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Winter war reading

Over the winter of 2008/9, I read several books related to Germany and World War 2.
The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940 1945 by J Friedrich. This is about the destruction of German cities by aerial bombing, and from a German point of view. It reveals quite a number of facts that make uncomfortable reading today. The destruction by the end of the war was remarkably complete, with no German city or town of any size escaping destruction, and in most cases suffering the destruction of something like 75% of the buildings. Many towns and cities were so shattered that they had almost ceased to exist. Civilian casualties were correspondingly high. The author describes the suffering of the bombed population, and rather pointedly, town by town, describes the fine or historic buildings that existed pre-war and were destroyed in the bombing. There was little pretence at precision bombing of military targets; at first, area bombing was all that was possible, and when it proved singularly destructive, area fire-bombing was refined, and if the primary target was masked by bad weather, a secondary target of no military importance would do, or failing that, anything German.

The cost to the attacking airforces in men and material was also high. And for what? The fire-bombing was designed to break civilian morale, and in this it signally failed, just as it failed in Britain.  In the latter, post-Normandy phase of the war, when the bomber fleets went increasingly unchallenged, the raids were supposed to encourage the German troops and civilians to surrender, but, as the author points out, they lived in a totalitarian state, and it is very difficult to surrender to an air force…

(No wonder the British and American governments have been unwilling to condemn the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza in forthright terms.)

After the Reich by Giles MacDonogh. This is a massive 600-page book about what happened in the German territories after the end of the war in Europe. The dying didn’t stop in May 1945, when Germany surrendered, and things didn’t start to get better till around 1948.

3.6 million homes had been destroyed, leaving 7.5 million homeless. As many as 16.5 million Germans were to be driven from their homes, and some two and a quarter million would die during the expulsions from the south and east. The victorious Russians seized eastern territories from Poland, and gave to the Poles large tracts of eastern Germany, lands such as East Prussia that lie now deep within 21th century Poland. The nine million Germans living here were driven out of their homes, beaten, robbed and starved. Tens of thousands of those trying to flee died in refugee ships sunk by the Russian forces in the Baltic. Others died when trying to escape across the sea-ice. Others died of starvation while waiting for permission to travel westwards. It was a similar picture in the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia.  The ethnic Germans were forced to flee to Germany, but not before the victorious Czechs had rounded them up into unofficial concentration camps, where they were beaten up, robbed, starved and sometimes killed.

In the Soviet-held territories, Russian soldiers raped and robbed at will, and in the French sectors the French colonial troops were equally energetic rapists. Everywhere, mobs of hungry and homeless former prisoners and slave workers took revenge against the Germans. The victorious Allies were slow to take control and restore order, and were more interested in apportioning blame and sorting out the more guilty from the less guilty in a wide-sweeping “de-Nazification” process.  The prevailing feeling was that the German people as a whole deserved to be punished, and as is well known a number of prominent Nazis were tried and sentenced at Nuremburg. In the West, the Allied troops were given orders forbidding “fraternisation”. In the Soviet sector, rape and looting were tolerated at the highest  level, right up to the Kremlin. Soviet troops stole anything that took their fancy, being particularly attracted to watches, gramophones and bicycles. Much German factory machinery was removed, particularly in the Soviet sector.

Meanwhile the Germans starved and shivered among the rubble. In any case, with the most fertile farmlands under Soviet occupation, there wasn’t enough food in Europe to feed them. Mostly, it was not the criminals who were raped, starved, tortured or bludgeoned to death, but women, children and old men.  And despite the trials, quite a number of nasty Nazi war criminals escaped any punishment.

A striking feature of the book is the personal stories of individual Germans caught up in the aftermath of the war. Collectively, they paid a terrible price for having lived in Hitler’s Reich.

Reading the whole 600 pages, and the accounts of what happened to individual Germans, one cannot help but feel that this is a second holocaust that has been largely unknown to history, and that if it hadn’t been for two events: (1) the war and (2) the Jewish Holocaust, the fate of the German populations would have been the cause of some international outcry. As it was, they paid a terrible price for living in Hitler’s Reich.

Also received:

World War Two BEHIND CLOSED DOORS by Laurence Rees.  This book accompanies a six-part BBC documentary series.  This is a well-written and revealing book about the Allied leaders’ dealings with the Soviet leader, Stalin.  British readers may recollect that the trigger for Britain declaring war on Germany was the German invasion of Poland.  A few days earlier the Germans and the Soviets, formerly ideological enemies, had concluded a treaty of convenience. Rees explains the reasons why they did this. There had been feelers from the West about a possible treaty with the Soviet Union, but Stalin saw little point in making a treaty with unsympathetic nations. And two weeks after the Germans invaded Poland,  the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Their occupation had all the usual features of Soviet rule: terror, the pretence of coming to liberate, the destruction of the monied and educated classes, arbitrary arrests, mass murder, deportations, pillage, and the devaluing of the Polish zloty.

So did we declare war on the Soviet Union in defence of Poland? No we didn’t, because Britain had little enthusiasm for a war with the Soviet Union. There was also a secret treaty with the Poles that limited Britain’s obligation to defending them against attack from Germany.  And did the conclusuion of WW2 leave Poland at liberty? No it didn’t; in common with the rest of Eastern Europe, the Poles endured another four decades of tyranny.

In 1941, however, Hitler found it expedient to break his treaty and mount a blitzkreig invasion of the Soviet nion. Stalin ignored warnings that an invasion was imminent, but later stalled the Nazi advance with his characteristic determination and brutality.

Rees criticises Churchill and Roosevelt for their poor handling of meetings with the Soviet leader. Stalin made demands for an immediate second front in Europe, and for massive shipments of war supplies, niether of which Britain could readily accomplish.

In the Ruins of the Reich – Douglas Botting. An earlier work, one of the sources mentioned in “After the Reich.”

A Strange Enemy People – Germans under the British 1945-50 by Patricia Meehan. An earlier work, one of the sources mentioned in “After the Reich”.

Postwar – a history of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt. Massive 900-page volume giving the political, social and economic history of Europe from 1945-2005. ‘A masterpiece of schloarship’.

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