ONCE WARS END, historians are notoriously indifferent to the surviving veterans. In 1945, it seemed enough to know that the German high command had done its best to allow soldiers to surrender to the Americans. If the Russians admitted to 1.7 million Wehrmacht prisoners, it seemed reasonable to suspect that they were responsible for almost all 1.9 million vanished German soldiers. Certainly some prisoners of the Western Allies had died in captivity but, if there was any blame, it surely fell on the French, who had used them as slave labour as late as 1949.
James Bacque, a Toronto novelist and former publisher, may well have believed this when he set out to tell the story of a French Resistance hero, Raoul Laporterie. Then he discovered that one of those who blessed Laporterie's memory was a Wehrmacht veteran rescued from a French labour camp. Reluctantly, Bacque followed the trail that led from that German prisoner through French, German, and American archives to a sheet of figures from September, 1945. Of 370,000 U.S.?held prisoners, a week's "other losses" totalled 13,051. The phrase, explained a former U.S. Army historian, was a euphemism for death. Bacque had a title.
What Bacque alleges, on the basis of the best research he could do on two continents, is that Germans who surrendered to the American Army at the war's end were stripped of the rights established by the Geneva Convention, penned in vast barbedwire enclosures without remotely adequate food, water, shelter, or medical care, and left to die. Hundreds of thousands ?perhaps a million in all ? did so, from dysentery, diarrhoea, pneumonia, and starvation. A few eyewitnesses had depicted thousands of gaunt, ragged men, standing blank?eyed and hopeless behind barbed wire. A survivor described men buried when their holes in the ground collapsed, struggling for a tiny crust of bread, drowning when their exhausted bodies fell into huge pit latrines.
When the French claimed the three?quarters of a million prisoners promised as forced labour to rebuild their warravaged country, hundreds of thousands were so starved, sick, and ragged that they could not survive the winter. A French officer, Captain Julien, compared the sight to pictures from Dachau and Buchenwald ?living skeletons, men huddled under sheets of cardboard, "women with hunger oedema bulging their bellies in gross parody of pregnancy."
This is an atrocity that matches Japan's death camps, Stalin's gulags, or Andersonville in the U.S. Civil War. Bacque places the blame squarely on General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower never hid his passionate hatred of Germans. In March, 1945, he secured Allied approval to treat surrendering Germans at war's end as a new category of "Surrendered Enemy Personnel," stripped of the rights of prisoners of war, to be dependent on a starving Germany for supplies. The British concurred but refused to follow suit. As Germany's "Protecting Power," Switzerland should have intervened, but the victorious Allies took over that, role. Only Canada's W. L. Mackenzie King protested. He was, of course, ignored. Since no Germany existed after May 8th to feed the "SEP's," Eisenhower's supply officers left them to perish on a Dachau?level 1,000?calorie?aday diet. Eisenhower's policy denied them tents or blankets despite an unusually cold, wet spring. International Red Cross aid, a million stockpiled food parcels, was rejected. Red Cross protests, discreetly offered in Paris and Washington, were unheeded. When the horror ended in 1947, it was buried as gratefully by the leaders of the new antiCommunist German Federal Republic as by Washington. Documents, generously provided by the U.S. Army to the Bundesarchiv in Stuttgart and incorporated in a German official history, suggested a death rate of two to three per cent in the postwar American camps. Any blame for mistreatment was discreetly passed to the French.
Other Losses is the most important non?fiction book published in Canada this year no easy admission for the coauthor of two good competitors. It is a book of international standing. To those who instinctively argue that the book serves anti?Semites, neo?Nazis, anti?Americans, and godless Communism, Bacque offers the only defence that matters: truth.
Is Other Losses true? No sensible scholar can answer without retracing Bacque's steps and much more. Eisenhower's biographer, Stephen
Ambrose, whose guarded praise is cited on the back cover, has deep reservations about Bacque's evidence for blarning an undoubted horror on the Allied supreme commander. Other critics point out that Bacque and his researcher were inexpert in German. Some condemn his statistical manipulations. Creating a category of "surrendered enemy personnel," to be fed by its own country, was in itself by no means unreasonable. American supply dumps at Marseilles and Naples were a long way from the Rhine. Bacque's explanation for a vast cover?up, while ingenious, needs more evidence.
What remains are powerful and horrifying charges against the French and, most particularly, against the U.S. Army. The indictment will stand until it is firmly and comprehensively answered. Whatever critics say now, that task will not be easy. Bacque's most telling argument may not be his accumulated documents, photographs, statistics, and reminiscences but the fact that the millions of prisoners held by the British and Canadian armies survived, in part because Field Marshal Montgomery ? like General Patton ? foresaw the day when Britain would need German allies against the Soviet Union.