Last month I reviewed some books about D-Day and the men who fought to liberate Europe. And that's usually how we like to remember the story: bravery, sacrifice, and victory; Allied armies pushing back a merciless Nazi army and liberating grateful Europeans. And the liberated people were very grateful and recognized the magnitude of the sacrifice. But, as they say, "war is hell," and not least of all for occupied peoples, and not all Europeans remembered it so fondly (when they chose to remember it at all) with dancing and celebrating in the streets.
The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe
by William I. Hitchcock explores the experiences from the civilian perspective, starting with D-Day. By the time Allied forces invaded the beaches of Normandy, the French had already endured weeks of bombing meant to soften up the Germans, but just as often destroying French cities and towns. When the Allied armies broke through they were greeted warily by the surviving farmers and townsfolk who'd lost many family and friends, as well as any chance of feeding themselves. As the battle slowly moved into Belgium, the soldiers suffered through a bitterly cold winter but received a warmer reception from the people. And in the Netherlands, starvation was rampant and many survived by eating tulip bulbs. It was a perfect example of how liberation doesn't solve everything, and a huge part of the population nearly died from lack of food when relief supplies were delayed in shipping.
But it was even worse on the Eastern Front. The brutal Nazi push across Poland and to the outskirts of Moscow, and the even more brutal push back by the Red Army across Poland to Berlin made a horrific mess of Poland. The depravity by both the German and the Russian soldiers was beyond extreme. UNRRA tried to care for the civilian casualties, but it was an enormous task and, sadly, liberation didn't always mean an end of suffering. One sad fact of the agreements made with Stalin (remember: he was our ally at the time) was that DPs (Displaced Persons) were to be returned to their countries of origin. Trying to force people who were reluctant to return to areas now ruled by Soviet Communists was an especially unenviable task.
Of course, the experiences of the Jews in the concentration camps are covered, too. Many were kept in the camps for more than a year after liberation because they couldn't be cared for elsewhere. The lives they had led previously in Europe had been irredeemably lost, so they now fought for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
This is not a book for the squeamish or faint of heart. Armies on all sides were guilty of inhumane treatment - some more than others - but whether it was a "righteous" war or not, it inflicted a terrible cost in human suffering. This isn't a "complete" history and can seem a bit academic, but is still an excellent portrayal of the "dreadful ugliness of war." It is similar to Year Zero by Ian Buruma, but with a view confined mostly to Europe. At times I thought Hitchcock seemed overly critical of America and the Allies, and I was disappointed that the Marshal Plan was mentioned only once in passing, but he always tries to explain the situation and give the appropriate background on why specific actions were taken. At any rate, this book certainly has it's place among the histories of WWII. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine, and I'll review a book about the Marshal Plan - a much happier book - soon.)