Ike and the Disappearing Atrocities

Seldom has the publication of a historical monograph on a subject ordinarily of interest only to a few specialists — the treatment of prisoners of war — received so much attention or excited so much anger as James Bacque’s “Other Losses.” Published in 1989 in Canada, it was the subject of a cover story in the popular Canadian magazine Saturday Night, of a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary, of two German television documentaries and of a coming Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. (The Canadian book, I should say immediately, carries a jacket blurb from me that was taken out of context and used without permission.) It has been discussed on American television, in Time magazine and in many other news media outlets. In its German edition, it was a runaway best seller. The British edition elicited major reviews in The Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere. Prima Publishing of California intends to publish the book in May, which could fan the flames in the United States.

The reason for the notoriety is the author’s conclusion that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as head of the American occupation of Germany in 1945, deliberately starved to death German prisoners of war in staggering numbers. Mr. Bacque charges that “the victims undoubtedly number over 800,000, almost certainly over 900,000 and quite likely over a million. Their deaths were knowingly caused by army officers who had sufficient resources to keep the prisoners alive.”

Eisenhower’s method, according to Mr. Bacque, was simple: he changed the designation of the prisoners from “Prisoners of War” (P.O.W.), required by the Geneva Convention to be fed the same rations as American G.I.’s, to “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (D.E.F.), which allowed him to cut their rations to starvation level. Mr. Bacque says the D.E.F. were also denied medical supplies and shelter. They died by the hundreds of thousands. Their deaths were covered up on Army records by listing them as “other losses” on charts showing weekly totals of prisoners on hand, numbers discharged and so forth.

So outraged is Mr. Bacque by his discovery of this heinous crime that he has been quoted in a wire service interview as saying Americans “should take down every statue of Eisenhower, and every photograph of him and annul his memory from American history as best they can, except to say, ‘Here was a man who did very evil things that we’re ashamed of.’ ” Questions immediately arise. If there were a million dead, where are the bodies? Did Eisenhower have such vast power that he could order starvation on a mass scale and keep it a secret? Was the undoubted suffering in the camps, especially the transit camps along the Rhine, the result of Eisenhower’s policy or the result of the chaotic conditions that prevailed in Europe in the spring and summer of 1945?

Mr. Bacque, a Canadian novelist with no previous historical research or writing experience, says in his introduction: “Doubtless many scholars will find faults in this book, which are only mine. I welcome their criticism and their further research, which may help to restore to us the truth after a long night of lies.” Last December, the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans invited some leading experts on the period to examine the charges. The conference participants, including me, plan to publish the papers in book form.

Our first conclusion was that Mr. Bacque had made a major historical discovery. There was widespread mistreatment of German prisoners in the spring and summer of 1945. Men were beaten, denied water, forced to live in open camps without shelter, given inadequate food rations and inadequate medical care. Their mail was withheld. In some cases prisoners made a “soup” of water and grass in order to deal with their hunger. Men did die needlessly and inexcusably. This must be confronted, and it is to Mr. Bacque’s credit that he forces us to do so.

Our second conclusion was that when scholars do the necessary research, they will find Mr. Bacque’s work to be worse than worthless. It is seriously — nay, spectacularly — flawed in its most fundamental aspects. Mr. Bacque misuses documents; he misreads documents; he ignores contrary evidence; his statistical methodology is hopelessly compromised; he makes no attempt to see the evidence he has gathered in its relationship to the broader situation; he makes no attempt to look at comparative contexts; he puts words into the mouth of his principal source; he ignores a readily available and absolutely critical source that decisively deals with his central accusation; and, as a consequence of these and other shortcomings, he reaches conclusions and makes charges that are demonstrably absurd.

Apart from its assessment of Mr. Bacque’s findings, however, the conference — along with the book itself — raises a larger issue: how are readers who are not experts to judge a work that makes new, startling, indeed outrageous, claims? Without the knowledge or the time to investigate, how are they to know if an author has finally revealed the truth “after a long night of lies,” or is simply misleading an unwary public?

As for Mr. Bacque’s claims, the most immediate question is that of Eisenhower’s motive: why on earth would Ike do such a thing? Mr. Bacque answers that Eisenhower hated the Germans. Now it is absolutely true that in the spring of 1945, Eisenhower’s anger at the Germans was very great. He never attempted to hide these feelings: in “Crusade in Europe,” published in 1948, he wrote, “In my personal reactions, as the months of conflict wore on, I grew constantly more bitter against the Germans.” He relates that he signed tens of thousands of letters of condolence to the wives and mothers of his fallen men, and he wrote, “I know of no more effective means of developing an undying hatred of those responsible for aggressive war than to assume the obligation of attempting to express sympathy to families bereaved by it.” The uncovering of the concentration camps added to his emotion.

Eisenhower was an enthusiastic supporter of denazification, but not because he hated the Germans or believed in collective guilt. To the contrary, he believed that there were Germans who were committed to democracy and that the task of the occupation was to find them and bring them to the fore. In a speech in Frankfurt in 1945, he declared: “The success or failure of this occupation will be judged by the character of the Germans 50 years from now. Proof will come when they begin to run a democracy of their own and we are going to give the Germans a chance to do that, in time.” This does not sound like a man who simultaneously was directing the death by starvation of one million young Germans.

Mr. Bacque completely misunderstands Eisenhower’s position and activity in the occupation. He puts full responsibility on Eisenhower for every policy decision, never recognizing that he had superiors from whom he took policy directives and orders — specifically, the Army Chief of Staff; the European Advisory Commission, acting in the name and with the authority of the British, Soviet and American Governments; the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Combined Chiefs of Staff, that is, the American Joint Chiefs and the British Chiefs of Staff; and the heads of the British and American Governments. The report at the New Orleans conference on the diplomatic background, by Brian Villa of the University of Ottawa, noted that the policy of Eisenhower’s superiors was to impress upon the Germans the fact of their defeat, the fact that they had brought it on themselves and in other ways to “treat ’em rough.” Denazification was one aspect of that policy. Another was that German prisoners would not be fed at a higher level than German civilians, than the civilians of the liberated nations, or than the displaced persons (D.P.’s).

An assertion that is central to Mr. Bacque’s accusation is his contention that there was no European food shortage in 1945. He points to warehouses in Germany full of food. He says that the Red Cross had food available. One of his most damning pieces of evidence is that a train from Geneva loaded with food parcels sent by the Red Cross to feed German prisoners was forced to turn back.

This is shocking — food was available, men were hungry and American officers ordered the train to return to Geneva. But there was a reason: the Allied Governments had decided that Red Cross food parcels would be used to feed displaced persons, of whom there were more than two million in Germany, and the orders to Eisenhower on this policy were explicit. So D.P.’s got those food parcels. It is painful beyond description to have to set food priorities in a hungry world, but it had to be done, and who could argue with the decision?

In his conference report on the food situation in Germany, James Tent of the University of Alabama-Birmingham says there was no question that there were severe shortages. Still, as Mr. Tent points out, there was food stocked in warehouses that was not distributed to prisoners living on a near-starvation diet. Again, this is shocking, until the reason is noted. The Allied Governments were fearful of famine in the winter of 1945-46, and they were stockpiling food. Even with the reserves, they barely got through the winter, and it was three years before the European food shortage was overcome.

Mr. Bacque’s myth was Eisenhower’s nightmare. No food shortage? Eisenhower wrote the Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, in February 1945: “I am very much concerned about the food situation. . . . We now have no reserves on the Continent of supplies for the civil population.”

And here is Eisenhower writing to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on April 25, 1945: “Unless immediate steps are taken to develop to the fullest extent possible the food resources in order to provide the minimum wants of the German population, widespread chaos, starvation and disease are inevitable during the coming winter.”

These — and many, many similar messages — went out before the surrender. After the first week of May, all of Eisenhower’s calculations as to how many people he would be required to feed in occupied Germany became woefully inadequate. He had badly underestimated, for two reasons. First, the number of German soldiers surrendering to the Western Allies far exceeded what was expected (more than five million, instead of the anticipated three million), because of the onrush of German soldiers across the Elbe River to escape the Russians. So too with German civilians — there were millions fleeing from east to west, about 13 million altogether, and they became Eisenhower’s responsibility. Second, the number of slave laborers liberated was much greater than anticipated, by more than two million. In short, Eisenhower faced shortages even before he learned that there were 17 million more people to feed in Germany than he had expected.

No food shortage? This is the report of the Military Governor for Germany in July 1945: “The food situation throughout Western Germany is perhaps the most serious problem of the occupation. The average food consumption in the Western Zones is now about one- third below the generally accepted subsistence level.” The September report declares, “Food from indigenous sources was not available to meet the present authorized ration level for the normal consumer, of 1,550 calories per day.”

Mr. Bacque says that the prisoners were receiving 1,550 calories a day, and he contends that such a ration means slow starvation. He apparently never looked at what civilians were getting, in Germany or in the liberated countries. In Paris in 1945, the calorie level was 1,550 for civilians. It was only slightly higher in Britain, where rationing continued. It was much lower in Russia, where rationing also continued. As noted, the official ration for German civilians was 1,550, but often not met. In Vienna in the summer of 1945 the official ration sometimes fell to 500.

There is such a thing as common sense. Anyone who was in Europe in the summer of 1945 would be flabbergasted to hear that there was no food shortage.

According to Mr. Bacque, Eisenhower personally, secretly, and with sinister intent changed the status of surrendered German soldiers from prisoners of war to disarmed enemy forces. In fact, the change in designation was a policy matter. The decision was made not by Eisenhower but by his superiors, specifically by the European Advisory Commission. Nor was any attempt made to keep it secret. All those involved acted with the authority of the British, Russian and American Governments, and they were perfectly straightforward about the reason for the change in status.

What happened is simple enough: the Allies could not afford to feed the millions of German prisoners at the same level at which they were feeding their own troops, as required by the Geneva Convention. Even had the food been available, the Allies were not going to feed German prisoners at a higher level than they were able to feed German civilians, not to mention the civilians of the liberated countries of Western Europe, and not to mention as well the displaced persons. But the United States and other Allied nations had signed the Geneva Convention, which had the force of a treaty. They did not wish to violate it, so they used the new designation of “Disarmed Enemy Forces.” The orders to the field commanders were straightforward: do not feed the D.E.F.’s at a higher scale than German civilians.

With regard to another of Mr. Bacque’s conclusions, he arrives at his sensational figure of one million dead through a system of analysis that has left almost everyone who has tried to check his statistics and methods befuddled. He did make one mistake because of a typing error by a clerk. He saw a figure of 70,000 prisoners in an Army medical report and then calculated the total death rate for all prisoners in American hands on the basis of that number and the 21,000 deaths also mentioned in the report. That is, he arrived at his most basic conclusion, a death rate in all camps of 30 percent, by dividing the 21,000 deaths by the 70,000 prisoners. However, the 70,000 figure should have been 10 times higher. All other figures in the document make it clear that the correct number of prisoners was 700,000. This would make the death rate not 30 percent but 3 percent.

In fact, as Albert Cowdrey of the Department of the Army’s Center of Military History reported to the conference, the overall death rate among German prisoners was 1 percent. Mr. Cowdrey’s conclusion, strongly supported by another conference participant, Maj. Ruediger Overmans of the German Office of Military History in Freiburg (who is writing the final volume of the official German history of the war), is that the total death by all causes of German prisoners in American hands could not have been greater than 56,000.

Finally, there is the matter of the column of figures in the weekly reports of the United States Army Theater Provost Marshal entitled “Other Losses.” It is here that Mr. Bacque finds his “missing million.”

What were the “other losses”? Mr. Bacque interviewed Philip S. Lauben, a retired Army colonel who was a member of the German Affairs Branch of Eisenhower’s headquarters in 1945. He writes that Colonel Lauben told him “other losses” meant “deaths and escapes.”

“How many escapes?” Mr. Bacque asked.

“Very, very minor,” Colonel Lauben replied. Mr. Bacque says they were less than one-tenth of 1 percent, with no explanation of how he arrived at such a figure.

Neil Cameron, the producer of the BBC documentary about “Other Losses,” told the conference that he had obtained from Mr. Bacque the tape of the interview. It seemed clear to Mr. Cameron that Mr. Bacque had got an old man to agree with words that Mr. Bacque used and then put in his mouth. Mr. Cameron did his own on-camera interview with Colonel Lauben; in it, Colonel Lauben said he was misled by Mr. Bacque and was wrong about the meaning of the term “other losses.”

David Hawkins of CNN wanted to do an interview with Colonel Lauben. Colonel Lauben turned him down, explaining in a letter: “I’m not being difficult. I am 91 years old, legally blind, and my memory has lapsed to a point where it is quite unreliable. Furthermore I am under regular medical care. Often during my talk with Mr. Bacque I reminded him that my memory had deteriorated badly during the 40 odd years since 1945.

“Mr. Bacque read to me figures. . . . It seemed to me that, after accounting for transfers and discharges, there was nothing left to make up the grand total except deaths and escapes, i.e., the term ‘Other Losses.’ I was mistaken.”

Thus, Mr. Bacque’s only witness for the charge that “other losses” was a cover-up term for deaths has twice repudiated what Mr. Bacque maintains that he said.

What then were the “other losses”? In many cases they were transfers from one zone to another, something that was regularly done for a variety of reasons, none of them sinister, and all duly recorded in footnotes on the weekly reports.

But the greatest number of “other losses” is revealed in the August 1945 Report of the Military Governor. (These monthly reports are in the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., in the National Archives in Washington and elsewhere; they are a basic source on every aspect of the occupation, including food shortages and prisoners; Mr. Bacque did not cite them and there is no evidence he examined them.) The August report lists the numbers of disarmed enemy forces discharged by American forces and those transferred to the British and French for forced labor.

The report continues: “An additional group of 663,576 are listed as ‘other losses,’ consisting largely of members of the Volkssturm [ People’s Militia ] released without formal discharge.”

It takes little imagination to see what happened here. The People’s Militia consisted of older men (up to 60 years of age, mainly World War I veterans) and boys of 16 or sometimes less. American guards and camp authorities told the old men to go home and take care of their grandchildren, the boys to go home and return to school. Along with the transfers to other zones that Mr. Bacque ignores, these people account for all the “missing million.”

In short, Mr. Bacque is wrong on every major charge and nearly all his minor ones. Eisenhower was not a Hitler, he did not run death camps, German prisoners did not die by the hundreds of thousands, there was a severe food shortage in 1945, there was nothing sinister or secret about the “disarmed enemy forces” designation or about the column “other losses.” Mr. Bacque’s “missing million” were old men and young boys in the militia.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bacque makes a point that is irrefutable: some American G.I.’s and their officers were capable of acting in almost as brutal a manner as the Nazis. We did not have a monopoly on virtue. He has challenged us to reopen the question, to do the research required, to get at the full truth. For that contribution, he deserves thanks. But as to how he presented his discovery, I turn again to Albert Cowdrey: “Surely the author has reason to be satisfied with his achievement. He has no reputation as a historian to lose, and ‘Other Losses’ can only enhance his standing as a writer of fiction.”

There remains, finally, the larger issue. It took a conference of experts to challenge Mr. Bacque’s charges. Individual scholars have hesitated to take him on because to do so required checking through his research — in effect, rewriting his book. Instead, many of them have said in their reviews in Britain, France, Germany and Canada that they cannot believe what Mr. Bacque says about Eisenhower is true, but they cannot disprove it. Mr. Bacque has all the paraphernalia of scholarship; it looks impressive enough to bamboozle even scholars.

Under these circumstances, what is a lay reader to do? I suggest that he or she trust common sense. As when confronting the Holocaust-never-happened school, ask the obvious questions. If the answers aren’t clear, the charges have not been proved. In Mr. Bacque’s case, two such questions are: Where are the bodies? and Is this book consistent with our picture of Eisenhower’s character as we know it from innumerable other sources? Ultimately, in cases such as this one, it is often the obvious questions that bring us closest to the truth.

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