Nigel Jones reviews After the Reich:
From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift by Giles MacDonogh
Giles MacDonogh is a bon viveur and
a historian of wine and gastronomy, but in this book, pursuing his other consuming
interest - German history - he serves a dish to turn the strongest of stomachs.
It makes particularly uncomfortable reading for those who compare the disastrous
occupation of Iraq unfavourably to the post-war settlement of Germany and Austria.
MacDonogh argues that the months that
followed May 1945 brought no peace to the shattered skeleton of Hitler's Reich,
but suffering even worse than the destruction wrought by the war. After the atrocities
that the Nazis had visited on Europe, some degree of justified vengeance by their
victims was inevitable, but the appalling bestialities that MacDonogh documents
so soberly went far beyond that. The first 200 pages of his brave book are an almost
unbearable chronicle of human suffering.
His best estimate is that some three
million Germans died unnecessarily after the official end of hostilities. A million
soldiers vanished before they could creep back to the holes that had been their
homes. The majority of them died in Soviet captivity (of the 90,000 who surrendered
at Stalingrad, only 5,000 eventually came home) but, shamingly, many thousands perished
as prisoners of the Anglo-Americans. Herded into cages along the Rhine, with no
shelter and very little food, they dropped like flies. Others, more fortunate, toiled
as slave labour in a score of Allied countries, often for years. Incredibly, some
Germans were still being held in Russia as late as 1979.
The two million German civilians who
died were largely the old, women and children: victims of disease, cold, hunger,
suicide - and mass murder.
Apart from the
rape of virtually every girl and woman unlucky enough to be in the Soviet occupation
zones, perhaps the most shocking outrage recorded by MacDonogh - for the first time
in English - is the slaughter of a quarter of a million Sudeten Germans by their
vengeful Czech compatriots. The survivors of this ethnic cleansing, naked and shivering,
were pitched across the border, never to return to their homes. Similar scenes were
seen across Poland, Silesia and East Prussia as age-old German communities were
Given that what amounted to a lesser
Holocaust was unfolding under their noses, it may be asked why the western Allies
did not stop this venting of long-dammed-up rage on the (mainly) innocent. MacDonogh's
answer is that it could all have been even worse. The US Treasury Secretary, Henry
Morgenthau, favoured turning Germany into a gigantic farm, and there were genocidal
Nazi-like schemes afoot to starve, sterilise or deport the population of what was
left of the bombed-out cities.
The discovery of the Nazi death camps
stoked Allied fury, with General George Patton asking an aide amid the horrors of
Buchenwald: 'Do you still find it hard to hate them?' But the surviving inmates
were soon replaced by German captives - Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and even
Auschwitz stayed in business after the war, only now with the Germans behind the
It was Realpolitik, not humanitarian
concern, that caused a swift shift in western attitudes towards their former foes.
Fear of Communism spreading into the heart of Europe, and the barbarities of the
Russians - who kidnapped and killed hundreds of their perceived enemies from the
western zones of Berlin and Vienna - belatedly made the West realise that they had
beaten one totalitarian power only to be threatened by another.
Even that hardline Kraut-hater Patton
was sacked for advocating a pre-emptive strike against Russia. Building up West
Germany and saving Berlin from Soviet strangulation with the 1948 airlift became
the first battles of the Cold War - even if that meant overlooking Nazi crimes and
enlisting Nazi criminals in the 'economic miracle' of reconstruction.
Although MacDonogh roundly condemns
all the occupying powers, the British emerge with some credit. Apart from one Air
Marshal who looted art treasures; and an MI5 interrogator nicknamed 'Tin Eye' Stephens
who ran a private torture chamber, British hands may have been grubby, but were
not deeply blood-stained. British squaddies preferred to purchase their sex privately
with a packet of fags or a pair of nylons, rather than in the Soviet style.
MacDonogh has written a gruelling
but important book. This unhappy story has long been cloaked in silence since telling
it suited no one. Not the Allies, because it placed them near the moral nadir of
the Nazis; nor the Germans, because they did not wish to be accused of whitewashing
Hitler by highlighting what was, by any standard, a war crime. Giles MacDonogh has
told a very inconvenient truth.
The Assault on East Prussia (complete documentary)
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