The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe by William I. Hitchcock
Although I had a number of gripes about this book, I ended up deciding that it was a pretty important book. First the gripes:
1. In the preface he suggests that the reason European nations chose not to participate with the US in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq was that, having experienced WWII on their own soil and recognizing the terrible price paid by those liberated (as well as the difficulty of the liberators), European countries had a more realistic (and “dark”) understanding of the task of regime change; they saw it as bigger and uglier than did the US. An intriguing thesis, but it was not in fact a thesis and the idea was never developed after its mention in the preface.
2. This may be inevitable in a book with such a subject, but Hitchcock narrates a truly endless tale of cruelty, neglect and, degradation, so much so that readers may be tempted to give it up and go on to something else in the same way they might choose not to watch films with endless violence. That would be a mistake because there’s an important message here, but I think Hitchcock could have organized more wisely and avoided this particular criticism.
OK. That’s out of the way. The message of this book—never explicitly stated until the conclusion—is that the “good war” wasn’t really so good and that the winners might have gone overboard not so much in making heroes and villains but in perpetrating the idea that some wars have clear outcomes and clean motives and even clean execution (except of course where the bad guys forced them into dirtier practices). In the US lately it’s been the “greatest generation” myth—when in fact American troops raped and pillaged and ran roughshod over civilians too. Earlier it was the “resistance myth” (particularly in France) when in fact, with the possible exception of Yugoslavia and Greece, resistance was materially ineffective.
Hitchcock starts in France and focuses on the sufferings of civilians through the Normandy invasions and the push into Germany and then moves on to Belgium and Holland focusing primarily on interactions between the military and the civilian population. It is odd that no one has as replayed these scenes; they are alarmingly reminiscent of the invasion of Iraq. Policies at the time forbad journalists to focusing heavily on civilian suffering, especially when it might cast doubt on the behavior of Allied troops and the decisions of Allied command. Since then, writers on the war have been busy building up the story of the “good war”, focusing on the military and its exploits, not on the civilians whose land they trampled.
In the process of rebalancing the view of WWII, Hitchcock sort of evens the score with respect to the behavior of British and American troops and those of the USSR. The latter are not whitewashed by any means, but troops on the Western front don’t sound like superhuman heroes either.
When Allied troops move into Germany itself, Hitchcock deals with fraternization issues. Initially US troops were forbidden to fraternize with German civilians, but ironically, they liked the German civilians more than those in France, Belgium and Holland. Even more ironically, but maybe not surprisingly, they identified with German civilians more than with those degraded humans they released from the concentration camps.
The real revelations of the book, as far as I was concerned, came when Hitchcock dealt with the problems of displaced persons immediately after the war: Jews—and others—liberated from the camps as well as civilians fleeing west to escape the Russians, plus prisoners of war or those transported to Germany to work were, in many cases, at loose ends as well. There were no plans in place to deal with them, the numbers were staggering and the problems almost insurmountable. Even defining who was entitled to what was problematic. Were Jews fleeing the Russians in the east (some bringing possessions and wealth with them) as entitled to help as those released from the camps? An early priority was returning people to their homes, but some had no homes and others didn’t want to go back to what was now the Russian zone. Soviet soldiers were returned to the USSR—where most ended up dead or in the Gulag (the result of a probably unwise agreement at Yalta), but there were civilians too. There was no solution except more camps, some without any more resources available to prisoners than had been the case in the German camps. DP camps--often built on the grounds of infamous death camps--housed “liberated” prisoners in a sort of limbo a year after the end of the war.
Other issues focused on the rescued Jews many of whom seemed hardly human after surviving the camps, most of whom were destitute, stateless and often debilitated. The liberators basically came from anti-Semitic environments and decried concentration camps and extermination, but didn’t want Jews living next door. Jews wanted to preserve memories of what happened to ensure the holocaust (it was not yet a capital letter issue) was never repeated; Western administrators wanted them to put the past behind them and move on. Large numbers of Jews with no home or families to return to wanted to start again in a Jewish homeland. Britain opposed letting Jews into Palestine, fearing clashes with Arabs they’d not have the ability to control. Other countries—including the US—didn’t want to take in large numbers of stateless, destitute, often debilitated, people.
Hitchcock doesn’t work through the problems to the end. His narrative, the theme of which is what happens to civilians in war, stops with the recognition that many of the liberated were still in camps 6 to 12 months after the end of the war. His conclusion—that we need to reevaluate our mythology about the “good war” and look at the disastrous effect of WWII on the European population—strikes me as a much-needed reevaluation. I do remember hearing about DPs and DP camps when I was a kid in the late 40s and 50s, but these days there has not been much focus on civilians (with the possible exceptions of those affected by the bombing in London which was not nearly as destructive as the wrath unleased on German cities at the end of the war).