In the spring of 1945 Germany went down into chaos and defeat. In Germany itself, occupied by its enemies, slave labor, concentration camps, starvation, imprisonment without charge, and executions did not disappear with the Nazis. The revelations of the death camps, spread around the world in April 1945 by newsreel footage from Bergen-Belsen, seemed to give a free hand to those who were now in control. Giles MacDonogh has given himself the formidable task of chronicling the lives of Germans when they fell into the hands of their conquerors. In his book After the Reich he has done this in unsparing detail. It is a compendium of human misery. MacDonogh knows Germany and Austria well and has a wide acquaintance there. He has drawn on firsthand accounts and private memoirs which he has been able to add to his research into published sources.
As early as January 1943, the Allies had set their sights undeviatingly on an unconditional German surrender. Stalin thought that making such a demand was bad tactics but to Roosevelt and Churchill it carried an emotional charge that obscured all consideration of what it would entail. On July 26, 1944, an Instrument of Surrender was agreed to by the Allied governments: “The German Government and the German High Command…hereby announce Germany’s unconditional surrender.” But when the time came there was no German government to grovel to the Allies, and the High Command could only surrender militarily. The concept of unconditional surrender did not exist in law. So the Allies seized sovereignty for themselves. On June 5, 1945, a lavish ceremony was held in Berlin for the “Declaration of Defeat and Assumption of Sovereignty,” with much military pomp (and doubtful legality).
According to the declaration, Germany was to be divided into three occupied zones under the Control Commission for Germany and Austria and administered respectively by the Americans, the British, and the Russians. (France was later assigned a small zone carved out of British and American territory.) Austria would be separated from Germany and would be similarly occupied. Berlin would be divided into four sectors and would be the seat of the Allied Control Council—the occupation government. The members of the council were the four military governors of the zones. On July 17, 1945, a little over a month later, in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, the Big Three met for the last time, but with changes: Roosevelt, who had died in April, had been succeeded by President Truman; and halfway through the conference, Prime Minister Clement Attlee replaced Churchill, who had been defeated in the British general election. At Potsdam the Allies laid down the rules by which they would control all aspects of German life for the foreseeable future. These rules were in due course ignored, manipulated, flouted, overzealously adhered to, and ultimately abandoned.
At Yalta in February 1945, the Big Three had agreed that Russia would take a substantial portion of Poland in the East and Poland would receive territorial compensation in the West. The German population in those areas would be ejected and forced to return to the German “homeland.” Ethnic German populations were to be expelled also from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. At Potsdam it was decreed that the expulsions were not to begin earlier than a year after the cessation of hostilities, and were to be done in an orderly and humane manner over a period of five years. In fact, the reality was very different. This is where Giles MacDonogh begins his story.
In the last months of the war, when the Red Army liberated the countries of Eastern Europe while committing rape and pillage, the native populations of these countries turned on their former masters and on ethnic Germans generally with a terrible ferocity. Even before the German surrender, entire communities of Germans who had lived outside the Reich, often for generations, were uprooted at gunpoint; in the end, between 13 million and 16 million people were expelled from their homes.
Robbed, beaten, starved, old men, women, and children were forced to march westward, or crammed into cattle cars in which they sometimes froze to death. A member of Parliament described the expulsions in the House of Commons as “sending millions of people across Europe like a creeping Belsen.” MacDonogh takes the reader along on these fearful journeys, almost village by village, describing a hideous migration.
These “displaced persons”—like their Jewish counterparts they were designated DPs by the occupation government—arrived in a homeland which was already swollen with millions of rootless persons. When the shooting and bombing stopped, people swarmed out of the ruins seeking news of who was alive or dead. An intelligence officer with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) reported that the uncontrolled movement along every highway of Germany was staggering to the eye. Hordes of foreign workers, freed from their enslavement as forced laborers for the Nazis, took to the roads to find their way home to their own countries—or to escape from them. Added to this were the thousands of refugees who had fled westward with the advance of the Red Army. Some survivors lived in holes in the ground.
The Wehrmacht, a beaten army of millions, waited in cages to be discharged. By the war’s end, 11 million German soldiers had been captured. Seven and a half million were in the hands of the Western Allies, MacDonogh writes, five million of whom were released within a year. About one and a half million disappeared into Soviet Russia and countries of the East; most of them never came home. But many thousands more were unaccounted for inside their own country. In the spring of 1945 some 40,000 prisoners died of hunger and exposure in the twelve open camps the Americans set up to contain around a million men. The inmates, MacDonogh writes,
had been pushed into large, open areas by the banks of the Rhine, described as “concentration areas” or PWTE—“Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures.” The Americans had burned their kit, so they had nothing to protect them from the elements. April and May 1945 were particularly cold and wet, and there was plenty of snow. The soldiers were forced to endure this in open fields without tents; “many dug holes in the earth with a spoon or a tin can or whatever was to hand, but with the constant rain the ground was soft and every night the holes collapsed and the people who had sought protection from them were buried. There was no night that passed that did not see the deaths of several men on the meadows.”
These camps were cleared after a few months but there were other camps in the American Zone that were scarcely more hospitable.
Günter Grass was a seventeen-year-old prisoner of the Americans. In his recent memoir, Peeling the Onion, he brilliantly describes the reality of hunger he experienced in his camp. When his young family askshim what it was like at the end of the war he tells them: “From the moment I was behind barbed wire, I was hungry.” At the time, the collapse of the Third Reich simply passed him by.
The British and Americans also set up Direct Interrogation Centers with the aims of investigating wartime atrocities against Allied POWs; rooting out major war criminals; and uncovering any subversive activity that might threaten the occupation. But within a year of the end of the war the priority had changed to concentrated intelligence-gathering about the Russians. Anyone of any nationality who had had any contact with the Soviet Zone as a deserter, refugee, or ex-POW of the Russians and who fell into British or American hands could find himself in one of these interrogation centers and exposed to appalling brutality. Among these were actual Soviet agents. Treatment amounting to torture followed a familiar pattern. Prisoners were softened up for interrogation by guards who had their own scores to settle (some of them had been prisoners of, or forced laborers for, the Nazis). Their methods included, among other things, savage beatings, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and removal of clothing. Men were kept standing for hours. Some only made it to interrogation on all fours. Many never came out alive.
At Schwäbish Hall, a particularly infamous prison near Stuttgart for officials suspected of major war crimes, MacDonogh writes:
The Americans had used methods similar to those employed by the SS in Dachau. One of these was keeping the prisoner for long periods in solitary confinement…. Worse still were the mock executions, where the men were led off in hoods, while their guards told them they were approaching the gallows. Prisoners were actually lifted bodily off the ground to convince them they were about to swing.
More conventional methods of torture included kicks to the groin, deprivation of sleep and food, and savage beatings. When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry into the methods used by their investigators, they found that, of the 139 cases they examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”
In the British-run prisons, when nothing more could be got out of a prisoner he was brought before a secret military court where he would be tried on a trumped-up charge; his silence was ensured by a severe prison sentence. The Political Branch of the British Control Commission soon stopped that particular practice. According to one Political Branch document, a sentence of any kind could not be imposed on someone “whose only crime is to have had the misfortune to acquire a too detailed knowledge of our methods of interrogation.”
A report on the notorious methods used at the Bad Nenndorf center in the British Zone reached Hector McNeil, the minister of state at the Foreign Office. He warned that if ever allegations were made about political police methods in Eastern Europe “it will be enough for someone to call out ‘Bad Nenndorf’ and no reply will be left to us.” A court of inquiry produced an appalling report. Colonel Robin Stephens, the camp commandant of Bad Nenndorf, was to be court-martialed. However, there was considerable alarm in the Foreign Office and the army. The existence of the interrogation centers, their direction to obtain information about methods of operating, the existence of other centers, and results achieved might be revealed in open court.
The brutality had clear aims. The interrogation elicited information about details of the organization of the MGB (Ministry of State Security), the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Soviet Zone) and their contacts with the KPD (the Communist Party) in the Western zones. What was also compiled was as nearly complete an order of battle of the Red Army in the West as it was possible to obtain. The court case fizzled out. Bad Nenndorf was closed. Only one interrogation center was established for the British Zone. When the minister of state for German affairs, Lord Pakenham, visited it in 1947 he was concerned to find that eleven of the eighteen interrogators had been employed at Bad Nenndorf. However, the military governor, Sir Brian Robertson, insisted that although he was strongly opposed to brutal methods, he was responsible for seeing that the center “served effectively the purpose for which it was maintained.”