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Macdonough, book cover

The German Experience under Allied Occupation after World War II

Book Essay on: Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation
(New York: Basic Books, 2007), 618 pages.
UCSB: DD257 .M22 2007

by Matt Stegner
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
searchable at Amazon.com

About Matt Stegner

I am a fifth year senior Political Science major and History minor. I transferred from Saddleback community college in 2007 where I received my associate of arts degree in Political Science. Growing up as a child I heard many war stories from my grandfathers and their experiences in the European theater of WWII. This sparked a deep interest in European history, specifically Germany. I have taken several history classes but never one specific to Germany. An area of history that I had minimal knowledge of was the years following the end of WWII; as a result I chose to write about the Allied occupation following the German surrender.

Abstract (back to top)

In his book After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, Giles MacDonogh gives a shocking account of the brutal military occupation in Germany after WWII. He gives an in depth account of the Allied occupation beginning with the fall of Vienna and leading up to the first Berlin airlift. Using an extensive selection of first-person accounts MacDonogh argues that the Allies subjected German civilians to a brutal occupation. Thousands of women were raped, hundreds of thousands German civilians died, and thousands were forcefully deported from Eastern Europe. As a historian, MacDonogh feels he has unearthed a record of brutality which has been largely ignored or justified by other historians. However, I argue that while MacDonogh does present the dark side of Allied occupation, he fails to address critical aspects of the war which would put his argument into context. MacDonogh fails to address aspects of the war such as, tremendous loss of life the Soviet Union suffered and economic blows Great Britain experienced during the course of the war which might explain their circumstances.

Essay (back to top)

May 8th 1945 was the day the bloodiest and most brutal war in history came to a close in Europe. The infamous Third Reich had come to an end, but the memory of its atrocious war crimes would not be forgotten. In the controversial book “After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation” written by Giles MacDonogh, the story of the allied powers converging on Germany and dividing it into four zones of occupation is told. Drawing on an extensive collection of first-person stories and experiences, MacDonogh proposes that despite the war coming to a close, the death and destruction in Germany continued. In spite of the Allies being responsible for freeing Germany of their National Socialist oppression, MacDonogh insists their road toward liberation and occupation left a wake of death and misery. His argument gives a shocking account of Allied occupation that led to thousands of rapes, brutal deportations, starvation, looting, and more than two million German civilian deaths in the years following the war. MacDonogh argues that although the Allies chose to style themselves as liberators, they came as conquerors seeking retribution. However, his argument is too narrow and fails to address critical aspects of the war which would put his argument into context, such as the monumental loss of life in the Soviet Union and the complete destruction of Great Britain's infrastructure.

MacDonogh structures his book into four parts; Chaos, Allied Zones, Crime and Punishment, and the Road to Freedom. These four parts they are subdivided into a total of twenty chapters. The book begins with the Fall of Vienna and the subsequent occupation by the Soviet Union. MacDonogh explains the frequent acts of rape Austrian women suffered. Despite the Moscow Declaration stating that Austrians were victims of fascism, many Soviet soldiers saw rape as an expression of revenge, thus good for morale (MacDonogh 26). Plunder and looting became commonplace; the Russian soldiers felt entitled to take civilians' personal possessions. Objects ranging from wine to watches were taken regardless of Soviet propaganda stating private property would be respected. MacDonogh moves on to explain the chaos in a broader scope and how liberation from the East left cities reduced to rubble and entire populations displaced. Liberation from the West proved to be devastating to the civilians as well. Several individual stories recall American GI's lacking discipline, ransacking homes and plundering whatever possessions they could get their hands on.

In the second part of the book, MacDonogh portrays the struggles civilians endured in the four zones of occupation: life in the Russian zone, American zone, British zone, and French zone. The population in the Russian zone faced the direst circumstances. The Soviet Union stripped its zone of industrial capabilities, demolished remaining infrastructure, and civilians were constantly in danger of getting shot. German attitudes in the American zone were highlighted by the lack of contact (MacDonogh 232). American propaganda taught soldiers that Germans were subhuman and their behavior reflected this. Civilians were deprived of a free lifestyle through the non-fraternization and denazification practiced by the United States. Plundering of homes, killings, and rape were not on the scale of the Soviets but still relatively frequent, according to MacDonogh. The British zone was notorious for their poor food rations; civilians were allocated a mere 300-500 calories a day, barely enough to survive. Lastly was the French zone which was described in the policy they adhered to, ‘Never apologize, never explain' (MacDonogh 270). The French wanted revenge for German occupation and as a result corruption became widespread. The third part of the book touches on the crimes committed and punishment that followed. The concept of collective guilt was applied toward all German civilians, “For the conquered it means I must atone for my brother's guilt, for the victors it affords practical support for their indiscriminate looting” (MacDonogh 340). MacDonogh finishes the book by explaining the peacemaking in Potsdam and the first Berlin airlift.

One of MacDonogh's main focuses is the harsh injustices committed by the Soviet Union against the Germans. Through the vivid accounts of those living in the Russians path, he efficiently depicts them as barbaric beings. The Russians created menacing camps and prisons to contain German POW's (Prisoners of War). They were referred to as special camps, and German statistics estimate that of the 240,000 Germans who passed through the camps 95,643 perished, over 40 percent (MacDonogh 214). MacDonogh also describes disgraceful acts committed by the red army, “the mob pulled down the ancient trees in his park and broke open the coffins of his ancestors to hang the skeletons from the branches” (MacDonogh 205). He illustrates the viciousness and pain the Russians inflicted on the Germans by any means possible. Additionally he explains how the Russians removed a huge part of the industrial base from their occupation zone. By autumn of 1945 the Russians had already dismantled 4,339 of the 17,024 major installations in their zone, a staggering 23% (MacDonogh 207). This full scale removal of the industrial base substantially diminished East Germany's capability to restore itself. To add to this men and women were often abducted and forced to develop industry in the Soviet Union as slave labor.

While these acts are inexcusable, MacDonogh neglects to include the atrocities committed against the Russians during the war. Understandably this book's goal does not lie in explaining the potential reasons behind the Russians' behavior, but some comparisons are necessary. The most evident one being the immense loss of life the Soviet Union suffered. It is estimated that more than twenty-two million Russians died during the war, half being civilians. The Nazi treatment of Russians was just as barbaric and criminal if not more so. The acts of brutality are most evident in the maltreatment of Russian POW's and civilians. A Nazi commander's order to his men exemplifies the immoral mentality held, “I have observed senseless shootings of both POW's and civilians... A Russian soldier, who has been taken prisoner while wearing a uniform and after he put up a brave fight, has the right for a decent treatment…however this instruction does not change anything regarding the Fuhrer's order for ruthless action to be taken” (Bartov 116). Because the criminal orders were not clearly defined, it allowed the front line troops to interpret it for themselves. As a result there were mass killings of civilians; people were shot if any suspicion of resistance was evident, at times outright murdered. In addition, during the course of the war roughly 5.7 million Russians became POW's, of this upwards of 3.3 million died in captivity (Bartov 107). These numbers might have been larger if it had not been for the orders dealing with Russians soldiers found behind front lines, “Prisoners behind the front-line…Shoot as a general principle! Every soldier shoots any Russian who is found behind the front-line and has not been taken prisoner in battle” (Bartov 110). Criminal acts such as these demonstrate the how barbaric the Nazis were. MacDonogh fails to mention any of this in his book, which would provide some context behind the way he portrays the Russians.

Another critique MacDonogh makes of the Allies is the widespread hunger throughout the British zone of occupation. Cities in their zone were ‘in a terrible mess; no water, no drainage, no light, no food. It stank of corpses' (MacDonogh 264). While the occupiers were living comfortably, the German civilians were starving, miserable and living off meager rations. Workers began to lose weight at an alarming rate; big men weighed as little as 110 pounds. Upwards of three million children in a particular zone were fainting from hunger. With no funds being allocated to rebuilding the bombarded cities, millions of people were homeless and exposed to an endless struggle for survival.

While the situation was indeed dire for those living in the British zone, understanding the British situation post war provides a different perspective. MacDonogh makes no mention that Great Britain was completely bankrupt, had accumulated a huge war debt, and was struggling to recover from the blows by the war. Throughout the war the German Luftwaffe had carried out countless aerial bombardments on the British cities. As a result Great Britain's infrastructure was partially destroyed, eliminating much production along with the ability to provide sustenance for Germans in their zone. Adding to their problems, the United States ended the Lend-Lease agreement and Britain was presented with an enormous bill that was to be paid off rapidly. With a reeling economy and insufficient funds Britain truly lacked the ability to rebuild the infrastructure and adequately provide for the 23 million Germans in its zone of occupation.

MacDonogh effectively portrays the darker side of Allied occupation in Germany and Austria through stories told by a small group of individuals. This form of information gathering provides a perspective of the occupation not often heard. However, as Bianka J. Adams points out in her review in the Journal of Military History, these stories leave room for inaccuracy and are almost impossible to verify. In MacDonogh's account of the fall of Vienna, he often uses individuals' remembrances of events even though they were not firsthand experiences. When describing the details of rape, he uses information that was indirectly provided to the individuals, “The Russians are reported to have raped women as old as eighty” (MacDonogh 34). While this may be true there is no way to confirm its legitimacy; despite this MacDonogh uses information like this liberally and uncritically. Merely citing uncertified sources does not necessarily represent the opinions of the masses.

In conclusion, MacDonogh successfully provides a shocking account of the atrocious circumstances the German people endured following WWII. He sheds light on an aspect of history often disregarded or overlooked by other historians. The vivid accounts of cruelty committed by the Russians, hard-line denazification practiced by the Americans, inadequate living conditions provided by the British, and widespread corruption by the French combine to provide a brutal history of Allied occupation. While MacDonogh succeeds at providing an account of brutal history, he lacks contextual evidence to explain this phenomenon. His failure to address key aspects of the war, including the mammoth loss of life the Russians suffered and Britain's grim economic circumstances, offers readers a biased one sided story. MacDonogh's lack of contextual facts along with the questionable validity of his sources leaves readers to conclude on their own how brutal the Allied occupation really was.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Adams, Bianka J. Rev. of After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, by Giles MacDonogh. Journal of Military History; Jan 2008, Vol. 72 Issue 1, p284-285, 2p. (ebsco link)
    Adams is very critical of the book's structure and organization, pointing out that MacDonogh method of writing at times becomes incoherent. Additionally she is extremely skeptical of the sources that MacDonogh uses. Merely using experiences of a few individuals to represent the masses of Germany is not enough to support his argument. Adams also believes that MacDonogh's representation of the four different Allies' brutality as equivalent is not fair; while American denazification and non-fraternization practices were unjust at times, comparing it to the horrendous condition in the Soviet zone is incorrect. Adams' overall view is that MacDonogh sacrifices historical accuracy to provide a shocking story to his audience.
  • Echevarria II, Antulio J. Rev of After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, by Giles MacDonogh. World War II; Dec2007, Vol. 22 Issue 8, p81-81, 3/4p (ebsco link)
    Echevarria believes that the book is gracefully written and well structured, with a streamlined timeline of events from the German-Austrian surrender to the Berlin airlift. However, he is critical of the reliance on personal accounts and memoirs. These sources may provide previously unknown facts, but they are unverifiable. Echevarria does praise MacDonogh on his account of particular crimes committed by the Allied troops because of the records kept from court cases. But at the same time Echevarria points out that MacDonogh mentions none of the kindness and charity provided by the Allies.

Related Book

  • Gimbel, John. A German Community Under American Occupation: Marburg, 1945-52. Stanford University Press, 1961. (google books page)
    This book gives a very detailed study of Allied Occupation in the community of Marburg in the years 1945-1952. Gimbel gives an intimate idea of what occupation life entailed and all of its shortcomings. While the study is limited to only one community there are several comparisons to the remainder of the American zone.

Web Sites:

  • The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs. “Allied Occupation of Germany, 1945-52” http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/cwr/107189.htm
    The website explains the choice that the victorious Allies faced when they decided the fate of Germany. It focuses on the conflicting views of the Soviet Union and the United States and how the agreement to split Germany came to be.
  • US Library of Congress, “Postwar Occupation and Division” http://countrystudies.us/germany/44.htm
    This page explains the subsequent occupation of Germany post-war to ensure the rebuilding of civil authority. Also details the series of conferences held to work out the detailed plans for the occupation and administration of Germany. Thorough explanations of what was discussed at the conferences are presented. Decisions such as where reparations should be paid and where boundaries be formed are addressed.
  • Wikipedia, “History of Germany since 1945”, last modified November 25 th 2008
    This website offers an explanation of the division of Germany into the four occupation zones. It begins with focuses on the industrial disarmament both East and West allies took from their respective zones. It leads into additional reparations the Allies sought from Germany, such as property of great value.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/16/08; last updated:
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