Liberation, By William I Hitchcock

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The Independent Culture

'Deliver us from our liberators!" This was a plea often made by the citizens of occupied Europe after the Allied invasion of June 1944. It was uttered not just because the assault on Hitler's fortress did so much collateral damage (to use the grotesque modern euphemism) but because American and British soldiers often behaved badly towards the population on whose behalf they were fighting. Amid the excitement of battle and the jubilation of victory, says William Hitchcock, the fate of the liberated has often been ignored. It is the purpose of his scholarly book to give them a voice.

In the 24 hours after the D-Day landings, 3,000 French people were killed, about the same death toll as that suffered by Allied troops in the invasion. Some 20,000 civilians lost their lives during the struggle for Normandy, mostly as a result of Allied bombing. The material destruction was such that the inhabitants likened it to another Crucifixion. Thousands became troglodytes, taking refuge in damp caves used for cultivating mushrooms. The city of Caen was pounded to rubble, which did not prevent a British major from asking the deputy mayor, just after the Germans had left, if he could recommend a good hotel where he might have a hot bath.

To compound the carnage, Allied soldiers, less well-disciplined than those of Wehrmacht, engaged in widespread disorder, looting and rape. These crimes exacerbated racial tension resulting from the presence of black troops. Numbering 10 per cent of the American total, they got a shockingly disproportionate amount of the blame for sexual misbehaviour. Military courts passed 151 death sentences for rape, but most whites were reprieved. All but four of the 29 men executed were black. As Hitchock remarks, the face of liberation in Normandy, where vengeance was wreaked on more vulnerable collaborators, especially women, was "ugly and bruised".

If Norman peasants often greeted their liberators with sullen apathy, familiar scenes of euphoria took place when the Allies broke out and streamed across France and into Belgium. Villagers threw flowers, children waved flags, girls kissed GIs and Tommies, who handed out chewing-gum and cigarettes. But as Allied supply lines lengthened and German resistance stiffened, the fighting grew more bitter. Hitchcock gives a vivid account of the way men were brutalised in bloody battles on the German border, where hatred of the enemy intensified and atrocities occurred on both sides. Civilians were treated with savagery, Germans carrying out hideous reprisals, Allied troops indulging in vicious licence. By 1945 half a million American soldiers had got VD.

Needless to say, Soviet Russia had far greater cause to seek retribution. The Führer's quest for Lebensraum caused the deaths of about 25 million people, a loss 65 times larger than that suffered by the US. As the Red Army prepared to advance onto German soil, Marshal Zhukov proclaimed: "Great and burning is our hatred! We have not forgotten the pain and suffering done to our people by Hitler's cannibals ... We shall avenge those burned in the devil's ovens, avenge those who suffocated in the gas chambers ... We shall exact a brutal revenge for everything." Its ferocity confirmed the German inclination to depict the Russians in bestial terms, Hitchcock writes, as "apes on the rampage".

By contrast, Germans were amazed by the leniency of the Allied occupation. Civilians did suffer some violence, particularly when Nazi abominations came to light. At Dachau Americans found 35,000 skeletal inmates and a train of 40 boxcars containing 2,000 prisoners, all dead. But Allied soldiers were often as much revolted by the scarcely human remnants in the concentration camps as they were outraged by those responsible for such inhumanity. As one RAMC Captain confessed, "All I felt was horror, disgust, and I am ashamed to admit it, hate ... against the prisoners themselves for looking as they did, for living as they did, for existing at all."

The invaders were also appalled by the virtual eradication of German cities such as Cologne and Mainz, which looked "like the excavated ruins of an earlier civilisation, or like watered-down fragments of children's sandcastles". And they sympathised with people who were, as one GI put it, "cleaner and a damn sight friendlier than the frogs". Eisenhower's order against fraternising with the defeated enemy could not be enforced, particularly with regard to sexual intercourse. Indeed, to vindicate democracy as well as maintain law and order, it was essential to be magnanimous in victory.

So in many ways the Germans were treated with more consideration than the starving Dutch, than Cossacks returned to Stalin, than Jews still being persecuted by Poles, than the 8.6 million persons displaced by the shambles of war. Those sent home often met with indifference, incomprehension and even disbelief. Although cared for, those who remained in camps were kept under strict control. Still, Hitchcock gives high marks to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which spent $4bn on food, medicine and humanitarian work.

Like many Americans, he is critical of the British government's "indefensible" opposition to the emigration of large numbers of Jews to Palestine. Partly he seems to attribute this policy to anti-Semitism, partly to wilful ignorance about the Holocaust and partly to continuing imperial ambitions in the Middle East. There are elements of truth in Hitchcock's strictures. But he fails to acknowledge that Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary, believed the establishment of a Zionist state would be unjust to the Arabs, who should not have to pay the debt Europeans owed Jews for their suffering. When Hitchcock states that Harry Truman was "sensitive to the domestic political implications" of the whole issue, he is less forthright than the President himself, who conceded that he had no Arab constituents.

Hitchcock claims too much for this book. He asserts that we have sanitised the history of the liberation and that we suffer from collective amnesia about the horrors of Eisenhower's "great crusade". There has been no room, he declares, for awkward questions about civilian deaths, mass bombing, rape and rapine by the liberators, the post-war incarceration of Jews and the "too-swift reconciliation with unashamed Germans". In fact, historians have covered these topics exhaustively. This is not to say Hitchcock has been wasting his time. His book, written with rare lucidity, draws on much unpublished material and is a valuable contribution to a subject of perennial fascination.

Allied storm on three fronts

The Allied liberation of Europe began with the invasion of Sicily in July 1943; Rome was freed by June 1944, and northern Italy by spring 1945. In June 1944, the D-Day landings began to push German forces back through northern France and the Low Countries, but the Allies did not cross the Rhine and enter Germany until February 1945. In the east, the Red Army stormed through Poland and Ukraine in 1944, took Prussia and reached Berlin. Soviet and American forces met on the Elbe on 25 April 1945.

Piers Brendon's 'The Decline and Fall of the British Empire' is published by Vintage

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