Americans have a very benign view of the postwar occupation of Germany. In the conventional narrative, the US liberated the German people from Nazi tyranny, schooled them in Western-style democracy, brought them market-driven prosperity, and protected them from the evil Soviet empire. But the historical truth is rather different, especially for the period from the Armistice in 1945 to the Berlin Airlift in 1948. This is the period covered in Giles MacDonogh's book After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation. With startling detail, MacDonogh tells a story of rape, ethnic cleansing, pillage, starvation and slavery that resulted in an estimated 3 million German deaths (1 million of which were POWs) after Germany surrendered. Of the two million civilians who perished, the vast majority were women, children and elderly Germans who fell victim to suicide, hunger, disease and mass murder.
The first chapters of the After the Reich are perhaps the most gruesome, since MacDonogh describes the fate of the women and girls in the Soviet occupied territories. Hardly any - even as young as 8-years old or as old as 80 - escaped being brutally raped, sometimes as many as 25 times - 25 times a day. This led to a wave of suicides, atrocious injuries of young girls, terrible venereal disease (when there were no antibiotics available) and pregnancies. Nor were the Russians entirely alone in their enthusiasm for rape: On April 17-18, 1945, French soldiers raped at least 600 women in the small Black Forest town of Freudenstadt, before going on to Stuttgart where they raped another 3,000 women and eight men. American forces prohibited rape, but there were more than 600 courts-marshal involving rape charges against American soldiers. Only the Brits come off better, since they preferred to barter cigarettes and chocolate for sex with the defeated enemy.
Then MacDonogh tells the largely untold story of the slaughter of more than 250,000 Sudeten Germans by Czech nationalists, as well as similar stories of ethnic cleansing in Poland, Silesia, and East Prussia - a predictable outcome from the Yalta Conference. This sad chapter of postwar history deserves a great deal more study, and MacDonogh deserves much credit for bringing to the attention of American readers.
The other area where MacDonogh breaks new ground is his inclusion of Austria in his study of the postwar occupation. The author clearly has special knowledge of Austria, and uses it to great advantage in his description of the fall of Vienna and subsequent discussion of Austria's occupied zones and sectors. After the war, Austria presented itself to the world as the first victim of Nazism, but it clearly was not perceived as such by the Allied forces, and After the Reich provides a much needed corrective on that score.
MacDonogh discusses the treatment of German POWs in some detail, and this is an especially painful chapter for Americans. After Germany's unconditional surrender the status of the millions of German POWs changed to DEP (Disarmed Enemy Persons), which meant they were no longer subject to the Geneva Conventions. Food rations were immediately reduced and starvation became commonplace. The most notorious American camps were the Rheinwiesenlager - the Rhine Meadow Camps - where more than 400,000 prisoners were left to starve out in open in the mud. 10% of them died from hunger, disease and exposure. The "lucky" ones were herded into former Nazi concentration camps - such as Dachau - where they were treated horribly and many died. I had read about some of this abuse in Ernst von Salomon 's autobiographical book Der Fragebogen (The Questionnaire), where he describes in detail his treatment as a prisoner of the Americans, and MacDonogh also draws on von Salomon's account. Former Wehrmacht and SS officers were subjected to brutal "interrogations". At Schwaebisch Hall, a particularly infamous prison near Stuttgart for officials suspected of major war crimes, MacDonogh writes:
The Americans had used methods similar to those employed by the SS in Dachau. … Worse still were the mock executions, where the men were led off in hoods, while their guards told them they were approaching the gallows. Prisoners were actually lifted bodily off the ground to convince them they were about to swing. More conventional methods of torture included kicks to the groin, deprivation of sleep and food and savage beatings. When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry into the methods used by their investigators, they found that, of the 139 cases examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”
So this puts our treatment of enemy combatants in Guantanamo in historical context.
Much more research into the fate of 8 million German POWs needs to be conducted. For example, how did the treatment of German POWs at American and Canadian POW camps change after the war ended? I've already looked into this a bit. It also appears that the Americans and British were happy to contract out German prisoners as slave laborers to France and Belgium.
There are some weaknesses to MacDonogh's book, mostly because he tries to cover too much ground. For example, his revisionist take on the Nuremberg Trials is rushed. After the Reich probably contains the foundations for three or four new books on immediate postwar European history. But it is an important book which should be read along with Joerg Friedrich's Der Brand ( The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945). The truth of "The Good War" and its aftermath needs to be told.
UPDATE AUGUST 1, 2008: It has come to my attention that two Holocaust Denial sites have linked to this post. I have to emphasize that nowhere does MacDonogh equate the atrocities committed against Germans after the war with the systematic murder of six million Jews by the Hitler regime, much less deny that such murder took place. MacDonogh, like all historians of repute, accepts the Holocaust as a historical fact. I am sure he is as disgusted as I am with those who deny or distort history to promote an ideology of hate.