Book review / The massacre of truth

Crimes and Mercies: the fate of German civilians under Allied occupation by James Bacque, Little, Brown pounds 18.99

Linda Holt
Friday 29 August 1997 23:02

Blaming the Allies for their war record has become fashionable. Recent charges include bombing Dresden, not bombing Auschwitz, not suing for peace after the Battle of Britain, not negotiating with German resisters, bungling war crimes trials, and letting Nazi war criminals escape. Many of the arguments are profoundly unhistorical, depending on hindsight and the what if? scenarios beloved of "faction" thrillers. They assume that the Allies could - and should - have kept a morally clean sheet.

In 1989, a little-known Canadian novelist, James Bacque, published Other Losses, alleging that "800,000, almost certainly over 900,000 and quite likely over a million" German servicemen died from starvation or neglect in American and French camps following the Second World War. This was, Bacque claimed, a deliberately genocidal policy on the part of Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower. Other Losses became an international best- seller, and the subject of four television documentaries.

There followed numerous letters to German and North American newspapers from witnesses on both sides, confirming that conditions for German prisoners in 1945 had indeed been grim. Some camps, especially in the Rhine meadows, lacked adequate shelter, food and medical care. Prisoners were sometimes deliberately deprived of water and mail, and atrocities certainly took place.

These were far from original discoveries: 17 years previously a Federal German Commission on POWs had published an exhaustive 22-volume study. The value of Other Losses lay in its insistence that Germans had needlessly and illegally suffered not just in Soviet but American and French hands.

Unfortunately, Bacque's answers to the inevitable questions about numbers and responsibility seemed too sensational to be true. Where were the bodies of his "missing million"? How could Eisenhower have got away with acting like an American Hitler? And how does this fit in with his presidential record in transforming West Germany into a successful democracy with an independent army?

Common-sense objections were joined by debunkings from scholars. Bacque's 30 per cent death rate for US-held prisoners was a generalisation based on a typing error; all other figures in the document in question indicate a 3 per cent rate. The overall rate was 1 per cent (about 56,000).

Bacque interpreted a discrepancy of a million between columns headed "Other Losses" in two US Army reports as deaths. These were transfers to other zones, or releases without discharge, which included more than 660,000 conscripts from Hitler's last-minute Dad's Army. His only authority that "Other Losses" was a cover-up term for deaths was a retired US colonel. Now a nonagenarian who confesses to an unreliable memory, Philip Lauben has continually repudiated the claims Bacque attributed to him. In 1992, a collection of papers, Eisenhower and the German POWs, edited by Gunther Bischof and Stephen E Ambrose, burst the bubble once and for all.

But, as John Keegan has noted, Bacque is a true believer. Crimes and Mercies is his response to Bischof and Ambrose. Not that Bacque engages with their arguments: Ambrose is dismissed as an "American professor ... who adores Eisenhower". When Bacque quotes negative reviews of "a" book about Allied atrocities against Germans, he does not reveal that the book is his own Other Losses. He mentions the reviews only as examples of "denials" which "rest on delusion, not evidence". Nor does his new book correct his previous errors. Lauben is still chief witness for the prosecution, though a footnote explains how he was "re-educated" by "a Pentagon official".

Instead, Crimes and Mercies ups the ante: the Allies are now responsible for between 9.3 and 13.7 million deaths between VE day and 1950. To the German POWs in Western hands, Bacque has added ethnic Germans expelled from the eastern territories, residents of occupied Germany and Soviet- held POWs. There are dizzying parades of sources and calculations, designed to suggest Bacque has plenty of new evidence, especially from the recently opened KGB archives.

However, a Mad Hatter logic renders this useless. Bacque sniffs out statistical discrepancies, even between guesses for German population numbers, as if all were cover-ups for mass deaths: 5.7 million, according to one discrepancy on census returns between 1946 and 1950. He ignores the contrary evidence and the lack of reliable records. The millions of displaced persons, army personnel and refugees who turned up in Germany in the war's chaotic aftermath were hardly a predictable or measurable population.

As in Bacque's first book, lost opportunities can be glimpsed, particularly when he highlights ethnic cleansing of Germans from the Baltic to the Danube. Destroying centuries-old communities such as the Sudeten Germans may have seemed sensible after Hitler used them to justify his expansion, but the full extent of their suffering has yet to be recognised. A major reason for this neglect is, of course, the Holocaust, beside which German suffering can look trivial.

Bacque's strategy is to expunge the word "Holocaust" from his vocabulary; there is one passing reference to "the slaughter in Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz", but only as "war crimes" which have been used as justifications for vengeance and continuing "war hatred" towards Germany. David Irving and company will lap this up. Bacque crowns this nonsense by blaming Roosevelt and Churchill for not declaring war on the Soviet Union after the defeat of Hitler.

Crimes and Mercies reads like apocalyptic fantasy. The only mystery is why it has appeared between the hard covers of a reputable publisher instead of on sandwich boards in Oxford Street. Admittedly, it resembles much news reporting of historical material: a sensational treatment based on decontextualised sources, the uncritical use of oral history, and conspiracy theories. One appendix relates how a man he calls "Jean Le Spy" revealed that Bacque was being spied on by "Canadian, American, British, French and Russian agencies". Further proof for this conspiracy comes from the academics and journalists who refuted his first book and the 15 publishers who turned down the manuscript of his second. Did nobody at Little, Brown rumble Bacque? Or did they just see another best-seller?

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