Hellstorm: The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947, by Thomas Goodrich ★★★★★
This is one of the most challenging books that I’ve read in a long time. It was difficult to speed through the chapters of this book. Each page held the earnest reader in grief and thoughtful reflection of the events of Germany at the end of the war* and the years that follow. This is not a revisionary history of the war; it doesn’t deny the holocaust or wholesale murder of “innocent” Jews. It doesn’t attempt to make the Nazis look nice or ameliorate the evil that they performed. But, it does add another layer to the evils of the war. There is a popular meme that has gone around (attempting to make a joke of the Nazis) with a Nazi soldier asking the question, “Are we the baddies?”. This book helps one to understand that when history is examined critically, it might be hard to know who really was the worst “baddie”. Perhaps the allies were the most morally culpable, explaining why we are now seeing God’s judgment on western civilization. The beauty of this book is that it is compiled of eye-witness accounts of each of the particular situations that Goodrich describes in this book. Thus, the only agenda is the attempt to give an account of the end of the war which also includes the perspective of those of German descent scattered throughout Europe.
Goodrich begins his war accounts with the firebombing of Hamburg. On July 24, 1943, long before Germany had committed any indiscriminate bombing of England, the British engaged in a massive firebombing attack on Hamburg. Before then, targets were selected (especially by Germany) as having military concern, and sparing the general civilian population. Now, the situation had changed, and an attempt to demoralize the general population through attacks on the entirety of Germany, the German public received the most hellish conditions describable to man. The toll of human suffering, of women and children, the elderly and infirm, and even foreigners who were held prisoner or otherwise detained in Hamburg were victims. It is easy to talk about firebombings, but to experience such a thing defies words, where the heat of the attack rises above 1000’s of degrees melting all in the vicinity, where the oxygen is sucked out of air letting victims suffocate should they escape the heat, and where massive windstorms then are generated by the atmospheric conditions. Eye-witnesses describe the horrors of such an event, which sadly the blind eyes of the attackers remain ignorant of. The Allied motives for such attacks were clear, in that their hatred for “Germans” had no bounds (though ignoring the fact that the British King was German!). Churchill and Eisenhower both had an unrelenting hatred for anything German and were not shy in openly admitting this, as is documented well in this book. Thus, it wasn’t the German militia or the Nazis who were the enemy, but the very German people.
The bombing of Berlin was a prolonged matter, as each square inch of the capital of Germany was bombed not just once or twice, but repeatedly, week to month on end, and long after there were no longer any standing buildings or structures. How people survived the bombings and continue to occupy the capital is a mystery.
A greater fire-bombing tragedy was brought out later in the book and was popularized by Kurt Vonnegut, the bombing of Dresden. This time the fire-bombings occurred days on end, and at a time when there was absolutely no strategic advantage to be gained. Indeed, there were large populations of American prisoners of war in Dresden who were also participants in receiving the wrath of Churchill and Roosevelt. Countless artworks and historical works were destroyed in the process. Dresden was not a military city and the west knew that. It was purely an act of blind vengeance and vengeance that someday would be returned on the English-speaking peoples of the world.
While the west was delivering its typical version of hell on the German people, the eastern front saw the Russian hordes pushing back the retreating German front. For the last 700 years the German people have been migrating eastward, much from the invitation of the Russian czar. Now, these ethnic Germans were caught in a life-and-death struggle. The Russians saw these people as no different from the invading Nazis and treated them no differently, even though they were entirely innocent of the sins of the homeland. The millions of ethnic Germans were now being displaced from their traditional homelands. Much of this was entirely supported and financed by the west, through agreements between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.
The treatment of the displaced German people were as immoral and ruthless as describable. Many were shot point-blank, though that was usually too kind, and prolonged torture was more fitting to the Russian mindset. Women of all ages, from 8 to 80 and beyond, were raped, oftentimes abusing a young woman 20-30 times in a night. Those left to live were stripped of all of their possessions and typically died of starvation. All of this happened under the knowing eyes of Churchill and Eisenhower, who offered no appeals for restraint. Refuges from the east came under attack, and oftentimes the attack was from the west, when the Brits and US Air Force bombed boats in the North Sea which were known to contain only refugees fleeing from Russian hands.
Many military deaths occurred not only from the enemy, but from comrades, and this was true for Germany and even more so for Russia. The Germans wished so slow down the retreat back to Germany, and positioned SS troops behind the front to arrest and often to execute those moving in retreat. Oftentimes, innocent people like messengers moving back and forth from the front became the victim of these SS police. What the Germans did, the Russians did with a far greater degree, numbering perhaps even into the millions, of soldiers who were stalled or moving backward, or soldiers who were suspected of having been captured by the enemy; all experienced the same fate of death at the hands of a firing squad.
The end of the war should have been the end of suffering, yet for many, matters only became worse. This was true both from the west and from the east. Though both the American army and German army had violations of the Geneva convention for treating prisoners of war, Germany did its best to hold to the treaty. Contrary, the facts of the matter and statements from Eisenhower demonstrate a complete indifference toward adhering to agreed-upon conventions. The Nazi interrogators are oftentimes made the brunt of war movies, yet the behavior of the Americans and British after the war, in well-documented instances, make the Germans appear as school children. Starving women were turned into sex slaves for the teenaged American soldiers. The only glimmer of good behavior came from the frequent protests of the Red Cross, and the tireless and selfless work of the Salvation Army. The western allies have not a shred of moral superiority over their German brothers.
It is also noted that the suffering in the east was also in the extreme. The flow of immigrants to the west was greeted by the extreme savagery of the Russian soldiers. Typically, the front-line soldiers would pass through quickly, then the second wave of Russian soldiers coming through would engage in looting, raping, and pillaging in extreme order. Few women were left virginal. Nobody was left unharmed. Following the war, the Polish population then began to take vengeance on the German population that had done them no harm. If there ever was a situation of extreme genocide, it was to the Germans in Russia, Poland, and the Slavic countries. It is said that more citizens perished after the war than during. As an American population, we are quick to divest ourselves of this moral responsibility, yet that is not the case. Goodrich emphasizes time and again how the agreements between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were such that all the players were responsible for what Stalin did. It is like how we would treat a mob boss who commissioned an underling to perform a “hit” job. Both the underling and the boss would be equally morally charged. Such is true of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt.
Goodrich details in the last chapter what has been considered the crime of the age, the treatment by the USA and Great Britain in their now vanquished foe. Revenge and vengeance were the themes. This was especially true of the Jews and their bitter spirit of revenge, which persists to this day. It is challenging to make a final assessment as to which nation held the moral superiority. Too often the Nazis behaved better than the Americans. When General Harris of the British Air Force was questioned as to the inhuman savagery of his bombing of Dresden, his reply was that he was only following orders. Seems like a few Nazis also offered that alibi.
Goodrich offers an epilogue that was quite moving. Germany began to rebuild, and in the absence of men, it became the duty of many women to clean up the streets and rebuild the cities. The Allies realized the Soviet threat that was now building and understood that the recovery of Germany would be in their own personal best interest. A German public that could have been justifiably revengeful chose instead the motto “Forget the past, only the future counts”. Meanwhile, their conquerors from the other side of the pond maintained the motto…
They got exactly what they deserved.
We felt we were fighting an inhuman philosophy
We became a force of retribution
I always said that the only good German was a dead one and I still say that!
Goodrich completes the book by requesting the reader to engage in a sobering reflection as to who really held the moral high ground in World War 2. Certainly, one is left with no doubt that the USA or Great Britain cannot make that claim. This is not historical revisionism. This book calls for the act of truly grasping the moral depravity of all sides in the second world war. By not grasping this lesson, the USA is now falling prey to the eventual judgments that will result. I shudder to imagine that someday the US population might receive the same brutalities that we blithely administered to Germany. Pray that God be merciful.
*I use the word “war” in the singular as I consider World War I and World War II as the same (though second) 30 years war that haunted Germany. It was the very poor decisions and attitudes of the west toward Germany after WWI which made WWII inevitable. After both wars, the west’s inability to acknowledge equal responsibility for the war has made the west the more morally culpable for the carnage that resulted.