Germany 1945: From War to Peace.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Germany 1945: From War to Peace (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Bessel, Richard|
Germany 1945: From War to Peace. By Richard Bessel (New York:
Harper, 2009. xx plus 522 pp. $28.99).
Richard Bessel provides in this work a thorough catalog of the suffering endured by Germans across the year 1945. He argues that the shock suffered by Germans in the climactic battles of the Second World War and in the war's immediate aftermath played the crucial role in demilitarizing and denazifying the Germans. Bessel emphasizes that 1945 witnessed the complete and unconditional defeat of the Third Reich, a defeat accompanied by staggering loss of life that served to expose "the complete and obvious bankruptcy" (390 emphasis original) of Nazism. Bessel further highlights the harsh policies initially imposed by all of the occupying powers, which snuffed out the possibility of armed resistance. Stern occupiers, crippling losses, and the economic and social dislocation of 1945 left Germans little time or energy to consider anything but the pressing business of finding enough food to eat. Bessel detects in the same year, however, the portents of possibilities of renewal, as Germans in May 1945 "had to start again from scratch" (394) as they set out "to build a new world on the ashes of the old" (147).
Bessel offers a narrative geared mainly to a general readership, a story that emphasizes experience over ideas or culture. At 401 pages of text, this is a long book, which could have benefited from some more extensive editing to make it more concise and tightly organized. The work is generally organized chronologically, although particular chapters are dedicated to themes such as the flight of refugees from the east, the economic costs of the war and reparations, and postwar plans for reform. Bessel has digested most of the best scholarship on the period and he offers an excellent synthesis.
Bessel's narrowing of his focus to the year 1945 comes with some disadvantages. A full answer to the question of why Germans turned away from Nazism cannot be offered satisfactorily with an account that begins and ends in 1945. Bessel does not, of course, consider the rise of Nazism within the bounds of his study, and so the question of why the movement attracted many Germans in the first place is answered only obliquely. The legitimacy of National Socialist rule in Germany, he writes, "had rested on the ability of that regime to enable Germans to profit from plunder and murder" (142). So long as Germans could reap material benefits from Nazism, "it had been possible to ignore the crimes that underpinned 'Aryan' privilege" (391). Once the material benefits stopped flowing, Bessel suggests, Germans rejected Nazism. This interpretation, however, fails to account for the considerable support that Hitler achieved among Germans even before the profits of murder began to appear. The work's account of Nazism lacks the nuance that a longer view of German history could afford.
The focus on the events of 1945 likewise obscures the working of longer-term developments in German history in other respects. Bessel makes a strong claim that the developments of 1945 profoundly reshaped the structures of German society. The massive losses of life in the closing months of the war, along with the expulsions and loss of territory in the east, compounded by the economic collapse of the immediate postwar period indeed swept away familiar aspects of the social order for Germans. These blows, coupled with land reform in the Soviet zone of occupation, "spelled the end of the Junker landowning class" (381) that had long played a central role in German history. Although Bessel is persuasive that the events of 1945 tore the German social fabric, the richness of the account could be increased by considering both the ways in which social class reasserted itself in West Germany after 1945 and the longer-term factors that had worked to reshape German society before 1945. Bessel similarly finds the roots for Germans' postwar longing for stability in the traumas of 1945, especially the expulsions from the East. It is undeniable that those events helped produce a desire for order, but it would be worth explaining that German society in 1945 had experienced virtually no stability for the previous 30 years.
The work argues that 1945 marked "a profound shift in German mentalities and public culture--away from nationalism and admiration for the military to more pacifist and personal perspectives" (145). Bessel is persuasive that the suffering attendant to the war fostered a remarkable rejection of militarism and embrace of pacifism by most Germans. However, the report of German nationalisms demise in 1945 appears somewhat premature. Many Germans during the occupation period, for example, regarded the Nuremberg trials as illegitimate victors' justice rather than just desserts for criminals who had brought suffering on the Germans as Bessel suggests.
Although the full story of Germans' turn away from nationalism and Nazism requires a longer perspective, Bessel's study represents an impressive achievement. The book offers a rich, comprehensive, and often gripping narrative of the events across all of Germany in 1945, leaving no significant aspect of the story unexamined. It is unlikely that Bessel's chronicle of the year 1945 in German history will be supplanted in the foreseeable future.
University of West Georgia
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