Friday, January 22, 2010

Germany 1945

Sometimes when I find myself preoccupied with minor worries or anxieties, I find distraction and relief in reading about larger, dramatic problems of historic magnitude, and how people organized and worked together to achieve important goals. I spent the end of 2009 engrossed in Germany 1945 by Richard Bessel, a thorough history of both the last six months of the war in Europe and the first six months of occupation and recovery.

As the year began, the Battle of the Bulge had concluded and the Allies were poised once again to invade the German homeland. The Allies had to contend with a Nazi regime determined to fight until annihilation. Strategy, tactics, and politics had to be worked out among the allies. The war still had to be fought, mile by mile, soldier by soldier, and from the perspective of the combatants and civilians, every day until surrender was dangerous, uncertain, and consequential.

Senior military and political leadership for each of the allies had to contend with winning a military victory and preparing for civilian occupation and control. Political and economic conditions in England, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union were very different and led to complicated agreements, compromises, deceptions, and tensions. The personalities, experiences, and views of the key actors - Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, Montgomery, etc. - were all factors in the eventual victory as were the actions of the ordinary people whose lives and actions shaped the outcome. Historical writing is effective for me when it demonstrates how individuals, under pressure and constraints, exercise leadership, persuasion, compromise, dedication, and hard work to achieve results. Bessel's book does that.

The second half of the year 1945, begins with an utterly defeated Germany occupied by the Allies. Millions of soldiers and civilians have been killed throughout Europe and hundreds of thousands of surviving German soldiers are in POW camps in both the West and the East. The major cities have been destroyed by months of bombardment. Death is present everywhere and corpses are a regular presence. There is no transportation infrastructure. No effective rail communications, no roads, no vehicles, no fuel. There is no communication infrastructure. No electricity, no telephone lines, no postal service. The population is made up of mostly women, children, and elderly. Slave laborers that performed the farming that soldiers couldn't do had been liberated to return to their origins, or not, and agricultural production dropped precipitously. As borders were redrawn, Germany immediately lost much land that had supplied its citizens with food. Germany's industrial capacity had been destroyed and what remained was subject to confiscation and removal to the Soviet Union as war reparations. What would the harvest of 1945 be like? How would people eat, and stay warm in the winter of 1945-46? Who would begin clearing mountains of rubble. Would cities be rebuilt? Would factories begin production of needed goods? How could people be reunited with family? What medical needs could be met and at what cost?

Beginning in May, 1945, the same governments and leaders who had been focused for years on winning a military victory were now faced with the immediate need to take control of this completely defeated and destroyed nation and help it survive and face the future. Even the general shape of that future was yet to be worked out. How an allied force designed to fight and win a war had to turn into an occupying power with the need to keep a nation from starvation and to set the foundations for future economic and political success is the stuff of the second half of Bessel's book.

These historic problems make many of today's problems seem small or at least manageable. It is not that economic recession, energy needs, global warming, or human migrations are easily solved. It it important, however, to remember how in the past, leaders with different outlooks and conflicting interests somehow worked together well enough so that people's lives could be restored, so that they could eat, and begin to work, and begin to rebuild housing, and eventually reenter the international community. Massive population migrations had to be engineered and managed. International financing required risk-taking, sacrifice, and a commitment to basic human values and rights while also looking out for national self-interests. Bessel's book lays out the challenges, identifies the needs, and relates how this one critical keystone year saw the end of a catastrophic war and the beginning of a peace that would eventually be called an economic miracle.

I intended to post this entry earlier, before the earthquake occurred in Haiti. That catastrophe, and the international response, and the historical, humanitarian, and political conversations that are now happening, have made me appreciate even more the importance of reading history. We must inform ourselves and allow ourselves to be inspired by those who preceded us. Others have faced what appeared to be overwhelming challenges. As I follow the news on Haiti, I am encouraged by the response I see reported through the media, and by the coverage of political, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts, large and small. Germany 1945, is ultimately very respectful of humanity and our capacity to heal, to build and to share, and reading it provides me with the same kind of encouragement and hope for the present and the future.

Note: Richard Bessel dedicates his book To the memory of my father, who was there. My own father was there as well, first as a combat infantryman helping to achieve the military victory that was so necessary and costly, and later as part of the occupying forces who witnessed the consequences of war, of political extremism, of racism and genocide, and contributed to the rebuilding of a nation, an economy, and a society. I thought of my father with every page of this book and missed him intensely as I wished I could share it with him and ask him, once again, what it looked like through his eyes.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic post. I'm going to add you to The Procrastination Salon's blogroll—you've arrived!