Sunday 21 January 2018

Review: Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany by Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury, €29.00

Victor Sebestyen

For more than half a century, the rise of modern Germany as an exemplary liberal democracy, as an economic power, as an exporter of decent European values and superb motor cars, has been an object lesson in how a violent pariah state can cleanse itself.

The consensus among historians and the political class in the West has been that the Marxist experiment in the East was but a blip. Led by an Anglo-American coalition that encouraged freedom, open markets and introspection about its recent past, Germany's rehabilitation was a seamless story of redemption earned through decades of good works. The subtext was that the success owed as much to the wise policies of the Americans, the British and even the French, as it did to the Germans.

And so it was, up to a point. Frederick Taylor's compelling book debunks many myths about the immediate post-war years. Through vivid storytelling, he shows that the story was far more complicated than has invariably been told in the English-speaking world.

Yes, the West and its values triumphed, but the road was rocky and there was a big price to pay -- in East Germany, by millions behind the Berlin Wall who endured life under one of the nastiest police states in Europe. In the bigger, richer West Germany, as Taylor tellingly explains, it was paid by a generation largely taught to forget about the past.

Taylor has great narrative gifts, as he showed in his books on the bombing of Dresden and the history of the Berlin Wall. Here, his account of the last days of the war is brilliantly told. He begins on September 11, 1944, with American GIs crossing into Germany. It is a literary conceit that, at first glance, seems contrived but it works surprisingly well.

He writes sensitively on the attitude of the vanquished to the victors, contrasting the fear of Soviet atrocities -- perhaps half a million German women were raped by Russian troops -- to the sullen bitterness people felt against the Western allies. "Germans loathed the hypocrisy and the arrogance of the allied assumption of superiority," he says.

It is hard for most people under 40 to remember that Germany -- both Germanies -- was occupied by "foreign" troops for decades after the war. On both sides of the iron curtain, Germans' independence was circumscribed. The Soviets knew what they wanted in their eastern zone: they created a state in Stalin's image, reliant on the Stasi to retain power. The Western powers were less sure. A powerful lobby in the US wanted to return Germany to a pastoral middle ages, with no industry with which it could ever again make weapons to threaten its neighbours. Thankfully, they lost out to practical leaders in America and Britain. The Marshall Plan "exorcised" Hitler, gave birth to the West German economic miracle and made the German match with France that has been the centre of the EU.

They were even less certain about how to punish the Nazis and find the "good Germans" to govern the country. Taylor explains that the process, after the high-profile Nuremberg trials, was characterised by realpolitik.

In 1945, there were eight million Nazi party members, more than 10 per cent of the population. Among teachers, lawyers and civil servants, the percentage was far higher. Basic services could not be run without them.

The British were the most pragmatic and quickly gave up looking for any Nazis apart from major war criminals. The leaders in Washington had a good line in rhetoric about "no safe havens" for Nazis. Yet America's record was poor, not helped when it spirited to the US rocket scientists who had been Hitler's favourites.

West Germany was left to cleanse itself. It was not the seamless process of confronting the truth that is usually told. As Taylor puts it, Konrad Adenauer's conservative, complacent country took "the sleep cure". The Fifties and early Sixties was an era of forgetting. Germany paid billions of Deutschmarks in compensation to Jews, but few Nazis were prosecuted. In 1952, 60 per cent of civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis. It was in the Sixties, when a new generation of Germans began asking their parents, "What did you do in the Third Reich?", that the real transformation began.

There are weaknesses in this book -- attempting to make it topical with references to the occupation of Iraq is entirely superfluous. Yet this is an enthralling narrative about a crucial period of modern Europe's history.

© Guardian

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