One chilling statistic relating to 1945 is that more German soldiers died in that January than in any other month of the war: 450,000. It was not just the military that suffered: refugees poured west to escape the brutality of the Red Army’s advance through the historic German lands of East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia; and civilians in the cities bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s failure to stem the allied bombing campaign of the RAF at night time and the USAAF during the day.
The staggering scale of losses during those last months of war also hints at why 1945 is such a grimly fascinating one from a historical perspective: Nazi Germany faced an inevitable end, yet continued to fight grimly until the bitter end, achieving a total defeat that was unprecedented in modern history. In doing so it created a ‘zero hour’ for the German people, who then set about rebuilding their lives, economic activity and ultimately Germany itself, with the Nazi era firmly in the past.
The legacy of the Nazis, of course, was all around – not just in the sheer scale of destruction and suffering, but also in the survivors of Nazi camps, both Jewish and otherwise, and the foreign labourers, all of whom found themselves freed in a defeated nation. The country was divided into zones of occupation, each with their own character, their own challenges and their own solutions.
In the midst of this a new Germany was born -or more accurately, two new Germanys). Much of the eventual political, economic and social achievements of West Germany were founded on the peculiarities of 1945, in particular the totality of the Nazi defeat and the yearning for stability after chaos and destruction. There was also – and this sounds peculiar to us looking back at the crimes of the Nazis – a distinct sense of victimhood.
Richard Bessel‘s Germany 1945: From War to Peace (Harper, 2009) is an excellent guide to that tumultuous and difficult year, from the military reverses of the early months to the immense challenges that rose in the wake of defeat. It was a book that I came across almost by chance, in a shop in Doha airport that frustratingly failed to provide me with a copy of The Economist to read on a flight back to London. I was already fifty pages in by the time we lifted off, and – once home – I got in touch with the author, hoping for an interview. I hope you enjoy listening to the results!
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