Historical Memory and Victors’ ‘Justice’

A Meditation

                By David Orton                                   

After The Reich: The Brutal History Of The Allied Occupation,        

by Giles MacDonogh, Basic Books, New York, 2007, 618 pages,         

ISBN- 13: 978-0-465-00337-2.        

                                    “The real reason why the Allies imposed the idea of collective guilt was that it was a
                                    useful way of depriving the Germans of rights and national sovereignty. Once their
                                    guilt was assumed, they could be punished.”
p. xiv


                    Historical note: As is well known, during his rule from 1933 to 1945, Hitler and the Nazis called
                    Germany the Third Reich, where “Reich” means the German state, but with connotations of empire.
                    There have been two other Reichs, as the name chosen by Hitler implies. The First Reich, known
                    also as the Holy Roman Empire, extended over some European lands ruled by Charlemagne, starting
                    in the 9th century and terminating in the 19th century. The Second Reich, also called the German
                    Empire, existed from 1871 to 1919. It was ended by the defeat of Germany in the First World War.
                    The period from 1919 to 1933 in Germany is known as the Weimar Republic.


                    I have called this essay a meditation, not a book review. What I mean by this is that reading After The
intersected with a number of issues that I have been thinking about for some time. I have used
                    this essay, which I believe is faithful where relevant to the book, to go beyond the text to examine:

                    a) The growing militarization of Canadian life, which the military involvement in Afghanistan is further

                    b) Examining why we in Canada and the West celebrate or commemorate certain events from the
                    Second World War and not others; and

                    c) Looking at the ethical conduct of the Allied side which this book addresses, but which is normally
                    not discussed except in honorific and platitudinous terms.

                    The author, Giles MacDonogh, is a British historian, with several other German historical books
                    published to his credit, and he is also a journalist. This 600-page book, with sixteen pages of graphic
                    pictures – many of them quite harrowing – is rich in historical detail and personal accounts in
                    support of the case he argues, i.e. “The Brutal History Of The Allied Occupation.” It profoundly
                    disturbed me. Also, it is a daring book which will cause many who read it to be angry, and some
                    to re-examine how they see the contemporary world. I am prepared to recommend this important
                    book to others. It is a book for those who want to learn some unvarnished lessons from the
                    military past. Of course there are some criticisms that can be raised from within the human-
                    centered paradigm that MacDonogh operates from (see below).

                    After The Reich raised a fundamental question – by what ethical standards do the victors’ judge
                    the vanquished, and do these same ethical standards also not apply to the conduct of the victors?
                    Must such standards always be tainted by hypocrisy, as the case of occupied Germany in this
                    book clearly shows? This historical text has brought into focus a number of issues which have
                    long been troubling for me. It has helped to examine more closely, from a Second World War
                    perspective, the phenomenon of historical “selective memory,” that is, what is remembered and
                    what is forgotten by a society about this particular war. As Fred Bender has noted in his 2003
                    book The Culture of Extinction: Toward A Philosophy Of Deep Ecology, while ecology is
                    fundamental, it does not explain everything: “We must also discover how human culture evolved,
                    how social, political and religious factors, etc., became predominant at various times.”
(p. 102)
                    After The Reich
helps to place in a non-mythological context my attempt to understand the
                    growing militarization of Canadian life and celebration of all things military, including our soldiers
                    shipped home in boxes from Afghanistan.

                    Personal Background

                    I think one’s own personal background has some bearing on how I evaluate After The Reich.
                    I was born in England in 1934 and lived there during the Second World War. The war directly
                    impacted Portsmouth, a major naval base on the South Coast, where my family lived. Of course,
                    our experience was qualitatively different from being occupied by a conquering army. The
                    whole family spent quite some time in Portsmouth during the war. During air raids or rocket
                    attacks, announced usually by air raid sirens, we lived in what was then called an Anderson
                    Shelter, dug into the garden at the back of the house. My father worked “on the bench” in an
                    aircraft factory in Portsmouth throughout the war. He was a strong union and Labour Party
                    supporter, although not an activist. My mother was born in Portsmouth, unlike my father, and
                    worked in a corset factory before getting married. There were four children from the marriage,
                    all boys, with two of them being born after me.

                    I remember we had sandbags and water filled buckets and hand pumps ready to put out the fire
                    or incendiary bombs which were sometimes dropped by German aircraft, in addition to normal
                    ordinance like regular bombs and parachuted land mines. It was a time of total social
                    mobilization, war-time endless propaganda about the “Hun”, “Kraut” or “Boche” (perhaps on
                    par with the “scum bags” media-applauded characterization of the Taliban adversary in
                    Afghanistan by Canada’s top military general), ration cards and food scarcity, barbed wire on
                    the beaches, and endless military convoys on the roads. At certain times, the children in the
                    family, including myself, were “evacuated” to the countryside where it was felt we would be
                    safer. This was government policy. It was exciting for city kids, and an introduction to the
                    natural world for myself. But it was also an introduction, as I remember, to scabies and lice.
                    I distinctly remember the wild celebrations of VE Day (Victory in Europe) in the Petersfield
                    town square, where we were then evacuated, with the formal end of the war against Germany.
                    After the war, I was for a short period of time in the British Army, after finishing a Portsmouth
                    dockyard shipwright apprenticeship and a one-year stint at university, supposedly studying
                    naval architecture. The army induction was to satisfy the then required “National Service”
                    demands, faced by all men in the general British population. I stupidly signed on for three years
                    as a “regular” for the higher pay. But the army and I did not get along. I managed to leave before
                    the first year was up and immigrated to Canada, thus avoiding being called back up to finish my
                    National Service.

                    Selective Historical Memory

                    After immigrating to Canada. I became increasingly conscious, in what was to become my
                    adopted country, of how the Second World War (and other past wars) became “interpreted” and
                    remembered in various celebratory, brook-no-dissent, cultural rituals, marking what were seen
                    as decisive military events in the evolution of a Nation’s consciousness. Such rituals come to be
                    seen as having important cultural significance for the “Allied” side, which included Canada. For
                    example, the Dunkirk attack, the Normandy invasion (D-Day), the liberation of Holland, or more
                    generally and more recently, Remembrance Day on November 11th. Strangely, the contribution of
                    the Russian armies – as After The Reich points out, “The Germans had systematically killed
                    three million of their Russian Prisoners”
(p.394), the enormous suffering of the Russian people,
                    and the breaking of the back of the German army at Stalingrad in 1942-3 – have disappeared from
                    popular consciousness in Canada. The book notes that the Nazis obeyed what was called a
                     “Commissar Order,” that stipulated that all Soviet political officers had to be shot. Yet MacDonogh
                     also points out, “how rare it was that the Germans ill-treated American and British POWs.”
                    (p. 394) The Nazis, because of their racial doctrine, targeted Jews everywhere, including occupied
                    countries. Because of their fascist political doctrines, communists were also in the Nazi gun sights
                    as a principal target. (Remember the Spanish Civil War?) Communists, if they were Russians, as
                    Slavs, were also believed to be racially inferior. In the West we rightly commemorate the Jewish
                    victims of the Second World War, but the communist victims are off our radar screen.

                    For Canadians, somehow the Normandy invasion into France of June 6, 1944, becomes THE decisive
                    event of the war. The former Soviet Union became expunged from Second World War celebrations.
                    (My wife was born in Germany, and her father fought in the German army including at Stalingrad on
                    the Russian front.) This historical erasing might have something to do with the fact that one of the
                    “Allies,” i.e. Russia, with the onset of the Cold War in late 1946-1947, became THE Enemy.
                    Communists then became “non persons”, similar perhaps to today’s Islamic fundamentalists from a
                    Bush Administration perspective, to which anything can be done as part of an ideological and
                    physical eradication process. (“Terrorist,” after September 11th, 2001 replaced “communist” as
                    a hate/threat term used to justify increased military spending and star chamber-like new internal
                    national security legislation in the “Western” world, including Canada.) Western Germany, initially
                    under British, American and French military control, became re-birthed as “our” German ally in
                    the engulfing new Cold War. This new “war” is what Al Gore candidly outlines as becoming
                    defining, from a geopolitical perspective:

                    “Opposition to communism was the principle underlying almost all of the geopolitical strategies
                    and social policies designed by the West after World War II.”
Al Gore, 1993, Earth in the
, p. 271


                    Growing Militarization

                    Every year “Remembrance Day” seems to become ever more ceremonially elaborate in Canada.
                    Media personalities or public notables cannot appear on television without the obligatory red
                    poppy, worn many days in advance of November 11th. We are told how “Canada came of age
                    as a nation” in some massive bloodletting in the trenches of the First World War. This war,
                    along with the Korean War and the Second World War, are all foolishly and erroneously lumped
                    together as virtuous causes. Those anti-fascist Canadians, including many communists, who went
                    to Spain in the 1930s, against the opposition of their government, to fight on the anti-fascist side
                    for the Spanish Republic in the International Brigades – a truly virtuous cause – have no official
                    state recognition. Such people were more likely to receive, if they survived, persecution as “Reds”
                    in Canada. Reporters in Canada covering the current Afghanistan “mission” do not model
                    themselves on the British correspondent Robert Fisk (see my review of The Great War For
                    Civilization: The Conquest Of The Middle East)
, but are “embedded” with the Canadian army.
                    These reporters are mainly stationed “inside the wire” of the main army base in Kandahar, where
                    they faithfully reproduce army spin – all dead soldiers “believe in the mission” – as newsworthy
                    stories. When the dead soldiers arrive in Canada, they are celebrated as “heroes”, are normally
                    met by Canada’s top general, the Minister of Defense (sic), and the Governor General, along with
                    the obligatory military honour guard. Funerals also have a heavy military presence. These events
                    are all considered highly newsworthy by the media, both state (CBC) and commercial.

                    There seem to be few real lessons drawn from the Second World War, such as those shown in
                    After The Reich
, which have entered popular conscious in Canada. We are however told
                    continually about Neville Chamberlain and “appeasement” (Munich Agreement of 1938) by the
                    militarists among us. Any public questioning of the fire, i.e. terror, bombing of Dresden and
                    Hamburg and other German cities by the British, US and Canadian air crews, by those who
                    rightly believe virtue was not confined to one side, is fiercely attacked. These attacks are by
                    veterans groups and the right-wing military historians, like Jack Granatstein and David Bercuson,
                    who have seeming instant media access in Canada. We are not told, for example, about the
                    twelve million German-speaking ethnically cleansed people, brutally expelled to the ruins of
                    Western Germany from Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and Rumania; (p. 162) or the 240,000
                    Germans, Moravians and German Bohemians slaughtered by the Czechs. (p. 159) These were
                    the Sudeten Germans formerly living in Czechoslovakia.


                    Collective Guilt, Victors’ Justice and Rape

                    “With the exception of the death camps in Poland, which had already been closed and blown up
                    by the Germans, all the most infamous concentration camps together with work camps were put
                    back to use by the Allies.”
p. 4

                    As has been pointed out with the lead quotation for this essay, initially “the Allies imposed the
                    idea of collective guilt” upon the militarily defeated German people, until the new requirements
                    of the Cold War forced some readjustment of attitudes. Yet how can the whole nation become
                    individually responsible for the crimes of the National Socialist Party? As Giles MacDonogh shows
                    in After The Reich, Hitler “never achieved more than 37.4 per cent of the vote in a free election,
                    and in the last one he was down to 33.1 per cent. This meant that, even at his most popular,
                    62.6 per cent of the German electorate were unmoved by his programme.” p. xiii

                    Once the Nazis had captured state power, then their ideology became the orthodoxy and dissent
                    against this became personally very dangerous. So the majority of people would go along with
                    the status quo. But does this make everyone collectively guilty for the crimes of the regime?
                    Are people, for example, living in industrial capitalist societies today, collectively responsible
                    for global warming, even if they have expressed their dissenting opinions? Here in Nova Scotia,
                    as elsewhere, is the population collectively responsible for the ecological crimes – clear cutting,
                    spraying, destruction of wildlife, etc. – carried out in the name of industrial forestry and sanctioned
                    by the provincial government elected in a “free” vote by the citizenry? Is the general population
                    of Israel collectively responsible for the crimes committed against the Palestinian population in
                    Gaza and the West Bank, even if they have expressed their dissent in some way?

                    These are all very difficult ethical questions, which the occupying powers in Germany did
                    apparently not want to contemplate. For the activist, there is an obligation to express and show
                    publicly one’s dissent, otherwise one is complicit in the social or ecological atrocity in question.
                    In the case of Nazi fascism, the Protestant Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller who was arrested in
                    1938, and freed from Dachau in 1945 by the Allied forces, expressed this necessity to express
                    dissent. His famous statement about the requirement to “speak up” when the Nazis targeted various
                    social groups like the communists, the Jews, the trade unionists, the Catholics, because “then they
                    came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me”,
has become enormously
                    influential. Yet if the existing social system can manufacture overall “consent”, then individual or
                    collective dissent can be pointless and, under a fascist government, deadly.

                    Within Germany and the Nazi controlled countries, the concentration camps, with their living
                    skeletons and dead bodies and bones of Jews, political prisoners (often communists), gypsies,
                    homosexuals, etc., were there to show the depravity which the Third Reich was capable of.
                    Reading this book showed me how basically unprepared the occupying armies were for feeding
                    and looking after the citizens of the country they had occupied, plus all those Germans which
                    were expelled back to what remained of the country AND all those captured German military
                    personnel. Millions of German POWs were held in former concentration camps, often under
                    brutal and food-deprived conditions. MacDonogh notes “Any attempt to feed the prisoners by
                    the German civilian population was punishable by death.” (p. 395) MacDonogh says there
                    were around 11 million captured German soldiers and a million and a half of these “never
                    came home.”
(p. 392) This included only five thousand of the ninety thousand soldiers taken
                    prisoner at Stalingrad. (p.421) The sex ratio in occupied Germany showed that “Women aged
                    between twenty and forty outnumbered their men by 160 to 100.” (p. 370)

                    In some sense, the chaos in Germany brings to mind what happened in Iraq after the apparent
                    rapid US conquest of that country. We cannot accept, as Churchill has asserted, that there is in
                    the end no legality in matters of life and death. (p. 447) The victors came to Germany with
                    much vengeance in their hearts, as shown in official policies and documented by MacDonogh.
                    The Nüremberg trials and those at lower levels were designed to obtain convictions, not uphold
                    due process. MacDonogh also notes how the American came to terms with former Nazi jurists,
                    once the Cold War became paramount and Germany, in the West, became an ally: “About 80 per
                    cent of Nazi jurists went back to work in the Federal Republic, including seventy-two former
                    judges and prosecutors from the notorious People’s Court.” (p. 467)

                    Apparently, apart from the Americans, the Russians, British and the French envisioned the use of
                    Germans as slave labour. The French and the Russians were also keen for reparations, considered
                    some kind of pay back for what both countries had experienced under occupation. MacDonogh
                    does point out that “many Allied atrocities have come to light, particularly the killing of POWs at
                    Biscari, on orders from General Patton.” (p. 465) He also says that some Canadian and British
                    troops were accused of not taking prisoners after the D-Day landing. (pp. 463-464) A kind of
                    restorative justice, as opposed to retribution, only came to the foreground in war-devastated
                    Germany with the onset of another “war” – here the new Cold War. The United States survived the
                    Second World War with a booming economy, while Britain was “on its back” with the economic
                    indicators to show it. The US was thus in a much better position to extend aid, e.g. the Marshall
                    Plan in 1947, to those Germans now under control by the West, than the Soviet Union to those
                    Germans and Eastern Europeans now under its ultimate hegemony.

                    Reading this book also enabled me to come to terms with something which has long bothered me
                    as a person who considers himself part of the Left and not anti-communist. This was the accusation
                    of mass rapes by the Soviet armies of Germans, which I have come across from time to time, but
                    which I had never accepted in my consciousness before. I did not accept it because of a) my
                    understanding of Cold War propaganda in the West since the end of World War II; and b) I could
                    not understand how a disciplined communist army, which, in my view, played the lead role in the
                    defeat of Germany and its allies, would allow rape on a large scale of the vanquished. But as
                    MacDonogh pointed out: “The Red Army raped wherever they went.” (p. 25)

                    However, the anti-communist bias of MacDonogh is very evident throughout this book. This is
                    shown, for example, in his characterization of communists as “Russians’ stooges” (p. 204),
                    “a communist toady” (p. 283), “Russian puppet” (p. 284), etc. (there are many other examples),
                    and the generally negative view, of seeing the worst when looking at the former Soviet Union, as
                    opposed to the other “Allies”.  Just imagine the reception the author would have received if he
                    described those Germans sympathetic to the Americans, British or French in occupied Germany
                    as stooges, toadies or puppets. Yet this is apparently perfectly acceptable, to so describe Germans
                    who were pro-communist or communists. But MacDonogh, as historian, could point out the
                    responsibility of “the West” for the onset of the Cold War: “Stalin did not want a war, hot or cold;
                    and it was the Western Allies, first Britain, and then America, who pushed him into it. He had
                    no desire to reach the North Sea, the Rhine or the Atlantic. The Soviet Union was exhausted by
                    war.” (p. 496)  

                    MacDonogh shows that the Russians wanted a united, friendly Germany, not a country divided
                    along ideological lines. But the Allies did not want this, because they feared communism. He
                    also documented the substantial abuses of human rights by the non-Russian “Allied” occupying

                    In war-ravaged Germany, after the May 7th 1945 surrender, the general poverty and miserable
                    life conditions of the civilian population facilitated the exchange of sex for food. The author
                    says that it was estimated “that 94,000 Besatzungskinder or ‘occupation children’ were born
                    in the American Zone under military government.”
(p. 241) The other Allied armies also raped,
                    but according to MacDonogh, not on the Russian scale. The author points out there was
                    “widespread incidence of rape by American soldiers.”
(p. 114) For example, there were five
                    hundred rape charges in the US army for April of 1945 in Germany. (p. 240) Rape as a weapon
                    of war and occupation is not “new” as contemporary discussions frequently imply. Similarly, the
                    use of torture, as the following illustrates:

                    “The Americans had used methods similar to those employed by the SS in Dachau...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’. It was an indication of what happened if you failed to say what the
                    investigators wanted.”
p. 406

                    The British tortured and abused prisoners in Germany at interrogation centers using techniques
                    reminiscent of the Gestapo. (pp. 414-415) There are then fairly close historical antecedents
                    deriving from the Second World War by the West, under US tutelage, to the contemporary use
                    of torture and “extraordinary rendition programs” to gain information from the new Islamic
                    fundamentalist “enemy” in a post-September eleven world. Many NATO countries, including
                    Canada, turned a blind eye to refueling or pick-up stops by CIA rendition planes en route to
                    countries like Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Libya and Uzbekistan. (See Stephen Grey’s
                    2006 book Ghost Plane.)


                    Green Party and Afghanistan

                    The federal Green Party in Canada (unlike the New Democratic Party, which calls for the
                    withdrawal of our Canadian troops NOW from Afghanistan), has a “fudge” position in their
                    current Vision Green federal election document: “The Green Party does not support
                    further Canadian participation in the NATO-led combat mission to Southern Afghanistan,
                    but neither do we believe that all our troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan.”
(Vision Green, pp. 94-95.) The Green Party says it supports working within the U.N., but
                    to “work” in Afghanistan is to be part of the NATO force. This is reality. So by “staying”
                    instead of calling for getting out (like the NDP), the Green Party is speaking out of both
                    sides of its mouth. Its basic position is to remain in Afghanistan.

                    The NATO operation in Afghanistan is dominated by the presence of the United States,
                    which, according to The Globe and Mail of February 8, 2008, had 15,000 troops in
                    Afghanistan, far and away the largest military contingent. Canada has 2,500 troops. According
                    to the Globe, the US also has another 13,000 troops in the country under “Operation Enduring
                    Freedom.” NATO originally was supposedly conceived to contain the long demised Soviet Union
                    and its Warsaw Pact allies. Now it has been born again and is increasingly global. It clearly
                    has become an imperial interventionist force in opposition to the United Nations, where the US
                    is apparently more constrained. The majority public sentiment in Canada, despite all the official
                    militaristic propaganda, is clearly that Canada should return to a U.N. blue helmet, more
                    traditional, peacekeeping role. (Canada, under the past government of the Liberal Party, went
                    into Afghanistan as a consolation prize to the United States, for not stepping up to the plate in
                    the Iraq “Coalition of the Willing.”) We should keep in mind the important guideline from the
                    late conservative philosopher George Grant in his Lament For A Nation when writing of
                    Canada: “Of all the aspects of our society, the military is the most directly an errand boy
                    for the Americans.”
(p. 28)



                    After The Reich clearly upsets a sanitized accounting of the Second World War, where virtue
                    remains with the victors. MacDonogh shows, with the evidence, that the reality was more
                    complicated, and that there is much to be ashamed of. Depravity was not just with the Nazis.
                    It seems to me that this historian was very hard on the Russians, quite hard on the Americans
                    and relatively soft on the British and French in their roles as occupiers in Germany. But overall
                    I think the picture he draws is believable.

                    Lacking are the costs to other species and the massive destruction of land and marine habitats
                    through the conduct of this war. There has been no all-species accounting by the victors or the
                    vanquished or the historians. Clearly, in the age of ecology, this has to change. We need a
                    Second World War accounting which encompasses not only anthropocentric but also ecocentric
                    interests. We await a Green history of the Third Reich and the Allied occupation.                    

                    February, 2008

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