[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2000, pp. 122-6.] 


Book Review

Crimes and Mercies

James Bacque

Little, Brown and Company (Canada) Limited, 1997


            "At least 9.3 million Germans died needlessly soon after [World War II], the great majority because of the conditions imposed by the four major victors," according to historian James Bacque in a sequel to his earlier book Other Losses. The figure may go as high as 13.7 million.

            Does anyone care? The myths that survive in Western public opinion and within the prevailing intellectual culture seem impenetrable. Bacque's is the latest of several learned books, including those by Alfred-Maurice de Zayas and Victor Gollancz, that have appeared in recent decades about the atrocities committed against German civilians and prisoners of war in 1945 and for five years thereafter. A reason for yet another book is that Bacque has had the benefit, as those who preceded him have not, of the KGB archives in Moscow. The opening of the Soviet archives has been a source of illimitable information for those seeking to understand the twentieth century. Another reason, of course, is that the world has largely ignored the earlier books. Serious scholars will need to repeat again and again the many facts that are required to give perspective and balance to the understanding of history. Otherwise, myth and prejudiced selectivity will remain as the permanent historiography of our age.

            The title Crimes and Mercies reflects Bacque's desire to remind us that, along with the atrocities, some wonderfully humane things were done (hence, the "mercies"). There was potential famine in many parts of the world at the end of the war, precipitating a concerted effort especially by the United States, Canada, Australia and Argentina. It is an amazing figure, but former U.S. president Herbert Hoover, who spent much of his adult life in food relief, estimated that as many as 800 million lives were saved.

            The post-war atrocities committed against the Germans took a grisly toll on three categories of people: the residents of occupied Germany, of whom 5.7 million are said to have died; the 15 million who were expelled from eastern lands and forced west toward what later became West Germany, of whom anywhere from 2.1 to 6.0 million died (it was Konrad Adenauer who put the figure at 6 million); and the prisoners of war, of whom from 1.5 to 2.0 million died.

            The residents of occupied Germany. For a considerable period after the end of the war in May 1945, the German people were subjected to starvation conditions despite an abundance of available food. Germans speak of 1947 as the Hungerjahr. Red Cross food trains were sent back to Switzerland; all foreign governments were denied permission to send food; fertilizer production was sharply reduced; such food as there was was even confiscated, especially in the French zone; and the fishing fleet was kept in port. In 1945, Mennonites were forbidden to send food to their co-religionists in Germany. The taking of eastern Prussia to make it a part of Poland deprived Germany of 25 percent of its arable land. "What finally assured the prolonged starvation of Germans was the enforced reduction of industry," Bacque says. The Morgenthau Plan to reduce Germany to an industrial wasteland was said to have been cancelled, but it wasn't. "By autumn 1945, industrial production was deliberately reduced to around 25-30 percent of pre-war levels," even though the war itself, with all its bombing, had hardly affected German industry, which at the end of the war still had 80-85 percent of its plant intact. The dismantlement of German industry was still continuing, indeed rising, in 1949, which saw the removal of all or part of 268 factories. In January 1947 the allotted daily ration per person in the French zone was 450 calories, whereas health experts say that from 2 to 3 thousand calories are needed for good health. Influential American senators such as Taft, LaFollette and Wherry protested "the deliberate and wholesale mass starvation" in the American, British and French zones of occupation. Wherry told the Senate that "the truth is that there are thousands upon thousands of tons of military rations in our surplus stock piles that have been spoiling right in the midst of starving populations."

            The starvation is confirmed by the experience of Arthur Jacobs, the 12-year-old American boy who, born to German parents, was deported to Germany from the United States at the end of the war, transported in mid-winter in an unheated box car for four days, held in a prison at Hohenasperg (where he turned thirteen), and then forced to grub for food, along with the rest of the German population, to survive. He later returned to the United States and became a career officer in the United States Air Force. Readers of the Journal will recall the review of his book The Prison Called Hohenasperg in the Fall 1999 issue.

            The starvation wasn't all. At Yalta, for example, it had been agreed that Stalin could take "reparations in kind." It is estimated that he transported 874,000 German civilians to the Soviet Union for slave labor, of whom 45 percent perished.

            The 15 million expelled from the east. The creation of the Slavic states out of the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I had created a diaspora of some five million Germans who then lived outside Austria. In late 1944 and early 1945 as the Red Army swept into eastern Europe, large numbers of these Germans (and millions of others from the eastern regions of Germany, totaling an estimated 15 million in all) fled west in a desperate effort to escape the multiple rape, killing, even crucifixion, or seizure for slave labor that awaited them. The slaughter at Nemmersdorf and many other towns spread panic among the refugees, and deserves to be as infamous as the Soviet execution of the Polish officer corps at Katyn. It was a period known as "the Great Trek" (borrowing a phrase from the Boer War) or "the time of the women," since the refugees consisted almost entirely of women and children.

            Atrocities against these refugees were committed not just by the Red Army but by Czechs, Jews, Tito's partisans, and others. The refugee columns were strafed, ships loaded with thousands of refugees (such as the freighter Goya, with 6 to 7 thousand refugees aboard) torpedoed and sunk. Perhaps the greatest mass atrocity was committed by the combined U.S. and British air forces when they fire-bombed Dresden, a city with no military significance, in mid-February 1945. The city was filled with perhaps as many as 600,000 refugees. The bombing was done by 1,400 British planes, followed by 450 American bombers. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated 275,000 dead; other estimates run from a low of 40,000 to a high of 400,000. This mass killing of refugees was an extension of the wartime policy of "area bombing" to kill German civilians, particularly in the working-class neighborhoods around industrial areas. It is estimated that 600,000 German civilians were killed by this bombing during the war.

            The flight westward as the war reached its final stages was followed during the post-war period by the expulsion of German civilians from East Prussia, Pomerania, East Brandenburg, Silesia, Bohemia, Moravia, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Transylvania that began in March 1945 and continued into 1949. These were Germans whose ancestors had lived in those areas for as long as 700 years. Even though the Potsdam Agreement had specified that the removal was to be "humane and orderly," the brutality was often extreme. Many of the deportees were placed in camps to await expulsion, and were met with sadism and slow starvation. De Zayas reports that "tens of thousands of German civilians perished in Polish internment camps while awaiting 'transfer' to Germany." According to de Zayas in The German Expellees, Tito's camps in Yugoslavia "were consciously and officially recognized as extermination centers."

            The German prisoners of war. Bacque says the Western democracies "maintained camps where about one million German prisoners of war died of starvation, exposure or disease." The United States Army maintained prisoner-of-war camps in France in 1945 and later in Germany, and placed the prisoners on greatly reduced rations. "Martin Brech, retired professor of philosophy at Mercy College in New York, who was a guard at Andernach in 1945, has said," according to Bacque, "that he was told by an officer that 'it is our policy that these men not be fed.'" "Brech saw bodies go out of the camp 'by the truckload." More than half a million died in the American camps during 1945-6, a fact that was kept secret for 40 years.

            This is a history that is to be taken seriously. It is written by capable scholars and published by reputable publishers such as Little, Brown, Charles Scribner's Sons and St. Martin's Press. The details recounted here are no more than a sample of the chilling details. It must be the task of academic historians not to leave such events as the province of a few authors "crying in the wilderness." People of goodwill everywhere, now and in the future, as well as the victims, deserve the fullest explication of what happened and why.

            It wouldn't be surprising if some people will justify such mass killing on the ground that "the Germans supported Hitler, caused the war, and committed countless atrocities of their own; there is justice, then, in their suffering, even immensely." The trouble with such a justification is that it overlooks three things: First, that even (or most especially) Nazism was itself a movement rooted profoundly in anger and desire for retribution, based on events of a still earlier period. If atrocities can be justified if they are for retribution, this will justify virtually all atrocities, if one looks back into the historical antecedents. Virtually none arise out of a vacuum. Second, the West has been deeply hypocritical about who precisely has been evil, and why. Hitler, and those who supported him actively or passively, are today seen as the epitome of evil, comparable to the "black legend" that once darkened Spain. There is no comparable sensibility toward Stalin (who deliberately starved ten million to death in 1932-3, just to mention one of his horrors), Mao (an estimated 30 million in the Great Leap Forward alone), and Pol Pot. Even this list is far too restricted, since mass murder has occurred in many times and places, not just in remote history but in our own day. What, then, makes German women and children more or less deserving of slaughter than others? Third, it is a peculiar sense of justice that will justify the mass killing of women and children, even if one were to accept the premise of "collective German war guilt."

            Bacque, de Zayas, Gollancz, Theodore Schieder for recounting the treatment of the Germans; Nikolai Tolstoy, Julius Epstein, and Nicholas Bethell for telling about the forcible deportation of Russians, and even of Cossacks and non-Soviet Russian emigres, into Stalin's eager but unwelcoming hands at the end of World War II; and Robert Conquest for writing about Stalin's deportation of whole nationalities - all are scholars of courage and great perseverance who deserve to be heard by the "mainstream." What is at stake is our understanding of the twentieth century not in terms of fantasy but of fact.

                                                                               Dwight D. Murphey