The Bitter Road to Freedom:  A New History of the Liberation of Europe

By William I. Hitchcock. 464 pp. Free Press, 2008. $28.

Sixty years afterward, the liberation of Europe remains one of the events defining World War II as a “good war” in America’s consciousness. A case can even be made that the ill-conceived policies pursued in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein reflected the oversimplified conflation of 2003 Iraq with the France or Netherlands of 1944 and 1945. The removal of a brutal overlord would be seamlessly followed by locally initiated and sustained reconstruction, with minimal and temporary American involvement.

William I. Hitchcock, a professor of history at Temple University, displays an impressive command of archival and published sources in challenging the heroic myth of liberation. The liberation’s true keystone was violence. The Germans fought for every yard of the territory they occupied. Americans, the British, and Soviets alike had no compunction in limiting their own casualties by the massive use of firepower, in the full knowledge that doing so meant civilians would suffer and die. Today’s polite euphemism is “collateral damage.” Yesterday’s reality was that much of Europe turned to rubble.

Nor was liberation’s human face always benign. Soviet troops raped and pillaged their way across eastern Europe with small regard for the national identity of the victims. The western Allies’ soldiers were far less violent, but from a civilian perspective they shared with the Russians a level of power and authority that invited abuse and created randomness no less terrifying than the organized oppression wielded by the Germans.

Ironically, Germany under British and American occupation often fared better than liberated Europe. Americans in particular simply liked the Germans—who in turn sought to reinforce that sentiment with compliant behavior. Instead of behaving punitively, the Western occupiers quickly embarked on programs of relief and recovery, with an increasing hope they would foster rehabilitation. By contrast, in the war’s immediate aftermath liberated Europe was largely left to its own resources, with episodic help from the embryonic United Nations.

Much of that assistance, however, went to people even more spectacularly needy: the tens of thousands of nomads. These included people driven deliberately from their homes, people knocked loose by the passage of the armies—and people liberated from the network of labor camps and concentration camps created by the Third Reich. Many had nowhere to go; many more feared returning to Soviet rule. Hitchcock highlights the growing hostility toward displaced persons, often viewed as troublemakers and criminals (an attitude shared by German civilians and American soldiers, which had more than a little to do with the growing affinity between them).

The plight of the surviving Jews was even worse. In recent years the Holocaust has become the moral focal point of World War II. During the war, liberating Jews was barely mentioned. Allied soldiers saw no reason to give them special consideration. Neither did their governments. It is possible to assert that Israel might never have remained in existence had the Yishuv, Palestine’s Jewish community, not stepped in to offer a chance, in Hitchcock’s words, “to live again as a people”—or at least to die fighting.

Undertaken for the best of motives, Europe’s liberation was essentially honorable. But it had a dark side overlooked until recently. The Bitter Road to Freedom completes the liberation’s master story in compelling fashion.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here