The Bitter Road to Freedom: The Human Cost of Allied Victory in World War II Europe

The Bitter Road to Freedom:

A New History of the Liberation of Europe

William I. Hitchcock


New York Toronto London Sydney

For Benjamin and Emma my little ones


Preface: A Cemetery in Luxembourg, 5 Part I: LIBERATION IN THE WEST, 19

Prologue: D-Day, 20

1: “ Too Wonderfully Beautiful”: Liberation in Nor- mandy, 30

2: Blood on the Snow: The Elusive Liberation of Bel- gium, 109

3: Hunger: The Netherlands and the Politics of Food, 181


Prologue: Armies of Justice, 231

4: Red Storm in the East: Survival and Revenge, 240 5: A Strange, Enemy Country: America’s Germany, 319 Part III: MOVING BODIES, 394

Prologue: They Have Suffered Unbearably, 395

6: Freedom from Want: UNRRA and the Relief Effort to Save Europe, 400

7: “A Tidal Wave of Nomad Peoples”: Europe’s Dis- placed Persons, 466


Prologue: “ We Felt Ourselves Lost”, 531

8: A Host of Corpses: Liberating Hitler’s Camps, 537 9: Americans and Jews in Occupied Germany, 582 10: Belsen and the British, 642

Conclusion: The Missing Liberation, 697 Acknowledgments, 710

Notes, 717

I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From whence does my help come?

—Psalms 121: 1

Preface: A Cemetery in Luxembourg


HE LUXEMBOURG AMERICAN Military Cemetery in Hamm, three miles east of Luxembourg City, serves as the final resting place for 5,076 Ameri-

cans killed in the battles of the Ardennes and Rhineland in late 1944 and early 1945. Like all the American war cemeteries that dot the European countryside, from the British Isles to France, Italy, Belgium, and Holland, it is a beautiful, serene, melancholy place. Perfect rows of white crosses and Stars of David are pegged out on an immaculate, emerald lawn. American flags snap in the wind. One of the great soldiers of the Second World War, General George S. Patton, Jr., is buried here, though he died just after the war, in December 1945, in a road accident. His tomb stands at the head of the sol- diers, facing them, eternally reviewing the troops. But his barking exhortations to battle have long faded. It is always quiet here.

This cemetery is more than a memorial. It aims to edu-

cate as well. Upon entering the grounds, visitors come to a series of large engraved maps that visually lay out the last year of the Second World War in Europe in ex- quisitely bold, enameled colors, with flashing red and blue arrows indicating the knifing progress of the Al- lied armies across the continent. Visitors also encoun- ter a monumental tablet that narrates the war’s final year. Small groups gather here, with necks craning upward and eyes squinting against the bright granite. They read a story about the liberation of Europe that is literally inscribed in stone. “On 6 June 1944,” the text begins, “preceded by airborne units and covered by naval and air bombardment, United States and Brit- ish Commonwealth forces landed on the coast of Nor- mandy. Pushing southward, they established a beach- head some 20 miles in depth. On 25 July, in the wake of paralyzing air bombardment, the US First Army broke out of the beachhead and was soon joined by the US Third Army.” The text tells readers that the British and American forces eventually “crushed” the Germans in a great pincer movement in Normandy and “the enemy retreated across the Seine.” The Allied armies, “sus- tained by the Herculean achievements of Army and Navy supply personnel,” pursued the enemy “vigor- ously.” At the borders of Germany, progress was slow and the “fighting bitter.” But inevitably, “the superb fighting qualities of American soldiers” won out. The

Americans turned back the last desperate German at- tack in the Ardennes in December 1944. “Sweeping across Germany, the Allies met the advancing troops of the USSR to force the complete surrender of the en- emy on 8 May 1945, 337 days after the initial landings in France.” There, the text concludes.

The brief synopsis on this imposing stone slab might be considered emblematic of a great deal of historical writing about the last year of the war in Europe. Quite naturally, given its location in an American cemetery, this text emphasizes the actions of American armed forces. It deploys muscular, active verbs like land, re- pulse, break out, pursue, seize. Air bombardments are paralyzing, the efforts of supply personnel are Hercu- lean, armies do not move but sweep. This text, like so many popular historical accounts, depicts the Allied armies as irresistible, constantly on the move toward victory. The tablet neatly assigns a precise number of days between start and finish: 337.

The hushed, dignified confines of a military cemetery are no place for a detailed prose account of the human experience of war; in any case, the five thousand head- stones laid out row after row offer an enduring, word- less testimonial to that. Yet too often, when Americans think about the liberation of Europe, we take our cues

from such monuments. We have fixed our gaze upon battles and armies, and taken refuge in a well-worn and predictable narration of the war that stresses the ennobling quality of the fight for freedom. In doing so, we often overlook the fact that for European people, liberation came hand in hand with unprecedented violence and brutality. Desirable as it was, liberation proved also to be a bitter chapter in the war’s history.

To understand this paradox, we must look beyond the military history of the war into the experiences of the liberated peoples themselves. In the pages that follow, I have tried to give voice to those who were on the re- ceiving end of liberation, moving them from the edge of the story to the center. This history of liberation gives detailed attention to the interactions of soldiers and civilians, to the experiences of noncombatants, to the trauma of displacement and loss, and to the un- precedented destruction that liberation required. This book, I believe, offers a new history of liberation, told largely from the ground up. It is a surprising story, of- ten jarring and uncomfortable, and it is one that does not appear in our monuments or our history books.

The keynote of this European story of liberation is vio- lence. However much we wish to assign it a benevolent nature, liberation came to Europe in a storm of destruc-

tion and death. On D-Day alone, Allied bombing killed about 3,000 French civilians in Normandy—roughly the same number of American servicemen who would die on that day. And the civilian death toll only mount- ed during the last year of the war. To liberate Europe from the extremely powerful, well-trained, and su- perbly equipped German army, the Allied powers were obliged to use massive, overwhelming, and lethal force to destroy and kill Germans in large numbers. Because these Germans occupied towns, cities, farms, schools, hospitals, hotels, railway stations, ports, bridges, and other strategic points across the European continent, much of Europe was churned into rubble by Ameri- can, British, and Soviet military force. Allied armies made little effort to spare civilian lives. They shelled, bombed, strafed, and attacked towns and cities in full knowledge that civilians would die. This was a con- sciously accepted dimension of the war of liberation that the Allied armies waged. Liberation was therefore both a glorious chapter in military history and a human tragedy of enormous scope.

European accounts of liberation also have much to say about liberating soldiers themselves. Contrary to what we might expect, liberated civilians viewed their lib- erators with anxiety and even, at times, fear. Of course, some western capital cities like Paris and Brussels saw

their fair share of kissing and delirious flag-waving as liberating troops arrived. But if we dig a bit deeper, we find a more troubling story. The young American, British, or Russian soldiers who defeated the Germans were seldom as virtuous in their behavior as the cause for which they fought. They frequently abused their power and authority, making life for liberated civilians something close to misery. “Deliver us from our lib- erators!” was the cry on the lips of the residents of one Belgian town, where Americans were still encamped in the fall of 1945, after the war had ended. The power that liberating soldiers possessed over the civilians whom they freed opened up enticing avenues of privilege and temptation for these young, male troopers. Even the best of the “greatest generation” consumed scarce food and drink, billeted themselves in homes and pri- vate dwellings, and were capable of profligate waste, drunkenness, carousing, and vandalism. Some sol- diers went further, and looted homes, seized property as trophies, and sexually assaulted women of all ages. For all the elation that oppressed Europeans felt at the demise of the Nazi regime, they often found it difficult to comprehend the destructiveness and rapacious ac- quisitiveness of their liberators.

Europeans who lived in central and eastern Europe tell of a liberation denied. Nineteen forty-five brought no

liberation to Poland: that woeful nation saw its bor- ders redrawn by Stalin’s imperious demands, and mil- lions of Poles were incorporated into Soviet Belorussia and Ukraine. Poland endured half a century of Com- munist rule that made a mockery of the promises of liberation that had issued from Soviet propagandists throughout the war. In eastern Germany, the arrival of the Red Army occasioned such fear and panic among Germans that about five million people fled, on foot, rushing away from the wrath of the Soviets. They were wise to do so, for those that remained behind were mis- treated, abused, raped, or murdered by rampaging Red Army troops. Millions of Germans were expelled from a large swath of Germany that was in turn transferred to Poland, while millions of Volksdeutsche, the ethnic Germans long settled in borderland communities in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yu- goslavia, were forcibly removed from their homes and pushed westward. In the east, then, the abiding sym- bol of liberation was the open cattle car slowly rattling along the rails of Europe, bearing a cargo of frightened civilians away from their homes.

In the western part of Germany, life among the libera- tors was far more tolerable, so much so that many Euro- pean observers came to think of the Allied occupation of western Germany in bitterly ironic terms. After four

years of trying very hard to kill Germans and to destroy German cities and towns, American soldiers who set foot on German soil in the late fall of 1944 quickly grew fond of the German people. They were, in the parlance of the GIs, “just like us.” The girls were pretty, the wom- en looked something like Mom, the houses—those not burnt in Allied bombing—were clean and invariably full of such comforts as feather mattresses, books, pre- served foods, wine, and spirits. Germans in the western part of the country quickly tried to turn American good nature to their advantage, and thanked these troops for “liberating” Germany. British and American lead- ers struggled mightily over this problem. They knew that Hitler had won full-throated acclaim from the rac- ist, aggressive German population, yet in their guise as benevolent liberators, they did not wish to be seen as punitive, repressive, or unduly harsh. Within months after the end of the war, British and American armies of occupation had transformed themselves into massive social and humanitarian agencies, caring for Germans, doling out medicine, food rations, clothing, and shoes, while working overtime to restart water pumps, elec- tricity generators, coal mines, and railways. By the fall of 1945, British and American military officials, reject- ing the idea that they were occupiers, set themselves the goal of winning “the battle of winter” on behalf of the hungry and cold German people. The Anglo-Amer-

ican forces were indeed magnanimous in victory. But it remains a startling irony that the western Allies worked harder on behalf of the defeated enemy than they ever did for the liberated people of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, or Italy.

Europe’s Jews also have a liberation story to tell us. It is as pointed as it is poignant. It has become com- mon for American readers, or at least American view- ers of made-for-television war dramas, to assume that the greatest generation fought World War II to rescue Europe’s Jews from destruction. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. The discovery of the Ger- man concentration camps by American GIs in the last weeks of the war occasioned revulsion and pity among the soldiers, as well as anger. But at no point was the cause in Europe framed as a bid to save European Jewry. That may help explain why American and Brit- ish officers and soldiers in Germany at the close of the war had little knowledge of the plight of the Jews, and failed to treat the survivors they found there with any- thing like the sensitivity or sympathy they deserved. At first, the surviving remnant of Jews that Allied armies freed from concentration camps was seen simply as another group of wayward “political prisoners,” their predicament no worse than that of others who had suf- fered. Only after extensive and energetic appeals from

incarcerated Jews, and from international humanitar- ian agencies on their behalf, did the U.S. and British armies begin to comprehend and respond to the crisis of Jewish survivors. These forlorn Jews, now homeless, without resources, bereft of family or kinship networks, remained in Germany, dependent on an unfeeling military bureaucracy for aid and help. They ended up in barbed-wire encampments, often in the very same places in which the Nazis had incarcerated them, des- perately awaiting a transfer to Palestine. Over 250,000 Jews spent time in camps in Germany after the war, and some remained in these temporary shelters for as long as five years. Jewish survivors who talk about lib- eration therefore speak with some bitterness about a liberation deferred.

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