Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review of After the Reich by Giles MacDonogh (2007, John Murray)

As the Second World War draws to a close and the Allies advance into the territory of pre-war Germany, and the dominions it had taken prior to conflict - Austria and Czechoslovakia – the retributions and political carve-up starts. Germans, or those with a strong German heritage, found themselves under harsh occupation, with soldiers rounded up into camps and used as forced labour, and residents subject to rape, violence, starvation, and movement as they are forced out of lands that are re-allocated to other nations. Nazi leaders were hunted down to put on trial. The four main Allies – the Americans, British, French and Russians – struggled to find a balance between retribution and restitution, and to find common ground and vision on the future of Germany as the first stirrings of the Cold War began.

MacDonogh seeks to document the monumental scale of the war’s aftermath on Germany and Germanic people and the conduct of the Allies as they deal with the fallout. 16.5 million Germans were displaced, 2.25 million died, and hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped between the end of the war and the Berlin airlift. Nations conquered by Germany sought revenge and repatriations. The victims of concentration camps and German forced labour had to care for. New national boundaries needed to be negotiated and the political system newly constituted. Flattened cities and towns needed to be cleared and rebuilt. Populations had to be fed and ideologically re-educated. What MacDonogh’s analysis reveals is that the Allies practiced rough justice, committing many atrocities in revenge for those undertaken by the Nazi regime, many against ordinary people who’d played little active role other than to be German and who had often opposed or suffered under that regime. While seeking to prosecute and punish leading Nazis for their crimes, the Allies conducted similar practices. For example, tens of thousands of prisoners of war starved or frozen to death while housed in former concentration camps; those being deported sent on death marches or summarily executed.

In so doing, MacDonogh tells a different kind of history to the heroic, triumphant, morally superior and benevolent victors by revealing the revengeful, bloody, messy peace and the path to a divided Germany and the Cold War. He draws extensively on personal testimony from all sides, along with documentary sources. The book itself is quite sprawling and the analysis often quite cursory, which is somewhat inevitable given the broad range of material covered that spans several jurisdictions and issues. The structure is also a little jumbled, especially with respect to the timeline. Some of the final chapters about governance in the immediate aftermath of the war would have been better at the start, for example, as they are important context. MacDonogh clearly has his own views with respect to what occurred and is generally sympathetic to the German’s plight and critical of Allied actions while acknowledging the complex political and logistical mess of the aftermath of total war. The analysis seems largely fair, though it won’t always chime well with all readers – that’ll largely depend on views of collective guilt and an eye-for-eye notions of justice for the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. Overall, a fascinating if harrowing read revealing that the war might have ended in May 1945, but peace did not reign until many years later.

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