Beschloss explores evil Germany's end

October 27, 2002|By Hans Knight | By Hans Knight,Special to the Sun

The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, by Michael R. Beschloss. Simon & Schuster. 400 pages. $26.95.

Is there room on the crowded shelf for yet another book about World War II? There should be for one as scholarly and absorbing as Michael Beschloss' latest offering. The tale the respected historian tells does not resound with the clangor of battle; its flow is not laced with blood of victors and vanquished. This struggle was waged in the well-appointed corridors of immense political power. The goal was to transform the mighty and malicious Third Reich, once on the brink of world domination, into a peaceful partner of the West and a shield against an increasingly imperialistic Soviet Union. Modern history knows no challenge so daunting.

The key problem Franklin Roosevelt and, after his death, Harry Truman had to confront was to wipe out the military power of Germany while at the same time saving it from economic catastrophe, which might propel it to communism or, perhaps, another Hitler. That they prevailed on both counts is, in the author's understated view, "an important American success."

It was all of that -- and much more. It sowed the seeds of the eventual triumph of Western freedom over Eastern despotism. It is a cliche, of course, but that is what it boiled down to. Germany is free, Europe is free, and even the former Soviet Union is freer than it was.

In depicting how it was accomplished under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, Beschloss revisits a vast terrain. He takes the reader from Washington and London to Casablanca, Tehran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam, the major diplomatic rest stops along the long, treacherous road.

Against the backdrop of momentous decisions hammered out by the United States, Britain and Russia, it is surprising that the Cabinet that Roosevelt built was often marked by inner disputes thrashed out with all the decorum of mud-wrestling.

The State Department quarreled with the War Department over the future plans for a defeated Reich, and both factions blasted Henry Morgenthau, the treasury secretary, who, shattered by the revelation of Hitler's massacre of the Jews, implored Roosevelt to turn post-war Germany into a nation of farmers. Although Morgenthau was Roosevelt's closest friend in the Cabinet, the president dismissed the plan as unworkable and overly vengeful. Less defensible, as Beschloss points out, was Roosevelt's persistent indifference to the fate of the Jews, shown most strikingly in his refusal to bomb the rail approaches to the death camps.

Antisemitism was disturbingly pervasive in Roosevelt's court. Some of the diary entries would have delighted Goebbels. Nor was Truman immune to the virus, as when he assured war secretary Henry Stimson that "neither Morgenthau nor [presidential adviser] Bernard Baruch, nor any of the Jew boys will be going to Potsdam."

Yet, in the large picture, both Roosevelt and Truman did the right thing at a time when the world teetered perilously between hope and despair.

The book gives generous credit to the presidential pair. Next to nothing is heard from the nameless fighting men and women of America, Britain and, yes, Russia who were the true heroes of the terrible drama. But then, Michael Beschloss doesn't pretend to be Ernie Pyle.

Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in The New York Times, The Sun and other publications.

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