Customer Reviews: Germany 1945: From War to Peace
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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.
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on January 5, 2010
The author's premise is well supported by exhaustive research and a balanced approach to the suffering of the German people post-WWII. However, the book reads like a first or second draft badly in need of page-to-page and sometimes paragraph-to-paragraph editing. In more cases than I can count, the author appears to have forgotten what he had written just sentences before, so that the text repeats over and over, often verbatim. An experienced editor should have taken the book apart and put it back together in a less repetitive and irritating way. Overall, though, the book is a challenging but ultimately rewarding read on an important subject if you have the time and patience.
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VINE VOICEon October 6, 2009
This interesting book focuses upon a topic not too often discussed: what happened to Germany in the period immediately after the end of the World War II. Too often, we think that the defeat of the Third Reich ends the story--but really it has just begun. One of the valuable dimensions of this book is that the author has written "Germany After the First World War" and offers incisive comments comparing the two postwar periods. For example, when the first war ended, no destruction had occurred on German territory--by contrast in 1945, Germany was almost totally reduced to ruins by the fighting and incessant bombing campaign of the allies. In part, the author argues, the continued fighting long beyond any chance for German victory was a deliberate ploy by the Nazis to foreclose any chance of another Versailles treaty and betrayal--so fight to the bitter end. The first major chapter covers 1945 battle events. The amount of troops, tanks, and artillery the Russians alone brought to bear during the January offensive is simply amazing: 2.2 million troops; 7000 tanks and 5 army groups versus 400,000 German troops of varied quality. This is not even to mention the bloody fighting in the West. Some excellent maps help recount this part of the story.Succeeding chapters discuss the millions of Germans fleeing from the Soviets and other folks fleeing from Germany as it collapsed. The Russians massed even more firepower when attacking Berlin: 2.5 million troops; 6,260 tanks, 42,000 pieces of artillery and mortars. No wonder the city was nearly levelled. After the fall of the city, Admiral Donitz who now headed the government wanted to surrender to the Americans in the West but to continue fighting the Russians in the East to protect German civilians. Ike flatly refused this proposal.

The author then moves into his prime topic--the postwar period. The murder and mayhem that came on the heels of the defeat are recounted in detail. One effective device of the author is to, at various points, focus on the writings of individuals caught up in the turbulence--such as Victor Klemperer. So we see the events on both macro and micro levels. The revenge the Soviets unleshed the subject of another chapter. Then the author offers a very solid discussion of the occupation plans of each of the 4 occupying allies. All allied nations were hostile to the German population, considered them morally bankrupt and guilty of unspeakable crimes, so occupation was not handled with kid gloves, certainly not by the Americans. The "Loss of the East" recounts the Allied decision to remove Germany from Eastern Europe, with the author focusing on the transformation of Stettin on the Baltic into Szczecin in Poland. The DP's or displaced persons are examined, numbering in excess of eleven million wandering over eastern and western Europe. What to do with Germany is the topic of another chapter. Should Germany be turned into an agricultural state or allowed to rebuild its industrial base? The Americans had a hot internal debate over this. One change from the first war was that reparations were to be made in goods, not money. So the Russians removed whole factories and inventories of equipment and goods back home.

The author ends on a happier note: that Germany did come back from the brink. Moreover, it abandoned militarism due to five factors the author discusses. In 400 pages, this book is a very complete discussion of these and related issues. The author supports his narrative with 92 pages of notes and a good selective bibliography, as well as a very helpful collection of photographs. This book makes it clear that while the Germans suffered after the war, while their victims had suffered enormously during the war, the issue of respective moralities is much more complicated than that. One needs the facts to sort these issues out and this fine book is a solid step in that direction.
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on May 4, 2010
I would have awarded Bessel's contribution four stars had I not recently read the spate of books out on this part of history. Recently I have read After the Reich, Endgame 1945, Armageddon, 1945: The War that Never Ended, and Endkampf (I also have Bitter Road of Freedom waiting on my Kindle). My interest is solely because this is a fascinating period and I have been intrigued by the collapse of Nazi Germany ever since I read Ryan's The Last Battle at age 15. So Bessel's work is solid but not entirely fresh thus my three star ranking.

Where the book shines is in the description of the war in the first three months of 1945. It is incredible to comprehend the loss of 450,000 German soldiers in January alone and the might of the Soviet forces. The author also provides a clear picture of the rapidly disintegrating but surprisingly intact Nazi apparatus, the force migration of millions, and he provides an interesting analysis of the totality of the collapse that actually assisted Germany's resurgence barely 10-15 years later.

On the downside, the book is repetitive, the second half of 1945 not as strong as the first, and some people may not embrace the fairly extensive sympathy Bessel expresses for the German people. Overall, a fine contribution to the debate and recommended if you are new to the period but perhaps not as critical if you have read any of the other works mentioned above.
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on August 17, 2010
"Germany 1945" reads as if it were written by a Second World War "buff", as opposed to a professional historian. The writing is just too sophomoric and breezy for so serious a topic. To compound the reader's frustrations, the mundane and the obvious are repeated over and over and over again. If you've ever been curious about the effects of poor editing on the readability of a book, look no further.
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on October 9, 2009
Even though I hold a graduate degree in History I consider myself a "casual" historian, more at home with "popular history" than the sort of history written by historians for other historians. This book is a good example of the "fence sitter" genre of history, easily read and enjoyed by the casual reader of history, yet surely satisfying for the professional research historian.

Bessel is a great writer with an easy and enjoyable style. His thesis here, that the German people in 1945 considered themselves, and in fact were as much a "victim" as anyone else of the conflagration we call the Second World War, is both controversial and, on its face, completely understandable. His presentation of facts to support his thesis is overwhelming. It doesn't matter whether the average "German in the street" had any right to feel that way; what matters is that he did, and that in the long run that may have been the reason for the great post-war economic miracle that resulted in the modern, 21st century German "Super State."

If you are interested in modern European history this is a "must read."
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on March 15, 2011
Let me say at the outset that this is a historical volume of such great sweep that I find it difficult to sum up briefly, but here are some highlights.

What receives coverage in popular documentaries about World War II are the events leading to its start and the battles of the war itself. What seems to be missing from such coverage is what happened after the last shot was fired. What happened to Germany? What happened to the German people who found themselves living amidst the rubble and ruin of a post-Nazi world? The landscape of their nation was laid waste by the world's first "total war" -- a war which extended well beyond defined battlefields, expanding to include the populations of major cities.

Richard Bessel does an excellent job of sketching the fateful year of 1945 -- from the last agonizing months of the war in which it was clear that the Nazi leadership would continue to prosecute the war despite certain defeat, to the first tentative months of recovery immediately following German capitulation. Bessel divides the arc of this story into several blocks: (1) the desperate and hopeless military actions of the Reich's final months, (2) the delusional propaganda that was perpetuated to the German population during that time, (3) the final days of the Reich, (4) the psychological state of the German people following the defeat, (5) the actions of the occupation forces and their interactions with the local populace, and (6) the reestablishment of a manufacturing base and the seeds of Germany's political future. Quite a bit of attention is also devoted to the fluctuation of border populations in which Germans who had asserted dominance in Poland and Czechoslovakia during the war years either fled or were physically forced out by Poles and Czechs.

Somewhat controversially Bessel attempts to explain German feelings of victimhood following the war. This may be incomprehensible from an outsider's standpoint considering the atrocities committed by a nation which once eagerly followed its Nazi leaders. While never justifying it, Bessel argues that this feeling of victimhood arose from having lived through the consequences of the war in which almost every element of civilized life was destroyed as well as the harsh treatment the experienced under the hands of the victors. Specifically, treatment under the Soviets: organized rape and theft, expulsion, forced labor, multi-year detention to name but a few.

Anyone who ever wondered what price the German people paid for having ever been under sway of the Nazi party and for being perpetrators of some of the greatest crimes in human history should have no doubt that they paid a dear and terrible price. The suffering was deep and well distributed to the entire population. Does it balance the scales for what they did? There seem to be many other books which analyze that question.
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on July 13, 2013
I was born in Germany in 1941 and personally remember the traumas that many Germans underwent who had NOTHING to do with the war, who to had been victims of the madman called Hitler. This book gives an insight to the lives of the German people, and those of German decent who lived in neighboring countries who after the war had been sent to Germany. Their experiences and been quite tragic, and many, many people by the millions) lost their lives - - after the war, for actions by governments and people out of retribution for crimes of a madman and his henchmen.
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on September 16, 2009
I bought this book for my husband, who was a pre-teen boy in Germany in 1945. He is writing a memoir on his experience of the war, and believes Germany, 1945 is the best book on the topic that he has ever read, and over the years he has read many. He could have been one of the kids on the cover.
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VINE VOICEon January 17, 2010
Professor Bessel writes, straightforwardly but not always with liquid prose, of the year Germany lost World War II.

I think a reader of this book should have a good, prior understanding of the broader politics of the era so as to put Germany's climatic year of 1945 in full context. In other words, not all is contained in this given volume, which is focused on the dislocating impacts of the war's end on individual Germans (too often loss of home, acute hunger, rape, and/or death) and the country's shattered economy and social structures.

This book does bring home the hard suffering in 1945 of the average German; suffering that laid the ground work for a rapid economic and political recovery, at least in West Germany, in the 1950s and 60s. (It also helps explain the current reluctance of Germany to engage in the armed international "peace-keeping" missions that seem to abound in today's world.)
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