Germany had become a nation of walkers. Men, women, children and the infirm all at some point in time and across the formerly spacious Reich left their homes, shoppes and places of worship toward the center or west of Germany. The sins committed by fathers and sons of Germany had come home, and many faced a fork in the road of their lives: Suicide and a quick death, or run, and stave off death at least for a little while. In After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation attempts to bring this dark and turbulent era of peace to light in hopes of putting a mirror to the faces of an overly righteous east and west.

While conventional knowledge of the Russian atrocities in Berlin and elsewhere was widely available and shared during the Cold War, less discussed, if known, was the atrocities committed by French, English and American soldiers against the occupied populous from the time of Germany’s surrender through the creation of the West German state in the late 1940s. To be sure, on scale alone, Russia’s crimes against the German people are of a magnitude unmatched elsewhere in continental history since perhaps the 30 Years War.

MacDonogh is adept at exploring and interweaving the Macro and the Mico scale of destruction that permeated not just from an economic perspective, but also the fraying of the cultural fabric of German society. For example, the assault of German women was also compounded by the fact that many women were later forced to commoditize their bodies in order to procure goods for their families that they needed to survive. This begrudged the German men, if any were left, and had an emasculating effect that likely put strains on thousands of post war marriages.

In addition, through utilizing personal narratives, MacDonogh is skillfully able to create a complex portrait of persons and places that provides a human face to the occupation while not neglecting the need to examine the topic in a broad, generally readable, manner.

                At the risk of stating the obvious, any academic student will quickly realize that it is inherently difficult to create a broad and stimulating historical examination of a period of time that occupies the better part of a decade and spans several countries and hundreds of historical actors. The author does his best, but by the time the reader reaches the occupation of Austria, the intellectual and emotional reserves are run thin. This is unfortunate, because the occupation of former Hapsburg lands is almost more interesting than the increasingly homogenized Germany. When occupying forces entered the west and east of the countries, respectively, they happened upon a country filled with deportees from the east as well as Slovenes, Croats, Italians as well as native Austrians.

In many cases, the German speaking evacuees had been forcibly put on trains or forced to walk the hundreds if not thousands of miles to the Austrian border while experiencing every conceivable type of deprivation and denigration. This presented a complex issue to the three occupying nations (UK, USA, USSR), who approached their occupying duty in Austria with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The English were bored, the Americans were confused, and the Russians mainly concerned with shipping everything of industrial or economic value back to the charred and destroyed areas in the east. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of the occupiers of Germany proper, where the attitudes of the Big Three were almost uniformly punitive. It is a shame that Macdonogh does not spend more time on this analysis, as he becomes more involved in presenting an ever growing and wearying amount of evidence of Allied crimes.

Another particularly jarring moment is the oft overlooked (or purposefully hidden) role of the English troops in ‘repatriating’ Cossack troops who had fought under German flag against Bolshevik’s, but as Stalin made clear, they were still citizens of his Soviet Union and therefore his to deal with. This in effect was a mass deportation of men but also their women and children to the east and an almost certain death. A slightly moving if romanticized moment occurs when the German commander of the Cossacks, Helmut Von Pannwitz, chooses to go to Russia with the rest of the men under his command, though strictly speaking as a Wehrmacht officer in British custody he was not forced to go with them. Macdonogh masterfully shows the connections that people make during wartime that have long reverberating effects. Pannwitz was summarily shot in Moscow upon his arrival for crimes against the Slavs in Yugoslavia. The casualness with which death was meted out after the supposed peace is one of the great unmentioned themes of the Macdonogh’s work, and is the element that sticks with the reader the most after conclusion.

The race to the finish of a conflict often includes a frenzied period of violence in advance of the coming peace. Before the guns went silent on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month in the last Great War, the artillery from both sides rang constantly, hoping to add one more body to the enemy’s cemeteries and wastelands. In the second war, violence of that sort continued unabated long after the ink on the losers signed documents went dry. If anything, Macdonogh show readers that assault, looting and murder petered out only after the perpetrators appetite, whetted by 6 years of deprivation, had been satiated.

In the west, the narrative shown to school children and uninformed adults is one of monastically abstinent American and British soldiers entering a benighted Germany, grateful for their carpet bombings and ‘liberating’ them from their possessions and in some cases, lives. Instead, what Macdonogh shows is that brutality is not party to one nation or one side. Instead it is a crime that makes even victors become villains.

Recommended for readers familiar with Central European social history and revisionist narratives.

  After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonogh. Basic Books USA: 2007. 656 Pages.  Purchased copy.

15793661Establishing some kind of unified field theory concerning British hegemony in the 19th and first half of the 20th century has become something of a grail quest for historians. Perhaps one of the most incisive and exhaustively academic is “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire” by Lawrence James. For as rigorous as James’ study is (700+ pages), it was published some 15 years ago. Current academic and social understanding of empires have continued to evolve from then. For example, when James was published, Hong Kong still had two years of its 99 year lease left.

Into this vacuum enters English historian John Darwin. Having previously tackled imperial attitudes in After Tamerlane and The Empire Project, Darwin uses his experience as a lecturer and researcher to attempt to provide a complete account of the question that has haunted the British establishment since perhaps 1948; What caused the decline and fall of the great British Empire?

I said before that historians looking for a united theory in explanations have discussed this topic in academic journals and publications for years. In an attempt to square this historical circle, Darwin proposes that the reason Britain became an empire at all was because of the “four C’s”: colonizing, civilizing, converting and commerce. It is a neat and tidy grouping that does its best to contain the bloated weight of two hundred years of imperial memory.

However, I give credit to where credit is indeed due. Darwin has an excellent moment of real keeping early on when he states:

“Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither peculiarly modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over.”

In fact I think it is fairly easy to defend the thesis that empire was the default setting of early nations and states. The fact that some succeeded for longer than others is a testament to the brutality of these empires.

Darwin doesn’t exactly offer his work in supplication to the formerly ruled. Instead, it acts more as contextualization of European empire in general and British policy in particular. None of which is to say he does not call out the sadistic nature of the occupying forces. His coverage of Indian policy and also the internment of both Boers and later Mau Mau is particularly acidic in nature. If permitted, I would take Darwin’s conclusions a bit further and reference George Orwell, whose experience serving the glory of the Raj drove him nearly insane with anger at the local population (see “Shooting and Elephant”).

Understandably, empires are destructive not just to the people that are being occupied. They also wear on the emotional stress of the occupier and colonial elite. Tales of alcoholism, violence and madness are a common theme stitched through his whole narrative.

Indeed, if Darwin succeeds in creating a great narrative of British rise to hegemony, it is on a kind of cumulative radicalisation. “entrepot imperialism”, using force and soft power to force British goods into new markets, ruled policy until the foundation of the American Republic in 1783. From this cataclysm for British soft power, new markets were already opening up, as Darwin points out:

“…far from heralding the implosion of British imperial power, the loss of America was the prelude to a colossal expansion of its scale and ambition.”

This ambition had a name; India and (and greater South Asia as a whole). From here Britain would make its mark into the history books as its laissez faire rule through corporatism led inexorably to direct rule and from there to complete domination of the sub continent and elsewhere.

While Darwin does cover the various entry points into local societies around the globe that marked the modern world with anglophone names on a majority of the world’s landmass, his best work is when discussing how India and South Asia were the real linchpin to British hegemony in the world. The navy they used kept markets relatively stable for British goods which could be produced ‘freely’ from cheap Indian labour.

Darwin doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the table regarding British rule of the world’s largest empire. But perhaps the fact that it keeps civil society discussing the legacy of imperialism and how it very visibly affects our day to day life is worth while enough.

Recommended for readers with interest in broad anglophone histoy, great for introductory courses.

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain By John Darwin. Bloomsbury Press USA 2012. 496 Pages. Purchased Copy

I am in the process of finishing reading Tony Judts splendid Thinking the Twentieth Century, and have some additional thoughts to this work. On page 238, Judt is remarking on the duties of historians as citizens skilled enough and armed with a purpose and clarity to expose others to the ascertainable facts of a certain event. I agree with Judt when he says that teaching history is difficult now because so many instructors believe their job is to jump to reappraisal of the source material, without discussing the source material itself in a clear headed and understandable fashion, while using language that elevates discourse.

I was lucky enough to have some great professors in my undergraduate days, and I think most of them had us 18,19 year olds first learn what was real, what happened, and what was happening at the time of events occurring. After that, then you have license to discuss ideas and revising narratives, but first and foremost the duty of an instructor is to teach clarity of thought.

An example: the murder of Polish intelligentsia in Katyn in the Second World War happened. It did. The Poles murdered and buried in mass graves did not crawl into them of their own accord; someone put them there in a planned way. This has been proved by later testing by anthropologists and biologists.

This is an example of good history. Presenting an event that occurred, identifying who did what to whom, and then explaining the surrounding time, ie the Second World War.

An example of ‘bad’ history is basically anything written by David Irving. This British historian used primary source material and instead of base lining the events as they transpired, used material to craft a narrative that runs counter to the truth. Once you untangle Irving’s deluded thoughts from the ‘facts’ he presents as evidence, the remaining pieces fall apart fairly quickly, much like vines that have twisted a once great building and turned it into rubble.

Borders was never as ‘cool’ as Barnes and Noble. It was never as chic, but Borders was always a better book store than Barnes and Noble.

When I was younger I used to go to Borders any time i was visiting my late grandfather and my grandmother at their house in eastern Florida. Unlike B&N, there were computer kiosks that would let me know exactly where the book on British history was located. While my grandfather was a loyal denizen of Barnes and Noble, I would beg them to let us go to Borders instead. My grandmother didn’t mind; it was closer to a Macy’s. As obliging grandparents they spent far too much time and money on me wandering through the store reading everything I could find.

I still have some of the CD’s and books that I spent a lot of time looking for. When I started getting into Snow Patrol and was looking for their first album, “Songs For Polar Bears” I looked everywhere I could to find it. Amazingly, I went to visit my grandparents and there it was, plain as day in the “S” section of Pop/Rock. While I have since lost the CD, I will always have the great memories of finding hard to get books and movies and CD’s, or simply whiling away time in air-conditioned bliss with my grandparents.

It really doesn’t matter now though. The Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s have taken over, and you can download any kind of film or album. But for a brief period, Borders was the best book store in America.