When Germany was defeated on 8 May 1945 this was only the start of her troubles. After 12 years of National Socialism, during which Hitler had promised to regenerate the nation after the First World War, ordinary Germans found their country once again defeated and this time occupied by the four Allied powers. Each took charge of a portion of the conquered territory. Although private correspondence shows that many Germans could not wait for the war to be over, when the end came, they had mixed feelings about the prospect of occupation.
During nearly six years of war, families had been ripped apart and personal ambitions put on hold as people channelled their energies into serving the nation. They understandably yearned for a resumption of some sort of normality, but would this be possible under Allied rule? Ppropaganda minister Joseph Goebbels suggested it would not. In a last-ditch attempt to strengthen resolve, he urged the German people to fight to the bitter end or face brutal vengeance at the hands of the Allies.
Exorcising Hitler opens with the Americans arriving on German soil in September 1944. Beginning with the conquest of Germany, it gives a clear and engaging account of Allied rule, and shines a spotlight on all the difficulties inherent in such a situation. Once Germany had surrendered, the occupying forces sought first to punish those who had perpetrated the Nazi war and second to re-educate the masses who - they believed - had been brainwashed by Hitler.
Each of these tasks was fraught with difficulty. As news reports brought more details to light of the horrific crimes in Nazi death camps, occupation troops were reinforced in their belief that punishment rather than rehabilitation was the order of the day. Some war criminals were easy to identify, such as high-ranking members of the Nazi leadership. But what of the millions of ordinary Germans? How could their culpability be assessed and quantified?
This question was made all the more challenging since most Germans destroyed any evidence that would indicate support for Nazism. For the American photo-journalist Margaret Bourke White, after 1945 "the Germans act as though the Nazis were a strange race of Eskimos who came down from the North Pole and somehow invaded Germany". If many Germans sought to cover up their involvement in the Third Reich, how could Allied forces root out Nazism and punish its proponents?
Through a series of questionnaires the occupiers sought to categorise individuals' involvement with the regime. This in turn affected employment prospects. In theory at least, high-ranking Nazis were removed from public office. In practice, however, so many Germans had been caught up in National Socialism that blanket dismissals of lawyers and teachers, for example, led to chronic shortages within the professions, and this policy had to be reversed. Germans who possessed valuable services to offer the occupying powers, such as doctors or dentists, were less rigorously vetted than those who had little to barter.
Other factors hindered the clear-cut imposition of Allied policy. Although many Allied troops arrived with a firm hatred of Germans, once they came into contact with Germans and found that they behaved much like their comrades, the sharp categorisations of friend and foe began to melt away. That 20,000 German women emigrated to America as "GI brides" between 1946 and 1949 suggests that common ground, despite the politically hostile context of their meeting. Denazification, as Frederick Taylor shows, was fraught with problems. Its execution was piecemeal and inconsistent.
If overseeing Germany's transition to a peacetime footing presented the Allies with a number of challenges, Hitler cast a shadow over Germany which endures. Such has been the ongoing difficulty with exorcising Hitler that Germans have invented a compound noun,Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to describe coming to terms with the Nazi past. Taylor's insightful book, which ends with nascent Cold War hostilities being enshrined in the division of Germany, helps explain why Nazism left such a problematic legacy.
Hester Vaizey's 'Surviving Hitler's War' is published by Palgrave MacmillanReuse content