The Conquerors - Michael Benchloss

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
A good book should always be read twice - or more often if necessary. Books are living breathing creatures and they always have something more to tell you.

Submitted: March 11, 2014

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Submitted: March 11, 2014

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This book is not, as the title might suggest, about the destruction of Hitler’s German war machine but about winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the post war German people. The conflicts Beschloss recreates are much more intellectual than physical in nature. I admit that upon reading this book the first time in early 2003 I thought that the primary thrust of Beschloss’ thesis would be focused on the tactics of the military commanders, the major battles fought and the leadership provided by the two presidents listed in the title.  It was not until I completed the book, however, that I clearly realized that the evil that Roosevelt and Truman “conquered” was not Hitler’s military and his unconscionable genocidal death machine, that was only the first part of the struggle. The more important job was to ensure that when the war was over they had in place a plan to remake Germany, not merely to rebuild it.  That is; to make sure that Germany would never again have “plunged the world into their wars of expansion and aggression” as Churchill stated after returning from Casablanca in 1943. My second reading has confirmed that this is an important book for those interested in World War II Germany.

Thanks to Beschloss’ non-scholarly, narrative style and his attention to an easy to follow linear timeline this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  It was not, however, a book about Roosevelt and Truman so much as a book about the “Morgenthau Plan” and its impact on the conduct of the war and the post war period.  The majority of the book dealt with the transformation of the painfully shy Dutchess County neighbor and long time friend of Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau, Jr.  The author paints a detailed picture of the man who for years attempted to ignore (or hide from) his German-Jewish roots while serving as FDR’s Treasury Secretary and explains how he eventually became a committed Zionist, obsessed with Hitler’s intentions to achieve the “final solution to the Jewish problem”.

Beschloss brackets Morgenthau’s gripping story and his “Carthaginian” plan for post war Germany with good, solid and well researched World War II information.  The book begins with the Stauffenberg assassination attempt on July 20, 1944 and closes with Ike’s famous statement from October 1945; “…the success of this occupation can only be judged fifty years from now.  If the Germans have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded.” (283)  In between these two events he fleshes out the strengths and the sometimes enormous weaknesses of Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Truman and a host of cabinet members.  He brings to the surface the undeniable anti-Semitism which was rampant in our country at the time and the effect it had on FDR’s unwillingness to attach much significance to the intelligence that he was receiving as early as 1939 on Nazi death camps.  I use as a corroborating reference to this statement a transcript of his December 29, 1940 fireside chat to the nation where he makes specific reference to “the shootings, chains and concentration camps… that are the very altars of (this) modern dictatorship.” Beschloss explains that the Morgenthau plan would never work for a Truman that could say to Secretary Stimson: “...don’t worry.  Neither Morgenthau, Baruch nor any of the Jew boys will be going to Potsdam” (246)  You get an even better feel for this when reading comments like those voiced by the Ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, who said that dragging this nation into a “Jewish war” would result in “…more blood running in the streets of New York than Berlin.” (41)  In his defense, Roosevelt was also forced to spend time dealing with the rabid anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin who railed against “Jews, the communists and the godless capitalists” as the cause of America’s ills as early as 1936.

As a result the author focuses most of the book on Morgenthau's experiences which primarily consist of bureaucratic infighting among the Treasury, State, War Departments and the new Truman Administration, much of it driven by latent anti-Semitism. While publicly supporting Morgenthau, FDR carried an intense private opposition to his plan to reduce Germany to a group of pastoral city-states. Here the author’s writing style allows you to get a sense of the insecurities some of these cabinet members carried around with them when in the presence of FDR’s larger than life personality and how it sometimes affected the conduct of the war.  His portrayal of Secretaries of State Stettinius and Bryne can actually make you wince.  Reading this one could wonder how we have survived this long as a nation if we sometimes have these manipulative, backbiting boot lickers as advisors to our presidents.

The Conquerors does tackle some of the rumors that continue to cloud FDR’s time in office to this day.  From suspicions about Stalin’s ability to manipulate Roosevelt (which infuriated Churchill) to his less than honest dealings with the public on the amount of Lend-Lease activities occurring in the late 1930s. While telling Americans that they were not going to be involved in another European war he was sending much needed supplies to England and building up our military quietly yet effectively. Beschloss spends a good deal of time on FDR’s Machiavellian management style and how he pitted cabinet members and advisors against one another and then reigning them in only when they are about to go entirely off the reservation.  No less a figure than Eisenhower himself when chosen to be the Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord says of Roosevelt that he was “almost an egomaniac in his belief in his own wisdom.” (29)  And how his illness, especially in 1944 as he approached his fourth term, affected his ability to lead showing him sometimes so tired as to be unable to read and grasp important documents and overseas cables. Most important for me was the fact that knowing he was so ill, he never included Truman in a single discussion about the war. This left Truman woefully unprepared to assume his role as the 33rd president and to be the man that would push two towering figures of the last century, Churchill and Stalin, to agree to his plan to remake Germany while holding off the growing Soviet threat to Western Europe and at the same time supporting a nearly bankrupt England.  And to accomplish that task while wielding the incredible power of the new atomic weapons systems in his arsenal as well.

Many historians point to the success of the transformation of Germany as the result of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the rise of NATO and the U.S. commitment to defend Western Europe at any cost against the threatening Soviet expansion.  Beschloss highlights the foresight of FDR and Truman to keep Germany from ever again becoming a threat while ensuring that the failure of Europe’s largest economy did not drive the continent into a massive depression.  In fact, Beschloss believes that the success in Germany outshines even the New Deal programs designed and implemented by our 32nd president. Although Eisenhower supported a very tough stance on treatment of all Germans (Nazi or not, to him all Germans were culpable in the carnage that occurred), like FDR and Truman he drew the line at dismembering the economy and voiced strong concerns about the implementation of JSC 1067, the “Handbook for Military Government” as being overly harsh.  It was Eisenhower’s belief that you had to control the Germans without forcing them to look at Communism as a better alternative than democracy.  Truman concurred and the military governor, Lucius Clay, carried those plans out almost flawlessly.

I am drawn to this historical period for good reason – I’m a baby-boomer, born right after this war ended.  In 1968, as a 21 year old draftee, I was transferred to West Germany and was stationed in Bavaria.  By the time I took my discharge there in early 1969 I spoke passable German and subsequently lived as a civilian in Bad Kissigen and later Paris for another 18 months before retuning to the Woodstock Generation.  I found one of the most moving and thought provoking parts of The Conquerors on page 279.  Beschloss quotes the historian Thomas Alan Schwartz who noted that surveys made a decade after the German defeat revealed that most Germans still thought that “Germany’s best times in recent history had been during the first years of the Nazis.  A large minority was still insisting that Nazism was a good idea badly carried out.”  That chilled me and I was drawn back in time to an early morning after a late night of drinking way too much Asbach Uralt and German lagers with some locals at a Gasthaus in Ingolstadt.  Around 2 AM a group of four or five grizzled old Germans stood up and sang the banned stanzas from “Deutchland Uber Alles”, a song still banned at that time.  (“Germany, Germany, above all else!  For the last time the storm-call has sounded! We are all prepared for the fight!  Soon Hitler-flags will fly over every street. Our servitude will not last much longer now!”)  When I questioned my girlfriend (of that time) why they would do such a thing, risking fines and possible jail time 25 years after the war was over, she replied with almost no hesitation and in a clear, straightforward manner:  “We are Germans, he made us proud to be Germans. We have never felt that way since.”  She was about 25 years old at the time, born immediately after the hostilities had ended. Maybe Morgenthau was right after all. Maybe not. You decide.


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