Raped, starved, beaten and shot - how Germans suffered after the war

The Germans may have committed appalling atrocities during the war – but that s no excuse for what the German people suffered at the hands of the Allies afterwards, author Giles MacDonogh tells Bridget Galton WINNING a war is one thing, but how do you

The Germans may have committed appalling atrocities during the war - but that's no excuse for what the German people suffered at the hands of the Allies afterwards, author Giles MacDonogh tells Bridget Galton

WINNING a war is one thing, but how do you humanely manage the peace once the guns fall silent?

That is the question posed by Giles MacDonogh's sober and thoughtful history After The Reich - a question still surely relevant in Iraq today.

It recounts how millions of Germans were driven from their homes, raped, starved, beaten and shot in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Given the scale of Nazi atrocities - and the fact that history is written by the victors - it is perhaps unsurprising that German suffering was underplayed in subsequent accounts, while the issue of civilian complicity has been well raked over.

But should complicity justify the rape and murder of non-combatants - and can we as victors absolve ourselves of shocking treatment of a vanquished people after hostilities have ceased?

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The dad-of-two, whose grandmother was Austrian Jewish, methodically documents how a million German soldiers died after the War, most in Soviet captivity as slave labourers, some behind the wires of former concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Sachenshausen.

A further two million women, children and elderly died, including 250,000 Sudenten Germans, ethnically cleansed by their vengeful Czech compatriots.

Other German communities in Poland and East Prussia were driven from their homes and left to starve in the vicious winters of 1946/1947.

Yet MacDonogh, of Highgate Road, Kentish Town, says few Germans acknowledge the scars left by the war because they deny themselves the right to victimhood.

"They had to take on board that Germany had committed these monstrous crimes, they could not shift the blame so right thinking, educated Germans think atonement is the only reasonable reaction to the war. Victimhood is not permitted because they are still atoning and must do so until the end of time.

"Yet universal guilt is an Allied construct that enabled the conquerors to do things they wouldn't otherwise have got away with. We have the idea that all Germans are guilty, yet some of them felt they were being liberated. It shows extraordinarily inadequate knowledge of life in a dictatorship to ask: 'if you thought this why didn't you say so or refuse to carry out that order?'"

MacDonogh says the only Germans who discuss the bad old days are elderly and uneducated.

"I occasionally sit in a seedy pub in Germany and older people speak to me of that time. The rapes that took place by the Red Army are fairly widely known about, but for many anything about ethnic cleansing is completely new."

While MacDonogh acknowledges there are many old Germans with bad consciences, he points out many Poles, Czechs and French were also neck-deep in the deportation of Jews.

"The more you dig the more you find that if most Germans knew about the final solution, a lot of Czechs knew too because their husbands and fathers were filling out the forms to send Jews to Auschwitz."

For the Russians, who only acknowledged the Holocaust as 'the death of Soviet civilians', the widespread rape and murder of Germans was motivated not by fury at their treatment of the Jews, but by their own class and race hatred.

"Rape has been used since the Trojan war to subjugate an enemy. There was no compassionate leave in the Soviet army, the soldiers were sex-starved and since the Germans had kept telling the Russians they were a superior race of Lords, they temptation to rape the Lord's lady was too much - the number of times they made the men of the family sit and watch was indicative that it was as much a class issue."

While rape was sanctioned by the Soviet authorities, Anglo-American troops were Court Martialled including 600 US soldiers - a disproportionate number of them black.

The French army also raped. In Freudenstadt in the Black forest, 600 women were assaulted over two nights and in Stuttgart 3,000 women and eight men.

MacDonogh says the "phenomenally barbaric" treatment of East Prussian Germans, who were reduced to cannibalism by appalling starvation, was a symptom of the Russians' unsentimental view of human life.

"It was contempt for human life on a vast scale but then life was pretty cheap where the Russians came from, their attitude to human life was even less sentimental than a member of the SS."

Currently writing a follow up book dealing with Germany and Austria on the brink of war in 1938, he is realistic about how much the British could have done.

"At Potsdam there was acknowledgement that these transfers of population from disputed (Russian controlled) territories had to be done in a humane manner but the Allies would have had to fight another war to do that and they were neither inclined nor in a position to superintend those transfers."

He adds: "You have to look at it in perspective. Winston Churchill would have thought very little of this book. When you have fought a war and made enormous sacrifices and crippled the country, to be accused of being inhumane towards people who were inhuman wouldn't have made sense to him."

Ultimately, it was the Communist threat that motivated the drive towards rebuilding Germany as a peaceful democracy, leading to expediently humane actions like the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan.

MacDonogh is not arguing against punishment of countries that perpetrate aggressive and barbaric acts, but he says: "When you conquer a people, part of the duty of a conqueror is to keep them alive. It's not enough to win a war you also have to win a peace."

After The Reich is published by John Murray at £10.99.