A review of:
Giles MacDonogh. 2007. After the Reich. The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation. Basic Books.
“By May 7, 1945 at least 1,800,000 German civilians had perished and 3,600,000 homes had been destroyed (20% of total), leaving 7.5 million homeless. As many as 16.5 million Germans were to be driven from their homes. Of these some 2,250,000 would die during the expulsions from the south and east.”
In most history books, the word “pillage” is supposed to convey to the reader all sorts of terrible things. I didn’t even imagine that rape was one of them until long after college. If you’ve ever wondered what the word pillage actually means, at any time or place of war and its aftermath, read this book – it has all the details.
Having seen horrifying WWII Holocaust footage since I was nine years old, and having read Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans & the Holocaust”, I thought I’d have no problem reading about German’s getting their comeuppance at the hands of the allies after the war ended.
But reading the stories of survivors about brutal rapes, starvation, beating, suicides, and enslavement upset me so much there were some pages I could only skim.
Soldiers, especially the Russians, brutally raped women from 7 to 80 years old, as revenge. Polish and Russian brigands formed robber gangs and attacked isolated farm houses at night. Russians also took more booty of all kinds back with them as “repayment” than any other occupying force. As MacDonogh puts it “virtually every sewing machine, gramophone, and wireless” was taken East (as well as millions of tons of industrial machinery). Certainly, the Nazis took a lot of art as booty, but “they were amateurs compared to the Red Army” according to MacDonogh. Unfortunately, much of what the Russians took was destroyed in fighting, burning down the remaining architectural treasures, or through sheer negligence.
Though whatever the Russians took paled in comparison to Napoleon Bonaparte, the greatest art thief of all time.
But not just the Russians — all of the occupying forces – British, American, French, etc., if not outright taking valuables, traded food, cigarettes, and other black market items for German treasures.
After any war, the black market thrives, as people desperate to survive barter for goods. There was very little food after the war available to Germans. In urban areas, the black market thrived near rail road stations, which were also places where prostitution thrived and the homeless lived. Cigarettes became the main currency, but other popular items to trade were soap, gum, butter, flour, coffee, chocolate, alcohol, wood, and oranges. But you had to beware – some tins contained nothing but filth or the goods might be rotten. Many fabulously rich West Germans got their start in WWII black markets.
Another way to survive was to steal food or coal. Many Germans died of cold – over 60,000 in the cold 1946-47 winter alone, especially those over 60 who were most susceptible to hypothermia, though quite a few in their fifties and forties also succumbed to the cold as well.
Special trains took town and city folk to country areas to trade with farmers, who preferred that over taking the risk of going to the city and having all of their produce stolen. If no farmers were around, city folk harvest their crops and paid nothing for them. The Farmers didn’t trust money – you had to exchange useful goods. Farmers also converted their crops to alcohol, apple schnapps was a popular and profitable beverage for them.
To prevent rape, women made themselves as unattractive as possible. Another strategy some young women took was to sleep with as high a Russian officer as possible for protection. Women in general sought out military men of all the occupying forces for many reasons, for food, and also companionship as so many German men had died in the war.
Many women committed suicide rather than be raped, or killed themselves afterwards – there are many tales not only of women but whole families killing themselves. The mistreated foreign workers, who’d been forced to work in Germany while the men fought, often informed Russian soldiers where to find women to rape and alcohol and food to plunder. Liquor was greatly sought after, few people were able to hide the wine in their cellars from rampaging soldiers, and this made raping even more brutal and frequent.
Germany was so destroyed by bombs that towns often had few homes remaining, and the occupying forces took over these, especially the best homes. Even those homes that survived were often destroyed, and people lived in ruins or even holes in the ground, especially orphaned children.
After the occupation, Germans were often forced into work duty, such as digging graves for ten or more hours with little food or water, so some people took to wearing fake slings.
The saga of how the great powers intended to divide Germany up is worth reading and covered in the first part of the book. Some wanted to destroy the industrial base entirely, forcing Germany to be an Agrarian nation. Others wanted to divide Germany into 4 or 5 different states. Truman saw the worst plans for Germany as “an act of revenge” and rejected them. Each nation wanted something — France wanted German coal (among other things), and the bargaining began long before the war ended between the nations.
Much of the hardship to Germans came to those expelled from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia after the war, the details are covered in Chapters 4 and 5.
The major failing of the book for me was that MacDonogh writes almost nothing about the tens of millions of deaths caused by the Nazis. It’s well-known that ordinary Germans were fully aware and even complicit in what was going on in the death camps, yet the book only has accounts of survivors who claim to have known nothing of what was going on in the concentration camps.