Tag Archives: Nazi Germany

When the Boot Was on the Other Foot


R.M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane:
The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War 

          R.M. Douglas’ Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War tells the little-known story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, Volkdeutsch, primarily from Czechoslovakia and Poland, and secondarily from Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania in 1945 and 1946, into a battered and beaten Germany. By virtue of Article 13 of the Potsdam Decree of August 1945, the victorious allied powers – the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union — specifically mandated “orderly and humane” expulsions of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. The Volkdeutsch populations of Romania and Yugoslavia were not covered. Article 13 provides Douglas with his title Orderly and Humane, used with forceful irony throughout this engaging work.

        In 1945 and 1946, approximately 12 million ethnic Germans were uprooted from the lands where they had lived, sometimes for generations. Their expulsion was not only the “greatest forced migration in human history, but may well constitute the greatest single movement of population” (p.65), Douglas writes. It gave rise to a “massive state-sponsored carnival of violence” (p.129), resulting in a death toll that Douglas estimates to have been somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million. As such, the expulsions were “unique in the peacetime history of twentieth-century Europe” (p.129). Yet, Douglas notes, this was an episode in European history that “escaped the notice of most Europeans, and practically all Americans, other than those physically present on the scene” (p.129).

        The want of attention given to this episode in the United States and Great Britain may be attributable to what Douglas describes as the “dominant narratives about the nature and meaning of the Second World War” (p.353) – the “good war” notion — in which the Western democracies, allied with the Soviet Union, fought and defeated an irrefutably evil enemy. In the abstract, the thought of uprooting 12 million people on account of their ethnicity and sending them to another country would make most of us recoil.  But there was nothing abstract about the circumstances of ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia, Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe in 1945 and 1946.

       These were lands which Nazi Germany invaded and went on to commit uncountable and unspeakable atrocities. Whether the Volkdeutsche should be regarded as “perpetrators,” “victims” or “by-standers” of Nazi atrocities is, Douglas writes, a “question without an obvious answer” (p.59). Yet, he writes elsewhere that during World War II, the Czechoslovak German ethnic population, Sudetendeutsche, “whether enthusiastic Hitlerites or passive anti-Nazis, continued to serve the Greater Germany of which they considered themselves a part” (p.38). In this respect, they “did not differ from any of the other ethnic German . . . communities in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Baltic states and elsewhere who, regardless of their individual political leanings, either aligned themselves with the Reich or did nothing to oppose it” (p.38).

       Douglas must therefore address a variant of the notion of collective responsibility: to what extent should those of German ethnicity be held accountable for the crimes that another government committed? Czechoslovakia and Poland argued that the Volkdeutsche were “even more guilty that the people of the ’old Reich’ by virtue of having added treachery to barbarity” (p.287). Although the Allies never explicitly issued a finding of collective responsibility of the Volkdeutsche, there was little dissent in 1945 to the view that Nazism was at bottom an extreme manifestation of “brutal pan-Germanism” with which the “minds and hearts” of ethnic Germans, like those within Germany, had been “thoroughly imbued” (p.287). Moreover, does calling attention to the multiple human rights violations committed during the expulsions risk disparaging those who suffered because of the still greater crimes of Nazi Germany? Wasn’t there room for what Douglas terms “cathartic cruelty” (p.370) toward all Volkdeutsche once the heinous Nazi enemy was defeated and the “boot was on the other foot” (p.9).

       These questions lurk behind Douglas’ methodically written yet passionately argued work. His work is not easy to read. Douglas’ prose sometimes seems dense, but that is largely a consequence of his comprehensive coverage, in which he presents his subject matter from every conceivable angle and delves deeply into each angle. There are full chapters dedicated to the place of the Volkdeutsche in countries outside Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; prior European experiments in mass expulsions; Nazi Germany’s forced expulsions during World War II; camps utilized as holding grounds for expellees (sometimes the same camps the Nazis had utilized); treatment of Volkdeutsche children; administration of territory formerly occupied by Volkdeutsche and confiscation of their property; resettlement and integration of Volkdeutsche into Germany; application of principles of international law to the expulsions; and vestiges of the expulsions still with us today.

        Throughout, Douglas emphasizes how expulsion of the Volkdeutsche out of other states and their absorption into the ruins of Germany was undertaken with shockingly little advanced planning — remarkable for the “deliberate refusal of those who carried [the expulsions] out . . . to make any preparations, of however rudimentary a character, for an enterprise whose disruption to the normal life of central Europe was second only to that caused by the war itself” (p.65). Douglas painstakingly documents numerous other failings of the public authorities who participated in or condoned the widespread human rights abuses resulting from the expulsions. But he reserves his harshest judgments for the indispensable roles played in the expulsions by the Western Allies, the United States and Great Britain who, he writes, “disavowed any responsibility for the suffering that resulted, which was, they asserted, entirely the concern of the expelling states or of the Germans themselves” (p.285).

* * *

      Two terms were used to describe the expulsions of Volkdeutsche during the height of the expulsions — roughly the 20 months between May 1945 and December 1946 – “wild expulsions,” putatively spontaneous actions of feed up citizens ridding their country of all vestiges of Nazism; and “ordered expulsions,” those expulsions sanctioned by the Potsdam accords in August 1945 for Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, designed to put an end to wild expulsions. One of the many contributions which Douglas makes to our understanding of the period is his demonstration that there were very few actual “wild expulsions.” Most were not carried out by mobs but rather “by troops, police, and militia, acting under orders and more often than not executing policies laid down at the highest levels” (p.94). Yet, the expelling governments encouraged the notion of wild expulsions, which amply suited their interests.

       The most notable exception occurred in Czechoslovakia immediately after the Nazi capitulation, when Czechs hunted Germans across Czechoslovakia throughout May and into June 1945. The prime movers were local civilians, “albeit highly politicized ones” (p.100). But, Douglas cautions, “[f]ew of the misnamed ‘wild expulsions’ that took place later during the summer [of 1945] followed this pattern” (p.99-100). Most had at least the tacit support of state authorities.

          Czechoslovakia and Poland receive most of Douglas’ attention. The Czech expulsions in the aftermath of the war were carried out with a ruthlessness not exceeded elsewhere. In the typical case, Douglas writes, Czechoslovakia’s Volkdeutsche, were “rounded up, normally at an hour’s notice, permitted to gather together some hand baggage; searched for contraband; and then marched on foot either to the border or to a holding camp” (p.100). Ridding the country of its Sudentland Germans had been a project of Czech leaders since the country’s creation in the aftermath of World War I.

        Czechoslovak leader Edouard Beneš was convinced that the Second World War presented his country with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete the Czechoslovakian national project” by ridding itself of unwanted minority populations through mass expulsions (p.16). By 1942, the Czechoslovak government in exile was “openly committed to the removal of all or most of its Sudetendeutsch population after the war. . . no more than 600,000 or 700,000 Sudeten Germans, or a fifth of the prewar population, would be allowed to remain” (p.21).

        Poland’s ethnic German population was far smaller than that in Czechoslovakia, only about 3% of its pre-war population. By September 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London had determined that those Germans “who do not leave Polish territory after the war will have to removed from it” (p.25). This applied equally to the area of the Polish state in 1939, and what was termed the “recovered territories” — the territories “whose incorporation into Poland will be demanded as a result of the present war” (p.25).  Although Poland’s record of respecting the rights of Jewish, German and Ukrainian minorities between the wars was “thoroughly undistinguished” (p.and Nazi occupation had been “infinitely more savage and inhumane” in Poland than in Czechoslovakia, Polish expulsions were “not marked by the kind of violent reprisals seen in Czechoslovakia” (p.108). )

       As ethnic Germans were removed from Poland’s recovered territories and Czechoslovakia’s Sudentland — termed the “Wild West” in both countries (p.257) — Czechoslovak and Polish citizens’ “enthusiasm for the expulsions owed a great deal to the prospect that that they would profit from the confiscation of their German neighbors’ wealth” (p.255). Douglas describes the “locust cloud of ‘gold diggers,’ ‘gleaners,’ or ‘prospectors’ who descended on the cleared areas, either to seize the most desirable houses and businesses or simply to loot vacated premises and carry the goods away for use or resale” (p.267). Neither country had drawn up a detailed plan to determine the method by which German property was to be confiscated and redistributed and, in both, “all kinds of moneymaking schemes and scams proliferated” (p.181). The central governments “lost control of the process of redistributing confiscated German properties from the very outset, and never fully regained it. . . ‘gold digging’ permeated the whole of Czechoslovakia and Polish society, from the very bottom to the highest echelons” (p.267). Such “gold digging” even extended to Christian churches, which “enthusiastically embraced the opportunity both to acquire property and to eliminate the local influence of competing sects” (p.267).

         The removal of the ethnic Germans was not just an enormous logistical undertaking. It was also the source of a highly disruptive economic and social transformation of the affected areas. Yet, proven cases of opposition to forced removal in Czechoslovakia and Poland were “nowhere to be found. The uniform, almost eerie, meekness of the German population was recorded in report an after report in both Czechoslovakia and Poland” (p.115). The lack of opposition was due in part to the demographics of those expelled. Although the justification had been to remove the most dangerous ethnic Germans, those likely to comprise a subversive fifth column, in fact the opposite occurred. The least dangerous ethnic Germans, predominately children and the elderly, were expelled “while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will” (p.193). In Poland, “[v]irtually every report remarked upon the extraordinarily high proportion of elderly people included in the transports. . . [T]he Polish authorities were taking the opportunity to rid themselves of the unproductive element of the German population, retaining employable males for compulsory labor” (p.169).

        Up to sixty-five thousand Hungarian ethnic Germans were removed from Hungary by February 1945, about one third of whom died in Soviet camps. Hungary was the “only country in which expellees felt confident enough to display more than negligible resistance to their expropriation and removal” (p.215). Although the Soviet Union opposed expulsion of the Volkdeutsch population from Yugoslavia into their zone of Germany, Yugoslav leader Tito was willing to risk alienating his Soviet ideological allies by expelling Yugoslavia’s Volkdeutsche population. The deportations from Romania were carried out in as chaotic a manner as those in Czechoslovakia and Poland. As many as seventy-five thousand Volksdeutsche were removed. Others were taken up into internment camps, to “facilitate the redistribution of their property” (p.112). Although most ethnic Germans from Romania were not formally deported, they were “confronted with conditions that made it impossible for many of them to remain” (p.112).

         Douglas’ devotes a full chapter to camps set up to temporarily house Volkdeutsche prior to their expulsion to Germany. In Poland, the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz was quickly made available for Volkdeutsche.  Douglas also devotes a full chapter to the effect of the expulsions on children. Although the expelling countries and the Western Allies had subscribed in 1926 to the International Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which stipulated that children were to be the “first to receive relief in times of distress” without taking into account “considerations of race nationality, or creed,” the convention remained a “dead letter” throughout most of 1945 and 1946 (p.240).  With a few exceptions, there is “little evidence to suggest that the authorities exerted themselves to shield children from the harsher aspects of camp life” (p.236). Rather, the response of authorities to humanitarian appeals on behalf of children was “almost without exception to ignore them” (p.235). Between 160,000 and 180,000 of the children who became separated from their parents in the course of the transfer operations had not been reunited with them by 1950. Despite some general sympathy for children, Douglas concludes, “Western opinion in general was not ready to deviate from the established narrative of Germans as ‘perpetrators,’ regardless of the age or exact status of the ‘Germans’ concerned” (p.240).

       Early in 1947, Great Britain became the first of the three Allies to call for an end to the Volkdeutsche expulsions, with the United States following shortly thereafter. The Western Allies did not withdraw their support for the expulsions they had authorized on humanitarian grounds. Rather, they “found themselves confronted with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economics of the expelling states for years to come” (p.193). What had changed by the end of 1946 for Britain, Douglas argues, was not the “degree of suffering caused to the expellees, but the enthusiasm of British administrators and politicians for a project that was creating an accelerating, open-ended, and ruinously expensive social crisis in their occupation zone [of Germany], for which taxpayers at home would have to pick up the bill” (p.196). Thus, after “coping—or failing to cope – with the ‘wild expulsions’ of 1945, and finding the ‘organized expulsions’ of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving to be an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible” (p.193).

       Critics of the expulsions had argued that the Volkdeutsche would never be successfully integrated into Germany, their new homeland, and would remain a glaring social problem that could affect the overall health of the country as it tried to rebuild after the devastating war. On this score, surprisingly, the critics were wrong. Douglas stresses how little social upheaval could be attributed to the Volkdeutsche immigrants in post-war Germany. Fears of widespread juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and educational underperformance were “not borne out by events” (p.253). Within an “incredibly few years,” the expellees had become “effectively – if not quite completely – integrated into the larger society in both West and East Germany” (p.302). Roughly one-fourth of Germany’s population today is descended from expellees from neighboring countries in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

* * *

         There are few heroes in this prodigiously researched account. Although Douglas meticulously demonstrates the wholesale violations of human rights committed by the expelling countries, above all else his book is a searing critique of the policies pursued by the Western Allies, Great Britain and the United States. One of the most disturbing aspects of the expulsions, he writes, was “how little those Britons and Americans directly involved in their oversight were disturbed by them” (p.369). Many “derived a degree of vicarious satisfaction from the anguish the expellees were undergoing. They also regarded the deliberately cruel way in which the expulsions were often conducted as not only forgivable but cathartic for the expelling societies themselves” (p.369-70). At several points, Douglas suggests that the Western Allies sanctioned policies that invite comparisons to the methods of Nazi Germany. In a particularly impassioned summation, he notes that the Western Allies had:

not just ignored, but consciously and after mature consideration rejected, the unanimous advice of experts who had predicated with great accuracy the state of affair their policies would produce. They had knowingly opted to pursue a course that would cause greater rather than less suffering, so as to generate what they regarded as an “educational” effect upon the defeated German population. They had dismissed as irrelevant distinctions between the innocent and the guilty, far less any effort to distinguish between degrees of guilt. They had encouraged their allies to carry out, and promised their cooperation in accomplishing, deeds for which they would later prosecute their enemies as war crimes (p.92).

         Douglas categorically rejects the notion that addressing the massive human rights violations attributed to the post-war expulsions might in some sense discount or downplay the “unprecedented barbarities of the Hitler regime” (p.157). Most certainly, he argues, the “connection between the expulsions and the Holocaust, as well as to the Hitler regime’s numerous other atrocities, is both inescapable and appropriate.” But a frame of reference that measures acts of violence and injustice in the expulsions against the “supreme atrocity of our time and assesses the former as being unworthy of notice in comparison with the latter makes such violations more rather than less likely to be repeated” (p.347). The focus of any historical or commemorative treatment of the expulsions, as with the other tragedies of the era, “must remain squarely on the human person,” which during both the war and the post-ear expulsions was “reduced to an abstract category rather than recognized as an all too vulnerable individual” (p.361-62).

* * *

         With the exception of the war years themselves, Europe west of the Soviet Union “had never seen, nor would it again see, so vast a complex of arbitrary detention – one in which tens of thousands, including many children, would lose their lives” (p.156-57). For Douglas, the “most delusional aspect of this entire tragic episode” was the supposition that the expulsions could be “directed against a single group of perceived enemies and then never again resorted to for any of other purpose, that afterwards it would be possible to return to a peaceful, ordered existence in which individual rights would once more be upheld and respected” (p.228). That the post-war expulsions largely escaped the attention of contemporaries elsewhere in Europe and the notice of history today is, Douglas writes, a “chilling commentary on the ease with which great evils in plain sight may go overlooked when they present a spectacle that international public opinion prefers not to see” (p.157). Douglas’ comprehensive and provocative account of this unhappy yet understudied aspect of post-war history provides hope that some lessons can still be derived from it.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
August 1, 2015


Filed under British History, Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, United States History

Profoundly Transformative Year


Michael Dobbs, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill and Truman: 

From World War to Cold War 


Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945 

            1945 opened with history’s most horrific war, in which German and Japanese regimes had sought to conquer much of the world by force, still raging. The year closed with a sinister Cold War that divided the world for several decades already well underway. Michael Dobbs’ Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill and Truman From World War to Cold War and Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945 should be of interest to readers seeking to deepen their understanding of this pivotal year, which I hope would include most of my high school and college classmates — almost all of us were born in 1945, literally our year zero. The two books not only have similar titles, but also a similar look. The paperback editions are the same size and nearly the same length.

          Moreover, Dobbs and Buruma are both top-notch writers of almost the same age, each with a British background and a highly successful career in the United States. Buruma was born in 1951 in The Hague, the Netherlands, to a British mother and Dutch father. Dobbs (not to be confused with the British politician of the same name, who is also author of the political thriller House of Cards) was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1950. He served as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for several years, working in Eastern Europe and Moscow. Buruma is a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College, where he specializes in Asian Studies, especially Chinese and Japanese history and culture.

           Readers need not worry about repetition in the two books. Although Dobbs and Buruma are both concerned primarily with the aftermath of the war, rather than the final rounds of fighting, they approach their subject matter from entirely different perspectives. As his sub-title indicates, Dobbs concentrates on the American, British and Soviet leaders and their decision-making in the six months he covers, February to August 1945. His work is a classic piece of “top down” historical writing, focused on “great men” — unfortunately, somewhat derisive terms in some contemporary academic circles. Buruma by contrast approaches his subject “from the bottom up.” He writes about life on the ground during the seminal year and how the policies which Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Truman and others fashioned affected average people. Readers willing to take on both books should emerge with a heightened understanding of a profoundly transformative year.

* * *

          The Yalta Conference of February 1945 in the Soviet Crimea, and the Potsdam Conference that took place just outside Berlin from July 17 to August 2 of that year serve as the bookends to Dobbs’ study of the period from February to August 1945. The book is organized in a strict chronological manner. All but the last of Dobbs’ 21 chapters bear both a name and a date. The first three, for example, covering the opening sessions at Yalta, are entitled “Roosevelt February 3”; “Stalin February 4”; and “Churchill February 5.” Not every February day gets an individual chapter, but three additional chapters, roughly one-third of the book, are also devoted to the Yalta conference and its immediate aftermath. Throughout, Dobbs provides intimate, detailed and frequently amusing portraits of the four leaders, describing their work habits, world views, personal peccadilloes and much else, along with rich peeks at their interactions at the two conferences.

            In February 1945, when Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin convened at Yalta, an Allied victory in Europe appeared inevitable but had not been achieved. Roosevelt in Dobbs’ account was a particularly sad, even inept leader at the conference. He was, of course, a dying man in the last months of his life when he traveled to the Crimea to meet Churchill and Stalin. But even granting him the requisite amount of slack on that account, Roosevelt was abysmally ineffective at Yalta. He ignored briefing papers his subordinates had prepared, and had at best a loose grip on the key facts he needed to match up with Stalin.

           Going into Yalta, Dobbs writes, Roosevelt had decided that the best way of winning over Stalin was “through a mixture of flattery and snide remarks about other allies” (p.31). Roosevelt “preferred to improvise, to try whatever seemed to work” (p.19-20). Substantively, Roosevelt most wanted Stalin’s assent to join the war in Asia, and for the new world organization, the United Nations. But the FDR charm offenses which worked countless times for a healthier Roosevelt in trying to persuade a recalcitrant Senator to support an administration bill were “fatally flawed” when applied to Stalin (p.40). Returning from Yalta, Churchill grumbled that the “Americans had been very weak. The President looked old and ill, had lost his powers of concentration and had been a hopelessly weak chairman” (p.99).

             Churchill was only marginally more effective than Roosevelt at Yalta. He knew his facts in a way that Roosevelt did not, but was given to long-winded speeches that the other leaders largely ignored. His points, as recounted by Dobbs, were often mawkish and sentimental, as if he understood that time was running out on the British Empire. Moreover, Clement Atlee, although not worthy of mention in Dobbs’ sub-title, replaced Churchill at the mid-point of the Potsdam Conference after Atlee’s Labor Party defeated Churchill’s Conservatives in July 1945 Parliamentary elections.

          The star of the show at both Yalta and Potsdam in Dobbs’ account was Joseph Stalin, the Man of Steel, or the vozhad, as Dobbs refers to him throughout most of this book, utilizing the Russian term for supreme leader. Stalin was wily, soft spoken, polite, jocular when the need arose, and thoroughly in control of the necessary facts, with a “talent for exposing any contradictions in the hypocrisy of the Western position” (p.171). He seemed to have a plausible, sometimes powerful, rejoinder to every point made by the American and British leaders. When the Americans argued that the post-War order should not be predicated upon spheres of influence, they “made exceptions for the Western Hemisphere when they talked about the Monroe Doctrine. The British excluded their colonies. Whenever Churchill or Roosevelt tried to carve out a sphere of influence for themselves, they strengthened Stalin’s case for a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe” (p.82). Stalin impressed a Churchill advisor as “much the most impressive” (p.65) negotiator of the Big Three at Yalta. Only the neophyte Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, proved to be much of a match for the vozhad at the Potsdam conference.

             How Poland would be governed was a principal item on the Yalta agenda, and remained the most contentious of the many issues that divided the Western Allies from their Soviet counterparts during the following months. In addition to being thoroughly in control of the facts, Stalin had an even more critical advantage in his discussions with Roosevelt and Stalin on the fate of Poland: his Red Army was already thoroughly in control of the territory. In this sense, the middling performance of the Western leaders was irrelevant. Two Polish governments claimed to represent Poland: a government-in-exile, based in London and supported by the United States and Great Britain; and a government established in the eastern Polish city of Lublin, supported by the Red Army and the Soviet Union, with effective control of the country.

            The agreement worked out at Yalta had the effect of recognizing the Lublin government as the core of the new Polish state, calling for this government to be “reorganized on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad” (p.84), a concession to the London Poles. A “Polish Provisional Government of National Unity” would be recognized, “pledged to the holding of free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballots,” with all “democratic and anti-Nazi parties” having the right to take part in the elections (p.84-85). When Roosevelt asked Stalin how long it would take to hold elections in Poland, the vozhad replied, “About one month. Unless there is some kind of catastrophe on the front and the Germans defeat us . . . I do not think that will happen” (p.71). The parties agreed that Stalin’s Foreign Secretary Vyacheslav Molotov would meet subsequently with his Western counterparts to nail down the details.

            When an advisor pointed out to Roosevelt that Yalta’s arrangements on Poland favored the Soviets, Roosevelt responded that it was the “best I can do for Poland at this time” (p.85; “The Best I Can Do” is Dobbs’ title to the entire section on Yalta). Roosevelt left Yalta satisfied that he had obtained Russian support for the war in the Pacific against Japan, in exchange for the island of Sakhalin and control over Manchurian ports in the Russian Far East, and for Russian participation in the United Nations. Critically, a “façade of unity” had been preserved on Yalta’s most divisive issues, with the differences between the allies reduced to questions of drafting and “etymology – finding the right words” (p.86), which Roosevelt considered the job of diplomats, not presidents. But, as Dobbs points out, a “heavy price” would be paid for “papering over the most difficult problems at Yalta. . . The misunderstandings would grow and fester, with each side accusing the other of bad faith and breaking solemn agreements. The words that temporarily united the World War II victors would return to divide them” (p.87).

            One of Dobbs’ main contributions is to demonstrate how ideological differences over the meaning of key words not only divided the Soviets from their Western allies but also precluded any meaningful diplomatic solution to the issues left open by Yalta. Words like “democracy,” “independence,” “fascism,” and “freedom” had entirely different meanings for the two sides. Molotov insisted that the enlarged membership of the new Polish government be restricted to the “’real democratic leaders’ of Poland, a euphemism for the Communists and their allies” (p.133). To the Soviets, all anti-Communists were presumptively “Fascist.” With the Soviet Union reserving the right to define who was “Fascist” and who was “democratic,” Stalin was able to do “pretty much as he pleased” in his interactions with the American and British leaders (p.230). But, as Dobbs points out more than once, the Americans were “at least as ideological” as their Soviet counterparts. They “behaved as if their amalgam of free peoples, free markets and free speech should be adopted by every country in the world” (p.359). What the Americans saw as “benign internationalism” the Soviets regarded as an “insidious form of imperialism” (p.87).

           Initial reaction to Yalta in Britain and America, was upbeat – or, as one British diplomat noted, “almost hysterically enthusiastic” (p.94). But both Roosevelt and Churchill had to persuade their legislatures and fellow citizens that their trust in Stalin had not been misplaced. Churchill went out of his way to refute any comparison between Yalta 1945 and Munich 1938. But the parallels were unsettling. When Roosevelt headed to Warm Springs, Georgia for a long-awaited break in early April, he was beginning to see the vozhad as an adversary. Stalin had taken the position that the Western Allies would not be allowed into Poland until they recognized the Lublin government and, to make matters worse, had sent Roosevelt an “insulting telegram” accusing the Western Allies of “striking a secret deal with the Germans” (p.153). “We can’t do business with Stalin,” Dobbs quotes Roosevelt telling a friend, as he thumped his fists against his wheelchair. “He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” (p.153).

            Roosevelt died during that visit to Georgia. Harry S. Truman replaced Roosevelt as president after serving 82 days as Roosevelt’s vice-president, during which he had had almost no contact with the President and no engagement on issues related to the war. The United Nations held its initial meeting in San Francisco at the end of April (which Buruma covers in greater detail than Dobbs). At the conference, Molotov startled his Western counterparts by announcing that sixteen Polish underground anti-Nazi activists who had disappeared in March while on their way to meet with the Red Army had been arrested for anti-Soviet activity. Up to this point, Molotov had said repeatedly that he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the sixteen activists. Dobbs notes that the rift between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, “papered over at Yalta” (p.178), became clear to the public after the San Francisco conference.

            But at almost the same time, the Red Army and Western forces met at the Elbe in Germany, giving rise to further euphoria. Hitler took his life a few days later, the Red Army entered Berlin, the Allies liberated Nazi death camps and, on May 8th, “VE Day,” the Nazis capitulated. During the ten weeks between VE day and the start of the Potsdam conference on July 17th, Russia tightened its grip over territories it controlled in Eastern Europe, especially Romania. In July, the British and American governments severed their ties with the government-in-exile in London and recognized the Lublin government, now based in Warsaw. Churchill became particularly despondent about the rift in Europe and at one point had his military advisors draw up a plan for a preemptive military strike against the Russians, appropriately named “Operation UNTHINKABLE.” Meanwhile, the war continued in Asia, the Americans’ work on the atomic bomb neared fruition, and the points of disaccord between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union seemed to be growing daily.

             The Potsdam conference took place from July 17 to August 2, 1945, at Cecilienhof, located not far from the rubble of Berlin. Mid-way through the conference, Churchill suffered a crushing defeat in Parliamentary elections, sending Clement Atlee to represent Great Britain, and thereby reducing the “Big 3” to the “Big 2 ½,” as one British wit put it (p.342). We get little sense of Atlee’s performance at Potsdam. Truman, however, although a novice on the world stage, was conspicuously less deferential to Stalin than his predecessor had been. Truman wrote that Stalin “seems to like it when I hit him on the head with a hammer” (p.328). One historian noted that Truman at Potsdam “sounded more like a teacher reminding a forgetful pupil [Stalin] of his chores” (p.343).

            The final arrangement at Potsdam was, Dobbs writes, “as clear as it was cynical. All three parties would hold on to what they already had, making only token concessions to grand but nebulous concepts such as ‘Allied cooperation,’ a ‘united German,’ and the ‘spirit of Yalta’” (p.340). Potsdam resulted in Germany’s eastern border being shifted westward, as Stalin had insisted since a conference in Teheran in 1943, reducing Germany in size by approximately 25% compared to its 1937 borders. The western Allies dropped their insistence on elections in Poland. Stalin quite plainly “would not permit Poland to slip from his grasp” (p. 331) but, in a concession to the Western Allies, allowed the inclusion of a few London Poles into the Communist-dominated government. In what the Russians considered a retraction of Roosevelt’s commitment to Stalin at Yalta, Truman firmly opposed general German reparations to the Soviet Union. Any German reparations to the Soviets would come only from Soviet controlled zones. Although the conference preserved the fiction of a unified German state, the Allies reaffirmed their commitment to divide Germany into four administrative zones, and similarly divide Berlin, its capital, into four zones, leading “inexorably to the division of the country into two rival entities – guided by competing ideologies, geopolitical ties, and economic and political systems” (p.344).

           Neither Dobbs nor Buruma dwells upon the devastation which the atomic bomb wreaked on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, although both note that Truman justified the attack by considering both cities military rather than civilian targets, far from the case. Stalin delivered on his promise to support the war in Asia, sending 1.5 million soldiers across the Chinese border into Manchuria on August 9, the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki. Dobbs closes his narrative by noting that the “race to deliver a final knockout punch to Japan – pitting Russian land power against American airpower – had concluded with a virtual dead heat” (p.354).

* * *

              Buruma opens his narrative with an affecting story of his Dutch father’s experience in the war. A law student during the German occupation of the Netherlands, his father refused to sign a loyalty oath to the Third Reich. He ended up spending several months working in a factory in Berlin. He was able, sometimes only barely, to avoid Allied bombing of the city and its conquest by the Red Army in April 1945, and return safely home to the Netherlands where he sought to reestablish something akin to normality in his life. His father’s quest for normality after his harrowing but relatively mild war experience prompted Buruma to inquire about the effects of the devastating war. “How did the world emerge from the wreckage? What happens when millions are starving, or bent upon bloody revenge? How are societies . . . put together again?” (p.7). These questions frame Buruma’s look at the year 1945.

             Year Zero does not purport to be chronological. After the anecdote involving his father, Buruma begins with VE Day in Europe in May 1945, and ends with the San Francisco United Nations conference which had taken place the previous month. The book is divided into three general sections, “Liberation Complex,” “Clearing the Rubble,” and “Never Again,” each with three chapters. Buruma treats a wide range of critical subject-matters across the three sections, such as vengeance, collaboration, justice, displacement, and the administration of Germany and Japan. Buruma’s narrative brings in the often overlooked perspective of the Netherlands, a natural perspective for him, without neglecting Great Britain, France, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union in Europe, and Japan, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam in Asia. Buruma’s approach is thus topical and anecdotal. He ranges more broadly than Dobbs, but probes less deeply.

             Noting that the desire for revenge is “as human as the need for sex or food” (p.75), Buruma devotes much attention throughout to how women became victims when the desire for revege and sex merged. Stalin had notoriously observed that his soldiers who had crossed through miles of blood and fire were “entitled to ‘have some fun with women’” (p.39). Contemporary accounts and comments in the press from 1945 give the impression that the “summer of ’45 was one long orgy indulged by foreign servicemen and local women, out of greed, or lust or loneliness” (p.28). The raping of German women continued in Russian-controlled zones through the summer of 1945, but subsided by the end of the year.

          Buruma also addresses the fate of women, particularly in France and Holland, deemed to have collaborated by befriending German soldiers during their countries’ occupation — what the French term “horizontal collaboration.” Sleeping with the enemy was not treason in the legal sense, but the French in 1944 passed a law punishing “national unworthiness,” indignité nationale in French. Those found guilty were stripped of their civil rights. Popular wrath aimed at many forms of collaboration, but “fell disproportionally, and most publicly” on women accused of horizontal collaboration (p.84-85). But after a period of wild reprisals in France, the Gaullist government sought to close the fissures in society “by acting as if most citizens had stood up bravely to the German foe” (p.137).

           Buruma uses Holland as an example of the fate of Jewish citizens who had somehow escaped the Nazis, only to return home to Holland to something less than an open-arms welcome. He quotes a shocking newspaper article in a Dutch resistance paper of July 2, 1945, lecturing Dutch Jews returning from captivity to their home country on proper post-war comportment:

There can be no doubt that the Jews, specifically because of German persecution, were able to enjoy great sympathy from the Dutch people. Now it is appropriate for the Jews to restrain themselves and avoid excesses; they should be constantly mindful of their duty to be grateful and that this gratitude should be primarily expressed by redressing that which can be redressed for those who fell victim on the Jews’ behalf. They can thank God that they came out alive. It is also possible to squander this sympathy [from the Dutch people] . . . The [Jews] are truly not the only ones who suffered (p.135)

This article, Buruma indicates, demonstrates that in Holland, as in much of Europe, “Jewish survivors were an embarrassment” (p.136). In Poland as well, the small number of Christians who had helped Jews survive were suspected of profiting financially from their assistance. Buruma also addresses the forced ethnic repatriation of Germans back to Germany, referred to at Potsdam as an “orderly and humane” repatriation, which had few indicia of being either orderly or humane. He further provides a glimpse of civil wars unfolding in Greece, and incipient liberation movements in Indonesia and Vietnam.

             “Clearing the Rubble” deals with the issue of how Germany and Japan should be governed. Buruma’s chapter on the division of Germany into separate administrative zones, “Draining the Poison,” and how each of the Allies administered its zone, covers ground similar to Frederick Taylor’s book Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, reviewed here in December 2012. In both countries, the Allies faced the delicate and difficult task of determining who were war criminals and what sort of legal process, if any, such persons should have. The dilemma, Buruma says, “was the same in all zones [of Germany]. You couldn’t really gut the German elites, however distasteful they may have been, and hope to rebuild the country at the same time, no matter whether that country was to be a communist or a capitalist one. Very quickly the Allies saw economic recovery as a more important aim than restoring a sense of justice” (p.181).

              The Nuremberg trials began in November 1945. Like Hannah Arendt on Eichmann, Buruma notes how ordinary the Nazis leaders looked, “pale, tired figures in their ragged suits” (p.231). The court had to give an appearance of providing a fair hearing with due process accorded, while working inevitably toward “victors’ justice.” Buruma’s bottom line is that justice was not done at Nurenberg. “Punishment of the guilty had to be balanced by other interests. Too much zeal would have made the rebuilding of societies impossible. Too little effort to call the worst criminals to account would undermine any sense of decency. It was a delicate calibration that would inevitably be flawed” (p.235).

            The administration of Japan is in large measure a study of the outsized personality of General Douglas MacArthur, the American viceroy in Japan. MacArthur, a deeply religious man who thought that the best long-term solution to rebuilding Japan was to have it convert to Christianity, entertained “remarkably crude” theories about the “Oriental mind” as being “childlike and brutal” (p.296). The Japanese blamed their catastrophic defeat on “militarists” and anyone associated with the armed forces, a view which MacArthur encouraged. Although “not inclined to help Japanese industry back to its feet,” MacArthur was convinced that punitive policies and forced starvation would render the Japanese an “easy prey to any ideology that brings with it life-sustaining food” (p.66).

            Buruma provides high marks to the initial intentions of the Allied occupations of Germany and Japan, describing them as “unique in their earnest endeavors not to exact revenge, but to reeducate, civilize, change hearts and minds, and turn dictatorships into peaceful democracies so that they would never we wreak destruction on the world again” (p.276). Whether Buruma includes the Soviet occupation of Germany within this observation is not clear, and some historians might take issue with his upbeat assessment.

* * *

            Buruma and Dobbs close their books with related questions. Buruma asks whether World War II really ended in 1945. Dobbs inquires when the Cold War actually started. No single event defined the start of the Cold War in the way that the fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, came to symbolize its end, Dobbs writes. Dobbs suggests several possibilities: Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri (Dobbs demonstrates that this term was widely in use well before Churchill’s speech); the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in early 1948 or the Berlin Airlift later that year; even the formation of two Germanys and NATO the following year. All these are plausible candidates. But Dobbs’ fine book shows that lines for a new ideological clash, although “papered over” at Yalta, were in place even prior to the end of the hostilities against the Axis powers.

             Buruma suggests that 1989 might be considered the year that World War II hostilities came to a close, when the Eastern European Soviet bloc was “released from communist rule” (p.335). This suggestion is a device which allows Buruma to close with another anecdote involving his father in Berlin. Buruma, his sisters and his father spent a joyous New Year’s Eve 1989 in the newly-liberated city, where the wall had fallen a few weeks earlier. But if Buruma’s contrived answer to the question he poses is a little off key, his description of December 1945 could serve as a fitting conclusion to either book:

By the time autumn turned to winter, the high hopes of the spring of ’45 were already fading. There would be no world government, let alone a world democracy; there would not even be four or five world policeman. What powers were still left to the two European countries represented in the Security Council [France and Great Britain] would soon be further depleted by the bloody demise of their empires. The Soviets and the United States were drifting into open animosity. And China, a gravely wounded country after Japanese occupation, was itself divided into two blocs, with corrupt and demoralized Nationalists holding out in major cities south of Manchuria, and the Communists dominating the countryside and much of the north. (p.329-30).

Taking different paths through 1945, both writers show that, as the year wound down, the yearning for a return to normalcy after history’s most devastating war needed to be tempered by disturbing signs that seemed to be pointing toward still another world conflict.

Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

April 11, 2015


Filed under European History

What Did She Know?

Heike Görtemaker, Eva Braun: Life with Hitler
Angela Lambert, The Lost Life of Eva Braun


            Goretmaker.1 Lambert

          For reasons which your psychoanalyst might best explain, public interest in the murderous Nazi regime continues to increase, with more and more books on various facets of the regime being published each year. Until recently, the life and role of Eva Braun remained one of the least known facets of Nazism. Braun was Adolph Hitler’s mistress and, for about 36 hours, his wife, having married the Nazi dictator in a Berlin bunker on April 29, 1945 as the Red Army moved in and the Third Reich crumbled. The following day, Braun, like Hitler, took her life. Within the last decade, two books seeking to fill the void on Braun have appeared: Heike Görtemaker, “Eva Braun: Life with Hitler,” translated from German by Damion Searls; and Angela Lambert, “The Lost Life of Eva Braun.”

          The central question for both authors is the degree to which Braun was complicit in Nazi crimes. The historical record is clear that she was a true believer in Adolph Hitler, the man. But was she still another true believer in the heinous causes he championed? Was she aware that the man in her life planned, then aggressively provoked, a war that plunged most of Europe into conflict? Or that the same man was pursuing a comprehensive program to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population? One view is that Braun was entirely apolitical, deliberately kept in the dark about the policies her significant other was pursuing. She obviously knew Hitler was a powerful man, but had little or no idea why; and little or no curiosity to learn about Nazi policies. Roughly stated, this is the position that Lambert adopts. Braun had “as little clue of what [Hitler] did when closeted for hours with the Nazi bigwigs or military men as does a small child who waves bye-bye to its father every morning when he leaves for work,” Lambert writes (Lambert, p.264).

          Görtemaker vigorously rejects this view. She presents a passionately-argued case that Braun was “in no way a victim” (Görtemaker, p.216), but rather understood and fully supported the Nazi vision and German war objectives. The problem for both authors is that there are no contemporary statements of Braun’s political views or how she regarded the Nazi project. Much of the historical record on this aspect of Braun comes from post-war statements of Albert Speer and other former members of Hitler’s entourage who had self-serving motives to dissemble concerning the nature of the Nazi regime and their roles in it. Both authors’ conclusions on the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi atrocities must therefore rest on inference and assumption.

          The two books also offer contrasting approaches to their depiction of Braun’s life. Whereas Görtemaker focuses tightly on Braun, discussing Hitler and the Nazi environment primarily to cast light on her subject, Lambert ranges far more widely. She addresses the rise of Hitler, the conditions in Germany which brought him to power, and how the Nazi regime functioned. There is considerably more detail in Lambert’s book about everyday life in Nazi Germany, both before and during the war; and far more about the day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. In conspicuous contrast to Görtemaker, Lambert also delves into the most intimate side of Braun’s relationship with Hitler, and in this sense her book is definitely the juicier of the two. Further, early in her book, Lambert reveals uncanny similarities between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder, born one month after Braun.  Lambert also sprinkles her narrative with generous doses of psycho-babble about the attraction between younger women and older, powerful men, along with a tiresome amount of fawning praise for Braun’s good character.

* * *

           Both writers cover the basic biographical record of Braun’s life. Braun first met Hitler in 1929, when the future Führer was 40 and Braun was 17. Braun was working in the Munich photography store of Heinrich Hoffman, then the official photographer for the upcoming National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party. Görtemaker describes Braun as a “young woman of average abilities from a highly-conventional, lower middle-class Munich family who was noticeably lacking in any political sympathies or interest in current events at all” (G., p. 6). At 17, Lambert writes, Braun was “still very much an innocent but Hitler liked his women young, naïve and compliant, and would have regarded the twenty-three year difference as ideal” (L., p.55). Best of all, she adds, Braun was “utterly uninterested in politics” (L., p146).

          The romantic relationship between Braun and Hitler appears linked to the suicide in 1931 of Hitler’s half-niece, Geli Raubal, with whom Hitler shared an apartment in Munich. Hitler felt strong affection toward Raubal and her death seems to have had a devastating effect upon him. Lambert perceives a sexual relationship between Hitler and his half-niece – “it seems more likely than not” (L., p. 106) — whereas Görtemaker is more circumspect. But the authors agree that the Hitler-Braun relationship took a more serious turn after Raubal’s death, even though they spent much time apart, as Hitler pursued his political objectives.

          Braun herself attempted suicide in 1932, using her father’s pistol. “Although the precise details remain unknown,” Görtemaker writes, “witnesses and historians agree that Eva Braun felt abandoned and calculatedly acted to make the perpetually absent Hitler notice her, and to tie him more closely to her” (G., p.51). Lambert describes the attempted suicide as a wake up call for Hitler. Braun’s desperate act “evoked a rare sense of guilt” in the Führer: he realized he “had neglected her” (L., p.134, Lambert’s emphasis). The suicide attempt clearly indicated that by the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, “despite their unavoidable geographic separation, Eva Braun had become a lasting and crucial figure in Hitler’s life,” (G., p.55) Görtemaker concludes. Braun made a second attempt on her life in May 1935, in Munich, using an overdose of sleeping pills. This incident seems to have also been related to Hitler’s lack of attention to her.

          Through much of the Braun-Hitler relationship, Braun lived with her sister Ilse when she was not with Hitler. In 1935, Hitler provided Braun and her sister with an apartment in Munich, then a house in a posh residential section of the city. During the war, Braun shuttled between Munich, where she work in an art publishing house which Hoffman owned, and the Berghof.

          The authors agree that Hitler erected a ”wall of silence” around his relationship with Braun. Hitler wished to present himself as a celibate who transcended the sexual urges that drive ordinary men and women. Having a girl friend would have been as incongruous for the public image of the Führer as the Pope with a worldly significant other (and I’m sure that has never happened). Although Hitler encouraged marriage and high fertility rates for (non-Jewish) German women, marriage and children with Braun were out of the question. Lambert surmises that Hitler’s personal aversion to childbearing was his fear that given his family background — his “flawed and incestuous genes,” as Lambert states (L., p.85)—he and Braun might produce a child with the “stigma of mental and physical deformity,” unthinkable at a time when Hitler advocated the “use of genetic murder to create a race of perfect human beings” (L., p.125).

          To preserve the wall of silence, Hitler discouraged Braun from mixing with the other Nazi wives, most of whom were jealous of Braun and thought of her as a “silly goose” (L., p.155). He also forbade Braun from reading newspapers. When important or official guests arrived, Braun “had to leave or spend the day closeted in her room” (L., p.197). The Berghof was a “golden cage” for Braun, Lambert writes:

Hitler indulged her every whim, on condition she observed strict anonymity. She could have whatever she wanted, as long as she agreed to keep her existence secret and wore a cloak of invisibility over her fabulous clothes and perfect body. She was anonymous, a non-person (L., p.259).

          Hitler and Braun never made a joint public appearances. “[O]nly once in the twelve years after 1933 were Hitler and Eva Braun seen together in a published news photo, which in fact shows Eva Braun sitting in the second row, behind Hitler, at the Winter Olympics in February 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Nothing in the picture indicates any personal relationship between her and the dictator” (G., p.51). When Braun traveled with other members of Hitler’s inner circle and their wives, she was never “part of Hitler’s official retinue” and her name “never appeared on any list in the record, unlike the names of the wives of other high-ranking Nazi officials” (G., p.176).

          In 1934, the famous German boxer Max Schmeling noticed Braun present at a small reception Hitler held for him. Schmeling asked Hoffman, also present at the reception, about the young woman who “spoke entirely naturally and obviously very familiarly with Hitler” (G., p.90). Hoffman was at first evasive, but then told Schmeling her name and said that she was an employee of his, nothing more. Görtemaker also recounts an incident a few years later in which a young man, dazzled to be visiting the Berghof, heard Braun scolding Hitler mildly about being late for a meal. Shocked that anyone would dare to speak to the Führer in such a manner, the young man asked about Braun. He was told that he should not ask such questions, the best thing to do would be to forget that he ever saw Braun. Even the Führer has a “right to a private life,” he was told (G., p.125).

* * *

          Unlike Görtemaker, Lambert probes the intimate side of the Braun-Hitler relationship, and diverges into the sexual mores of the Nazi elite. Lambert pinpoints the moment when Braun lost her virginity and when Braun “officially” became the Fuhrer’s mistress. She speculates that Braun “must have been fun in bed, innocent and willing.” She describes Hitler’s genitalia and the erotic habits and preferences of other high-level Nazi party members. Lambert also recounts unsuccessful attempts of Hitler’s entourage to arrange a liaison between the party leader and the stunningly beautiful Magda Quant, then the girlfriend and later the wife of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels. Lambert explains how Hitler’s libido dwindled considerably in 1942, to the point where the Führer authorized Braun to seek a more virile man. And she also discusses how Braun’s menstrual cycles influenced her relationship with Hitler (page references available upon request; price negotiable).

          Lambert’s book has another idiosyncratic feature. Early in the book, she reveals numerous parallels between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder. Lambert’s mother was a northerner and a Protestant from Hamburg, whereas Braun was a good Bavarian Catholic girl from Munich. But the two women, born one month apart, came from lower middle class homes with three daughters and no sons. Each was the middle daughter, and in each family the oldest daughter’s name was Ilse. Throughout the book, Lambert shifts the focus away from Braun to Schröder, showing what her mother was doing at the same time (for those wondering, Edith fell for a better man, Lambert’s English father, than did Braun; nonetheless, Lambert is severely critical of her father in her partially autobiographical book).

          In another departure from Görtemaker, Lambert is almost fulsome in her praise for Braun, describing throughout her good character and refuting the notion that she was a “silly goose.” Braun was a “most beguiling woman” (L., p.243), “rock solid” (L., p.402), and “generous” (L.,p.155). She “had beautiful manners, looked nice, did her best to be friendly and was socially adroit” (L.,p.192). In normal times, she would have been simply a “kind, generous, considerate woman” (L., p.283). In the final, chaotic days prior to her suicide, she stood out for her “courage, buoyancy and thoughtfulness” (L.,p.410) and revealed her “character, stamina and fortitude” (L.,p.411). To the end, Lambert contends, Braun continued to “behave with grace and consideration towards everyone. . .She wasn’t heroic but she was steady” (L.,p.444).

* * *

          In addressing the two books’ central question of the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi crimes, Görtemaker contends that Braun shared Hitler’s world vision and should not be absolved of complicity in his crimes. But her case is based on inference rather than concrete evidence. For instance, Görtemaker asserts that we must “assume that Hitler’s adjutants, secretaries, servants, and, not least, Eva Braun, shared without reservation the Jew-hatred of their ‘boss,’ as they called him” (G., p.180, my italics). At another point, she contends that Braun “presumably knew Hitler’s stereotypical racial views and in fact may have, like many Germans, shared them” (G. p.200, my italics).

          At another point, Görtemaker emphasizes that Braun’s life was “like most of the wives of high-ranking Nazi politicians. She led a privileged existence, with trips, expensive clothes, and occasional professional activities” in the service of the Nazi party (G., p.244). “For that reason alone,” Görtemaker contends, Braun “cannot be seen as someone with no involvement in the regime, an entirely apolitical young woman, as Albert Speer among others later claimed” (G., p.244). This seems like an entirely plausible inference, but falls short of an evidence-based conclusion. And even if Braun did identify with the general Nazi world view, Görtemaker concedes that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered” (p.245).

          Lambert frames the question as whether Braun was “guilty of complicity for remaining passive in the face of supreme evil, and especially guilty because of her relationship with Hitler” (L., p.324-25, Lambert’s emphasis). Answering this question requires the historian to determine not only what Braun knew but also, “had she made an effort,” what she “could have known” (L., p.325, Lambert’s emphasis). Did Braun, Lambert asks, “ever grasp that her lover initiated and master-minded twelve years of murderous violence, beginning with the euthanasia program in the 1930s; that he wanted the Jews of Europe wiped out and will every death and casualty in a war that killed tens of millions?” (p.326). Lambert acknowledges that there is “frustratingly little first-hand evidence and the truth can only be surmised” (p.325). That Braun shared Hitler’s bed “does not imply that she was well-informed about the hell and damnation enacted in the name of Führer and the Third Reich,” Lambert argues (L., p.283). “Women who love evil men need not be evil themselves” (L., p.352).

          Given the scant historical record of Braun’s actual knowledge, Lambert’s undertakes a protracted discussion of the more general question of collective war guilt, the degree to which average German citizens – especially German women, who were expected to be passive and apolitical – should be deemed responsible for the crimes committed in their nation’s name (collective German war guilt was addressed in two books reviewed here in December 2012). In the end, she concludes, any “verdict on Eva is, in microcosm, a verdict on the German people” (p.357).

          Even in the absence of concrete evidence, this does not strike me as a satisfying conclusion. Eva Braun was not just another German woman. She was not Edith Schröeder. Surely Braun must face history’s judgment in a different posture from that of fellow German citizens whose relationship to the Führer was, shall we say, less intimate. To portray Adolph Hitler’s mistress as a victim is an uphill challenge for any biographer and Lambert may be given credit for a valiant effort. But her case fell far short for me. It seems inconceivable that a woman could be in the thralls of Hitler without knowing and endorsing much if not all of what he stood for.

          Görtemaker’s imputation of knowledge to Braun, however, is not fully convincing either. Absent the discovery of an unanticipated treasure trove of new material by or about Braun, the question of her knowledge of Nazi crimes seems unlikely to be resolved. If study of the Nazi environment and mindset reveals the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote, Eva Braun’s life as seen in these two books was more about banality than evil.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
March 10, 2013


Filed under Biography, German History

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France


This book was my parents’ 2011 selection from my annual Christmas “wish list.” It is really two short books in one, approximately equal in length. The first half depicts France under German occupation and the rise of the French Resistance movement. The second takes place outside occupied France, in hellish Nazi prison camps, first Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex, then Ravensbrück. Both halves revolve around 230 women who were part of the Resistance before being deported East in January 1943 on a “Train in Winter,” le Convoi des 31000. Forty-nine of the 230 survived a twenty-seven month ordeal, liberated in the spring of 1945. “Those who came back to France in 1945 owed their lives principally to chance,” Moorehead writes, “but they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they clung to one another, though separated by every division of class, age, religion, occupation, politics and education” (p. 7).

Moorehead’s story of the growing solidarity between the women prisoners begins with the early phase of German occupation in 1940. To the great relief of the French, this phase was relatively civil, not marked by the savagery that had accompanied the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Indeed, the Nazis were initially “astonished by the French passivity” (p.13). The French government ended up in Vichy, a spa near Clermont-Ferrand in the heart of the Auvergne. Led by World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Pétain, the Vichy regime embarked upon a path of collaboration with the German occupiers. Pétain and his followers – “Catholic, conservative, authoritarian and often anti-Semitic,” as Moorehead describes them (p.15) — believed that collaboration would lead to a France:

purged and purified, returned to a mythical golden age before the French revolution introduced perilous ideas about equality. The new French were to respect their superiors and the values of discipline, hard work and sacrifice and they were to shun the decadent individualism that had, together with Jews, Freemasons, trade unionists, immigrants, gypsies and communists, contributed to the military defeat of the country (p.15).

Not all French adhered to Pétain’s vision of what he called la France éternelle. The resistance to the Vichy government and Nazi occupation included every class and ideology within French society. But members of the French Communist Party (PCF in French) were in the forefront of the movement, a useful reminder that, whatever else its failings, the PCF was way ahead of much of the rest of France in seeing the existential threat that Nazism posed to French civilization. 119 of Moorehead’s 230 women were PCF members or supporters and as such “already knew a good deal about survival and the clandestine life” (p.25).

In 1940, when the occupation began, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies, confusing the French Communists who nonetheless rallied to the cause of the Resistance. But when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the confusion ended and everything changed. In the summer of 1941, the chasse aux Juifs, the hunt for Jews, began in earnest, “so zealously pursued by the French collaborators that it was said that even the Nazis were impressed” (p.75-76). The final portions of the first part of Moorehead’s book reveal strong and heroic acts of resistance, along with betrayal of many of the resistants by their fellow countrymen. As the first half ends, the 230 women were placed in Romainville, a camp in France, before being sent East to Birkenau on the train in winter, le Convoi des 31000.

Throughout the second half of the book, Moorehead expounds upon how the solidarity among the French women imprisoned in the camps deepened and became a key to their survival. The French women “took pride in their closeness” and were “as kind, helpful and polite towards one another as they would have been back home” (p.212). They were helped by their “particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical,” making them “less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair. Adaptability was crucial, resignation fatal” (p.220). The women became so cohesive, “so attuned to each other’s frailties, so watchful and protective, that planning how to keep the group alive had become a way of life” (p.215).

Nonetheless, two and a half months after reaching Birkenau, the initial group of 230 French women was down to eighty. “A hundred and fifty of them had died, from typhus, pneumonia, dysentery, from dog bites and beatings, and gangrenous frostbite, from not being able to eat or sleep, or from being gassed” (p.218). The ones still alive were the stronger women, “those neither too old nor too young, those sustained by belief in a new world order; or, quite simply, because they had been very lucky” (p.218).

Fifty-two of the 230 women survived the ordeal in Birkenau before being transported in early 1944 on another train in winter to Ravensbrück, north of Berlin. At Birkenau, the “primary goal had been to exterminate the inmates, with the majority being gassed as soon as they arrived, and the others worked to death” (p.254). Ravensbrück, although hellish, was set up as a commercial enterprise to fuel the German war machine, with death being “simply a by-product and not an end” (p.254).

There were 5,000 French women at Ravensbrück. Those who came from recognized groups, Moorehead writes, communists, Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie, were “team players, and the easiest to get on with” (p.255). As a national group, the French were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own” (p.255). The friendship between them “stronger than anything they had known in their previous lives, had become their credo; it defined them” (p.254).

In addition to luck and solidarity, there were unanticipated keys to survival:

Discussion groups were started, on everything from raising rabbits to esoteric questions of philosophy. Despite the lack of books and paper, there was a huge hunger for knowledge, particularly the learning of languages, though very few women chose to learn German (p.250).

Forty-nine of the fifty-two who went from Birkenau to Ravenbrück lived to see the end of the war, thirty four of them communists (with four of the forty-nine still alive as Moorehead’s book went to press). Fourteen were widows, their husbands shot by the Nazis or dead in the concentration camps. The forty-nine went home “emaciated, haunted, grieving for the dead companions, but alive” (p.278). In their two years and three months in the camps, the survivors had:

witnessed both the worst and the best that life had to offer, cruelty, sadism, brutality, betrayal, thievery, but also generosity and selflessness. Their reserves of strength and character had been pushed to the very far limits of endurance and every notion of humanity had been challenged (p.288-89).

The return to France “proved as hard and as unhappy as anything they had known. Return, they said, was a time of ‘shadowy places, silences and things not said’” (p.289). The survivors had to face questions about how to remake their lives, and how to convey to their families what they had been through. The camps were “so extreme, so incomprehensible, so unfamiliar an experience, that the women doubted that they possessed the words to describe them, even if people wanted to hear; which, as it turned out, not many did” (p.293). When the women did talk about why they survived, they asked themselves repeatedly:

what it was in their particular story or character that enabled them to live, whether it was their optimistic nature, or because they had been able to use their skills as women, caring for others. In the end, they always came back to the same two reasons: they had lived because each of them had been incredibly lucky, and because of the friendship between them, which had protected them and made it easier to withstand the barbarity” (p.313-14).

The second half of Moorehead’s book is difficult to read, but a poignant reminder of the brutality and depravity which characterized the camps. With its emphasis upon the role of women in the Resistance and the camps, the book is a useful supplement to much of the literature on the subjects, heavily concentrated on men. Throughout the second half, I asked myself whether Moorehead might be overstating the extent to which friendship and solidarity were the women’s keys to survival; whether, in the end, it all came down to raw luck. But I was moved by her depictions of the “worst and best that life had to offer,” and understood how the valiant women who survived felt wiser, “in some indefinable way,” because they comprehended, as Moorhead writes, the “depths to which human beings can sink and equally the heights to which it is possible to rise” (p.314).

Thomas H. Peebles
Washington, D.C.
March 26, 2012


April 8, 2012 · 2:29 pm