Book Review: Exorcising Hitler
by Frederick Taylor
Bloomsbury Press, 2011
Historian Frederick Taylor has given spirited, insightful, intensely readable attention to one of the most awkward epic events of modern history: the Allied occupation of Germany after the defeat of the Nazis. For six years, Hitler’s Germany had made war, subjugated populations, battered capitals, and throughout it all pursued the complete annihilation of Europe’s Jews, bringing to the age-old practice of genocide the craft and diligence of a scientific age. In a gesture of self-aggrandizement Napoleon Bonaparte would have recognized, Hitler opened a second front against his erstwhile Russian allies, and after a series of gruelling campaigns, the Third Reich and its Axis cronies crumbled.
The awkwardness of the events the followed originated almost entirely in the participation of the United States, in the U.S.-infused notion that the Allies had been fighting for fundamentally different reasons than the Axis powers, fighting in a fundamentally different way, a newer, cleaner, begrudging way that made military campaigns into jobs, done with grudging dispatch by men far from home who would much rather be back with their families. The Americans had provided the armed might that turned the tide and won the war on the Western front; the Americans were allowed to set the tone of the aftermath.
That tone was characterized by precisely the mercy and moderation Nazi Germany had never shown to any nation or people or person, and this was awkward for two main reasons: 1) as Taylor points out in Exorcising Hitler, “The view that Nazism had been simply and unequivocally a ‘bad idea’ was never held by more than 40 per cent of respondents, and by the end of the third post-war winter that number had declined to around 30 per cent with double that number – 60 per cent – now insisting that Nazism had been a ‘good idea’ gone wrong” – in other words, the Germans, though defeated, were not repentant, and 2) the exact fate of conquered aggressor nations since the dawn of recorded history was in 1945 swiftly bearing down on Germany from the East. Left to their own devices, the Russians would have shown Germany no mercy or moderation whatsoever. “Vengeance is never beautiful,” Taylor writes. “In what was to follow, it was ugly beyond belief.”
American forbearance ended up restraining Russian vengeance, and even though in 1951 only 5 per cent of polled Germans admitted feeling any guilt about the fate of the European Jews during the Nazi years, the steady efforts of generals and diplomats and statesmen (Taylor displays an entertainer’s touch in his pen-portraits of such figures as George Kennan and Konrad Adenauer) eventually cobbled together a self-governing nation out of Germany once again, despite innumerable initial obstacles Taylor chronicles with deft efficiency – most of which obstacles arising from the aforementioned awkwardness:
The possibility that harsh, or at least stern, treatment of the former Reich during the post-war occupation might somehow conflict with the aim of creating a future Germany fit to take its peaceful place in the family of nations seems to have dawned on most in the Allied camp relatively slowly.
Those efforts were almost incalculably complex, especially considering the fact that peremptory removal of all Nazi-affiliated Germans from civil positions would have crippled the very social and governmental mechanisms the Americans were trying to re-establish. The worry was that if conquered Germany were treated with too heavy a hand, a resentment similar to that which followed the Treaty of Versailles would be re-ignited. Since the only alternative to tip-toeing around the vulnerable feelings of a defeated genocidal war-machine would have been the summary execution in 1945 of every German between the ages of five and seventy-five, the American-led Allies commenced tip-toeing, and Taylor guides us through the graft, incompetence, and sometimes shining humanity of the various occupied zones that divided the country.
He chooses to see the story he’s telling here as one of hope: out of the bloodshed and the chaos and the administrative muddle, there arose in time a peaceful and prosperous new Germany, invited to take its place among the Western powers again, Hitler’s “malevolent ghost” banished to someplace “very, very far away.” And the writer of a history this good is certainly entitled to his opinion.