Exorcising Hitler: the Occupation and Denazification of Germany

As Allied tanks rolled in to Germany towards the end of the Second World War, leading SS officials set up a resistance organisation under the name of "Werwolf", to be put into operation by a network of regional "commanders of special resistance", charged with harassing enemy lines in the rear. The last time they had been invaded, by Napoleon's armies in 1813, the Prussians had mounted a large-scale and popular uprising against the hated conqueror.

In 1944-45, the Nazis confidently expected the same thing to happen again. After all, the French had resisted; so, too, had the Poles and other subject nations. The Germans, patriotic to the core and inspired by the example of Adolf Hitler, defiant in his bunker in Berlin, would surely be bound to do the same.

Frederick Taylor opens his history of Germany at the end of the war and during its immediate aftermath with the story of a small Werwolf group charged with assassinating the Allied-appointed mayor of Aachen in March 1945. Parachuting on to the Dutch side of the border, the team shot its way into German territory and, hiding in the woods during daylight hours, crept towards the city by night.

The guerrillas broke into the mayor's house, but he was out at a reception for retiring local Nazi administrators. They cut the telephone wires. Pretending to be German air force personnel, the assassins greeted the mayor on his return with a request for food. As a good German, he ordered his maid to prepare sandwiches, though he also told the group to give themselves up to the Americans. As he was coming out of the cellar kitchen, the mayor found the way blocked by the Werwolf team. When one of the commandos, losing his nerve, failed to tell him that he had been condemned to death for collaboration, another snatched his revolver and shot the mayor through the temple. As the assassins made their getaway, the Nazi propaganda machine in Berlin trumpeted the deed as an example of how all true Germans should deal with collaborators.

But this was virtually all that the "resistance movement" managed to achieve. Apart from a few sporadic incidents of sabotage and attacks on enemy troops, particularly in the east, the "werewolves" turned out to be more propaganda myth than fighting reality. All over Germany, the people were waving white flags out of their windows as the Allied forces approached. Hitler, for whom many Germans thought they had been fighting, was dead; the Allied victory demonstrated the ultimate superiority of the enemy's power, inviting acceptance from a population that the Nazis had been telling for 12 years that might was right. Just as the French and the Belgians had done little to resist the Germans in 1940-41, when it seemed they were destined to rule the whole of Europe for years to come, so, too, the Germans accommodated themselves in 1944-45 to what looked very much like the inevitable, as indeed it turned out to be.

Taylor is a great storyteller, and the saga of the "werewolves" is as gripping as anything you could hope to find in a history book. It's all here: the Allied troops' shocked discovery of the concentration camps, filled with thousands of starving, lice-ridden prisoners, lying in filth amid piles of the dead; the ruined towns and cities, flattened by the repeated bombing raids staged by the Allied air forces, where German civilians struggled to stay alive after food supplies had dried up, when water, gas and electricity were no longer being delivered to people's homes, and when the roads and railways had mostly been destroyed; the mass rape of more than a million German women by Red Army troops, seeking to humiliate the Germans and wreak revenge for their own years of dehumanising deprivation.

Taylor describes the mayhem that ruled in Germany at the time: eight million slave labourers and "displaced persons", jostling for position with more than 11 million ethnic Germans who either were refugees or had been expelled from the east, summarily ejected from their homes, often with considerable brutality, by Czechs, Poles and other peoples who had bent under the Nazi yoke. Millions more German soldiers were confined to prisoner-of-war camps from which some of them, as in the Soviet Union, were not released until the mid-1950s. There was mass looting by Allied, above all Red Army, troops - on close inspection, the celebrated photo of a Soviet soldier raising the Red Flag over the Reichstag reveals that he is wearing not one but several stolen wrist watches. And the black market grew ubiquitous, with goods paid for not in money that was rapidly losing its value, but in cigarettes, which everyone at the time seemed to crave.

For all the chaos and suffering he portrays, Taylor never loses sight of how the Germans under Nazi leadership inflicted far greater suffering on the rest of Europe during the war. For the crimes they had committed, they were now held to account by the Allies, and all over Germany ex-Nazis were arrested, detained, interrogated and, in many cases, put on trial. Beyond this, there was "denazification", in which millions of Germans had to answer questions about their Nazi past. Taylor describes the shortcomings and absurdities of the process.

In the end, as the cold war made it politic not to offend West Germans too much, it ran into the sands. Former Nazis, many of them terrible war criminals, flocked back into the establishment in disturbing numbers.

Yet was denazification as much of a failure as Taylor implies? In the end, neo-Nazism never even came close to upsetting the functioning, if complacent, democracy that was established under Konrad Adenauer. The German people achieved stability not by exorcising Hitler, but by forgetting him. Taylor's treatment of the re-establishment of political life in Germany is too cursory, and he would have done better to have stopped in 1947 rather than attempting to continue the story up to the present day.

Nevertheless, as a history of the occupation, this is a great book. Filled with quotable quotes and memorable anecdotes, it presents a vivid portrait of life in Germany at and just after the end of the war. And there is enough analysis here to give the reader a clear view of what motivated Allied conduct and of how and why it changed over time. Taylor's book is popular history at its best, essential reading for anyone who is interested in the Nazis and wants to know what happened next. l

Exorcising Hitler: the Occupation and Denazification of Germany
Frederick Taylor
Bloomsbury, 480pp, £25

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of Modern History and President of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of "The Third Reich at War" (Penguin, £12.99)

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, and the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle