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Book Review: 'Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany'

Author Frederick Taylor details the trouble the Allied forces had in establishing a new society in the Nazis' country after World War II.

July 05, 2011|By Martin Rubin | Special to the Los Angeles Times

For the German people, unconditional surrender in spring 1945 meant the end of self-government for the foreseeable future. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower minced no words when he announced that the Allied troops were there as conquerors, not liberators. Of course, they were, in fact, both. But, as Frederick Taylor says at the outset of his enthralling book, "Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany," the country, "as it came under Allied control, resembled a blank object, a clean sheet." As far as government, yes, but the Nazis had fouled that sheet, and "Exorcising Hitler" shows just how much messier — politically, socially and economically — things became before they could be cleaned up sufficiently for a new kind of society to take root.

Part of that mess lay in the different way each of the four Allied nations behaved toward those they had conquered. Germans in the eastern regions of the Reich were no guiltier than their compatriots elsewhere, but because it was their lot to fall under Russian control, their fate — beginning with widespread, indiscriminate rape and ending with a more than half century of Soviet domination before they could experience democracy and prosperity — was far crueler. Those in the British, American and French zones suffered shocking deprivations of all kinds for some years, but for them there was at least light at the end of the tunnel in the federal republic that emerged at the end of the decade. But Taylor demonstrates that the policy of all the Allied nations involved punishing collective guilt in Germany, not just rooting out and punishing Nazis:

"Let them have soup kitchens!" Taylor quotes President Franklin D. Roosevelt as saying. "Let their economy sink!" Taylor adds that when the president was "asked if he wanted the Germans to starve, he retorted: 'Why not?'"

Taylor has a real gift for recounting his story in a vivid way, illustrated with all manner of telling incidents and detail. He provides a chilling portrait of a society struggling for more than three years without a workable currency, as its people shivered and starved in the gloom, until cooperation in the western zones produced what would eventually become the postwar powerhouse of Europe, the deutsche mark. But for those years with the valueless reichsmark still in place, the only currency of any value was cigarettes. As Taylor notes:

"The currency reform of June 1948 took a little while to translate itself into jobs and security for ordinary people. But now that the money in circulation was suddenly worth something, items from coffee to candles, typewriters to textiles, appeared miraculously for sale. The cigarette economy did not quite die overnight, but the speed with which it became relatively insignificant was amazing."

Taylor ends his informative and enlightening account on a typically judicious note, blending optimism with salutary caution:

"Has Germany exorcised Hitler? Perhaps that is up to its people to decide. If it is any indication, Germans certainly feel inclined to continue their cleansing rituals on a regular, precautionary basis. But even if the old demon who died in 1945 has not yet disappeared completely, modern Germans seem to have banished his restless, malevolent ghost to somewhere very, very far away."

Rubin is the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."

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