Book Reiview: Liberation – The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944-1945 – William I. Hitchcock
(Faber & Faber) £25.00
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
Liberation is an hugely emotive word and one that for British or American readers when attached to the D-Day landings, the subsequent release from occupation of the western European countries, and the defeat of Nazi Germany, is generally imbued with an overarching sense of triumph and patriotic pride. Whilst William I. Hitchcock, Professor of History at Temple University, USA, does not seek to denigrate the allied military achievement, he does seek to illustrate the often “grim realities”, by drawing on the voices and experiences of both the liberators and the liberated to, as he writes, “show that for every triumph at arms, for every act of heroism on the battlefield, there was also a home set alight, a child without food, a woman cowering in an unheated barn amid filth and squalor.”
In restoring an humanitarianism to the history with all it hardships, ambiguities and contradictory emotions, Hitchcock explores the collective act of ‘memory loss’ that America and Europe have undertaken in promotion of the blanket image of liberation as the joyous crowds thronging the streets of Paris and Brussels, which although very much part of the story are perpetuated at the cost of forgetting, just by a way of small example, that the liberation of Normandy involved the nigh on complete destruction of city of Caen, many smaller towns and villages, and the death of 20,000 French civilians, whilst the Allies’ decision not to attempt to liberate most of Holland in favour of pushing forward to Berlin, left the occupying German force and their deliberate starvation policy in situ until April 1945, by which stage hundreds of thousands of people were suffering starvation related illnesses, having been left with nothing to eat but tulip bulbs, and 16,000 people had died.
In addition, Hitchcock presents many cases in which British, American, and Russian soldiers abused their power through profligacy, theft, looting, sexual assault and murder, leading the liberated to often fear their liberators, borne out by the plea from a Belgian town liberated by the US Army, “Deliver us from our liberators”. Whilst the act of being liberated also released a complex personal emotional response in the liberated, as the writings of Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish Auschwitz survivor, which Hitchcock draws upon, encapsulate, “liberty […] filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean […] face to face with liberty, we felt ourselves lost, emptied, atrophied, unfit for our part.”
Liberation is an important, elegantly written and exhaustively researched book, that makes one question everything one has known, or thought one knew, about the liberation of Europe, and in so doing fills one with a growing sense of alarm that no matter how independently minded or inquisitive one feels oneself to be, it is all too easy to accept constructs of history, and also with sadness that in so doing one may well have failed to consider the plight of millions of ordinary people, civilians and soldiers alike. In readdressing suppressed memories, Liberation, uncovers the essential core to modern European relations, whilst also presenting important historical parallels to contemporary events such as Iraq.
Above all, Liberation should also be celebrated for its humanitarian aims, in which, as Hitchcock writes “there’s surely room enough in our histories of WWII for introspection, for humility, and for an abiding awareness of the ugliness of war.”