Jews, Germans, And Allies –
Close Encounters In Occupied Germany
By Atina Grossmann
Princeton University Press – £19.95
I first came across this altogether marvellous book when I last visited The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. I feel this is worth mentioning because Jews, Germans, and Allies – Close Encounters in Occupied Europe dissects and discusses exactly what its title suggests, but not in a way you’d expect. For a start, it isn’t nearly as dry, factual and cloyingly didactic as a number of books on the subject – which makes it highly readable. It’s so colourful and concise it’s a joy to read.
And who’d have ever thought reading about close encounters in occupied Germany would, let alone could, be a joy to read? It also paints an ultra vivid picture of post-war Berlin that is so clearly well researched and explained, it’s almost impossible to stop turning the pages.
One has to obviously be interested in the subject of immediate post-war Germany (Berlin especially) in the first place, but for those who are, this book may come across as something of a revelation – of which there are countless examples. One or two of the most prominent being that on the subject of ‘Rape and American Conquerors’ within the chapter ‘Gendered Defeat’: ‘’On the most basic level, the harsh measures of denazification and re-education programs simply could not withstand the day-to-day American experience with postwar Germans. The fact that so many of the demonized enemy civilians first encountered by American GIs were female – needy, attractive, and eager to please – left American soldiers with a ‘’feminized image of German society that contrasted sharply with the aggressive masculine wartime image of the Third Reich […].
Herein, we stumble upon just one aspect of the post-war capital, which is as equally fraught with unsavoury untruths, at is much maligned, as it is distorted and horribly exaggerated. The inevitable result(s) of which spawned just as many unjustified arguments among Allies and Germans, as it did filmmakers (the German Strassenbekanntschften, the Italian Germania Anno Zero and the American The Big Lift to name but three – all of which are addressed).
Throughout this book, authoress Atina Grossmann sheds tumultuous academic light on an array of subjects. Some of them already clearly defined, some of them not so; but for me, one of the more interesting investigations on her part, is that of lack of (concerted) German guilt: ‘’Notwithstanding the punishments Germans now suffer, and those still before them, there is no apparent realization of collective guilt for the unspeakable crimes committed by the German nation or for the unforgivable anguish and suffering spread by Germany throughout the world […]. The Germans act as though the Nazis were a strange race of Eskimos who came down from the North Pole and somehow invaded Germany.’’
Such tough, translucent and unquestionably honest writing, is what separates Jews, Germans, and Allies from an array of competitors. Where else for instance, would you read the following on the Nuremberg trials (care of the Soviet-licensed Berliner Zeitung): ‘’Having now heard the testimony of more than half of the defendants, one could get the impression from their words that the inmates of the concentration camp had themselves carried out the selections for the gas chambers, ordered themselves to march into the chambers, themselves turned on the gas and obediently choked to death, or had in Belsen beaten and bestially mistreated themselves,… and shot themselves. All these villainous organizers of mass extermination claim to not have been there at all, in fact they were practically benefactors of the inmates.’’
Grossmann’s strength and sheer commitment to pinpointing the truth, is commendable. In fact, it’s books such as these that make the study of the Holocaust, as well as history, all the more worthwhile – by accurately reflecting the turbulent complexity of history into the even more complex prism of the future.