In his new book, Exorcising Hitler, Taylor continues to face down the horrors of the twentieth century. His subject is the treatment of Germans by the war’s victors from the closing months of the Second World War until 1949, when the former Allies permitted the return of German self government. This latter development was not, it should be noted, the result of a sudden outbreak of altruism among the Allies. Having digested most of Exorcising Hitler, the reader is drawn to the conclusion that the formation of two mutually hostile German nation states reflected more than anything else the unwillingness of the Allies/occupiers to expend further time and energy trying to reconcile the forest of ambiguities nurtured by Germany’s defeat. The existence of what would become known as East and West Germany, they hoped, would mitigate permanently against any revival of German power in central Europe. That their creation simultaneously would encourage political and military stability on the continent could be counted as a bonus.
It is the welter of ambiguities loosed by Germany’s final collapse that is at the heart of Exorcising Hitler. No sentient person reading Taylor’s work can avoid confronting those ambiguities. Were the German women, children and disabled veterans in their thousands existing squalidly in Germany’s bombed-out cities, among unburied corpses many times their number, victims or perpetrators? All but a small percentage of German POWs in the hands of the Red Army at the end of the war “disappeared”, never to be seen or heard from again. Most of the lucky few who returned to their homeland did so after a decade spent in the gulag. Had these men taken part in the crimes of the Nazi regime? Or were they innocent? And there were yet tens of thousands more German POWs in the custody of the western Allies at war’s end. It appears that a very high percentage of these men survived their captivity. Yet “surviving” is not the same as being well treated, and these men were most decidedly not well treated. Had they “earned” their many months of exposure to the elements, near starvation, and disease by their individual complicity in the regime’s wrongdoing, or had they simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time?
The Allied victory also brought to the surface the ticklish problem of bringing to book the former top leadership of Nazi Germany, a process fraught with ambiguity. American lawyers and the substantial moral authority of the United States were both important influences upon the so-called Nuremburg trials of major German war criminals, as well as the similar prosecutions which followed. But the American legal system of the 1940’s was more attuned to the nineteenth century than the twentieth or twenty-first, and so were its practitioners. One of these was Harlan Fiske Stone, the then presiding Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Justice Stone, a champion of judicial legitimacy and the protections provided by strict adherence to procedure, pronounced the Nuremburg proceedings a “high-grade lynching party”. That the trials were seriously undermined by ambiguity is attested by the cases against Reichmarshal Hermann Goering and Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz respectively. Although the indictment charged Goering with war crimes, it did not mention unlawful aerial bombardment, and the prosecution made no effort whatever to build a case for war crimes against the former head of the German air force in connection with attack from the air. Doenitz was convicted of war crimes for the German conduct of the war at sea, yet his plea for clemency was supported by letters from at least 100 U.S. naval officers, as well as the personal testimony of Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Exorcising Hitler is a journey through a desolated landscape, brought about by a cataclysm without parallel since the Thirty Years War. Frederick Taylor has woven together the disparate lives of people on either side of the divide between victor and defeated, and in doing so has illuminated the ambiguities that pervade life, individual and collective.