In the summer of 1945, when in all towns and villages the posters hung with the pictures and stories from Belsen and the crucial statement, “You are the guilty!” Consciences grew uneasy, horror gripped many who had indeed not known this, and something rebelled: who indicts me there? No signature, no authority—the poster came as though from empty space (Jaspers 1947: 47).
World War II did not end in May of 1945 as we have been made to believe. To claim that is as dishonest as it is to claim now in 2011 that the Iraq war ended with the capture of Saddam. For Germans, World War II continued in a barbaric form well beyond 1945. I use the word barbaric deliberately because the war was now motivated, not by Hitler’s unconscionable desire for Lebensraum (living space) in Eastern Europe nor by the necessity of the Allies to defeat and conquer Hitler’s Germany, it was motivated purely and simply by revenge — arbitrary revenge and terror.
After May 9 1945, the Allies were not hunting down the German army, which was defeated and destroyed, most of its soldiers either killed or imprisoned. Rather, the Allies, now as conquerors, and their numerous affiliated armed militias in Russia, Poland and then Czechoslovakia pitted themselves against unarmed German women, children, and the old, all civilians who were plundered, driven from their homes, interned, tortured or killed. Personal guilt or innocence of civilians was ignored. Not only was collective guilt assumed, it was used as a political weapon to justify leaving Germany suspended between life and death. According to various estimates, this war of retribution and revenge cost some two and a half million Germans their lives after the official hostilities ended.
Furthermore, it is estimated that 12 to 14 million Germans from Eastern Europe fled West, were expelled, incarcerated, or became victims of ethnic cleansing. For these millions, the conflict would continue until at least 1949 and often into the 1950s.
In my view, this further defeating of the already defeated was a post-war strategy of the Allied victors. It was done physically, psychologically, and culturally. Why was this done? Primarily, because the Allies believed their own and Goebbels’ propaganda, namely, that all Germans were happy Nazis. The German resistance, especially the Christian Military Resistance, which was known to be active, was ignored for Allied strategic reasons. And earlier, to win this brutal war, Allied propaganda needed to convince all of their citizens that every German was bad. After all, they needed to recruit young men.
I am reminded of Marion von Dönhoff, a courier for the German resistance. Her friends and family many of them part of the July 20 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler were brutally tortured and murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps. In 1945, von Dönhoff went to Nuremburg (Nürnberg) to observe the war crimes trials. She found the whole process highly questionable. She saw the superficial attempt at Nürnberg to separate the bad from the good. Since those presiding "denied the German resistance, however, there were no good people – and so the whole event turned into a kind of extermination (Vernichtung) of the Germans" (Schad 2001:285 my italics).
What happened in post-war Germany will never be repeated – at least not in this manner nor on that scale. German wrong-doing that preceded it was too great. But I fear we have not learned from it. At present, academics, reporters, politicians, and many citizens are discussing war, its nature, and its necessity--not as George Jonas suggests the Peace of Westphalia, which stood for economic recovery and respect for political sovereignty rather than vengefulness.
The discussions about war are no doubt valuable. But we are still not discussing the immediate aftermath of war – a time period that may last several years, even decades. Post-war periods are disturbingly unpredictable. Above all, because legal vacuums form, all elements to the conflict tend to settle scores. The consequences are bitter and cost uncountable innocent lives.
Here it is interesting to mention that the German resistance, or most resisters, knew that the price for their opposition was death - their deaths, but perpetrated against them by Hitler's executioners. Even then, they hoped that their sacrifice would help spare the civilian population. This was not to be. -- And indeed television reports from Libya have shown similar awareness of sacrifice on the part of its protesters. But these resisters were wounded by those who are enforcing the no-fly zone. The significance, however, is not that these Libyans seem to accept the risk. The signifigance is rather that their resistance against Gaddafi is recognized by the Americans, British, and French - the very powers that did not acknowledge German resistance way back then. Which is, in my view, an additional reason why Germany should have agreed to the no-fly zone proposal - but instead abstained. Did young parliamentarians forget to discuss this issue?
Nor are we discussing how to deal with the defeated. While defeat, even of definable bad people, is its own punishment, victors and their allied militias or rebels usually cannot resist taking revenge. While in some cultures revenge is considered appropriate behavior in certain circumstances, in my view and in a civilized world, revenge can never be justified either within or without the law. Furthermore, the rule of law is usually absent in postwar situations, when, in fact, it should be the first thing to be established or re-established.
What I am saying is that currently America, Britain, and France among others, are helping people in that region. The intentions are good. The people there are calling for western help. The risk of unexpected or ugly consequences, however, is great and largely unforseeable. Have the U.S., the UN, or NATO prepared post-conflict strategies so that wars of retribution will be prevented? The stories of refugees in the collection camps on the Tunisian side of the border would make one doubt that.