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'The Conquerors': Deciding Germany's Fate



- December 1, 2002, The New York Times

When the battered German armies trapped in Stalingrad finally surrendered in January 1943, it became clear that the Allies -- Russia, Britain and America -- were certain to win World War II. But then what? How would the victors root out fascism, end the cycle of German wars and secure the peace? To these questions President Franklin D. Roosevelt had no ready answers, and it was not in his character to gnaw at problems in a methodical way; rather he would wait until inspiration came to him from wherever it is that ideas hatch. In the meantime his policy was evasion. So, rather than confront America's allies over ''war aims'' immediately, Roosevelt instead persuaded his friend Winston Churchill to join him in a pledge to fight on until Germany's ''unconditional surrender.''

These words were the principal fruit of the 10-day meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943, and they predictably failed to satisfy Stalin, who wanted the democracies to open a second front on the mainland of occupied Europe. Stalin's objection was echoed everywhere: wouldn't the demand only make the Germans fight harder? But once uttered, ''unconditional surrender'' was carved in granite, and behind its bulk Roosevelt took shelter for the next two years: time enough to decide what to do with Germany when the war had been won.

Roosevelt was never more himself than at Casablanca. His inspiration caught Churchill by surprise, but he went along, and the two men never wavered thereafter: no deals would be made with Nazi Germany. It is Roosevelt -- brilliant, charming, unpredictable and dying -- who dominates Michael Beschloss's vigorously written history of postwar planning. Beschloss says he began ''The Conquerors'' a decade ago, set it aside and returned to it when new archives opened up. The delay gives the book additional impact: it arrives at a moment when Americans are again confronting a tangled question of war and peace -- how to remove a dangerous enemy from Iraq and build in its place what never existed there before, a stable democracy posing no threat to its neighbors. The problem strikes many observers as insoluble, but it is no more daunting than the one facing Roosevelt 60 years ago: only half the challenge was Germany's history of militarism; just as difficult were his quarreling advisers.

Ordinary Americans thought of Roosevelt as a rock, serene and confident, but he was a cipher to the men who worked with him. None ever knew his deepest plans, or what he told anybody else or when the presidential back would turn and they would be asked to step down. Beschloss is the author of half a dozen works of history with a special focus on how American presidents run the government and make decisions, and along the way he has learned to write with ease, confidence and a lively sense of character and scene. ''The Conquerors'' is built almost entirely around the conversations of high American officials trying to decide what to do with Germany. Two broad general ideas were on the table -- a plan by Roosevelt's old friend and secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, to break Germany up into several small, pastoral states of yeoman farmers; and a more conventional proposal to get Germany quickly back onto its feet as a bulwark against the territorial appetite of a victorious Soviet Union.

The son of a rich businessman, Morgenthau fled the world of commerce for life as a gentleman farmer in upstate New York, where one of his neighbors was the future president. They became friends, Morgenthau worked hard in Roosevelt's political campaigns, and in 1933 Roosevelt surprised the world by naming him to run the Treasury Department. Morgenthau was the only Jew in Roosevelt's cabinet, or among the president's friends, and his tenure was unremarkable until the man who had celebrated his marriage, Rabbi Stephen Wise, brought him vivid reports, freshly arrived from Switzerland in the summer of 1942, of the Nazi campaign that would come to be known as the Holocaust.

The killing of Jews was no secret to governments or international organizations, but despite widespread knowledge of the basic facts few officials or religious leaders or even private citizens grasped that a radical new form of evil had entered the world. Morgenthau had little success in pressing the government to do something about it. Even a proposal to bomb the rail lines carrying trainloads of Jews to Auschwitz was rejected as a distraction from the war effort. Failing to halt or even slow the horror, he determined to ensure it would never happen again, and that, in his view, meant ending Germany's power to make war once and for all. To aides he described a Germany stripped of its industry as something like the used-up areas of Nevada deserts where only ghost towns, rusting machinery and abandoned mines remain.

Morgenthau's plan was vigorously opposed by the patrician secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, and his wartime aide John J. McCloy, who both thought a principal cause of the war was the vindictive Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. Roosevelt's weary and petulant secretary of state, Cordell Hull, and his successor in the last year of the war, Edward Stettinius, seemed to waver, equally ready to rebuild Germany or to cripple it, so long as the president would admit them to the inner circle. The wild card in this mix was Roosevelt himself, but what he wanted seemed to change by the day.

He wasn't about to let Germany off the hook. All would be safe, he declared, if Germany were stripped of aircraft and forbidden to wear uniforms or to march. But then he would think better of these vindictive measures. To Morgenthau he cited an intelligence report that warned that Europe might starve if it could no longer buy German-made farm machinery. Morgenthau's response: ''In the words of your son Johnny, 'So what?' ''

Beschloss records the progress of this long argument with little comment of his own, relying on the participants' own words drawn from a voluminous record including more than 50 collections of papers, some privately held. Any scholar who has ever watched the approach of a library cart loaded with gray archival boxes will understand how much pure labor has gone into ''The Conquerors.'' But it was time well spent; this is history as it was spoken at the time, and there is not a dull page.

Morgenthau's closest approach to triumph came at Quebec in the fall of 1944, when Roosevelt pressed Churchill to consider the draconian ''Morgenthau plan.'' Churchill was at first shocked and angry, but there was little he would not do for his friend, and he began to edge around. All came undone back in Washington, where the War and State Departments leaked the plan to the press, a major commotion unfolded and Roosevelt quickly backtracked. When Stimson showed him the tough statement he had initialed at Quebec he seemed ''perfectly staggered,'' Stimson later recalled, saying, ''I have not the faintest recollection of this at all.''

The argument over Germany's fate took a lot of time, and in the end Roosevelt's biggest contribution was the policy invented at Casablanca -- ''unconditional surrender.'' The president was not around to see the outcome; he died, worn out, a month before the end of the war in Europe, and it was the former senator from Missouri, Harry Truman, who decided what came next. Germany was split in two, but not in the way or for the reasons desired by Morgenthau. The Soviet Union took firm grip of its zone of occupation, and the Western democracies did the same. Stimson and McCloy proved right; a German bulwark was vital to block Moscow from further advance to the west.

But the bulwark proved to be a new Germany, rebuilt as a democracy with the help of American money and determination. As Beschloss tells this story, which he calls an American success, Roosevelt comes into focus as a man of great gifts -- not for hammering out policy, but for knowing what was really bedrock and for artful delay while others came around. In this case the big thing he knew was the importance of reconstructing Germany from the ground up rather than striking some sort of deal to end the war a few months sooner. Beschloss suggests no lesson that President Bush might apply to Iraq, but one is there for anyone who chooses to see it -- fighting may be the painful part of war, but sticking around to build the peace also takes courage and resolution, and is just as important.

Thomas Powers is the author of ''Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb'' and, most recently, ''Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda.''

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