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The Many Faces of Defeat: The German People's Experience in 1945.

Edward Peterson has here a painful tale to tell. Putting guns into young men's hands and turning them loose on defenseless peoples (civilians or prisoners of war, enemies or even nominal allies) gives those men a power that corrupts. Even the armies of democratic lands can and do act brutally.

Peterson reviews zone by zone the German people's experience at the hands of their different occupiers. Although defeat may have had many faces, Peterson focuses on one: violence against persons and property. The 1944/45 Red Army earned a horrific reputation for brutality and rapaciousness. Murder, systematic and in many places near-universal rape of women (German or not) between eight and eighty, plunder of virtually all that could be taken, and wanton destruction of what could not did indeed characterize the Soviet soldier's victorious march through Eastern Europe. But Peterson is at great pains to show that all the conquering armies were guilty of such crimes, even if not all to the same degree. The British and American armies generally did seek to restrain their soldiers' violence, though not always successfully; but even these armies did little initially to restrain their soldiers' greed and destructiveness. French officers, Peterson implies, were much less willing to deny their troops revenge against the persons and property of the hated Germans, even if French forces did not engage in the almost manic rapine that characterized Soviet conquest. And of course both French and Soviets sought the official plunder of reparations. In Poland's newly annexed (formerly German) territories, persecution of the Germans mans seems to have reflected a haphazard mix of attacks by official Polish units and opportunistic plundering by bands of thugs.

Peterson's major concern is to confront his readers, and especially the Americans among them, with the senseless rapaciousness of which any troops are capable. He does this by describing in detail or providing often vivid and well-chosen eyewitness accounts of instance after instance of brutality, plunder, and vandalism by all the occupying forces. These descriptions and accounts are individually illuminating but collectively mind-numbing. He lauds the decent individuals in each army (often Jewish) who sought to help and protect their former enemies, but he concludes by reemphasizing the universal evil of conquest. And he makes a particular point of admonishing Americans, Britons, and French for their unwillingness to acknowledge the criminal theft and violence their soldiers perpetrated in 1945.

Peterson also discusses the disastrous food shortage that plagued Europe after 1944. War and its aftermath seriously disrupted planting and harvesting for years. The wanton destruction of "enemy" food supplies by rampaging soldiers only aggravated the situation. Even with substantial supplies of grain from overseas, European food stocks were simply insufficient to provide adequate nutrition for everyone. Efforts at food rationing, while crucial in preventing mass starvation, created black markets that were accompanied by inefficiency, corruption, and violence. The result was a desperate scramble for subsistence in which most survived and some flourished - but many died.

Among those who suffered from the food shortages in mid-1945 were the millions of German POWs. Peterson repeats and seems to accept James Bacque's recent charges that American military commanders ordered the deliberate starvation of German POWs and that a million died as a result. Neither Bacque nor Peterson, though, has any concrete evidence that such an order was issued. Moreover, if a million Germans had died in American hands within a few months, mass graves would have been needed to bury them. No one, apparently, has reported digging such graves, seeing them dug, or finding them. More research probably needs to be done on this issue, and individual American soldiers and units were clearly guilty of criminal negligence and brutality in 1945. But Kurt Bohme's carefully drawn conclusion that some 5,300 German POWs died in American hands in Germany remains more convincing.(1) These charges may prove important as Germans reassess their relations with the United States in the context of their search for a post-Cold War role.

Peterson's determination to demonstrate the horrors of conquest prevents him from exploring many questions that his sources raise. The near absolute insecurity many Germans experienced in 1945 presumably influenced their future attitudes, but Peterson never systematically analyzes what that influence might have been. Peterson reiterates the usual emphasis on the "humiliation of defeat" that all Germans apparently felt, but he leaves us no clearer on what that humiliation meant to Germans, collectively or individually. Germans came to accept Western democracy despite the occasional violence and widespread plundering they experienced at the hands of American, British, and French soldiers, but Peterson limits himself to commenting that such practices, and the arrogance and authoritarianism of many military government officials, undercut efforts at democratization. Peterson's discussion of the relations between male conquerors and female conquered also seems ultimately unsatisfactory. He notes, for example, that while rape was obviously about power, the sexual compliance the Western (and especially American) soldiers secured by trading food to starving women was also about power. He also relates the widespread rape by Soviet soldiers to their powerlessness in Soviet society. But despite these suggestive comments, the terrible realities of the sexual politics of defeat require much fuller investigation than he offers.

The Many Faces of Defeat makes undeniably clear the brutal realities of defeat - even when the victors are, supposedly, "good guys" such as the Americans, British, and French. But its obsessive focus on those realities precluded the broader analytical thrust that made Peterson's earlier works (The Limits of Hitler's Power and The American Occupation of Germany) so provocative and useful.
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Author:Hughes, Michael L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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