Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1945-1950

February 19, 2009

William Hitchcock's aim is to depict the human face of war and liberation in Europe. His subtitle refers to the misery suffered by civilians who discovered during liberation that the Allies' principal task was to defeat the German army, and that their relief would not come at once. Trying to survive Allied bombing and bombardment, civilians learnt that friendly armies can behave in devastatingly unfriendly ways towards the local citizenry.

The savagery of the Red Army as it descended upon the population - especially the women - of East Prussia and Berlin is legendary, and Hitchcock reminds us that "the war in the east had been predatory and merciless long before the Red Army arrived in Germany. What followed was quite simply a matter of vengeance". But he also describes the shock felt, for example, by the Belgians when American soldiers looted, mugged, brawled, raped and spread venereal disease, all of which contrasted with the goodwill the Allies generated by their efforts to restore normality: the Belgians prayed, "O Lord, deliver us from our liberators."

The Netherlands' fate was no less agonising, although there the suffering was caused by the fact that the Allies thrust on towards Berlin, leaving most of the country under German occupation until the end of the war. True to form, the Germans turned their anger against the population, thousands of whom were starved to death.

Summarising the wartime discussions of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, the author contrasts the sincere desire of Western leaders to restore freedom and sovereignty to the liberated countries with Stalin's cynical goal of installing a system of subordinate and satellite Communist states that would secure the Soviet Union against its potential enemies in the capitalist world. It has been shown elsewhere that Stalin told his foreign minister Molotov not to haggle with the Allies over how to deal with the Baltic states: "We will hold onto them by force."

Hitchcock rightly asks: for whom and from what were those countries liberated? The final year of the war thus emerges as a time of stark contradiction: relief that the long conflict was coming to an end, and distress at the heavy price liberation was imposing on its beneficiaries.

Well practised at falsifying their own history, Stalin's propagandists dictated the message to be broadcast by the countries under Soviet control: the Red Army liberated Eastern Europe from fascism and created the conditions for democratically elected Communist regimes to come into being. To the list of suppressed facts of its own past, Soviet history added the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyn murders, widespread local Soviet collaboration with the Nazis and suppression of resistance movements. The Americans' version, in Hitchcock's words, was "a steady diet of triumphalist narratives in which great generals and visionary politicians placed the burden of freedom onto the willing shoulders of the anonymous American GI, who carried out his duties with determination and honour".

As for the liberated European countries, Hitchcock asserts that, apart from Greece and Yugoslavia, most resistance movements had done little to regain their freedom, and therefore to restore the legitimacy of their postwar status. But they too embarked on creative history-writing. Accordingly, in those accounts, instead of collaboration, weak resistance movements and the brutality of the liberation, we find widespread resistance, Allied solidarity and the restoration of democracy.

In a chapter packed with data, Hitchcock shows how successfully the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) performed something like first aid on all the war-torn countries. Lists of individual disbursements indicate the degrees of need, with the largest allocations going to Poland and China, possibly with political goals in mind, and to Jewish agencies, no doubt as a response to what was found in the concentration camps.

Hitchcock describes the discovery of the camps in the most vivid and horrified language in a book that has horrors enough. Yet even for the camp inmates - the most degraded of all those who had suffered at the hands of the Germans - liberation was a mixed blessing. Thousands remained in the camps long after liberation - many up to five years - because they were unable or unwilling to go anywhere else, even with the UNRRA's help.

"Displaced persons", as they came to be called, were meant to return home, but by then neither Germany nor Eastern Europe was home to the Jews. Eisenhower, when he first saw a camp, commented: "We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against."

This remarkable book is no pacifist tract. It is a painfully successful attempt to throw light on the less glorious aspects of the "good war".

Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1945-1950

By William I. Hitchcock. Faber and Faber, 464pp, £25.00. ISBN 978057123. Published 22 January 2009

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