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.”

The US Army did not want to hold on to its prisoners of war. The idea of forced labor would not have been well received in the United States. But the British had plans for theirs. Eisenhower had ordered that POWs were to be classified as “disarmed pending discharge and at the discretion of the Commanders in Chief.” But if no longer prisoners, they could not be used as workers whose labor would provide reparations. The British estimated that they needed about half a million men to work (mainly in agriculture), and by late 1946, MacDonogh writes, there were nearly 400,000 working prisoners in Britain. These men were classified as prisoners of war, but with the ending of hostilities, this was a technicality. The prisoners were in fact doing forced labor, but as the Foreign Office noted, “there was no need to say so.” Many German prisoners repatriated from camps abroad were not discharged but kept in holding camps in Germany and Belgium to await deportation to Britain.

Conditions in these “POW” holding camps were appalling. They were often run by Dienstgruppen, labor forces of German ex-soldiers under British military control. The German guards, many of whom were ex-Nazis, took most of the food. There was no proper bedding; men slept on straw on the ground. No adequate lighting (only four electric lightbulbs in one entire camp). No soap or towels; in some cases, as many as five hundred men had to use one washroom or just a stone trough with running water that froze in the winter. Reports of this treatment began to seep out from the Soviet radio station in Berlin. Publicly the British discounted them. But MacDonogh writes that the use of Dienstgruppen aroused Stalin’s suspicions that the Allies were keeping the German army in being for eventual use against the Soviet Union.

Each of the Four Powers set out to create in its zone a Germany in its own image. The Americans wanted a self-sufficient country that they could leave as soon as possible. The British were more controlling. Every German was suspect and therefore every German in an official position had to have a British doppelgänger. The contrast between the British and American attitudes is demonstrated by Control Council statistics. At the beginning of 1947 the number of American personnel was 5,008, the number of British 24,785.

General Templer, Field Marshal Montgomery’s chief of staff, commented sadly: “The Americans have mastered the art of Indirect Control. It is evident that we have not.” The British Foreign Office conceded privately: “The Russians have perhaps been more effective in their control of Germany than we have by having far fewer Mil.Gov officers who tend to be more authoritative than their British opposite numbers.” And yet Montgomery himself had advised the government that, apart from certain matters of control reserved at Potsdam, “the best people to deal with the many difficulties which beset Germany today and await her in the future are not ourselves but the Germans. They know far better how to deal with their country’s problems and they are not inferior to us either in intelligence or in determination.”

In April 1945, the US government had issued a directive to General Eisenhower. This was incorporated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a handbook—JCS1067—which was adopted by the Allies as a blueprint for the conduct of the occupation. The first task would be the extinction of the Nazi government and Nazi laws and the disposal of its leaders. That was quickly done. Party members were to be excluded from public office and top positions in finance, industry, commerce, agriculture, education, publishing, and the press. But the Allies recognized that membership in the party had been virtually a condition of employment and that in these categories “nominal” members should not be excluded. They would be needed to help put the country together again. Still, President Roosevelt said he would brook no exceptions on the grounds of administrative necessity or expediency. His intransigence (and Truman’s, following his death) was to prove an enormous headache to the occupiers, particularly in the industrialized British Zone.

It was decreed that those removed from office should be replaced by persons chosen for their “political and moral qualities.” But it had already been decided that Germany was lacking in such persons. A booklet issued to troops about to enter Germany stated that “Germans are not divided into two classes, good and bad Germans. There are only good and bad elements in the German character, the latter of which generally predominate.”

Everyone applying for work had to be “denazified.” The blunt instrument of denazification was the Fragebogen. This was a questionnaire that required answers to 133 questions covering all aspects of the respondent’s life going back to the 1920s. In case anything had been overlooked, a final summary called for details of “any association, society, fraternity, union, syndicate, chamber, institute, group, corporation, club or other organization of any kind, whether social, political, professional, educational, cultural, industrial, commercial or honorary, with which you have ever been connected or associated.” In view of the dislocation of life and the destruction of property since 1939, supplying such information was obviously difficult. Yet false statements, omissions, or incomplete answers could incur prosecution. And being rejected meant no job and no job meant no ration card.

Denazification started too late and lasted too long. The Germans joked about Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich: twelve years of Nazism and 988 years of denazification. In October 1947, two and a half years after the end of the war, the task was finally handed over to the individual German states, or Länder, with instructions to complete it by January 1, 1948.

At Potsdam, the Allied leaders had decided that civilians who could not be charged with any criminal offense but who were considered “persons dangerous to the Occupation or its objectives” were to be arrested and interned. This catch-all definition resulted in many thousands of men being swept up into Civilian Internment Camps, where they were kept without charge, trial, or expectation of release. Former concentration camps were taken over. In the British Zone the civilian internees, young and old, were kept in dreadful conditions: overcrowding, ill-treatment, lack of sanitation, no lighting, no protection from the weather, little water or food. Many inmates were sleeping on the floor. Medical facilities did not include sterilization or anesthesia.

In January 1948 the British military governor, Sir Brian Robertson, acknowledged that “our methods have been somewhat rough and ready” and that three years after the end of hostilities procedures not compatible with British law could not be justified. It was finally decided that it was “politically desirable to have buried the past by 1st September, 1948.”

In this fractured society of haves and have-nothings corruption was endemic. Cigarettes were the de facto currency. Looting went on at all levels. When the Villa Hügel in Essen, home of the Krupp family of German industrialists, was relinquished by the coal control division of the British Control Commission, property worth some two million Deutschmarks was found to be missing. British and American intelligence cooperated in an investigation of a vast black market. A top secret report records this world of Harry Lime. Everyone did it: the Allies, German ex-SS officers, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Danes, Swedes, Swiss, even the small number of Chinese who turned up as wartime allies.

A plastics factory was set up in Belgium by Americans with German machinery transported through the British Zone in Russian trucks fueled with occupation gasoline. The list of commodities being traded was endless: precious metals, antiques, paintings, furs, carpets, cameras, binoculars, microscopes, photographic equipment, jewelry, precious stones. Every possible drug was up for sale. Even radium changed hands. Passports, visas, entry and exit permits, and identity papers could all be had. The quantity of Berlin real estate acquired by foreigners could not even be estimated. The Control Commission warned that illegal trading threatened to ruin what little remained of Germany’s financial and economic structure.

The absence by death or imprisonment of so many men for so long created a social and moral vacuum. Many women, now the breadwinners for their families, would provide sex in return for what they could get from the PX or the NAAFI, to live on or to sell on the black market. The nutritional adviser to the British Zone, Sir Jack Drummond, made the connection succinctly: “Venereal disease amongst the Occupation troops follows closely on the development of hunger amongst the population. I would go so far as to say that one can be taken as the measurement of the other.”

In the presence of the top brass of the services and the Control Commission, the British chaplain-general, Rev. Geoffrey Druitt, delivered a blistering indictment in the Garrison Church in Berlin. The German people, he declared, living in the rubble of their cities, occupied by nations unable to find any agreed policy, could see neither a beginning nor an end:

A sad proportion of the Occupying armies are playing a shameful part in encouraging the rot. Too many are exploiting for financial gain the material needs of this conquered people…. Germany will become a danger not as a military power but as the cesspool of Europe, and it will be big enough to drown herself and her neighbours.

Eighty-six percent of Germany’s heavy industry lay within the British Zone, the area that had been the most heavily bombed. Scores of thousands had been made homeless. The British added to the misery. The Germans in the zone were to make way for the influx from Britain of families of the army and of civilian controllers, and were forced to cram together in what shelter they could find: a cellar in the rubble, a room in a teetering ruin with only three walls. Thousands moved into huge “flak towers,” a warren of concrete passages without heating or ventilation. In Hamburg, 38,200 people were cleared away to make room for the erection of a massive British army complex (it was never built). Senior administrators on the ground were deeply concerned but had to carry out orders from London.

The population was not only homeless but hungry. The near starvation of the Germans was not deliberate, although many thought it was. It seemed part of the pattern. The area controlled by the Soviets had been the breadbasket of Germany. Under the reparation arrangements the Russians were obliged to send food to the West. They never did. Unconditional surrender meant an obligation to feed Germany if it could not feed itself. Britain accepted shortages at home, which infuriated the chancellor of the exchequer. This was like paying reparations to the Germans. The chancellor’s political adviser put him right: “It is not for their sake we are paying. We have to feed them or get out and getting out now would be letting the Russians in.” The occupiers, at least, could not be held responsible for the dreadful winter of 1946–1947, the most bitter in a hundred years. The waterways of northern Germany were frozen for months. The effect on the distribution of food and fuel was catastrophic. For most Germans there was no light, no warmth, no food, no work, no hope.

Joblessness was added to homelessness. After the destruction of war plants, Allied economic policy initially allowed the Germans just enough industrial capacity to achieve a reduced standard of living based on pre-war standards. Any surplus produced was to be dismantled and shared out as reparations to all Allied nations in proportion to their losses in the war. President Truman declared that the United States sought neither material advantage from victory nor protection for American markets. The British, however, had other plans. (“The primary purpose of the Occupation is destructive and preventive,” Lord Cherwell, the British paymaster general, wrote in April 1945. “I trust we shall do nothing to encourage the rebuilding of German industry.”) The removal of capital might permanently capture export markets previously supplied by Germany.

Much of the dismantling did not make sense to the Germans. Heavy machinery vital for reconstruction was being demolished. Men were being thrown out of work with no prospect of reemployment. Many Germans began to fear that what was being put into effect was something like the Morgenthau Plan, proposed by Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury, in 1944 as a scheme to reduce postwar Germany to an agrarian society. This never became serious policy and was disowned by Truman. But it gradually became known to the Germans. There were riots and sabotage all over the British Zone, particularly in the Ruhr. Troops had to be called out. Germans feared that the Allies’ dismantling of industrial machines was preparing them for a future tilling the fields.

A year into the occupation, Winston Churchill, then in opposition, surveyed with alarm what Germany had been reduced to since its unconditional surrender. Speaking in the House of Commons, he said:

We cannot afford, nor can the United States, to let chaos and misery continue indefinitely in our Zones of Germany. The idea of keeping millions of people hanging about in a sub-human state between earth and hell, until they are worn down to a slave condition or embrace Communism, will only breed at least a moral pestilence and probably an actual war…. Let Germany live!

At last things began to change. The pivotal policy of economic unity stipulated by the Potsdam Conference had failed in the face of Soviet refusal to cooperate. In September 1946, the Americans and the British fused their two zones economically, and in 1948 they issued a new reformed currency—the Deutschmark. The Russians retaliated by blockading supplies to the Western sectors of Berlin. The Allies responded with the Berlin airlift, a dramatic manifestation not only of Allied support for the German population against the Russians, but also of the country’s formal division. Now there were to be two new Germanies.

Giles MacDonogh declares at the beginning of his book that his theme is to show the experience of the Germans in defeat. He has certainly succeeded in that. But he has also brought new attention to Britain’s and America’s own questionable records during the occupation. As MacDonogh explains in his preface:

Friends of mine, even published historians, have often told me that the Germans “deserved what they got” in 1945: it was a just punishment for their behaviour in occupied lands and for the treatment of the Jews at home. This book is not intended to excuse the Germans, but it does not hesitate to expose the victorious Allies in their treatment of the enemy at the peace, for in most cases it was not the criminals who were raped, starved, tortured or bludgeoned to death but women, children and old men. What I record and sometimes call into question here is the way that many people were allowed to exact that revenge by military commanders, even by government ministers; and that when they did so they often killed the innocent, not the guilty. The real murderers all too often died in their beds.

Sometimes the reader is almost numbed by the sheer statistics invoked. But these vast computations are necessary to convey something of the scale of man’s inhumanity to man. (Comparison helps: MacDonogh writes that at least 1.8 million German civilians died during the war. In the United Kingdom, the number of civilian deaths “due to the operation of war” is officially registered as 100,927.)

MacDonogh has provided a historical setting for the tales that he has told, though, as he says himself, this had to be done with a broad brush. There were good things as well as bad in the occupation. Enlightened men at the top of the Allied command in Germany struggled to blunt the effect of misbegotten policies of their governments at home. At a lower level, Günter Grass recounts how an American “education officer” in his camp took pains to explain to ignorant German prisoners about the extent of Nazi atrocities and the Holocaust; and we can be sure this is not an isolated case. Ending his story on the threshold of a new, though divided, Germany, MacDonogh gives an account of tragic human experience, all too little known, in the words of those who lived through it. It is not only a fascinating story but a unique and valuable historical document.

This Issue

October 25, 2007