of Prussia and Pomerania, wiping these states off the map. Meanwhile, unbelievable atrocities took place in Czechoslovakia with Theresienstadt Concentration Camp changing caps and murdering Germans in massive numbers. Many thousands were murdered for simply being German. While Poland is more understandable, the scale of punishment and retribution against Sudetan and Czech Germans is puzzling. In 1943 Germans were under the yoke of the cold hearted SS administrator, Reinhard Heydrich and after his assassination the village of Lidice was wiped off the map. Yet, relative to many other countries Czechoslovakia had relatively fewer massacres and tragedies. In all 2 million Germans perished at the hands of their Soviet occupiers and in places was encouraged by other nationals.
What would be a bigger surprise to readers of this book is the treatment meted out to Germans citizens and prisoners of war by the other Allies. The French, the weaker of the four powers had learnt no lessons from the First World War and insisted on taking the Ruhr again and insisting on reparations. Meanwhile, the French occupiers, while fewer of course than their Soviet counterparts also carried out mass rapes and indiscriminate killing, particularly by their colonial soldiers. The Americans seemed to be indifferent to the plight of the Germans and, while there were of course atrocities carried out by the British, they treated the Germans with more respect and followed the rule of law. In all some 100,000 Germans were either deliberately starved by their American captors or as a by-product of their treatment.
Only once the zones had been established and the lines in the sand had been drawn as a result of the fundamental disagreements between the Western Allies and the Soviets that the British and Americans saw to entice support from Germany with giving hope and something to work for by literal handouts. The Soviet Union’s frustration led to the blockade of Berlin in 1948 (although they never admitted it was as such) which led to The Berlin Airlift, thereby saving Western Berliners from starvation. Soon the Allied positions became entrenched which of course led to the Cold War proper. Hope only really comes to this book in its final pages, for the Germans at any rate. After reading the book the reader will feel if there is a hopeful follow-up book to read, it would be on the Wirtschaftswunder, or Germany’s economic miracle that followed.
It is not a history that has been much written about. For the BBC, Lawrence Rees followed his other studies of the Third Reich with ‘Behind Closed Doors’, but McDonogh’s book deals directly with the experiences of the everyday German and with their own testimonials, but not entirely. There is also a strong focus on the Potsdam Conference, the post war conference in which an enweakened Great Britain and a newer less experienced President in Harry Truman were up against the tenacious and sly stubbornness of Stalin (while the French were mostly left off the table). Elsewhere some of the book deals with the Nuremberg Trials with Göring and Albert Speer’s recorded thoughts, as well as those of literary writers such as Alfred Döblin (who had written the Weimar Period classic, ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’) and Heinrich Böll’s very perceptive observations of a post-war Germany. Germany had lost its dignity after the war and was made to feel it. Surprising and amazing therefore how the country has now grown as one of the most mature and respected countries in a modern Europe.
At about 540 pages this is a very thorough book. It is accessible, but at the same time would appeal to academics. It does have some photographic plates inside but the book could have benefited with more maps. There is one rudimentary map at the beginning of the book with hatching to represent the different zones of occupation as they were in Europe in 1945, but it would most certainly benefit, given the thorough intellectual rigour within the book of having better and more varied maps of the Berlin and Vienna zones and even of the quite complicated zones of the Austrian Tyrol.
Text by Chris Hick 2018