16 March, 2009Issue 8.8EuropeHistory

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The Human Face of Liberation

Therese Feiler

liberationWilliam I. Hitchcock
Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944-1945
Faber and Faber, 2009
464 pages
£25.00
ISBN 978-0571227723


“Liberation” is a justification for war that has proven resistant to time and history, with one shining precedent of success: Europe’s liberation from Hitler. The 20th century’s truly Just War. The traditional heroic WWII tale begins with the painful Allied invasion of France in 1944, the stalwart fighting at the beachheads and the eventual move into Normandy. Then, the troops crush the Nazi occupiers, pushing them back across the Seine, into Belgium. Finally, liberating the concentration camps on their way, they sweep across Germany to shake hands with the Soviets in May 1945.

The undisputedly just cause for Europe’s liberation often leads us to forget the mass destruction that accompanied it: the innocents pulverised in carpet-bombings, the countless civilians robbed, raped, slaughtered, displaced along the way to Hitler’s defeat. In Liberation: the Bitter Road to Freedom, William I. Hitchcock offers a revisionist history that shows how the pursuit of a noble cause also brought immeasurable suffering to those liberated. Hitchcock explains why liberation was “a time of cruel paradoxes”, an experience that Europeans—unlike neo-conservative “just warriors”—are “slow to wish on others”. On the darker side, liberation unleashed cruelty and indiscipline against the enemy. More than speaking to the uncontroversial truth that “war is bad”, Hitchcock demonstrates that the liberation project in Germany was just as much about vengeance as it was about benevolence.

Hitchcock, a professor of history at Temple University, begins with the landing in France. For the sake of military strategy, the Allies virtually obliterated cities like Caen and Brest. The French bore the bombings stoically, but their relief at liberation was mixed with mourning for meaningless death, destruction of crops and farms, food shortages. The ethical dilemmas of liberation were grisly. The lack of high-precision weaponry meant that liberation was mixed with grief for millions of French, Dutch and Belgian citizens: breaking Hitler’s Atlantic fortresses cost the lives of 20,000 Norman civilians alone. Alive to this, Hitchcock only reluctantly weighs between the lesser of two evils, utilitarian language that strategists are so quick to embrace:

This harvest of innocent life by the liberators was not malevolent, as the [Nazi] atrocities described above were. But it was deliberate, because the Allied leaders reluctantly accepted civilian deaths as part of the price to be paid for achieving victory.

Mass indiscipline also took its toll on civilians. For soldiers, battle was a struggle to survive, and for some, non-chivalrous hatred of the enemy was at times the only fuel that kept them going. Brutalised and underequipped, they were not only “our good boys”, as correspondent Ernie Pyle wired home, but also bad boys—who looted, drank and stole from the liberated locals. In Belgium they received “a warm welcome with the bitter taste of loss”. In Brussels, the military went from having flowers rained upon the GIs to having to launch a large-scale campaign against venereal disease and prostitution. The number of assault complaints increased sharply. American soldiers wasted food stocks, occupied houses and humiliated their inhabitants. The Liège press referred to them as “gangsters”. Hitchcock quotes a police commissioner praying in September 1945: “O Lord, deliver us from our liberators.”

The picture Hitchcock paints of the war in Germany itself is altogether darker. The myth of “liberation”—defeat, reconstruction and the Marshall Plan—began as a project designed not simply to defeat Nazi Germany, but to destroy it, unleashing as it did a vengeance against German civilians. Hitchcock’s account of Allied carpet-bombing of cities is chilling: 2.7 million tons of bombs dropped; 3.6 million dwellings destroyed; at least 305,000 civilians killed, amongst them around 80,000 children; countless cultural sites destroyed forever. Neither Arthur “Bomber” Harris, chief of the UK’s Bomber Command, nor Churchill was at pains to hide his hatred for all Germans or the desire for “just” revenge. Stalin sent his “Armies of Justice” on a mission to rape and kill, the account of which defies all imagination. Much of the destruction wrought by the Allies in Germany was of a different character to that which occurred elsewhere. It was not simply the collateral damage of military strategy, as in France and Belgium; rather liberation in Germany entailed destruction for destruction’s sake.

Hitchcock’s Liberation speaks to the notion that gruesome revenge and indiscriminate slaughter offer neither fair punishment nor true justice. Rather, they spoil the chance for honest self-reflection and obstruct systematic justice. But one doubts that, as Hitchcock muses, the Germans felt “the weight of their consciences, which perhaps whispered to them that they had richly earned this awful fate”. In fact, Germans often blamed “the War” rather than themselves for their suffering. The terror of Allied area bombing increased Hitler’s popularity. After the war, the extended process of liberation turned Germans into exhausted subjects, who submitted by turns to Soviet socialism or American paternalism, with “normalisation” not to arrive until the 1990s.

Arriving as brutal conquerors and occupiers of the “defeated enemy nation”, the Americans and Brits brought undisciplined havoc to Germany as they did elsewhere. It was over several months, and only gradually, that they “chose to transform themselves into liberators”, rebuilding and investing in the country. The Americans and Brits decided not to dismantle West Germany, which meant hanging on to qualified civil servants through a policy of “gratifying forgetfulness” that fell short of denazification. In the East, anti-fascist propaganda suppressed the Red Army’s injustice for decades, and the post-war Soviet occupation of East Germany actually prevented sincere feelings of guilt or forgiveness among East Germans. Presenting long-term effects, Hitchcock delivers the largest blow to the rosy picture of just warriors crossing the Rhine to establish freedom and democracy in Berlin.

Liberation covers largely unremembered occurrences of 1944-45, like Holland’s famine, where 16,000 Dutch civilians starved to death in early 1945. Such disasters often remain confined to national historiography, yet Hitchcock integrates them into a larger Brueghelian picture of Europe at the end of the war. Given these experiences, it hardly surprises Hitchcock that to many Europeans all military force has become ethical anathema and discussion of it has been reduced to mantric condemnation of civilian deaths. Hitchcock goes further and reminds us that, in the case of Germany, what is now misremembered as liberation was, in reality, equal parts vengeance. Combining social, political and military history, Liberation at times tries to cover simply everything and trails off into strategic minutiae not all pertinent to the subject. Yet as a project to give a voice to the bitter fates of the liberated it succeeds. It is a timely book carefully re-opening discussion about the very nature of what is often seen as the paradigmatic Just War.

Therese Feiler is reading for a DPhil in Theology at Exeter College, Oxford.