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1. The Situation in 1945
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Overview   |   1. The Situation in 1945   |   2. Economics and Politics in the Two Germanies   |   3. Reconstituting German Society   |   4. Culture   |   Suggestions for Further Reading in English   |   Suggestions for Further Reading in German

In ruin and totally defeated, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 7, 1945. Although the war in Asia continued until August, peace had finally come to Europe. The war had claimed over sixty million lives, ravaged the continent from the Atlantic to the depths of the Soviet Union, and left Europe’s surviving population both physically and emotionally drained. In Germany, the country most responsible for this devastation, some seven million people had perished, almost half of whom were civilians of all ages. Among the dead were at least 170,000 German Jews who had been systematically killed in the Holocaust.

Additional millions were missing or had been seriously injured. Those fortunate enough to have been spared permanent physical or psychological damage found themselves surrounded by chaos, unless they happened to live in a remote rural district in the western or southern portions of the country. Systematic air attacks on German cities had left millions displaced. Some 3.4 million apartments and houses – out of a total of 17.1 million – had been destroyed. Another thirty percent had been severely damaged.

Millions of people were milling about the country, adding to the general state of confusion, chaos, and human misery. In the following months, mothers and children who had been evacuated to the countryside struggled to return to the cities they had once called home. On the way, they mixed on clogged roads and in packed train cars with ethnic German refugees and expellees from the East who had fled before the advancing Soviet armies or had been told to leave. By the late 1940s their numbers had swelled to 11 million. Also moving around or waiting in camps were six million DPs (Displaced Persons), mostly former concentration camp inmates or slave laborers who had been forcibly recruited by the Nazi regime to work in the armaments industry or agriculture. On top of this, millions of demobilized soldiers, most of them German, were trying to make their way home to loved ones.

These are the cold statistics. It is much harder to describe in a few words, or even a full chapter, the extent of the catastrophe that World War II represented for Germany and all of Europe, even after the fighting and mass murder had finally come to an end in 1945. While historical photographs like those included in this volume can help us imagine how it might have felt to have survived this catastrophe – emaciated, starving, in poor or ruined health, confused, and without hope, just as millions of men, women, and children actually were at the time – true understanding must be reserved for those who experienced it firsthand. Still, detailed historical research can yield invaluable insights. Here, it is important to note that the terms employed in the public discourse on various aspects of the transition from National Socialism to a postwar order remained contested over the following decades.

The unconditional German surrender not only meant that the defeated Nazi regime had disappeared but also that sovereignty lay completely in the hands of the victorious Allies. They were responsible for restoring law and order, feeding the population, and eventually stabilizing and reconstructing their former enemy. This volume begins with documentation on decisions made by the Allies when the defeat of the Third Reich seemed imminent. To be sure, postwar planning had begun at lower levels as early as 1941/42, soon after America entered the war, when it became clear that the defeat of the three Axis powers – Germany, Italy, and Japan – would only be a matter of time. The postwar order was then discussed in broad terms at the highest level when U.S. President Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin met at conferences in 1943 and 1944.

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