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Customer Review

on 17 August 2011
"The Bitter Road to Freedom" is first and foremost a work written by and for Americans. Unlike in much of (continental) Europe, where the ambivalent and tragic nature of the end of WWII and the postwar settlement is widely recognized, in the United States the story of the 'good war' is generally one of fairly unabashed triumphalism. One need but think of the acclaimed series 'Band of Brothers' or the popular portrayal of figures like Patton to see this. It was therefore incumbent on the American historian William Hitchcock, specialist in 20th century European international relations at Temple University, to correct this all too self-congratulatory image. In this eminently readable book Hitchcock systematically describes the European experience of 'liberation' from West to East, starting with the launch of Operation Overlord and ending with the repatriation of the 'Displaced Persons' and the expulsion of the German-speaking peoples from Eastern Europe. As Hitchcock shows, from the 70.000 French civilian victims of Allied bombing to the Dutch famine of 1944-1945 and the lacklustre reception for Shoah survivors, the story of liberation was itself as destructive an episode of the war as the rest of it had been. In fact, World War II is remarkable for the fact that in every year the degree of violence, which seemed to have reached the maximum imaginable in each previous year, was raised to a further pitch, and the 'liberation' of Europe was but the final culmination of this.

This is not to say, of course, that anyone now doubts the absolute necessity for all powers involved to destroy Nazi Germany at whatever cost. But in recent decades the increasing historical distance to the real events has allowed for a more ambivalent and nuanced scholarship than was the case previously, and this has led to many debates on thorny moral and political issues arising from this final stage of the deadliest war the world has ever seen. Hitchcock navigates these deftly: while his approach is one of 'history from below', using the stories of civilian eyewitnesses, soldiers and UN workers wherever possible in lieu of a larger political analysis, he does not neglect the major controversies, and gets them right where it counts. The often needless destruction of the German historical cities, product not just of inadequate technology in strategic bombing but also of sheer vengefulness, is mentioned. So also is the failure of the Warsaw Uprising (where Hitchcock quite rightly notes that the Red Army had no ability to offer assistance, not a lack of will), the difficult relations between the military governors of occupied Germany and the 'Displaced Persons', in particular the Zionist Jews, and the painful decision to not liberate the urban Netherlands separately because of the military cost, condemning thousands to die of famine. Another useful corrective the author provides is to dispel the notion that it was only the Red Army in the east that, upon arriving in foreign territory, set about widespread rape and looting. In fact, the western Allies made hardly a better show of it in France or Belgium, and if Hitchcock is to be believed the Americans particularly had more warm feelings for the German civilians than for the ones they 'liberated' (despite attempts from on high to prevent this).

Hitchcock's warm and accessible writing style, his balanced judgement and judicious choice of anecdotal sources make for great reading. One could, however, object to the somewhat narrow focus of the book. It is very much oriented to Americans: the military experience is virtually entirely the American one, those elements of high politics provided as context are centered around American decision-making, and one could easily get the impression from him (though this is probably not intentional) that the liberation of Europe was largely an American effort, itself a popular conception that needs revising. Moreover, because the story starts when the Americans arrive with their main force on the scene, there is almost no attention for the interesting and tragic tale of the 'liberation' of southern Europe. Certainly the Italian experience after the switch of 1943, with its German reprisals and partisan warfare, the Yugoslavian story of self-liberation, and the Greek story of mass famine and British repression of the resistance movement would have been worth telling. One can hope however that Hitchcock or some other could do a sequel of this work, and include the Indo-Pacific theatre in it as well, which saw a possibly even more destructive 'liberation' and one where the Americans and other Allies shone (even) less obviously. Yet it is childish to accuse a good book of not being several good books, and there is no doubt that this work is part of a new and encouraging trend in historiography of World War II that takes a more 'revisionist' and politically ambivalent approach to the subject - one can think here also of Adam Tooze's wonderful book "The Wages of Destruction" (The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy). Recommended for all fans of WWII history, especially Americans.
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