To this day, I am still influenced by the silent trajectory of the Second World War. Both my parents (just about) came through it, and as such, I was reared amid the aftermath of their terrible suffering(s). My Dutch mother was a mere seventeen years of age during the starvation siege of Amsterdam, whilst my Polish father witnessed first hand, the appalling inhumanity that was unleashed upon his countrymen by the German Wehrmacht. Thankfully, they survived, but the psychological hurt has since remained; which accounts for this brave, lucid and rather explosive and powerful book, being all the more poignant.
Until now, one can only imagine what it must have been like, to have lived through the liberation of Europe. For some collectively unknown reason, we imagine a tidal wave of joy sweeping across occupied Europe by way of (regal and rabid) relief, upon hearing that the odious Third Reich had finally succumbed to the Allies. We envision kisses randomly planted upon the faces of American soldiers, flowers strewn across Russian tanks, and the frenetic rejoicing of complete strangers – just so long as they weren't German. But as the Professor of History at Philadelphia's Temple University, William I. Hitchcock makes abundantly clear, this wasn't (always) necessarily the case: ''Thousands of French and Belgians paid for their liberation with their lives, and many Dutch people dropped dead in the streets in the last weeks of the war while Allied war planners dithered over sending airborne food drops behind enemy lines.''
In reality, the liberation of Europe was a time of severe upheaval, dashed hopes and semi-controlled and condoned chaos, violence and retribution. It must have been awful, the manifestation of which is confirmed amid the pages of this humane yet harrowing book: ''Three hundred women [...] arrived at the Gare de Lyon at eleven in the morning and were met by a nearly speechless crowd ready with welcoming bouquets of lilacs and other spring flowers, and by General de Gaulle, who wept... There was a general, anguished babble of search, of finding or not finding. There was almost no joy; the emotion went beyond that, to something nearer pain. So much suffering lay behind this homecoming, and it showed in the women's faces and bodies [...]. They were dressed like scarecrows, in what had been given them at the camp, clothes taken from the dead of all nationalities. As the lilacs fell from inert hands, the flowers made a purple carpet on the platform and the perfume of the trampled flowers mixed with the stench of illness and dirt.''
By reaching beyond the aforementioned, conventional image of liberation, Hitchcock addresses the experiences of ordinary civilians and soldiers alike. He homes in on the catastrophic effects of the invasion of Northern France, Belgium and Holland – which, apart from incurring a huge civilian death toll, entailed huge amounts of crops burnt and entire towns and cities destroyed beyond recognition. Also addressed, is the vengeful despoiling of eastern Germany by the Red Army, and the fact that (some of) the Allied forces were far from noble during liberation: they looted homes, seized property and raped women.
Liberation – The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe 1944-1945 is a book that needs to be read, even if only to realise how times have changed. It puts things into the sort of perspective, that is so sorely lacking amid todays puerile and celebrity obsessed, sad, sick and ultimately redundant society.
Liberation – The Bitter Road To Freedom,
By William I. Hitchcock
Faber & Faber – £25.00