Expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia, 1945.
Bookended by the Second World and Cold Wars, 1945-1948 in Europe can often be a neglected period within the popular mind. However, as Giles MacDonogh’s 2007 publication After the Reich: From the Liberation of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift confrontationally demonstrates, it was a period analogous to the Second World War in its barbarity, yet distinct from the Cold War in its disorderliness. In the wake of the fury and carnage of the preceding years, it is perhaps easy to forget that many millions of eastern Europeans perished in the months following May 1945. They died from starvation and cold, at their own hands and those of others, in prisons and in foreign lands. They died because of the callous actions of individuals, the indifference and inefficiency of occupying forces, and the utter uniqueness of their circumstance.
I have now completed a handful of MacDonogh’s works on German history, and never to fail to exit them feeling somewhat dizzy. Descriptive detail is heaped upon descriptive detail, with the inevitable result that the wider picture is subsumed to a form of literary montage. In place of an argument, an impression remains. As such, they tend to reach a curious niche – neither ‘academic’ nor ‘popular’, neither strictly ‘political’ nor ‘social’. And true to form, After the Reich is by no means a conventional history. MacDonogh is content to pursue digressions for the sake of pure interest, and gives scant consideration to equivalent chapter or section lengths. Yet one cannot help but sense that he also reaches his most profound heights precisely when unfettered by custom. MacDonogh is a writer and critic of food and wine as well as German history, and although After the Reich offers little scope for exhibiting his skills in these specific fields, his skill in infusing history with the subjective is what sets this book apart. The distress heaped upon the defenceless women of Poland and East Germany defies quantification, as does the brutality with which whole populations were forcibly trafficked throughout central Europe by guards driven by both vengeance and indifference. This is a tale of human suffering, a topic to which MacDonogh’s method is perhaps better suited than that of more conventional histories, with their structures and institutions, impersonal forces and politics.
Still, while the author’s rich description compensates for his imbalance in focuses, there remain several problems with his method. Characters frequently reappear without reintroductions after many hundreds of pages, while the continued reliance on only certain individual memoirs can detract from the wider picture. The author by no means ignores the politics of the situation – the settlements hammered out in distant lands by distant leaders – but his eye remains firmly fixated on the ground level; on the ongoing misery, distress, uncertainty and fear of ordinary individuals. Winning the peace was always as vital for the Allies as winning the war, but this book is a savage indictment of how that peace was won. And while historians may forever debate the roles of logistics, political exigencies, emotion and comparative morality in causing such a deplorable state of affairs, the very prevalence of this brutality is a fact with which we have never adequately dealt. For all its flaws, After the Reich considers a most important topic, and is highly recommended to anybody with even the most passing interest in twentieth century European history.
- Marcus Colla