Saturday, February 6, 2010

Zero Hour by Richard Bessel

Germany was the first country in modern history to achieve total defeat. The Nazi regime did not surrender and German soldiers did not stop fighting, even when foreign armies were approaching the gardens of the Reich Chancellery in the center of Berlin. Never before in modern history had a nation reached the depths plumbed by Germany in 1945: its sovereignty was extinguished; its infrastructure was smashed; its economy was paralysed; its cities reduced to piles of rubble; much of the population was hungry and homeless; its armed forces were disbanded and their surviving members were in prisoner-of-war camps; its government had ceased to exist and the entire country had been occupied by foreign armies. Germany had become a land of death, the bombing and the fighting on the ground left a landscape littered with corpses.

Franz Scholz wrote in his diary about conditions in the parish of St. Bonifatius in the east of Gorlitz:

"The mortuary at the municipal cemetery is bursting at the seams, the dead can no longer be accommodated, only the countless corpses of children are brought there. The huge hall of the Nikolai Church is used for the corpses of adults. Some 100 corpses, place temporarily in boxes, await the main entrance one sees a pile of the dead, taller than a man and covered with sackcloth. At one end the tangle of naked feet, at the other hair and people's heads"

Georg Gottwald described the scene in his town of Grunberg:

"[...] in the first 14 days after the Russians arrived over 500 people (entire families, men, women and children) ended their lives by suicide, including doctors, senior court officials, factory owners and prosperous citizens. The corpses of those who had killed themselves remained in people's flats or were left on the pavement for two weeks."

Germans were confronted with the dead in the west also. In the first half of 1945 carrying out one's daily tasks meant encountering the dead on the streets- the corpses of soldiers and civilians, of strangers and acquaintances, of people who could no longer be recognized. As never before, dead became part of everyday life. This made a deep and lasting impression.

For the Germans, 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 the consciousness of what the Nazi regime had done to other peoples during the early phases of the conflict, into the background. Not Auschwitz but Dresden; not the battle for Warsaw in 1939 but the battle for Berlin in 1945; not the atrocities committed against civilian populations across Nazi-occupied Europe but the rape of hundreds of thousands of German women in the spring of 1945; not the expulsion of Poles from their homes in areas annexed by the 'Greater German Reich' in West Prussia and the 'Warthegau" but the expulsion of Germans from their homes in East Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia and the Sudetenland; not the creation of 'dead zones' in German occupied Belarus but the devastation of wide stretches of the countryside around Berlin during the battles in the spring of 1945- these were the experiences that the Germans came to regard as their Second World War. As a consequence of the terrible shock of 1945, the German people emerged from the war almost exclusively preoccupied with their own cares and concerns, as primarily victims rather than perpetrators of the war.

Conditions in Germany in 1945 did not appear to offer any grounds for optimism about the future. Yet the stark landscape of political, economic, social and moral devastation provided the unlikely base for a remarkable recovery: within a generation of 1945, Germans (at least those in the west) were enjoying unprecedented prosperity and stable parliamentary democracy.

One can identify five main features of the cataclysm of 1945 that paved the way to Germany's post war success. First was the completeness of the German defeat. It was total, unavoidable, unconditional and the sole responsibility of the regime which had launched a world war which could not be won. No continuity of government remained, no room for "stab-in-the-back" theories, no external source of support which might enable the Nazi regime to survive beyond the end of the war. The defeat represented a fundamental break with the past: a "zero hour".

Closely associated with the conclusive quality of the defeat was the complete and obvious bankruptcy of National Socialism. It had proved itself bankrupt in every conceivable sense, it had experienced defeat at the hands of its alleged inferiors and far from from showing themselves capable of leading the German people, most of the Nazis leadership either committed suicide or scrambled about trying to save their own skins. In the summer of 1945 there was little left of National Socialism that could provide heroic legends capable of inspiring a Nazi legend, least of all the horrific spectacles revealed at places like Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz. The obvious bankruptcy of National Socialism also undermined the appeal of German nationalism generally, which the Nazi regime had hijacked with such disastrous results. This helps explain the helpful appeal of various forms of internationalism in Germany after the Second World War: the appeal of religion, the appeal of Socialism and even Communism. For the time being at least, German nationalism would have little allure for the German people.

The third main feature of 1945 that subsequently contributed to the surprising success of postwar Germany was the harshness with which the allies imposed their occupation. Although it was the Red Army that imposed the harshest regime, even the Americans were determined to impose order and to allow the defeated population to take no liberties. For tens of thousands of Germans, the arrival of the victors from the west meant not chewing gum but automatic arrest. No room was left for successful resistance. Nazi fantasies of an insurgency created by 'Werewolf' fanatics remained just that: fantasies. A battered and exhausted, disillusioned and impoverished German people faced the overwhelming might of millions of allied troops who were not prepared to tolerate any resistance to their rule.

The fourth important feature of the events of 1945 was the vast extent of the losses, both human and material, suffered by Germany and its people by the end of the war. During the Second World War military strategists sought to inflict maximum damage and cause maximum death. By the time that the Wehrmacht surrendered almost all German cities had been reduced to rubble, hundreds of thousands of people had been killed and millions of soldiers lay dead. The overwhelming scale of losses suffered by the Germans by the end of the war left them profoundly disorientated and without much energy for much more than a struggle for individual survival.

This brings us to the fifth major consequence of the catastrophe of 1945: the overwhelming focus of Germans on their day- to- day concerns. This had a number of causes: the destruction of transport and communications infrastructure which limited people to their immediate surroundings; catastrophic housing and food shortages, lack of fuel which made keeping warm a constant preoccupation, the pervasive threat of crime (robbery, looting, blackmarketeering, arson and rape) which required unceasing vigilance; and the absence of family members, especially of men who were either dead or languishing in POW camps. All this left Germans with little time or energy to deal with anything but survival and a return to at least a minimal sense of social stability. Here one could really speak of a 'zero hour'. The German people now had to start again from scratch.

As a result of the horrors they endured- particularly in the last months and weeks of the war- Germans emerged with a powerful sense of their own victimhood. They did so following a war launched by Germany which had invaded and conquered much of the European continent, enslaved millions of people, destroyed cities and towns from Rotterdam to Minsk, caused the deaths of millions of soldiers, and murdered innocent civilians on a hitherto unimaginable scale. But after the shock of their experiences during the last days of the Reich, Germans became preoccupied almost exclusively with their own problems and sorrows, and hardy possessed the mental energy to concern themselves with the problems and sorrows of others. This enabled them to emerge from war and Nazism with a belief in their own moral rectitude, despite the crimes that had been committed in their name and, in many cases, with their involvement, whether active or passive. Victim consciousness after mass death and total defeat, in Japan as well as Germany, profoundly shaped the manner in which people constructed their post war identities.


  1. "Germany 1945; From War to Peace" by Richard Bessel; HarperCollins, 2009

    It is likely the lack of any profound experience of defeat that continues to drive irrational nationalist ideology in America and makes the U.S. a potentially dangerous and unpredictable player on the world scene.

    The undertaking of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates the political leaders in the U.S. still suspect that our defeat in Vietnam was the result of some lack of will or 'stab-in-the-back' rather than the inherent and fundamental difficulties of such adventures.

  2. Richard Bessel is professor of Twentieth Century History at the University of York