Giles MacDonogh is a bon viveur and a historian of wine and gastronomy, but in this book, pursuing his other consuming interest – German history – he serves a dish to turn the strongest of stomachs. It makes particularly uncomfortable reading for those who compare the disastrous occupation of Iraq unfavourably to the post-war settlement of Germany and Austria.
MacDonogh argues that the months that followed May 1945 brought no peace to the shattered skeleton of Hitler’s Reich, but suffering even worse than the destruction wrought by the war. After the atrocities that the Nazis had visited on Europe, some degree of justified vengeance by their victims was inevitable, but the appalling bestialities that MacDonogh documents so soberly went far beyond that. The first 200 pages of his brave book are an almost unbearable chronicle of human suffering.
His best estimate is that some three million Germans died unnecessarily after the official end of hostilities. A million soldiers vanished before they could creep back to the holes that had been their homes. The majority of them died in Soviet captivity (of the 90,000 who surrendered at Stalingrad, only 5,000 eventually came home) but, shamingly, many thousands perished as prisoners of the Anglo-Americans. Herded into cages along the Rhine, with no shelter and very little food, they dropped like flies. Others, more fortunate, toiled as slave labour in a score of Allied countries, often for years. Incredibly, some Germans were still being held in Russia as late as 1979.
The two million German civilians who died were largely the old, women and children: victims of disease, cold, hunger, suicide – and mass murder.
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