History and Forgetting
Chapter VIII of James Bacque's Crimes and Mercies

For most of my life I hardly thought about the flaws in our democratic system. I thought things were bumping along not too badly until I encountered the crimes of Eisenhower and De Gaulle. Even then, I did not imagine that these crimes revealed anything important about our society today because, after all, they occurred almost half a century ago, under the tremendous force of hatred caused by war. It was only when I interviewed Drew Middleton, a star reporter for the New York Times, that I began to see how events of long ago were affecting our lives today. In Middleton's office in New York in 1988, I told him I had discovered that the US and French armies had committed enormous atrocities in Europe in 1945. Because he had written stories in 1945 denying this following his visits to the prison camps, I wanted his reaction.

Middleton said, 'I'm not surprised that you were able to dig up some bad things from that time.' He then admitted that he had never visited a prison camp. He did not want to read my manuscript. What Middleton told me basically was that, yes, he had lied in 1945 and no, it did not matter to him or the New York Times if I exposed this.

I was deeply impressed by Middleton's indifference. He didn't want to read my manuscript, nor did he threaten me with a libel action, or bring one after the book came out. He was calm in the face of what I had thought for him would be a disaster. I began to see then that the New York Times is so powerful it does not need to threaten people even when it is facing exposure. Middleton's sense of security, his sense of the New York Times' power, took my breath away. But worse than that, Middleton did not care about this atrocity. He did not care in 1945; he did not care in 1988. As we now know, hundreds of thousands of prisoners had died at the hands of his government in one of the worst atrocities in Western history, the New York Times witnessed it, then denied that it had happened. And has gone on denying it into the 1990s.

This seemed to me to be more than a routine journalistic slip. And to be worth some reflection, in the great tradition to which the New York Times aspires.


In the opinion of nearly everybody in the West, the Second World War was a good war. It was necessary to defeat the utter evil of the dictators. If anyone in the post-war years doubted this, they were reminded of the pictures of emaciated bodies in Hitler's death camps. Lofty were the aims of the Allies, noble were their ideals, eloquent the expression of these ideals in such documents as the Geneva Convention, the Atlantic Charter, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. All these were in the tradition of the liberal reforms which had succeeded in the West for many years, yet all these noble declarations were being broken by one branch of government while they were being written by another. Or, like the Geneva Convention, they were broken as soon as they became applicable. People who say anarchy is impractical are ignoring modern government where anarchy is normal, in the sense that government is constantly changing course, covering up, contradicting and reversing itself and doing these things simultaneously. The Allies clearly did not intend to keep their word in the 1940s. Why not? And why give it?

The answer to the first question is of course that people often don't keep their word, because normal human frailties prevail over the noble resolve to correct them. The more interesting question is, why make such declarations? For one thing, it is reassuring to hear them. And probably it is fun to make them. Think of the well-dressed gentlemen, arriving by limousine in English castle, French chateau or American office block with polished secretaries to sit about a gleaming table making high-toned statements about lofty purposes until lunch. Surely, to a kind of mind that is quite common, this is highly important. But there is another reason, maintained by a delusion prevalent in the West.

That delusion is that the 'good war' led to a good peace: after a 'period of adjustment', Germany was 'put back on her feet' by the Marshall Plan, so she could become a servant of the West during the Cold War. She was, however, not to be trusted because she was still deeply guilty, as she remains today. According to the delusion, the discovery of the death camps had converted Nazi war guilt to collective German guilt.

This is not the record. The record shows very clearly that the Allies were planning a devastating treatment for Germany before Nazi racist crimes were fully comprehended in the West. The Allied policy of starving the Germans was in fact decades old — in 1918/19, after the First World War, the Allies had maintained the sea-blockade, causing the deaths of close to a million Germans. Even the threat of unconditional surrender was not new: the commander of the American armies in France, General Pershing, had advocated imposing unconditional surrender on the failing Germans on 30 October 1918.1

One of President Wilson's closest advisers told him at the same time that 'he would disappoint his own people if he accepted less than unconditional surrender'.2 While the death camps were still mainly a horrifying rumour in the West, in 1943 the Allies were discussing at Washington and Tehran annexation of the eastern quarter of Germany, which, as the Allies well knew, would produce starvation conditions. The Morgenthau Plan was devised and signed in August-September 1944, long before the full horror of the camps was visible to reporters and soldiers. But historians wishing to question the evidence of Allied atrocities keep citing the camps. Stephen Ambrose has recently written: 'Clearly Eisenhower was appalled by what he saw' at several camps.3 He goes on to exculpate Eisenhower for the mass crimes committed in the American POW camps.

Where the German death camps had most influence was clearly not in the planning but in the execution of plans. The war criminals would be tried regardless of what horrors were actually uncovered in the camps. But the possibility of mitigation of Allied war hatred resulting from the work of leaders who actually practiced the noble ideals — Herbert Hoover, Victor Gollancz, the Bishop Of Chichester, Norman Robertson, Rabbi Baeck, Robert Patterson — was postponed by the astounded revulsion felt throughout the West — and in Germany — against the slaughter in Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. This revulsion turned into the sense of collective German guilt, which is still very powerful today. As late as 1996, a book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen accusing Germans of total collective guilt for war crimes was causing a sensation throughout Western countries.4

Certainly Germans en masse were collectively guilty for some Nazi crimes because they gave Hitler a plurality of votes in the last election before he became Chancellor. They were collectively guilty of vicious crimes of aggression against countries who had given them no casus belli, such as Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, Greece and the Soviet Union. How many Germans were guilty of racist crimes is in dispute, but one thing is for sure: as a people represented by their national government, they have collectively accepted this guilt, and this is recognized throughout Germany and the world. They have paid enormous compensation to the victims, offered humble apologies to the survivors, condemned the crimes in many books, films, ceremonies and monuments.

This sense of collective German guilt is useful in a specially morbid way to her former enemies because it effectively seals off all discussions about the mistreatment of Germans in 1945. Time and again, when anyone reproaches the Allies for their treatment of German women and children in 1945, the reply is heard, 'But look what the Germans did.' This is a common refrain today in Germany itself. But for much of the war and a long time after, it was actually forbidden in the American press to mention the German resistance. President Roosevelt forbade the press to print news of the German resistance, a directive that was enforced even after the war by the American occupation authorities.5

Guilt pervades Germany like a religion. It is the 'Canossa Republic', penitent in pain before its judges.*  Guilt is so powerful that it has caused the Canossa Republic repeatedly to deny any intention of reclaiming sovereignty over the eastern lands, although it is a well-established UN principle that no government has the right to waive the claims of individuals to their property. Nor may it impede their right of return to their former homeland. There was wisdom in this renunciation, because the decline of nationalism in Europe has meant the opening of borders to trade, travel, culture and friendship. But that decline of nationalism, like the renunciation, affects the Canossa Republic more than anyone else. Poles and Czechs make it difficult or impossible for individual Germans to buy back their ancient lands. Even Václav Havel, willing to apologize for Czech crimes, cannot contemplate reparations or restoration of stolen property. The Canossa Republic leads the way, but it is hard to discern anyone following it on the path of reconciliation.

It is especially shocking that for many decades the Canossa Republic has failed to ensure historical recognition of the expellees' suffering, as if to prevent future generations from knowing anything at all about the true history of their forebears and their country. It is true that for a few years, under Adenauer and soon after, the West German government helped with the publication of documents on the expulsion, but for many years now German schoolchildren have been taught little or nothing of their ancestors' tragic sufferings after the war.


The Allies' war aims, which included the right of self-determination for all peoples, apparently guaranteed the homelands of the eastern Germans. But all the Allies actually did was to include a phrase in Article XIII of the Potsdam Protocol stipulating that the 'population transfers' should occur under 'humane and orderly conditions'. As the phrase was being typed into the Potsdam agreement, its nauseating hypocrisy was visible to all: millions of miserable, dying expellees were crowding into the remainder of Germany, but the Western Allies were actually preventing help from reaching them. As we have seen, the ICRC, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Lutherans and many others were not allowed to operate in Germany until many months later. In a memorable phrase, Conor Cruise O'Brien described this sort of thing as a slick coating of the 'hypocrisy and cultivated inattention' that our leaders apply to reduce the friction between our admirable principles and our self-interest. The quote is worth expanding: 'The traditional [Western] ethic will require larger and larger doses of its traditional built-in antidotes — the forces of hypocrisy and cultivated inattention combined with a certain minimum of alms.' 6

Robert Murphy protested eloquently in a Memorandum to the State Department in October 1945, months after Potsdam: 'In the Lehrter Railroad station in Berlin alone our medical authorities state an average of ten have been dying daily from exhaustion, malnutrition and illness. In viewing the distress and despair of these wretches, in smelling the odor of their filthy condition, the mind reverts instantly to Dachau and Buchenwald. Here is retribution on a large scale, practiced not on the Parteibonzen [party big-wigs], but on women and children, the poor, the infirm ...' 7  Article XIII made no difference at all, other than to history. But history is not idle — in other words, the expellees will not go away. On 26 August 1994, the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 1994/24 re-affirming 'the right of refugees and displaced persons to return in safety and dignity to their country of origin and/or within it, to their place of origin or choice ...' The language plainly covers the rights of the dispossessed Germans.

Nevertheless, in agreement with the Allies in 1990, the Canossa Republic recognized the Oder-Neisse frontier, as part of the final settlement to free Germany of the Allied presence. In the words of Alfred de Zayas, the German government 'yielded to international pressure and relinquished its legal claims to the centuries-old homeland. These were claims that for decades after the war had been reaffirmed both inside Germany, and to the rest of the world. But that was the old German generation speaking, through earlier governments that still felt morally obliged to the expelled and the dispossessed. Forty years of re-education have resulted in a different perspective. Renunciation was to be expected. Today, the West either ignores the historical record, or accepts the euphemisms about the expulsions propounded by Polish and German apologists.' 8

This 1990 agreement itself may have been illegal, or ultra vires, since it is clear from many UN resolutions that a crime or abrogation of rights is not made legal even if approved or committed by a government against its own citizens. Such arguments might be seen as 'only legalistic', but the creation of the Israeli state and the modern North American aboriginal land claims were at the beginning more de jure than de facto.

When the state of Israel was founded in 1947, all of the Jewish occupants under the Romans had been dead for almost two thousand years. In North America, not a single Iroquois, Chiapas, Sioux or Cree is left alive of those who were the defeated or defrauded original occupants. Is it legal and just for the German government to banish the claims of living citizens who had been expelled and despoiled? And to do this without even trying to obtain compensation or recognition? Germany in its guilt and poverty found it possible to make apologies and to pay billions of dollars in reparations to the Allies, plus a hundred billion Deutschmarks in restitutions to victims of Nazi atrocities, as well as giving up all claim to some 25 per cent of their national territory, not to mention all the personal goods, land title, factories, schools, houses, farms and so on pertaining to those lands. Millions of German victims of Potsdam have made enormous reparations and humble apologies. They have all been deprived of their human rights, of the right to be judged as individuals, of their right to dignity and equality, of their private land and personal possessions.

As it was in the beginning in 1945, so it was at the end in 1990, our governments and their clients dealt away rights that normally we expect them to uphold. Hardly anyone in the Western democracies even noticed what was being done. Here was German guilt sealing off discussion of the issues of the expellees and other Allied crimes. The only government that could protect their rights signed them away.


We see today great institutions of public opinion — among them Le Monde and the New York Times — feverishly denying the Western Allied atrocities of the post-war period against Germany. For most people in the West, the denials rest on delusion, not evidence. The question never even becomes, 'Did the Allies do such things?' because the answer has been planted in everyone's heads already. 'NO, the Allies did not, because they could not.' For instance, the eminent British historian Michael Howard, reviewing for the Times Literary Supplement a book about Allied atrocities against Germans, admitted that although he was 'an innumerate historian' unqualified to judge the crucial statistics in the book, he could 'apply the criterion of inherent probability' to refute the book. 9  The French press and TV rose with rhetoric uncomplicated by evidence to denounce recent allegations that mass crimes were committed by the French army against the Germans. Stephen Ambrose also attacked a book about allied misdeeds by concluding that 'when scholars do the necessary research they will find [this book] to be worse than worthless'. 10 The answer is known before the evidence is consulted. In other words, belief is everything, evidence means nothing.

Count Nikolai Tolstoy, the renowned English writer, has been driven bankrupt and forbidden to publish on the subject of British treatment of prisoners of war under Lord Aldington. His books have been withdrawn from British libraries. His attempts at redress in British courts have been constantly frustrated in the UK, although the denial of his rights has been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. The alleged libel against Lord Aldington was converted by the courts and government into a libel against the history of the state. Against which there is no appeal.

The books of former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark have revealed tremendous civilian deaths in Iraq during the Gulf War which have never been admitted by any of the Allies who caused them. 11  No major publisher in the English-speaking world has dared to bring them out.

My fellow author Alfred de Zayas, a graduate of Harvard and of Göttingen, spent years researching and writing his book Nemesis at Potsdam, about the expulsions from the east of Germany. And then he had to spend ten years sending it round to almost a hundred publishers in the West before the manuscript was finally accepted. The president of one of the biggest houses in New York returned the manuscript with the note that he would never publish a book sympathetic to the Germans.

It is no good to respond that all these authors got published, and so freedom of discussion exists. The full weight of official disapproval has stifled the discussion by shrinking the audience. And once that happens the authors may be silenced by financial distress.


There is an astonishing contrast right now between Russia and the West. We condemned them for many decades precisely because they denied democracy and suppressed discussion. Now, they have demolished suppression, opened their archives, and published the truth about their crimes. They have even admitted that some allegations of German crimes were never true. Public discourse is free and informed on all those topics. And we say, 'Good for you, democracy now has a chance with you.' But in the West, the archives are very often managed in order to present a view of history acceptable to the established authority. Photographs and documents of Allied atrocities have 'disappeared' from archives, and this goes on to the present day. 'In my thirty years as a scholar of American history,' said one American professor, 'I have never known the archives to appear to be so much of a political agency of the executive branch as it is now. One used to think of the Archivist of the United States as a professional scholar. Now he has become someone who fills a political bill.' 12   Many people who have cast doubt on German crimes have been fired from their jobs, vilified, deported, jailed or censored, while anyone who denies our post-war crimes against the Germans is published and praised by press, academe, army and government.

Freedom is diminished when discussion is suppressed, dissidents are jailed, when in fact history is genetically altered, as Stalin showed every time he hid public documents or altered history in the books. If we are to regain the freedoms that we fought for in the war, the official sanctioning against authors must stop, the arrogant abuse of public trust in the archives must end, and full disclosure prevail.

Democracy is generally believed to be the best government because it expresses the public opinion that is normally free, wise and kind. If this were not so, who would defend democracy? If the general belief were that public opinion were normally slavish, stupid and cruel, no one would think democracy was worth defending. And without that faith, democracy dies. Hitler's brilliant propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels said of the German people, 'You can't change the masses. They will always be the same: dumb, gluttonous and forgetful.' Contemptuous of their forgetfulness, he said anything he liked because he believed they were always unaware of what he had said before. 13   We shudder to think that Goebbels' observation might be even slightly true in the Western democracies; on the other hand, our pleasing assumption about democratic public opinion has never been tested.

Public opinion can be discerned but dimly, in primitive jousts such as elections, in referendums or in the tiny samplings passing grandly as public opinion polls. None of these has ever tested us for our freedom, wisdom or kindness. The goodness of public opinion is by and large an article of faith.

But it is a faith that was justified in 1946. Herbert Hoover made many public appeals by radio to the decency, compassion and common sense of the American and Canadian people and was never disappointed. Can anyone in his right mind imagine Henry Morgenthau going on radio with a forthright appeal to the viciousness, vengefulness and hatred of the American people? To do their good deeds in the post-war period, men like Marshall and Hoover, Gollancz and Mackenzie King walked in the open, but their opposites like Morgenthau, Buisson and Eisenhower had to operate under camouflage. Surely this can only be because the widely-based institutions of Western democracy — parliament, literate education, a free press, the rule of law — foster the normal human sympathies that make mass crimes abhorrent. This is why freedom of discussion in democracy is so important; it is a constant corrective to the cruel tendencies in people. Without freedom of discussion, democracy first grows arrogant, then brutal. And the discussion of Allied war crimes has been circumscribed by lies, propaganda and suppression for fifty years.

On no subject is the Western cover-up more profound and tragic than the refusal of Western public opinion-makers to incorporate the fate of the German expellees into the history of the Second World War and its consequences. This of course effectively denies redress not just to the German state, but especially to the millions of robbed and maimed individuals who are still alive. The cover-up is definitely part of that series of misdeeds which Adenauer condemned roundly in 1949, and which continue to haunt 'the uneasy conscience of the West'. Speaking to the Swiss Parliament in Bern, Switzerland, in March 1949, Adenauer compared the expulsions to the misdeeds of the Nazis, and concluded, 'The expulsions resulted from the Potsdam Agreement of 2 August 1945. I am convinced that one day world history will pronounce a very harsh verdict on this document.' 14


*At Canossa in 1077, King Henry IV knelt in the snow for three days as he begged Pope Gregory to release him from excommunication. The phrase was first used by Paul Boytinck in conversation with the author in 1995.


Numbered Footnotes

1. Klaus Schwabe, Woodrow Wilson, Revolutionary Germany and Peacemaking, 1918-1919 (Chaptel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), p.89.

2. Joseph Tumulty to Wilson: Arthur Walworth, Woodrow Wilson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), Vol. II, p.187.

3. See Bischof and Ambrowse, Eisenhower and the German POWs.

4. The book making the charge was Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (London: Little, Brown, 1996) by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, which in its first year of publication had sold 20,000 copies in Britain.

5. Klemens von Kemperer, German Resistance Against Hitler (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.386.

6. Conor Cruise O'Brien, quoting an earlier essay, in his book On the Eve of the Millennium, p.141.

7. Murphy to State, 12 October 1945, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, Vol. 2, pp. 1290-2. Quoted in De Zayas, Nemesis at Potsdam, p. 115. Bertrand Russell in England wrote strong letters of protest to The Times and the New Leader. De Zayas, op. cit., pp. 108-9.

8. De Zayas to the author, January 1995.

9. Times Literary Supplement, 14-20 September 1990.

10. New York Times Book Review, 25 February 1991, p. 1.

11. See Ramsey Clark, The Fire This Time: US War Crimes in the Gulf

12. Stanley Kutler, Professor of History and Law, University of Wisconsin, in the New Yorker, 14 December 1992, p. 91.

13. David Irving, Goebbels, p. 418.

14. Konrad Adenauer, Memoirs, 1945-1953, p. 148.


James Bacque's Crimes and Mercies can be ordered online from British Books, Der Buchwurm and also directly from the author at his website World War 2 Books.


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