BOOK REVIEW: In Germany after war’s end

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EXORCISING HITLER
By Frederick Taylor
Bloomsbury, $30, 438 pages, illustrated

The effort to eradicate Nazism from postwar Germany is a big topic in every sense of the term, from the complicated balance between four occupying powers to the hydra-headed process that this effort entailed - not to mention the philosophical implications of such a task. British historian Frederick Taylor does not shy away from handling all this, doing justice to all aspects of his important subject. It helps, of course, that he is superbly in command of its historical, political and social contexts and writes with an admirable clarity and force:

“What government or political life had existed there before was viewed by the conquerors as unremittingly evil … the first aim was unquestionably to get rid of what was presently there, to destroy the fabric of Nazi totalitarian control, not just in the administration but throughout industry, the arts, education and the sciences.”

What would in any case have been a difficult task was made still more complex by the fact that the four occupying powers had very different notions of how to go about this. Mr. Taylor shows that the British and American military and civil administrations cooperated with one another, to their mutual benefit and also to the eventual benefit of the German people they were ruling. But from the very beginning, the kind of four-power administration that was supposed to prevail was a fiction.

Mr. Taylor’s account of what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and his British counterpart, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, encountered in Berlin “on 1 June to ceremonially sign the Victory Declaration, thereby bringing into force its stipulations, including the formation of the Control Council, and allowing the protocols on zonal boundaries and administrative machinery to take effect,” shows that the process was doomed from the very start to founder upon the rocks of the Soviet Union’s intransigence and determination to follow its own agenda.

And although there was less open conflict with the French, they, too, had their different aims and methods in governing their zone - none of them severe enough to prevent its eventual incorporation into the Federal Republic of Germany, which would emerge by the end of the decade. All these details are clearly laid out in Mr. Taylor’s account. In his description of that June day in Berlin, Eisenhower fairly leaps from the pages, suppressed emotions shooting out from under the iron discipline and self-control that were his hallmarks.

The reader perches on the shoulder of Sgt. Warner W. Holzinger, leader of “a seven-man patrol of the 2nd Platoon, Troop B, 85th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, attached to the 5th Armored Division, 1st United States Army [that] crossed the River Our from Luxembourg into the pre-war territory of the Third Reich. The bridge that normally straddled the border had been demolished by the retreating Wehrmacht, but the waters of the Our were shallow enough for [them] to wade across and cautiously make their way on to the far bank. Encountering no enemy troops, they proceeded up the slope on the German side.”

And so the reader gets to share in these milestone achievements along with the soldiers on that September day 6 1/2 decades ago.

Soon we get to see how tough things got after this deceptively easy breaching of fortress Germany. As territorial gains ebb and flow, German civilians and unwilling, last-gasp teenage conscripts, as well as American soldiers, get caught up in the snares of occupation. The hapless civilians who cooperate with their American liberators receive summarily brutal retribution when the Wehrmacht retakes their villages: Corpses hang from lampposts.

And even when the Americans are in control, diehard Nazi partisans swoop down to murder Germans who are helping to establish a post-Hitlerian Germany. Mr. Taylor does a magnificent job of showing just how messy and hard-won the process of occupation and pacification could be.

When it comes to the difficult question of just how many party members evaded the full process of de-Nazification, Mr. Taylor pulls no punches. He rightly points out what a difficult task it was to distinguish between committed Nazis and those who had joined for reasons ranging from opportunism through conformity to coercion, and just how impossible it would have been to administer Germany at every level from national to local without the help of former Nazis, when most doctors and dentists, for instance, had to be party members in the Third Reich.

Once the Cold War began to take hold, its imperatives necessarily altered the standards of the Western powers with regard to the firmness of their line in rooting out all former supporters of the Nazi regime.

But if the process of de-Nazification was not always perfect in the West, as Mr. Taylor demonstrates, it pales beside the outright cynicism with which the Soviet Union scrupled not at all to employ ex-Nazis whenever it suited them, even as they plundered the hapless parts of Germany unfortunate enough to find one kind of totalitarian rule replaced by another.

Measured, judicious, always intelligent but never sententious in its judgments, “Exorcising Hitler” will leave readers with a greatly increased understanding of just how difficult it was to create the postwar German state that has turned out to be a linchpin of Europe since those dark days when it was struggling to emerge from a nightmare.

Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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