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An Excellent Study of Germany's "Zero Hour"
on August 23, 2009
This is a masterful study of how Germans experienced the tumultuous year of 1945. Written by Richard Bessel, a leading historian of modern Germany, this work progresses chronologically from the final months of the war through the long-anticipated defeat and into the first months of the Allied occupation. The book offers 400 pages of analysis in order to convince the reader of one rather straight-forward claim: "the shock of 1945...not merely allowed but compelled Germans to leave racist imperialism behind, and made possible the German odyssey from catastrophe to democracy during the second half of the twentieth century." (390)
In the course of his study, Bessel engages a number of contemporary historical debates on Germany and Second World War. For instance, he concentrates a great deal of attention on German trauma suffered at the hands of the Allies (and not always the Soviets) as the war came to a close. This theme continues throughout the book, as he emphasizes that "the ferocity of the last months of the war and the privations of the first months of peace pushed the experiences of the previous years of war and dictatorship, as well as consciousness of what the Nazi regime had done to other peoples during the earlier phases of the conflict, into the background." (388)
Another central issue with which Bessel engages is the "zero hour." This concept -- often mentioned in postwar accounts of 1945 -- meant drawing a line with the Nazi past and beginning a new postwar era. Often criticized by historians who seek to locate important continuities across the chasm of 1945, the "zero hour" plays an important role in this work. Bessel is unapologetic in his discussion of the "zero hour" and asserts that the year 1945 did indeed mark a turning point for many Germans. Despite the many continuities that spanned the destruction of the Third Reich, Bessel argues that the perception of a clean break with the past played a critical role in helping Germans rebuild after the war.
The book addresses a number of other important themes as well -- including Allied bombings; the pointless defense of "fortress cities;" German POWs; displaced persons; expulsions from the East; looting, rape, and murder at the hands of the Allies; and denazification. Despite his focus, and the controversial ground that some would say he is walking, he maintains his perspective as an historian. In detailing the horrors that accompanied the arrival of the Soviets in many German areas (a chapter fittingly entitled "Revenge"), Bessel reminds the reader of how the Germans had treated Soviets as they pushed toward Moscow in 1941. In detailing the vengeance that befell the guards of liberated concentration camps, he explains that the reactions of both blood-thirsty survivors and angry American soldiers were "sadly understandable." (164)
There are lots of other gems to be found in this book. One such example would be Bessel's discussions of the stringent policies of the French in their zone (and the striking similarities with the Soviet zone, perhaps owing to their shared experience as peoples who had suffered through German occupations). Another would be the geographical diversity of Bessel's sources. He draws evidence from small Bavarian villages, towns on the Dutch border, urban centers such as Cologne, Berlin, and Munich, and rural areas in the East. He often integrates lengthy passages from these sources into his narrative -- sometimes a bit more liberally than is necessary -- but they always enhance his argument.
There's very little to quibble with in this book. Arguably his book is over-bearing at times. In a book targeted at a popular audience, one might think that Bessel could trim away some of his examples. Yet it is hard to fault an historian for being thorough. Others might criticize Bessel for not engaging more recent scholarly literature on trauma, death, and the air war. Then again, one never gets the feeling that he has missed something or diverted our attention from the issues at hand. Bessel's "Germany 1945" is a well-organized and engaging account of how Germans experienced a year that, quite literally, changed everything.