a casahistoria reading list - single party states  

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 Reviews on Books on the History of Single Party States


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Frederick Taylor:
Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany


The full title is presumably/hopefully an Editor's choice - surely we no longer need images of Hitler and his name in Big Blocks to sell a book? The German edition (called "Between War and Peace") is much more appropriate. Perhaps a little denazification of the book industry might do some good.....

After books on the wartime bombing of Dresden and the Berlin Wall, Taylor now provides a popular read on the less explored (by non-German historians at least) immediate post war history of Germany, 1945-47. The initial chapters provide a narrative of collapse and defeat including the mass movements of Germans from east to west (although not with the same degree of depth as in Giles MacDonogh: After the Reich - from the fall of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift). I was fascinated to discover that teams of economists had been working secretly within the Nazi structure under Backe (Hitler's Food Minister) and Speer planning for the economic survival of a defeated germany from 1943 onwards. The team included one Ludwig Ehrhard, later to be the architect of west Germany's economic miracle.

Where Taylor shines is when he looks at the specific occupation policies of the allies. One useful chapter examines the practical problems of denazification. An early IBM system was introduced to set up a database of suspected Nazi's - but was plagued by technical issues. It was to prove an impossibility for demobilising occupiers to denazify an entire population and Taylor chronicles how pragmatism led to this being one of the first areas handed back to German control. Another factor slowing down the process is suggested as being an underlying anti-semitism amongst the US command (especially Patton) which was reflected in a distaste for supporting and listening to DP's (Displaced persons) many of whom were Jewish survivors of the camps.

Post war zonal policy is examined individually. Much has already been written of the attitude of the Soviets in the east, less about the British and especially the French in the west. It seems the British tended to treat their zone initially as if it were an African colony. At one point an exasperated Kurt Schumacher (later to become the leader of the SPD party) exclaims "Wir sind kein Negervolk" ("We are not Blacks" - which says as much about the racist attitudes prevalent at the time as well as British policy!). Taylor is especially useful on the French position. Early French treatment and policies were harsher even than those in the Russian zone. There were large numbers of prisoner of war deaths, they refused to accept refugees from the east, saying as protestants they would unsettle the religious balance of their Rhineland zone - and cleverly recruiting German Catholic support. Paradoxically though the French were also the first to give the Germans a genuine role in self-government and denazification (Taylor suggests one reason for this may have been more empathy between occupier and occupied given that many of the French had played a collaborational role with Germans in Vichy).

What the reading makes clear is how the occupiers had to juggle many, often conflicting demands: initial concern over "Werwolf"counter attack and desire for revenge, followed by the practicalities of feeding a people incapable of doing this themselves because of destruction and dislocation. How to restore Germany - non industrial state incapable of going to war (The US Morgenthau plan), nation made up of fragmented states as after 1648 (France), a client state incapable of returning to a Nazi, or capitalist past and too weak to wage war (Soviet Union) or a Poor Law pauper kept alive but no better than the poorest at home (Britain). Political and emerging Cold War reality soon focussed minds: Britain and the US restore the framework for economic revival and the ability for their zones to feed themselves. France and Germany begin the dance of a couple destined to tie them and the rest of Europe into the European Union. In the east, concerned Soviets, try to use Berlin to halt these developments, which after the blockade accelerates the binding of wartime western allies and their zones, by then the Federal Republic.

One of the most useful sections is the epilogue - essentially an essay on how post 1949 Germany has come to terms with its nazi past: The sleep cure of the 1950's when the Adenauer regime admits the "fellow traveller" nazi's back to positions of administrative authority to manage the economic miracle. Then the questioning of this by the generation of the 1960's: Press criticism, 1968, Baader-Meinhof terrorism. In the 1970's as a prosperous but not yet confident society, the Ostpolitik of Brandt coming to terms politically with its eastern past.

Only today, over 60 years later is Germany sufficiently confident under a Chancellor born after the nazi period, to take a lead again, but hesitantly, still conscious of its past malevolent ghosts. March '12 (****)

Other reviews: 

  Simon Sebag Montefiore:
Young Stalin

This has to be read by anyone who seriously wants to understand what made Stalin tick. The account of his youth and formative years (up to Oct/Nov 1917) clearly indicates the impact of growing up in the wilds of (still lawless and gangster riddled) Georgia and the Caucasus. Sebag Montefiore's account does more though - it explains perhaps the ease with which the USSR slid into oligarchy and lawlessness in the 1990's - because of a general underlying tradition of violence, but also the dangers of faith schools and the risks of encarcerating enemies of the state in similar places. Stalin? More educated and culturally rounded than I had thought, but presents as not a pleasant character at all - easy to understand his purges and ruthlessness as later USSR leader. Equally repugnant seemed to be his inclination towards impregnating teenage girls at least half his age - one of whom was only 13, (he was in his 30's......) Very readable nonetheless. May '07 (****)



  Ryszard Kapuscinski:

This is a volume of essays dating from 1939 to the fall of Gorbachev by the Polish journalist. In them, Kapuscinski writes clearly and shows a sharp sense of observation of the workings of the Soviet Empire as he finds it in his travels during the period. Although we are well aware now that the former USSR was not a monolith but made up of many different nationalities and Soviet Republics, his writing from the 1980's from the Soviet "stans" reminds us that this was also the case at a time when the west tended to consider the USSR as one uniform state. In many ways the best is at the start and finish - a masterly description of the 1939 Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from a boys account and an analysis from the time by an easterner of the fall of Gorbachev. Not quite history writing, but a good resource for historical study of the period. Oct' 08. (***) 
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Giles Tremlett: Ghosts of Spain:
 Travels Through Spain and Its Secret Past

Written by The Guardians Spain reporter this is a guide to help the anglo-saxon understand modern Spain by attempting to explain the history - ancient & modern - that is its foundation. Tremlett, as a long term resident writes with insight and real understanding - and at length. His best chapters are the early ones when he explains the secretos a voces originating from the Franco era and the "amnistía and amnesia" that followed it. He rationalises the dichotomy whereby Spains prosecutors are the most fervent in chasing up the perpetrators of Latin Americas military regimes whilst (until recently at least) ignoring the events of their own right wing period. Unfortunately the book will be too wordy to be read by most anglosajóns on the costas - tighter editing might have broadened its appeal - and value. (Sept '07) (***)


Philip Roth:
 The Plot Against America: A Novel

An intriguing piece of counterfactual history - FDR loses the 1940 election to a right wing Lindbergh in league with Nazi Germany. Written in the first person from the viewpoint of a 10 year old boy this is perceptive and emotionally moving on a personal as well as social and political level as it charts the gradual decline of the US into antisemitic persecution. Yes, you can see how it might happen in a "civilised" society.... May '07 (****)

Frederick Taylor: The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989

An interesting narrative of the history of the Berlin Wall by the author of Dresden. Like that earlier work much attention is given to context (although the potted history of the pre 1961 Cold War period is perhaps too potted). The Wall remains the focus, especially in the 1960's highlighting as it does the hypocrisy and lack of will of the western powers and the federal republic to support their rhetoric with action towards the east (which was probably the wise course...) But the most satisfactory chapter is perhaps the final one with insights and perceptions available only to a writer with a genuine affection and knowledge of the east gained through personal association. Useful also to anyone seeking an accessible, and general history of the GDR. One final point - in my (hardback) edition there are a surprising number of typos, signs perhaps of too swift editing. But why? Dec '07 (***)


Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

An enjoyable read. Has a touch of Susskind's Perfume about it as this neo-gothic story within a story unfolds in dark post civil war Barcelona. Ideally needs to be read fairly swiftly as the characters are numerous and the twists keep coming. The English translation is worth remarking upon – flowing and with a good turn of phrase (“the heavens were weeping” to describe rain at a funeral). I do not know if the translation is accurate, but it reads as if it were not one…. Oct '06 (***)



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