An excerpt from

In the House of the Hangman

The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949

Jeffrey K. Olick

Defining Defeat
May 8, 1945

The surrender of the German military to Allied forces took place at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) at Reims in the early hours of May 7, 1945. On April 30, Hitler and Goebbels had committed suicide, leaving Grand Admiral Dönitz as head of state; on May 1, the last remaining German forces in Italy capitulated; the following day General Weidling surrendered Berlin to Soviet general Chuikov, though Weidling stalled as long as possible to allow Martin Bormann and others to escape from Hitler's bunker; on May 3, Hamburg fell to the British. By the first week of May, the endgame was played out, as had been inevitable all spring.

Dönitz's immediate goal was to delay surrender as long as possible to enable German troops on the Eastern front to avoid capture by the Soviets. The German command believed that German soldiers and civilians could expect particularly brutal treatment by Stalin's forces. Indeed, when the German chief of staff, General Jodl, arrived at SHAEF to discuss surrender, he pleaded with the Western Allies to allow the German army more time, on the grounds that every troop saved from Soviet captivity (or worse) would be available for the coming struggle against the Communists. When Allied commanders insisted they would tolerate no further delays, Jodl sent a signal to Dönitz's headquarters in Flensburg asking for permission to sign the surrender documents. Dönitz responded at 1:30 A.M., at which point Jodl and his delegation sat before representatives of the Allied powers (though Supreme Commander General Eisenhower, out of disdain for the enemy, refused to be in the room) and signed four copies of the surrender document, which set the end of the war for one minute after midnight British time on May 9. In a brief statement, Jodl expressed a sense of victimization by history that would be a hallmark of the postwar years: "With this signature the German people and the German armed forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the victor's hands. In this War, which has lasted more than five years, both have achieved and suffered more than perhaps any other people in the world. In this hour I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity."


Neither history nor commemoration, it turns out, was nearly as final as this account suggests. Truman and Churchill had agreed with Stalin not to announce the Reims event until a parallel signing could take place in Berlin. Furthermore, the Reims document was not exactly the same one the Soviets had agreed to; the Soviet delegate Major General Ivan Suslaparov overstepped his authority when he signed the Reims agreement (he disappeared into Soviet custody immediately thereafter) and the Soviets threatened to repudiate it. By mid-afternoon on May 7, a press leak caused spontaneous celebrations in European capitals and on the East Coast of the United States before the Berlin ceremony took place, leading to accusations by the Soviets that the Western Allies were trying to cut them out of the victory (in truth it was likely more a matter of bungling than intention). In order not to appear to be latecomers, the Soviet leadership suppressed news of the Reims signing until after the Berlin ceremony, which was indeed grand in comparison to the one at Reims. The Soviet Union did not announce victory to its people until early on May 9. Interpretation of the victory was thus already divided at its birth.

Additionally, despite the celebrations of May 8 in the West and May 9 in the East, an undertaking as massive as World War II does not simply end. Fighting had ceased in some places months earlier, yet continued in others for several weeks after. The Allies allowed Dönitz's successor government to operate formally until May 23, when the British—under pressure from the Soviets and the French—arrested him. It was not until June 5 that the Allies assumed "supreme authority" in Germany, and exactly what that meant legally was ambiguous at best. For most Germans, moreover, there was little difference between the misery before May 8 (or 9) and after. Indeed, for those "ethnic" Germans in Eastern territories, new horrors of revenge and expulsion were just beginning; particularly in Berlin many German women (and girls) suffered brutal and repeated rapes at the hands of Soviet "shock" troops during these weeks; and many soldiers were dying of injuries or languishing in captivity (thousands of those in Soviet custody would remain there for many years). For complex reasons, many Germans (particularly leaders) have been heavily invested in seeing May 8, 1945, as a decisive rupture in history, a so-called "zero hour." Most Germans, however, experienced it as merely one day in the middle of an era of suffering begun at Stalingrad in 1943 and not to be over until the currency reform of 1948 (or, for some, not until the final return of POWs and sovereignty in 1955).

Indeed, some sense of the extent of Germany's physical destitution (which does not minimize a sense of the destruction Germany wrought on its enemies) is essential for understanding the cultural and moral dilemmas of Germany's defeat. During the war, for instance, the Western Allies pursued an escalating strategy of carpet bombing that reached far beyond many definitions of military or industrial targeting. This air war left approximately six hundred thousand civilians dead, and wounded as many as nine hundred thousand more; more than 7 million Germans were left homeless at the end of the war (around 10 million people had been evacuated from the cities to avoid the bombings). "Population transfers" from eastern Europe and the eastern parts of the Reich numbered as many as 12 million, and at least a half million ethnic Germans died or were killed in the process. More than 5 million German soldiers were killed in the war, leaving more than a million widows; the gender disparity after the war—more than two "marriageable" women for every man—was among the most significant demographic consequences of the war, which is to say nothing of the large number of fatherless or entirely orphaned children. Just one consequence of the mass rapes of German women toward and after the end of the war and of the rampant prostitution and semiprostitution born of extreme necessity, moreover, was an astoundingly high venereal disease rate among German women (to say nothing of among Soviet and other soldiers).

The physical, moral, and social devastation symbolized by May 8, 1945, was thus unprecedented and decisive, though its meaning remains disputed to this day. Was Germany defeated or liberated on May 8, 1945? Does that date mark a caesura in German and world history, or was it merely an arbitrary moment in a long historical process, one characterized as much by continuity as by rupture? These two questions—defeat versus liberation, rupture versus continuity—are no matters of mere historiographical pondering: They posed basic dilemmas for all Germans contemplating the future of their collective national existence, to say nothing of their personal and material circumstances. At the root of these dilemmas was the issue of whether, and in what ways, all Germans were responsible for National Socialism and everything it had wrought: Were ordinary Germans perpetrators, bystanders, or victims? To what extent was National Socialism a product of German culture and to what extent was it a deviation, accident, or even foreign plague?

While these questions were ultimately matters for the Germans themselves, how the Allies posed and answered them affected the course of the war and the nature of the occupation, and thus the contexts in which Germans confronted them in the moment of their abjection. The purpose of this and the following two chapters is to investigate both the evolution of Allied framings and the ways in which these framings have entered into collective memory, German and otherwise.

Mythic Frameworks

The story of U.S. and British planning for the occupation of Germany is commonly told as a Manichean struggle between irresponsible Germanaphobes bent on vengeance and pragmatists who believed harsh measures were more likely to sow the seeds of a new war than to help avoid it. In this standard account, the U.S. treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. is the central figure. Labeled by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels as the "Jewish Angel of Revenge" (jüdische Racheengel), Morgenthau stands as the emblem of misguided policy. A witless lackey, according to the standard narrative, Morgenthau allowed himself to be manipulated by Jewish groups and Communist sympathizers, and called for the wholesale destruction of Germany; because of failing health, President Franklin Roosevelt momentarily went along, though he never would have let things go so far had he lived until the end of the war. In some versions of this story, the ultimate occupation statute—JCS (Joint Chiefs of Staff) 1067, which stated that "Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation"—was a last residue of Morgenthau's vision, to be undermined by all means; in others, JCS 1067 was a refutation of Morgenthau because it lacked some of his putatively more draconian desires, such as flooding the mines and dismantling all industry in the Ruhr and Saar regions. Either way, the story of the occupation of Germany is told as one of overcoming the vengeful impulses for which "Morgenthau" stood and developing the supposedly more levelheaded policies that ultimately won the Cold War.

There are many reasons why this account has dominated. Perhaps the most generous explanation would be in terms of the compartmentalization of historiography: for analysts of postwar Germany, or even of U.S. occupation policy after 1945, the complex story of the vicissitudes of American policy planning is a matter of prehistory, easily reduced to a few standard sentences. For historians of the occupation and of West Germany, "Morgenthau" has been useful as an emblem for a vast array of opinions, proposals, discussions, and theories from before the end of the war to be contrasted with what eventually happened. For Germans themselves during the occupation and afterward, "Morgenthau" was evidence of the Allies' punitive stance, the source of German suffering. Not only German commentators in the postwar period, but many scholars since then have thus referred vaguely to Morgenthau and his plan to "dismember," "pastoralize," or "deindustrialize" Germany without further analysis; especially sophisticated accounts mention as well "Vansittartism," a label referring to the position articulated by Lord Robert Vansittart, a high-ranking British diplomat (commonly referred to as "the propagandist Robert Vansittart," as if that were a job description) who had opposed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing the Nazis in the mid-1930s and who delivered important speeches during the war warning against a "soft peace." Rarely, however, are such mentions qualified by close analysis—or even reference to close analysis—of what exactly Morgenthau or Vansittart proposed, and why. "Pastoralization" and "Vansittartism" are thus convenient mythic emblems, often as much for historians as for political actors at the time.

Another explanation for the persistence of this standard account has to do with the retrospective legitimation of U.S. policy in the Cold War. Here "Morgenthau" stands for those who did not recognize the threat the Soviet Union posed, and for the bankruptcy of accommodation. Particularly important here is the fact that Morgenthau's chief advisor (and principle author of the plan), Harry Dexter White, was accused in 1948 by Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) of being a Soviet agent; by implication, the only ones who would benefit from the radical restructuring of the German economy for which Morgenthau called were the Soviets and their sympathizers. The implication is that following Morgenthau would have spelled disaster for the West: we won the Cold War, in other words, because we chose the other path. As Michael Beschloss puts it, "History now shows that by destroying a barrier to Soviet power and alienating the Germans from Britain and America, the plan could have also opened the way for the Soviet Union to dominate postwar Europe."

Such triumphal assessments of U.S. decisions at the end of World War II, of course, redeem the position of Morgenthau's opponents both leading up to and immediately following May 8, 1945. Though one could easily overlook them in the minimal standard references, however, there are other possible interpretations of Morgenthau's motivations and the potential effects of having rejected his plan (as I show in chapter 4). While "Morgenthau" has certainly long been iconic for those on the far Right, the myth is commonly assumed to be true across the spectrum; the only difference is in people's evaluations of how important it was that "Morgenthau" wanted to "pastoralize" Germany. The interesting point here is the myth's durability and its role in legitimating U.S. policy in the Cold War: it serves as the first chapter in the story of successful American Cold War strategy.

There is, however, a third and even more troubling explanation for the power and endurance of the "Morgenthau" myth, articulated most clearly in a recent book by the German historian Bernd Greiner, whose more critical take is already apparent in his title—The Morgenthau Legend: On the History of a Disputed Plan. "It is scurrilous," Greiner argues, "which names imprint on the collective memory and which not. Who recalls which politicians were in charge of the American War and State Departments as the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In contrast, Henry Morgenthau is still fresh in memory here, even for those who think Henry Stimson is the quarterback for the Washington Redskins or James F. Byrnes is Clint Eastwood's double." For illustrative purposes, Greiner reports on an informal 1992 survey of seventeen high school students in Hamburg asking what the students associated with the name Henry Morgenthau. Fourteen replied, "Turn Germany into a cropland and grain silo for the USA," seven mentioned "American Jew," and two said "Jew, therefore extreme and adhering to thoughts of revenge."

The ad hominem response to the Morgenthau plan, of course, was simultaneous with its formulation. As the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels put it, "Hate and revenge of truly old-testament character are clear in these plans dreamed up by the American Jew Morgenthau. Industrialized Germany should be literally turned into a huge potato field." This much was to be expected from Goebbels, who sought to use the image of a vengeful Morgenthau to encourage fiercer German resistance and to underwrite Hitler's "scorched earth" policy. Perhaps more troubling is that such ad hominem dismissals of Morgenthau's motives were also potent in the U.S. administration. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for instance, believed that Morgenthau was "so biased by his Semitic grievances that he really is a very dangerous advisor to the President." For Stimson, the connection between Morgenthau's Jewishness and his policy ideas was more than obvious: "Morgenthau is, not unnaturally, very bitter and …it became very apparent that he would plunge out for a treatment of Germany which I feel sure would be unwise." In a note to himself, Stimson wrote that the "objective of punishment is prevention but not vengeance…. Reason why Jew is disqualified." Nevertheless, Stimson found Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to be right-thinking because, "[a]lthough a Jew like Morgenthau …," Frankfurter discussed the matter "with perfect detachment and great helpfulness" (emphasis added). Stimson's final assessment of Morgenthau's plan was that it "is Semitism gone wild for vengeance." In a discussion with Roosevelt, of course, Stimson was sure to refer to his "personal friendship for Henry Morgenthau who had been so kind to me when I first came into the Cabinet."

For his part, Secretary of State Cordell Hull described events leading up to Morgenthau's attendance at the 1944 Quebec Conference, at which Churchill and Roosevelt temporarily approved a version of the plan, as follows: "[T]he President was prevailed upon to permit Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau to attend the meeting. Morgenthau and his friends had been working for some time on a drastic plan for the postwar treatment of Germany, and the leaders of groups who had been justly wrought up by German outrages requested the President invite him to go to Quebec primarily to present his plan for Germany" (emphasis added). Later, Hull writes that "[t]he President was induced to permit Morgenthau to attend the conference, at which point he intended to advocate his extreme plan" (emphasis added). This account, however, is not corroborated by most other sources. Hull himself had declined Roosevelt's invitation to travel with him to Quebec, and Morgenthau professed that he was more surprised than anyone by the last-minute invitation. Hull did, however, echo the charge that if the plan leaked out (which it did, most likely through Stimson's deputy and later high commissioner for Germany, John J. McCloy), "it might well mean a bitter-end German resistance that could cause the loss of thousands of American lives." As we will see, however, such charges were leveled throughout the war for many different reasons, and are difficult to test.

The point here is not that Stimson, McCloy, Hull, and others were raving anti-Semites. They were very much within the norms of American social prejudice at the time. The point is that associating Morgenthau's putative desire for vengeance with his Jewishness (whether or not there was a connection) made it easier for his contemporary rivals to dismiss his arguments. Indeed, this casuistry appears to have stuck. Nevertheless, as we will see, Morgenthau's proposals were not nearly as extreme and outside of the discourse as Stimson and others painted them. Additionally, from the perspective of memory, recalling the Jew Morgenthau as the emblem of revenge—an association to which Stimson as well as Goebbels contributed (though I certainly do not mean to associate Stimson and Goebbels with each other!)—blocks off a more serious inquiry into the wartime discourse about punishing Germany. As Greiner implies, identifying "harsh" proposals for Germany with a Jewish attitude makes such proposals easier to discredit retrospectively. The problem is that "Morgenthau" and Henry Morgenthau Jr. are not the same, and the realities of public discourse about Allied intentions are thereby distorted. In order to understand the genesis of the mythic figure "Morgenthau," it is thus necessary to trace out the dialogical development of Allied understandings, for they contributed at least in part to postwar German uses of this history as well. How did the "Morgenthau" myth come about? Was it merely a convenient emblem? And what other interpretations of his motivations are possible?

The Evolution of Allied Policy

We commonly remember World War II as "the Good War," in which, in Roosevelt's words, America served as the "arsenal of democracy." From this perspective, it is perhaps surprising to recall not only the strong isolationist stance in the U.S. Congress throughout the 1930s but that the overwhelming majority of Americans opposed entry into the war, even after the fall of France and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. According to Richard Merritt's survey of public opinion data from the period, a 1939 Roper poll showed that only 3 percent of Americans wanted the United States to participate should a war break out between England and France and the "dictator nations," though 25 percent more were willing to enter if England and France would otherwise lose. The numbers supporting entry increased to only about one-third in 1941. None of this is to say that there was not a strong anti-German presentiment in the American population, focused particularly on the specter of German militarism from previous years. In 1939, more than 80 percent blamed Germany for the outbreak of war and wanted England and France to win, though when asked which country they saw as "the worst influence in Europe," one-third named the Soviet Union.

And what were U.S. and British war aims to be? Until 1941, Anglo-American thinking about peace had been guided by the desire for a return of the prewar status quo, albeit one cognizant of the putative failures of the Treaty of Versailles (which almost one-third of Americans blamed for German aggression). The main goal was to reestablish a balance of power in Europe by supporting moderate democratic forces in Germany. But through 1941, the extent of German aggression had become clearer; furthermore, with the alliance of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, the geopolitical dimensions of any potential settlement were even more obvious than before.

The essential conservatism of Anglo-American thinking at this early stage manifested itself when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met "somewhere in the Atlantic" in August 1941. On August 14, they issued the so-called "Atlantic Charter," a vaguely Wilsonian document calling for renunciation of expansionist aims, the right of all peoples to "self-determination," and the final destruction of Nazi tyranny. These formulations were general enough that the Soviet Union issued a statement in September agreeing to them, but this consent was only hesitant, given the potential implication of "self-determination" for soviet interests in the Balkans. For his part, Churchill agreed only after obtaining a blanket exemption for the entire British Empire. The Atlantic Charter did indeed remain a potent symbol for many Anglo-American policy-planners throughout the war and in efforts to establish a new international organization immediately afterward. But at this early stage, it could only serve as a general orientation, and not an unproblematic one at that. On what, then, could the new Allies agree?

Unconditional Surrender

By 1943, the lowest common denominator of Anglo-American and Soviet intentions seemed to be what Franklin Roosevelt called "unconditional surrender," a much more complex term at the time than it sounds in retrospect. The formula appeared publicly for the first time at the January 24, 1943, final press briefing following Roosevelt and Churchill's summit at Casablanca, which Roosevelt at the time proposed naming the "Unconditional Surrender Conference." Critics immediately (and for many years thereafter, both in the United States and in Germany), however, charged that the statement was a huge mistake. On the one hand, some agreed with the aim but thought stating it so baldly would provide a boost to the German propaganda machine (this was a similar argument to the one Hull later gave about the Morgenthau plan); Goebbels, they claimed, would be able to spur ordinary Germans to fiercer and prolonged fighting by painting the Allies as bloodthirsty and intent on destroying Germany once and for all. On the other hand, others disagreed with the aim altogether. Many believed it discouraged opposition elements in Germany, with whom it might have been possible to negotiate if they succeeded in removing Hitler. For some of these critics, negotiation with the Germans was attractive because it would leave the German military deployed in the East as a bulwark against Soviet power, which eventually extended into the heart of Europe. Indeed, as one postwar critic of the critics has argued, "much of the adverse comment [on unconditional surrender was] made in the heat of the immediate postwar period, and seems to be directly related to the authors' satisfaction or indignation with post-war American policy in Germany." (This point is analogous to my discussion above about the legitimation of U.S. Cold War policy by way of "Morgenthau.") This retrospective criticism of unconditional surrender, moreover, was especially strong among the Germans themselves: even during the war "unconditional surrender" served for many Germans as the first element in a narrative of Anglo-American vengefulness.

Was this interpretation justified? Did "unconditional surrender" cynically disregard the German opposition for geopolitical reasons? Did it prolong the war? Did it truly indicate a desire for vengeance? The record is indeed complex, but Roosevelt, Churchill, and their supporters believed they had very good reasons for their position. For Roosevelt, "unconditional surrender" harkened back to General Ulysses S. Grant. At Appomattox, Grant was so obstinate during negotiations with General Robert E. Lee that he was nicknamed "old Unconditional Surrender." (The label for Grant had originated as early as 1863 during an attack against Fort Donelson in Tennessee, at which time Grant's demand for unconditional surrender was accepted; this was the first of a number of important victories for Grant, and contributed greatly to his heroic status.) One problem in 1943, however, was that Grant's sense of "unconditional surrender" had referred to a rather limited context, the siege of a particular fort or the end of a single battle, rather than to an entire nation. What could it mean to demand that an entire nation surrender "unconditionally"?

In 1918, before the armistice, the term "unconditional surrender" had appeared in the context of a proposal by the German High Command for a negotiated settlement based on President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. Wilson responded to the Germans that surrender rather than negotiation would have to be the basis for any settlement. Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff rejected this as a call for unconditional surrender, and thus an affront to their honor as soldiers. But their government was already committed to peace. To avoid problems, the words "unconditional surrender" were therefore scrupulously avoided at the Paris Conference, but they hung over the proceedings throughout. Indeed, the Versailles settlement was infamous, and served the Nazis well as a propaganda tool through which they were able to attract many who shared their outrage at the settlement and its imputation of guilt. The Nazis blamed the Versailles settlement on the treachery of Germany's hasty political leaders, denying that the military defeat had been absolute. (Memory of the Versailles Treaty generally, as we will see, was a potent specter for much of the Anglo-American planning as well.)

Clearly, the demand for unconditional surrender in World War II was profoundly shaped by the desire to prevent the emergence of any new "stab in the back" legends: defeat would have to be total so no one could later claim that better terms could have been negotiated or that a different outcome might have been possible. The demand at Casablanca, moreover, was also an important signal to Stalin, who was frustrated with the Atlantic Allies for taking too long to open a second front in the West: unconditional surrender was an assurance that the British and Americans would not make a separate peace with any elements within Germany. Given all the potential points of disagreement among the "Big Three," unconditional surrender was thus a sort of lowest common denominator.

More immediately important for Roosevelt was the controversy during the winter of 1942–43 over dealings with the French. In order to secure the acquiescence of French forces in the North Africa campaign, U.S. officials had negotiated with discreditable figures from the Vichy regime. Subsequently, Roosevelt wanted to make clear that this embarrassing debacle was an exception, and that the Allies would under no circumstances negotiate peace with the Nazis. This explains the timing of Roosevelt's statement, though not its genesis or meaning.

At the Casablanca press conference, Roosevelt explained the historical derivation of the "unconditional surrender" formula, but he apparently left out the most important aspect of the Grant–Lee reference. When Lee hesitated to accept Grant's categorical demand, Grant told him that he would have to trust in his fairness. After submitting, Lee broached the subject of his officers' horses, most of which belonged to the officers themselves. Grant replied that they should keep their horses, which they would need for spring plowing. The obvious implication of the Grant reference for Roosevelt was thus magnanimity in victory, exactly the opposite of what many understood by "unconditional surrender." It did not help matters that Roosevelt did not make this clear in the first statement.

Strangely, Roosevelt claimed after the fact that the "unconditional surrender" formula was spontaneous on his part. Churchill, as well, claimed he was surprised by Roosevelt's statement at the press briefing, would have chosen other words, but supported it in principle (though he revised his claim to have been surprised in 1949). Roosevelt's advisor and biographer Robert Sherwood has speculated that FDR's claim to spontaneity was part of an effort to spare Churchill from responsibility for what was surely taken as a hard pill by ordinary British citizens, for whom unconditional surrender spelled out the struggle they still had in front of them. Nevertheless, the term's use, as well as Roosevelt's intentions, were well prepared. In his January 7, 1943, State of the Union Address to Congress—thus directly in advance of his trip to Casablanca—Roosevelt had stated that he "shudder[ed] to think of what will happen to humanity, including ourselves, if this war ends in an inconclusive peace, and another war breaks out when the babies of today have grown to fighting age." At the Casablanca press conference on January 24, in fact, Roosevelt carried notes with the following formulation (though he neglected to read from them):

The President and the Prime Minister, after a complete survey of the world war situation, are more than ever determined that peace can come to the world only by a total elimination of German and Japanese war power. This involves the simple formula of placing the objective of this war in terms of an unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Unconditional surrender by them means a reasonable assurance of world peace, for generations. Unconditional surrender means not the destruction of the German populace, nor of the Italian or Japanese populace, but does mean the destruction of a philosophy in Germany, Italy and Japan which is based on the conquest and subjugation of other peoples.

This formulation was the result of long and deliberate work in a number of different committees, and presaged later policies of radical demilitarization (and even deindustrialization, depending on how "total elimination" is to be understood) and, as we will see shortly, of "re-education."

Either way, claims that the demand for unconditional surrender indicated a vindictive posture on Roosevelt's part willfully distort the record. Following the statement, Roosevelt was at great pains to hammer home the idea that his posture was not vengeful. In an address to the White House Correspondents Association on February 12, 1943, Roosevelt stated that "[i]n our uncompromising policy we mean no harm to the common people of the Axis nations …" though adding that "we do mean to impose punishment and retribution in full upon their guilty, barbaric leaders." In an August 25, 1943, message to Congress, he stated, "Except for the responsible fascist leaders, the people of the Axis need not fear unconditional surrender to the United Nations…. The people of Axis-controlled areas may be assured that when they agree to unconditional surrender they will not be trading Axis despotism for ruin under the United Nations." In his Christmas Eve 1943 radio address, Roosevelt stated again that

[t]he United Nations have no intention to enslave the German people. We wish them to have a normal chance to develop, in peace, as useful and respectable members of the European family. But we most certainly emphasize the word "respectable"—for we intend to rid them once and for all of Nazism and Prussian militarism and the fantastic and disastrous notion that they constitute the "master race."

For obstinate critics, however, none of this added up to much. In his memoir, for instance, Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote that "[t]he public statements made at different times by the leaders of the three major Allies to soften the interpretation of unconditional surrender did not conduce to the early surrender of Germany. The Nazi propaganda machine continued until the last to stress its drastic interpretation of unconditional surrender." Both statements, of course can be true without being causally related: Roosevelt's efforts to make the magnanimity argument probably did not shorten the war; the Nazi propagandists certainly did try to make the most of it until the last, though this is unlikely to have made any real difference in the manic last months of fighting. The bottom line, however, is that it was not Roosevelt's goal to shorten the war. He believed firmly that the peace would only last if it was absolute. Roosevelt's desire for total defeat of Germany, therefore, was not primarily a matter of vengefulness (though, as we will see, his attitude toward Germany was not without a negative assessment of the German national character.).

One reason for Hull's opposition to the demand was that he believed it would require the Allies to assume vast and long-term obligations in postwar Germany. Indeed, while Stalin supported unconditional surrender as a general principle (he declared this in his 1943 May Day Address), he too pushed for specification of the formula, though for different reasons than Hull. Hull wanted to avoid all postwar entanglements for the United States; Stalin wanted to pin them down. Roosevelt, however, avoided the trap, and refused to specify any particular obligations or policies the United States would assume. As Roosevelt argued in a reply to yet another entreaty from Hull, "Whatever words we might agree on would probably have to be modified or changed the first time some nation wanted to surrender." In this regard, the memory of Wilson's failure to attain congressional approval for the peace settlement he negotiated in 1919 was a potent warning for Roosevelt.

Indeed, as we will see, during the debate over the Morgenthau Plan in 1944–45, and in subsequent accounts of it, there was much frustration over Roosevelt's refusal to come down firmly, at least more than temporarily, on one or the other side—either for Morgenthau or for Stimson. In light of this debate with Hull over unconditional surrender, however, this may well have been a continuation of Roosevelt's desire not to commit prematurely to any particular course of action that would limit his room for maneuver after victory, and not, as it has usually been portrayed, a matter of Roosevelt's failing health and slipping grasp on the complexities. In fact, there is a remarkable (though usually unremarked) analogy between the situations. As we will see, after the Quebec Conference in 1944 Roosevelt denied to Stimson that he had intentionally agreed to the Morgenthau plan, a claim usually accepted as evidence of Roosevelt's declining mental grasp of events. Recalling that Roosevelt claimed that unconditional surrender had been spontaneous at Casablanca, however, one could reasonably conclude that Roosevelt was simply being true to form in 1944 after Quebec. Those who maintain that Roosevelt was enfeebled when he agreed to the Morgenthau plan, of course, have an interest in believing Roosevelt really did not mean it.

Regime, People, and Punishment

Beyond these strategic and tactical considerations, perhaps the most important facet of unconditional surrender was the underlying philosophy it indicated. For many Americans, the fight against Germany was a moral crusade. As Roosevelt had put it in his January 6, 1942, Message to Congress, "There has never been—there can never be—successful compromise between good and evil. Only total victory can reward the champions of tolerance, and decency, and faith." Roosevelt and many others had long maintained the necessity of punishment. How far into the German population that punishment would extend, however, was unclear. The Allies certainly intended to purge the country not only of National Socialism, but of what they believed to be a pervasive culture of "militarism." In October 1942, for instance, Roosevelt stated, "The German people are not going to be enslaved—because the United Nations do not traffic in human slavery. But it will be necessary for them to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding nations." Roosevelt, like many American leaders and ordinary people, regarded German society in its entirety, rather than just the temporary German leadership, as the source of trouble. Therefore, no easy distinction, so common in the history of modern warfare and essential to the identity of many Germans after the war, between regime and people was appropriate.

As a result of such a view, Vice President Henry Wallace said in a December 29, 1942, radio address—thus shortly before Roosevelt's trip to Casablanca—"The German people must learn to un-learn all that they have been taught, not only by Hitler, but his predecessors in the last hundred years, by so many of their philosophers and teachers, the disciples of blood and iron…. We must de-educate and re-educate people for democracy…. The only hope for Europe remains a change of mentality on the part of the German. He must be taught to give up the century-old conception that his is a master race" (emphasis added). This idea of "re-educating" "the German" was at the heart of debates, both governmental and public, over what the appropriate posture toward Germany should be, though not all formulations were as reductive as this singularization of "the German." It is important to note, however, that the refusal to distinguish between regime and people was consistent with the German theory of "total war," in which it was equally impossible to distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 25-41 of In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949 by Jeffrey K. Olick, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Jeffrey K. Olick
In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949
©2005, 360 pages, 17 halftones
Cloth $29.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-62638-3

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for In the House of the Hangman.

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