Germans Confront the Nazi Past

©Werner Bischof / Magnum
Ruins of houses destroyed during World War II, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1946

It became a twentieth-century custom for nations to produce, under the auspices of government, official histories of their roles in great conflicts. The US and British studies of World War II are voluminous and uneven. Some contributions, like Samuel Eliot Morrison’s chronicle of the US Navy’s operations and Michael Howard’s and John Ehrman’s examinations of British strategy, are outstanding. Anglo-American campaign narratives suffer, however, from the fact that most were written within a decade of the war’s conclusion, and were subject to the exercise of varying degrees of influence and interference by former senior commanders who were still very much alive and holding high positions in government and in the armed forces.

Even more important, those histories were published while Allied code-breaking activities remained highly classified. As a result, American and British chronicles omit or obscure the critical part played by decrypted enemy signals in determining strategy and battlefield decisions. For example, the official history of the Royal Navy’s role in the Battle of the Atlantic by Captain Stephen Roskill, in many ways admirable, is fundamentally flawed because it ascribes successful U-boat detection to radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction-finding. It says nothing of the fact that throughout the war, the numbers of Allied merchant ships sunk fluctuated in remarkably exact inverse correlation with Bletchley Park’s successes in breaking German naval ciphers.

In a world conducted for the benefit of scholars, the US and British governments would today provide funding to revise the official histories in the light of modern research and revelations. As it is, of course, we must be content with what we have got: Fifties-vintage volumes that provide indispensable information about which regiments went where, and when.

Some nations’ official records are much less reliable than those of Britain and the US. Even in the twenty-first century, a depressingly small number of societies seek honestly to examine their own pasts, in war or peace. The Russian official histories of 1941–1945 are farragoes of nonsense, their version of events dominated by the propaganda requirements prevailing in Moscow when they were written. The French have never attempted to produce an officially sponsored account of their wartime occupation, because there would be no possibility of achieving acquiesence in, never mind consensus about, a version of what took place.

The Germans, however, are more fortunate. Over the past twenty years, the Research Institute for Military History in Potsdam has produced a succession of mighty volumes under the title Germany and the Second World War. These are not in the strictest sense official histories. They do not carry the formal imprimatur of the Berlin government. But they come near enough to amount to the same thing. The merits of the Potsdam chronicles are acknowledged by every student of the conflict. They profit immensely…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.