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German soldiers shaking hands with French volunteers bound for the front, July 1944

In the United States, World War II is generally remembered as the last “good war,” particularly in comparison to the dashed expectations and disillusionment following World War I and the domestic division and sense of futility accompanying the Vietnam and Iraq wars. World War II as a “good war” did not mean there were no serious moral issues related to how the war was fought, such as the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans or the firebombing and then nuclear annihilation of Japanese cities, which aimed directly at breaking the Japanese will to continue the war through targeting noncombatants.

The idea of a “good war” means that the US was at war with unquestionable aggressors—Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan—and thus there was no ambiguity about “justice of war” in this case. Even more, in view of Nazi atrocities and war aims and the ferocity of Japanese occupation in the places it conquered, it mattered desperately that the aggressors not win, and there was no question that the Allies achieved total victory. But in Europe, the experiences, memories, and legacies of World War II were much more complicated and quite different. As István Deák demonstrates in his new book, World War II placed “Europe on trial,” and in his considered judgment “Europe did badly.”

Deák examines the European experience of World War II through three prisms or sets of categorizations. The first concerns the different periods of the war, which he divides into three phases: September 1939–June 1941 (unchecked Nazi expansion); June 1941–February 1943 (from the German attack on the USSR, called Barbarossa, to Stalingrad); and from early 1943 to the postwar period (the slow process and consequences of Nazi retreat and defeat). The most prominent feature of the first phase was, in Deák’s opinion, the failure of many European countries to take any meaningful measures to defend themselves. The resources of the nations of Western and Northern Europe, combined with military mobilization and diplomatic coordination, could have deterred or defeated Hitler. However, most countries made inadequate military preparations for the looming war and failed to make common cause with others in the face of a common Nazi threat. In Deák’s harsh verdict, they preferred “ruin, foreign occupation, and national humiliation.”

The result (and this is Deák’s second prism) was that by June 1941, all the countries of continental Europe could be placed into one of three categories: those defeated and occupied by Germany, those allied with Germany, and those that maintained neutrality through economic relations beneficial to Germany. But Deák is also clear that this categorization by diplomatic status did not necessarily reflect military, political, and economic reality. Some of the occupied countries, like France with its “model” collaboration government, and some of the neutral countries, like Sweden with its indispensable supply of iron ore for the German war economy, were much more important and useful to Hitler than some of his allies, which, like Italy, all too often turned out to be liabilities rather than assets.

While Deák excoriates the defeated and occupied countries for the unpreparedness and defeatism that led to their own ruin, he is no kinder in his verdict on Germany’s allies, among them Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia. He insists repeatedly that they had far greater latitude of choice on crucial issues than is usually acknowledged. They were, he argues, “to a large extent, masters of their own fates.” They chose to curry favor with and ally themselves with Nazi Germany; they chose (with the exception of Bulgaria) to join Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union; and they chose to facilitate and participate in the Final Solution.

They did so for their own selfish purposes, the most important of which were territorial aggrandizement and the ethnic cleansing of disliked minorities, as well as shared antidemocratic, anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic beliefs. But their cynical calculations were, of course, predicated on the assumption of Nazi victory and permanent hegemony over the Continent.

For Hitler’s allies, Deák adds a second division into periods. Up to Stalingrad, they curried favor with Hitler. Thereafter, they began to put out peace feelers to the Allies. And finally, they tried to change sides, with mixed results—Finland, Romania, and Bulgaria successfully, Italy and Hungary not so. Only the puppet states totally dependent on Germany for their separate existence—Slovakia and Croatia—remained loyal to the end, before being reabsorbed into victorious Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia respectively.

If Deák is almost uniformly critical of the leadership of the defeated and German-allied countries of Europe, he is much more sympathetic with the people who bore the burden of their leaders’ ill-fated choices. For them, living on a continent under Nazi hegemony presented a stark spectrum of choices, which is Deák’s third set of categories: passive accommodation, active collaboration, resistance, and—at war’s end—different forms of retribution. Deák defines passive accommodation as simply trying to get by and survive. He sees collaboration as voluntarily working with the Germans out of shared ideology or goals or in order to realize one’s own agenda.


Deák understands that these categories were malleable and not mutually exclusive. A Czech or Dane who simply went to work in a factory or shipyard every day to get by was in fact producing resources for the German war economy. A French policeman who rounded up Jews and turned them over to the Germans in 1942 could turn a blind eye or even warn Jews of imminent arrest in 1943 and join the resisters at “five minutes before midnight” in 1944 by shooting at defeated and retreating Germans. A Polish member of the “Blue Police” could both aid the underground resistance to the Germans and simultaneously help Germans guard ghettos and track down escaped Jews; the Polish underground he aided could simultaneously attack Germans and kill fleeing Jews who tried to share the forest in which they were hiding.

In 1941 a Ukrainian prisoner of war could accept the offer to serve the Germans as the only alternative to starvation—in Lawrence Langer’s memorable term a “choiceless choice.” But then he could help the Germans kill Jews in 1942, desert with his entire unit to the forest, and assault his Polish neighbors while trying to create an ethnically homogeneous independent Ukraine in 1943. He could die fighting the returning Red Army in 1944–1945 or even thereafter. In short, individual self-interest and beliefs as well as ethnic and nationalist agendas, in shifting and confusing ways, often cut across the larger ideological struggle between democracy, fascism, and communism.

The ideological aspects of the war intensified when Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Volunteers from every country in Europe joined the “crusade” against Bolshevism (for instance, 15,000 Norwegians bore arms for Germany), and otherwise neutral Spain sent an entire army corps. To ensure that English and American readers do not become too smug in the self-satisfaction that they would have behaved more nobly than their Continental counterparts in the same circumstances, Deák devotes a few pages to the Channel Islands, where German troops were disciplined and friendly (fathering some nine hundred German-British children), and cooperative local administrators prepared a list of inhabitants who were of fully or partly Jewish origin and then handed them over to the Gestapo with lethal consequences.

Out of this morass, Deák makes several other salient points. First, World War II was for Europeans both “two wars” and “wars within the war.” The “two wars” were the relatively conventional war in Western Europe where Germany had only limited war aims on the one hand and, on the other, the savage war of racial imperialism and colonial conquest waged by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. The “wars within the war” were the ideological and often ethnic civil wars that broke out within so many European countries. In general, the more fiercely the civil war raged, the less avoidable was the option of passive accommodation for individuals. And nowhere were these “civil and ethnic wars” more ferocious than in dismembered Yugoslavia.

Here I am reminded of the story of my sister-in-law’s uncle, who as a civil engineer worked in the Belgrade municipal government under the collaborating Milan Nedić regime in Serbia in order to help rebuild the damaged city while he simultaneously gave assistance to victims of the German occupation. For his service under the Nedić regime, the postwar Tito government tried and convicted him. Because many witnesses testified to the help he had given them and others, his sentence was mitigated so that he served only two years in prison. He concluded that he had “won” his “personal war against both Hitler and Stalin,” but many others did not survive the struggle for personal autonomy in a highly polarizing civil war.

A second salient point in Deák’s portrayal of Europe’s World War II experience was the ubiquity of ethnic cleansing, carried out not only by Germany but also by its allies and collaborators during the war and by the victors after the war. World War II provided the opportunity for virtually every state to increase ethnic homogeneity by ridding itself of unwanted minorities. In Eastern Europe virtually all the ethnic Germans either fled or were expelled at the end of the war. Deák estimates that some 13 million people left. What he does not say, however, is that it was Hitler and Himmler who inaugurated the uprooting and destruction of the ethnic German communities in Eastern Europe, beginning in 1939. As part of the Hitler–Stalin pact, the ethnic Germans in the lands allotted to the Soviet Union (the Baltic States, Volhynia, and Bessarabia) were to be “repatriated” and “resettled” in the territories of western Poland annexed to the Third Reich. Here they would be awarded the farms, businesses, and homes of Poles and Jews, who in turn were expelled eastward in a vast demographic shift.


The other prominent minority that disappeared from Eastern Europe was of course the Jews, and here the Nazis had many collaborating perpetrators. Bulgaria, often praised for saving its own Jews and not joining the Barbarossa campaign, willingly rounded up over 11,000 Jews from the Greek and Yugoslav territories of Thrace and Macedonia that Hitler had awarded them, and these Jews were promptly shipped to Treblinka and gassed. Ion Antonescu’s Romania joined the Barbarossa campaign and together with the Germans killed over 300,000 Jews in the territories of Northern Bukovina, Bessarabia, and Transnistria and the city of Odessa that Romania thereby gained. But like Bulgaria it did not deport the Jews of “old Romania.” In Croatia the Ustasha slaughtered most of the local Jews (if they had failed to reach the safety of the Italian security zone) and sent only a fraction to Auschwitz. The Hungarian gendarmerie provided the manpower to deport 435,000 Jews to Auschwitz, and Arrow Cross thugs killed thousands more in Budapest after the deportations stopped. The collaborating Vichy regime in France passed its own extensive anti-Jewish legislation, and the French police provided both the lists and manpower for the subsequent roundups. And everywhere in Europe, hidden Jews faced the constant threat of denunciation.


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A ceremony marking a gift of guns from Hitler to the Yugoslav regime, Belgrade, June 1939

Jews and Germans were not, of course, the only victims of the epidemic of ethnic cleansing and racial killing. As Deák shows, the Croatian Ustasha killed and expelled many more Serbs than Jews. The Ukrainian militias, armed and trained by the Germans to kill Jews, then turned on the Polish minority in their midst as well. Ultimately Poland and Ukraine, more than other countries, were transformed from multiethnic to ethnically homogeneous territories. After the Czechs and Slovaks “divorced” in 1993, it became clear that their current ethnic homogeneities are also a legacy of World War II.

The last major theme of Deák’s book is retribution, which took many forms. In Western Europe, there was a focus on women collaborators that was absent further east. Women accused of “horizontal collaboration” were subjected to the ritual humiliation of being marched through the streets with their heads shaven. In Norway, some 30,000 people, the totally innocent offspring of Norwegian women and Germans soldiers, were denied Norwegian citizenship and doomed to lifelong status as pariahs. Vigilante killings and summary executions were prominent in France and Italy—about 10,000 in each country—where resistance fighters and others had scores to settle. In Eastern Europe retribution and purges “were closely combined with ethnic cleansing and class warfare.” In Hungary, for instance, “of the 300,000 [people] punished after the war, about two-thirds were ethnic Germans.” Taken together, Deák concludes, “judicial retribution and political purges…amounted to one of the greatest social and demographic upheavals in history.”

Many of the judicial proceedings were highly flawed. They were distorted by the forces of victors’ justice, ideological and political agendas, the hypocrisy of Stalin’s own criminal regime, and emerging cold war tensions. So, Deák writes, “it is a miracle that justice was served at all. Yet,” he concludes, “justice was indeed served.” While Deák is critical of various aspects of postwar judicial proceedings, two of them, in my view, merit deeper examination.

First, in a subsection entitled “Justice and Injustice at Nuremberg,” he notes that while Germans were convicted of taking and killing hostages, the American Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in the case of the so-called Balkan generals—i.e. Nazi officers in Yugoslavia and Greece—neither outlawed the killing of hostages nor specified what numbers would have been permissible. It should be noted that killing hostages, as still declared legal at Nuremberg, had nothing to do with actual German practice. In its verdict the court ruled that international law imposes four conditions on an occupying power concerning the taking and possible killing of hostages. First, it must establish “effective” occupation before it can hold hostages as a deterrent to attack. Second, the hostages must be people with some logical connection to the attackers who are to be deterred. Third, the identity of the hostages who will be killed in case of attack must be made public. And fourth, the number of hostages killed must stand in some reasonable relationship to the number of casualties suffered.

The Germans, however, did not establish effective occupation over conquered and dismembered Yugoslavia. Instead they immediately transferred their frontline units to the eastern front and hoped to pacify Serbia with three undermanned, underequipped, and overaged Austrian divisions. When these units proved no match for Tito’s partisan uprising, the Germans, rather than bring in reinforcements, adopted ever more radical policies of revenge and deterrence that they themselves called “expiation measures” (Sühnemassnahmen). For every German killed, they rounded up and shot one hundred Serbs found in the vicinity regardless of their lack of any connection to the attackers. In one case this included the entire student body of a high school in Kragujevac.

The goal openly announced by the commanding general was for the Germans to be “avengers” creating an “intimidating example…which must hit the whole population most severely.” When this policy had the counterproductive result of causing young Serb men to flee to the partisans, the German army switched instead to shooting (still on the 100–1 ratio) interned Jewish and Gypsy men, that is, precisely those who could not possibly have been involved in the attacks because they had been under guard in German camps.

This was not hostage killing in any sense of international law; this was the indiscriminate slaughter of noncombatants first by using terror as deterrence and then as racial mass murder. The policy reached the apex of absurdist tragedy when Austrian soldiers shot all the males in a refugee internment camp filled with Austrian Jews as “expiation” for Serbian partisan attacks on the German army.1 Whatever flaws there may have been at Nuremberg, convicting the German generals responsible for these atrocities was not one of them.

Deák correctly notes that Allied zeal for trials waned as the cold war became more intense, and the Adenauer regime showed no interest in Germany trying its own in the 1950s. It was only the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, he claims, that inspired new proceedings, such as the trial of Auschwitz officials in Frankfurt between 1963 and 1965. This is not quite the case. Indeed, during the 1950s there were, as he writes, only scattered trials. However, aside from following up accusations resulting from random encounters between victims and perpetrators, in which case they invariably did the minimum rather than the maximum, German prosecutors had neither the interest nor adequate information to identify, try, and convict the Nazi criminals in their midst.

This changed decisively not with the Eichmann trial in 1961, but with the Ulm trial of the Tilsit Kommando in 1958, when a local prosecuting attorney, backed by the minister of justice in Württemberg, decided to do the maximum rather than the minimum. Faced with investigating a single man accused of committing crimes as a member of the Tilsit Kommando, the prosecutor created an investigative team that carried out research on the Holocaust in Lithuania, located witnesses and suspects, and finally indicted, tried, and convicted ten members of that killing unit.

This model—a proactive policy of proceeding from the historical investigation of the crime to the identification and location of individual suspects against whom sufficient evidence had been found and charges could be brought—then became the basis for the founding of the Central Agency of the State Administrations of Justice for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, with its headquarters in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart. This unit had already begun investigating and preparing hundreds of further cases even as the Eichmann trial was getting underway.2

German prosecutors would still face immense obstacles in the form of the total inadequacy of the German criminal code in dealing with crimes of this magnitude and nature and the continued presence of unsympathetic judges of dubious background on the bench. Many cases were dismissed on specious technicalities if they were not outright miscarriages of justice, and many convictions resulted in ludicrously light sentences. Nevertheless, some trials did result in convictions with the maximum allowable sentence of life in prison. Moreover, a dedicated group of German prosecutors and investigators compiled an extraordinary amount of evidence in the Ludwigsburg archive that will remain a major resource for historians in the years to come.

István Deák takes the reader on a sweeping survey of some of the bleakest aspects of a bleak period in European history. He dispenses with comforting national myths and unexamined assumptions of national virtue. World War II was, he writes, “one of the greatest tragedies that humans ever brought upon themselves,” in which “compassion and good will were two qualities in short supply”—a verdict that is amply illustrated by the many evocative, insightful, and distressing examples of human behavior that fill his book. All the more does he appreciate the remarkable transformation that has subsequently led to “a new, unified, and better Europe.”