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Book Review 272: Endgame, 1945

April 14, 2013 - Harry Eagar
ENDGAME, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II, by David Stafford. 581 pages, illustrated. Little, Brown $26.99

Canadian historian David Stafford fingered a gap in the enormous historiography of World War II – most authors (unless perhaps writing monographs) – stop when the fighting stopped. I don't know a good general history of the transition to peace and the enormous, world-shaking events that occurred in the “peacetime.”

“Endgame, 1945” isn't it, either, though not a bad job of retelling a story told many times before.

Stafford gets no further into the postwar than the Potsdam conference.

The most momentous event of the postwar period was not the consolidation of Soviet political power in a buffer zone of satellites that had been conquered by the Red Army. This was important.

More important, in the long run, was the expulsion of the Germans from the east. Stafford covers this, without remarking on its consequences.

When I say he covers it, he reports the beginnings. As the Russians advanced into East Prussia and Poland, raping and plundering and murdering, the Germans who could packed up and ran west.

Not much is said about what replaced them. In fact, in this book, the western allies get all the attention. Europe east of the Elbe is mentioned briefly and seldom.

Yet we now know that the occupation of the Russian army was a passing event. The unmixing of the national groups that had been the source of so much conflict for a thousand years was the permanent change.

In particular, the driving out of the Germans set the stage for the final act of national creation that had began in the revolutions of 1848.

A smaller example was the struggle over the presence of a minority of Italians among the Slavs of Yugoslavia. Stafford has a bit about this, but only because one of the individuals he follows along to personalize his history ended up in the Trieste area, where the struggle was sharp and deadly.

In each case, a more modern linguistic group had lorded it over a mass of politically unsophisticated peasants.

This clearing of the peoples – Stafford calls the expulsion of about 12 million Germans the biggest movement of peoples in so short a period in all history, which is about right – set up a world order in which some 200 states would be created, mostly on linguistic/cultural bases.

This was the big result of the war, although not many people seem to have understood the consequences when the United Nations Organization adopted its charter in San Francisco during this period. Astonishingly, Stafford does not mention this event.

More about the DPs, (displaced persons), who were the human expression of this momentous political rearrangement, would have been welcome. Stafford does a bit along this line, since one of the individuals he follows is Francesca Wilson, an experienced relief worker who joined UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency). Stafford mentions, just briefly, that this was another new thing in the world, an attempt by a conquering army to take care of the people in its path.

Wilson was frustrated by the confusion and mixed directions of the effort, which would have been a profitable path for Stafford to have traced in more detail.

“Endgame, 1945” is not a bad book, but it has been written before as well or better by others. It promises to tell the story of how “victors do not suddenly turn their swords into plowshares.” Stafford says, correctly, that peace requires “more than the absence of conflict, and is harder to build than battering cities to rubble.”

He does not do such a good job of telling that story.


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