Magazine article The New Leader (Online)

A Lucky Choice of Enemies

Magazine article The New Leader (Online)

A Lucky Choice of Enemies

Article excerpt

A Lucky Choice of Enemies Germany 1945: From War to Peace By Richard Bessel HarperCollins. 522 pp. $28.99.

GERMANY began 1945, the last year of World War II, still the defiant, hated and feared colossus of Europe. Adolf Hitler promised victory in his New Year's speech. But within four months, its armies crushed on battlefields and its cities destroyed by bombing, Germany had become the abject victim of its Soviet, American and European enemies. The most remarkable change of all, though, was yet to come that same year, when it stood at the Stunde null - the absolute bottom. Germany started slowly to rise again, economically, peacefully, democratically, and to attain the power in Europe that Hitler sought through barbaric conquest.

This study ofthe pivotal year by British historian Richard Bessel designates 1945 as the turning point ofthe 20th century in Europe. The search for an explanation, Bessel says, "needs to begin with the enormity ofthe violence which overwhelmed Germany during the last year ofthe War," when nearly half a million troops were killed in a single month and total deaths from the bombing of civilians approached the same figure. I would suggest an earlier beginning: the violence Germany inflicted on Europe from day one ofthe conflict it initiated. Bessel notes that 6 million Germans died in the War. But 6 million Poles, most of them Jews, also died between 1939 and 1945, as did 25 million Soviet citizens, along with 2 million Americans, British, French, and other Allied populations, civilian as well as military.

In 1945 those deaths were to be avenged. That January nearly 4 million Soviet troops pushed westward in advances as great as 50 miles a day, while the Americans, French and British headed toward Germany's Rhine River defenses. The Germans threw in teenagers and old men and shot those trying to surrender, but that only slowed the collapse.

The Russians, in the meantime, were paying back the Germans for their losses in human lives and industrial capacity in another way. They dismantled factories and railways, shipped off prisoners to restore Soviet cities, roads and factories, andpermitted their troops to rape and loot without control. In claiming for itself and other Eastern countries the former German territories across Eastern Europe, the Russians made the state of war and the dislocation of populations permanent. Millions of refugees struggled across the borders on the Oder and Neisse Rivers with tales of brutality and dispossession. As they settled in towns and cities all across the west of Germany, their stories mingled with those ofthe bombings' survivors, who shared equal losses of family and property.

Russia's revenge was a factor equal to the defeat ofthe Wehrmacht in German consciousness in those early postwar days, and its consequences were as important and long-lasting. It led to Germany joining its Western conquerors against the Soviet Union - first politically through the free choice of its leaders, then economically with the massive U.S. aid of the Marshall Plan and initial stages ofthe cross-border European Coal and Steel Community, and finally militarily as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Germany 1945 tells the story of crushing German militarism well, but it does not pay sufficient attention to the other major element in the rise of postwar Germany: the perceived threat from Moscow that spurred the Western Allies to help Germany recover. It does follow the early moves in that direction, however. Only two months after V-E Day, Bessel writes, the French were extending a hand to those they had helped vanquish. France's occupation commander, General Pierre Koenig, called on Germans to accept European and American democracy and "lay down with an indestructible firmness the bases of a Franco-German rapprochement, which is indispensable for the reconstruction of Europe. …

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