Nigel Jones reviews After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift by Giles MacDonogh.
Giles MacDonogh is 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 in Europe, some degree of justified vengeance 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 well-known repeated 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 brutally expunged.
It may be asked why the western Allies did not stop this venting of long-dammed-up rage on the 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 schemes afoot to starve, sterilise or deport the population of what was left of the bombed-out cities.
The discovery of the contentration camps stoked Allied fury, 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 wire.
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