Most helpful positive review
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on 24 January 2013
Zero Hour is apparently how many Germans regarded the end of 1945. A source of almost endless misery and destruction, the result of which was for many of them to see themselves as victims of the war as much if not more so than the people and countries upon which they wreaked such devastation themselves. Richard Bessel is very even handed and precise in his descriptions of perhaps the most fateful year in German history. His work is thorough and well documented and takes you from the well known and well trodden ground of the final allied assault and Russian taking of Berlin, to some of the lesser known aspects of the allied occupation. It is still sobering to note that in one month in early 1945 the German military suffered 450,000 killed and that during the period of migration to avoid bombing and the subesquent escape and forced migration to the west from what is now Poland, the former Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and other areas in the Russian occupied zone, some 11 million people were on the move, mostly women, children and the elderly. The treatment of many Germans by the the nazis towards the end was often as barbaric, pointless and sadistic as their other crimes. The young (17) year old Gunter Grass himself in the Waffen SS recalled seeing boys as young as himself hanging from trees.
The Occupying forces saw their role as to crush Germany so that it would never rise as a military power again. That the Russians enacted this through an orgy of rape and destruction is both appalling and sadly an act of vengeance that to them was completely justifiable, particularly as they saw the wealth of Germany through the eyes of their own suffering and poverty. Less understandable was the action of French colonial troops who acted in a similar if not such destructive manner. It is unfortunate that Henry Morgenthau US secretary to the Treasury advanced a plan in all seriousness to turn Germany into a virtually 18th agrarian society. Being jewish you can understand his hatred, but it proved a propaganda coup for the Nazis.
Once the fighting was over the book examines the successes, failures and different styles of management of the occupying powers. Each had their own style, attitude towards the local population and economic priorities trying to both resurrect German civil society, cope with the horrors of the concentration camps and deal with the tidal wave of dislocated and bewildered humanity, German civilians in situ, German migrants from the east, forced labourers anxious to return to their own country. This was coupled with the hunt for war criminals, which the Germans were often only to eager denounce and the denazification of the civil adminstration (Persilschein). Many mistakes were made here which given the circumstances you have to sympathise with (Given the lessons of this episode it is criminal to think of what happened in Iraq). An example of the problems was the food situation. In the British sector 'Operation Barleycorn' was the release of some 300,000 German prisoners of war to bring in the harvest to prevent widespread starvation.
Richard Bessel then discusses the loss of the east, Prussia,Pomerania,Silesia,Thuringia, the psychological impact on those forced to the west knowing they would never return home and how this and the devastation cause by allied bombing and the occupation led to the mindset of victimhood within Germany, that largely erased a sense of responsibility at least initially for the human and material devastation they themselves were responsible for. He also looks at how the occupying powers wished to shape Germany for the future. How the involvement of German political parties of the left, unions, trade federations themselves sought to support and shape reconstruction and organise relief. Despite the bombing much of German industry, if not domestic infrastructure was intact and even with the removal of whole plants and factories by all sides was able to start up again fairly quickly, the chiefs problems being fuel and transport.
The influence of the churches is examined as the sole surviving entity outside that Nazi state that retained most of its credibility.
The author finally makes the point that rather than WW1 where Germany was not invaded, the experience of destruction and the moral bankruptcy of the Nazi state even towards its own citizens finally forced the 'zero hour' mentality that enabled Germany to rebuild in a different way.
This book is information heavy. Statistics add to rather than detract from the narrative. The prose style is straightforward in presentation, but does lapse into repetition and the overuse of adjectives when trying to describe the nazi regime itself, the vileness it inflicted and the repercussions that ensued.
Recommended but perhaps not as a first book on the subject.