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A hellish peace

Rape, execution, and torture were among the wounds inflicted on a conquered Germany by Allied forces

The Soviet flag rises over the Reichstag, Berlin, May 2, 1945. An estimated 3 million Germans died after the end of the war. The Soviet flag rises over the Reichstag, Berlin, May 2, 1945. An estimated 3 million Germans died after the end of the war. (AFP/Getty Images)

After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation
By Giles MacDonogh
Basic, 618 pp., illustrated, $32

World War II is generally, if simplistically, thought of as a "good war" -- with nations allied to save Europe from Hitler, its heroes and villains were clearly drawn. Yet, in his meticulously researched book "After the Reich," British-born Giles MacDonogh, an expert in German history, offers a different view of this "noble" war's aftermath. With unsparing detail and ample documentation, he chronicles the events after the victory in Europe in May 1945 to the Berlin airlift four years later, and exposes the slippery slope of the moral high ground many of us believed the Allies possessed during those years. Over the course of some 600 pages, MacDonogh posits that the Western allies ceded moral authority early on in the occupation of Germany, leaving a stain of shame on the victory over evil.

The victorious Allied forces-- the United States, Britain, France, and Russia -- took hold of Germany immediately upon its surrender and proceeded to inflict on the German people a policy-sanctioned vengeance so cruel that it makes the book tough reading, particularly in the early chapters. MacDonogh estimates that 3 million Germans died after the end of the war, from starvation, suicide, disease, or mass murder. He isn't out to make us feel sorry for the country that spawned and supported Hitler; he acknowledges that much of the Allies' vengeance was understandable after such a horrific war. It must have been particularly difficult for the liberators of the death camps not to want to exact a measure of revenge. But what happened in Germany and Austria, particularly with the Soviets, went far beyond the "to the conqueror belongs the spoils" credo. Inhumane policies were enacted, trials and executions of dubious merit undertaken, and the prison camps that had just been liberated -- Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and even Auschwitz -- were again put into operation, this time to hold Germans, many of whom perished in captivity.

From the opening chapter, which details the Red Army's invasion of Vienna, the book's account of mass rapes, pillage, and "looting on a staggering scale" of everything from sewing machines to gramophones to watches so coveted by the Soviets that men were routinely shot for the timepieces on their wrists is an exhaustive examination of human suffering and brutality. Gangs of soldiers invaded countryside houses for weeks and months at a time and systematically raped women and girls. After they left, suicide and self-inflicted abortion claimed more lives. The book also recounts the hundreds of thousands of eastern German civilians forced from their homes and across the border into Russia and used for slave labor (most were not released until the mid-1950s). The Red Army comes off as the most barbaric of the occupying forces, but MacDonogh spares no one. The Western allies skirted the Geneva Convention by torturing German POWs; those who survived were often used as slave labor. Civilians in all four zones were kept on starvation rations for years despite death and disease.

MacDonogh writes with authority but isn't the most fluid storyteller -- the book is dense with too much choppy information, however important, and his prose is sometimes ponderous. The wealth of statistics and factual accounts will appeal to academics but might be too arcane for casual history buffs more interested in an accessible approach. But MacDonogh knows his German history -- his past books include "The Last Kaiser: The Life of Wilhelm II" -- and his work has authoritative heft. Something of a Renaissance man, the Oxford-educated MacDonogh is also a painter and an expert in French gastronomy and wine -- which explains the odd but interesting sections that detail soldiers drinking themselves into oblivion by pilfering priceless wines from Germany's ancient cellars while the populace wastes away on meager rations of bread.

"After the Reich" is careful not to lay blame on military forces alone --it wasn't just the invading soldiers who sought retribution. FDR's treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, advocated a "peace of punishment" plan that split Germany into four mostly agrarian states. Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, disliked the Morgenthau plan, which he considered an act of revenge. When Truman met in Potsdam with Stalin and Churchill (replaced by Clement Attlee after the 1945 election), he surprised much of the world by conceding to many of Stalin's demands. As first outlined at Yalta, the Potsdam Conference divided Germany into four zones (also split into four were the capital cities of Vienna and Berlin). By this time, the United States realized it would not govern in partnership with Russia, as FDR had thought. Stalin's quest for postwar control quickly affected foreign policy and accelerated fears of a Communist takeover of Europe. With this new threat, the United States not only began to ignore the presence of former Nazis but recruited their help in the economic rebuilding of West Germany -- largely to save it from the Soviets.

One cannot read "After the Reich" without thinking of the phrase "winning the war but losing the peace" as the book draws a line from the occupation directly to the division of Berlin and the Cold War that gripped much of the world and informed foreign relations for the next 60 years. Scars across Europe from the post-World War II era remain, and MacDonogh has picked the scab at a time of modern war and occupation when, perhaps, the world most needs to examine an old wound.

Loren King is a freelance writer based in Boston.