After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

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9780719567704: After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

From an expert in German history--a masterful exploration of the horrific aftermath of World War II for the citizens of a ruined nation.

When the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, the Allied powers converged on Germany and divided it into four zones of occupation. A nation in tatters, in many places literally flattened by bombs, was suddenly subjected to brutal occupation by vengeful victors. Rape was rampant. Hundreds of thousands of Germans and German-speakers died in the course of brutal deportations from Eastern Europe. By the end of the year, Germany was literally starving to death. Over a million German prisoners of war died in captivity, where they were subjected to inadequate rations and often tortured. All told, an astounding 2.25 million German civilians died violent deaths in the period between the liberation of Vienna and the Berlin airlift.

A shocking account of a massive and vicious military occupation, After the Reich offers a bold reframing of the history of World War II and its aftermath. Historian Giles MacDonogh has unearthed a record of brutality which has been largely ignored by historians or, worse, justified as legitimate retaliation for the horror of the Holocaust.

Drawing on a vast array of contemporary firstperson accounts, MacDonogh has finally given a voice to tens of millions of civilians who, lucky to survive the war, found themselves struggling to survive a hellish peace.

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About the Author:

Giles MacDonogh is the author of several books on German history, including The Last Kaiser: A Life of Wilhelm II and Frederick the Great as well as histories of Berlin and Prussia. A graduate of Oxford University, MacDonogh has written for the Financial Times, the Times (London), the Guardian, and the Evening Standard. He lives in London with his family.

From The Washington Post:

Reviewed by Andrew Nagorski

There's a gruesome last chapter to World War II, the bloodiest war in history. During the forced expulsions of about 12 million Germans from the Reich's eastern provinces, mostly from territory that became part of the newly reconstituted states of Poland and Czechoslovakia, about 2 million died. Imprisonment in former Nazi concentration camps, death marches, starvation, beatings, rapes and outright murder were all commonplace. As the Red Army and many local inhabitants saw it, this was justifiable revenge for Germany's monstrous crimes. The Americans, Brits and French didn't engage in violence on anything close to that scale, but they, too, sometimes let their desire for revenge get the better of them.

For a long time, this record of retribution was a taboo topic outside of Germany. Even the Germans worried that emphasizing their suffering could open them to accusations of rewriting history to cast themselves as equal victims. But since the collapse of communist regimes in their countries in 1989, at least some Poles and Czechs have been confronting that history. (Don't expect anything of the sort from Putin's Russia, where Stalin is glorified once again.) And in the West, this is a painful subject that has been attracting more attention.

In After the Reich, Giles MacDonogh, a British author of several books about German history, chronicles the final weeks of the war and the occupation that followed. His ambitious mission: to offer a comprehensive, unsparing account of what happened to the German people when the tables were turned. MacDonogh works to assemble a massive indictment of the victors, and his array of detail and individual stories is both impressive and exhausting. But he's far less successful in navigating the tricky moral terrain that such a subject inevitably occupies. As a result, his is a deeply flawed book.

It's misleading to talk about German suffering without referring to the Nazi record, but MacDonogh offers only the most perfunctory nods in that direction. "I make no excuses for the crimes the Nazis committed," he writes. What's troubling is his willingness to leave unchallenged some of the most dubious if understandable assertions of those Germans who suffered, his eagerness to trumpet any acts of brutality by Allied forces as the rule rather than the exception, and his propensity for highly questionable, sweeping generalizations.

MacDonogh informs us that 1.8 million German civilians had perished by the end of the war. Here, at least, one would expect a couple of comparisons that are glaringly absent: the death toll for the Soviet Union (an estimated 26 million, more than half of them civilians) and Poland (nearly 6 million, half of them Polish Jews). True, that's not the subject of his book, but some context is needed.

When a German woman expelled from Czech lands compares her people's plight to that of the Jews under the Nazis, MacDonogh offers no comment. Of course the expulsions were anything but the "orderly and humane" action promised by the Potsdam Agreement. That doesn't make them anything like the Holocaust. The well-documented cases of mass rape by Red Army soldiers -- incidentally, not just of Germans but also of women of many nationalities in "liberated" territories -- make for chilling reading. But MacDonogh seems eager to treat the incomparably less frequent cases of rape and torture by U.S. troops as evidence that they were almost equally vengeful.

There's more than a passing whiff of contemporary anti-Americanism in the casual way that he throws around terms such as "the inhumane approach" of the American victors toward the Germans. MacDonogh sees no contradiction in mentioning that the United States honored its promise to quickly release German POWs, or in both chastising the Americans for initiating a too-sweeping de-Nazification effort and then for not persistently nailing more Nazis. He off-handedly mentions the remarkable reconstruction of Germany -- the result of the most generous occupation policy the world had ever seen -- yet seems determined to emphasize everything that went awry. The Americans were too harsh or too soft, according to MacDonogh, but almost never right. The problem with After the Reich is that it gets so much of the big picture so wrong.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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