William I. Hitchcock. The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe. Free Press, 2008.
This is an interesting and significant book. Hitchcock, who teaches history at Temple University, tells an important story well. His agenda is mainly to complexify the way we Americans (and others) view World War II. He does not question the necessity of the war to defeat Germany, but he does question the simplistic character of the basic story we have been told about the nobility of this war.
For many of those “liberated” by this war–the citizens of Normandy, Belgium, and Holland; the populations of Eastern Europe; and most tragically Europe’s Jewish people–the “cure” of Allied conquest was nearly as devastating as the “disease” of German domination.
I learned a lot from Hitchcock’s account. Normandy, the scene of the great invasion of the Allies that signaled the final push into Germany from the west, faced extraordinary (and often inefficient and unnecessary) destruction from their supposed allies. For example, the city of Caen (population 60,000) was bombed to smithereens by the British, an attack that served no real strategic purpose. Holland, on the cusp of “liberation” in the late Fall of 1944, was deemed peripheral to the core priorities of the Allies and left to suffer through one more winter of starvation and disease at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
I was aware of the unbelievable death and annihilation of Eastern Europe in the ruthless back and forth of the Germans and Russians. Hitchcock’s account, nonetheless, still left this reader shaken at the shear nihilism of that conflict.
The story of the fate of Europe’s Jews carries the most potent punch in this account. If anyone still imagined that this war was fought in order to “save the Jews,” reading what happened after the defeat of the Nazis will refute such a notion. Shockingly, we learn that for months, even years, after the end of the war Jewish survivors remained in prison-like camps under conditions not greatly improved from the death camps. Clearly, the Allies had given no thought to these victims of Nazi insanity.
Hitchcock ends the story in 1947, so we only get hints concerning the connection between Europe’s utter amorality concerning the treatment of Jewish people, Britain’s vain but devastating efforts to hold on to the remnants of their Empire in the Middle East, and today’s intractable conflicts in that part of the world.
As I mentioned above, Hitchcock does not mean to question the necessity of the War. He mainly seems to want to remind his readers that such a necessary effort nonetheless came at great cost. He hopes we can gain a more complex and less romantic perspective on the terrible cost so many paid on this “bitter road to freedom.”
As one less certain of the necessity for this War, I came away from this book with many percolating thoughts. For one thing, it seems clear that most if not all of the moral-high-ground type of justifications for this “last resort” of violence had little significance in the event of the actual war. Clearly, this war had nothing to do with saving or caring about the welfare of Europe’s Jewish people. It had little to do with protecting human life (see the destruction of Normandy and the lack of concern with the Dutch people). It had little to do with democracy and freedom (see the total abandonment of Eastern Europe to Stalin at the end of the War).
The War inevitably took on its own logic–which, paraphrasing the words of one American general, was to kill and kill until the enemy quits.
We must not minimize the evils of Nazism. Hitchcock powerfully reminds us of those. However, the basic issue this War raises–the basic issue humanity must resolve if we are to have a future–is how do we successfully resist evil without becoming evil ourselves. Hitchcock’s important book helps us see that “the Good War” only intensified this problem.