We have rarely felt sorry for what the Germans suffered at the end of World War II, in part because the Germans have done a superb job of feeling sorry for themselves. Most Germans in 1945 (and long afterward) believed that their own suffering freed them from any obligation to ponder what Germans had done unto others. Historians, therefore, have hesitated to exploit this material, for fear of seeming to endorse the repellent spectacle of German self-pity. The distinguished British historian Richard Bessel, however, understands the difference between suffering and atonement, and with “Germany 1945” he has produced a sober yet powerful account of the terrible year he calls the “hinge” of the 20th century in Europe.
The decisive blow came in January, when a Red Army invasion force, nearly four million strong, poured into eastern provinces that would soon cease forever to be German. (The Anglo-American invasion from the west paled by comparison.) They killed with dreadful efficiency. German military deaths that month exceeded the total wartime losses of either the United States or Britain. Millions of civilians fled in terror from what they had long been told were savage Slavic hordes. Hitler’s government, deep in denial, did little to ease the refugees’ distress. Nor did it permit the orderly surrender of lost territories. While some soldiers and civilians enthusiastically embraced orders to fight to the death, the rest were kept in line by roving SS death squads that hanged deserters from lampposts. But the formidable Wehrmacht was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
Bessel leaves no doubt about who was to blame for the suffering: Hitler, who chose to destroy his country rather than surrender and face defeat. For the German people — many bombed or chased out of their homes, all at the mercy of the occupying armies — this was the legacy of the Third Reich: not conquest and glory, nor genocide and guilt, but betrayal and ruin, rubble and grief.
Although the Allies faced a tough job in imposing order, one thing they needlessly feared, as it turned out, was resistance from dead-enders. Rumors of a “Werewolf” underground proved groundless (contrary to the claims of those who argued a few years ago that postwar Germany was just as bad as postwar Iraq). The occupiers were surprised to find a docile people, preoccupied with finding shelter, food and missing family members.
With death all around, the invaders sought vengeance. Soviet soldiers pillaged and raped the most, but the French were not much better. The British and Americans, with fewer grievances, committed fewer atrocities. While Germans resented the inevitable injustices of Allied denazification programs, when the most prominent surviving Nazis went on trial in Nuremberg in November 1945, few could summon any sympathy for these pathetic men who had led their nation into the abyss.
If you have a chance and an inclination to look at a rarely looked at part of World War II, the book is worth reading. If you don’t want to read the book, you may want to check out these photos posted to The Atlantic’s In Focus blog.