Eras Journal - Aukstinaitis, P: Review of "Conquerors' Road: an eyewitness report of Germany 1945", Osmar White
Osmar White, Conquerors' Road: An Eyewitness Report of Germany 1945,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003
Isbn 0 52153 751 7
For historians and readers of history alike, Osmar White's Conquerors' Road presents a vivid account of the Allied campaign to occupy Germany in the final months of the Second World War. Written from the perspective of an Australian war correspondent attached to Patton's Third Army, White portrays the occupation of Germany in a manner that depicts both the military and civilian aspects of the Allied campaign. Throughout his personal encounters with the American soldiers of Patton's army, the sense of fallibility and desensitisation of the soldiers to death is combined with the realised inevitability of German defeat. The tone and atmosphere is not unlike that of Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers in the final days and months of the war. In an almost surreal journey through the German countryside, the atmosphere of inevitable victory is laced with overtones of retribution and punishment directed against the Nazi regime. Set in such an environment, White's journal proves to be an interesting, thought-provoking and absorbing read.
One notable focal point of Conquerors' Road is the author's perception of the 'defeated' German populace. In a manner reflective of the suspicions of the Allied armies towards the German civilians, White provides - in absorbing detail - a narrative of his attempts to discern the true character of the people who 'wilfully' accommodated the Nazi regime. It is this desire for understanding that prevents the reader from distancing oneself from White's experiences, observations and detailed narrative. The uncertainty of the author to the temperament or will to resist of the German populace is found in his persistent fear that during his travels between the front and rear echelon, the German people would resort to guerrilla warfare. The sentiment that the German mood was one of 'stunned docility' is a statement reflective of White's consciousness to the potential for instability in post-Nazi Germany.
White's writing on the Allied advance into Germany demonstrates the extent of his knowledge and awareness of subtle, yet important, differences between the warring nations. Evidence of this is contained in his observations concerning the failure of the Germans to remove road-signs as the British had done - an observation reflective of Germany's broken will and inevitable defeat. Although aspects of the book have been rewritten in a post-war environment, the single most impressive element of Conquerors' Road is the careful and continual consideration of larger strategic factors affecting the morale of the German people. This is even more significant when considering that the work was - for the most part - written in a tactical (front-line) setting. White is obviously aware of the overwhelming impact of Allied bombing on the inhabitants of German population centres, and links this to the psychological impact of the British and American armies breaching the Rhineland.
Despite the strength of his observations and the overall positive impact they have on the work, the continuity of White's comparisons - in certain areas - is questionable. The distinction that White draws between 'spiritless submission' of the inhabitants of metropolitan and rural areas is an erroneous and somewhat misleading sentiment. The basis for the argument is obvious: that the inhabitants of rural towns were not exposed to such frequent and heavy air raids as population or industrial centres. However, this assumes that the impact of such targeted strategies are accurately represented via the sole consideration of geographical proximity.
A notable overtone of White's wartime accounts is his consciousness of the considerable differences between American and Russian attitudes to the war. This topic is interwoven throughout his work - along with the more practical elements that the occupation force had to confront; for example, the survival of German civilians. In particular, White focuses on the contrasting approaches (Communism v. Democracy) towards resurrecting Germany in the immediate post-war setting. The resumption of German education is discussed by White with an awareness to the contrary - and arguably more realistic - approach as employed by the USSR . Obvious parallels are drawn by the author between this aspect of post-war Germany and the nature of the emerging East/West blocs. In this sense, White demonstrates a supreme ability to focus on the larger strategic and political environment while also capturing the human reality of war. His writing on this topic also betrays little disdain towards the Communist system that one might expect given the emerging "kick the shit out of the Commies" attitude.
For students of the Holocaust, or those wishing to further explore the graphic portrayal of the Nazi extermination in landmark works such as Schlindler's List, White's chapter titled 'Inside Hitler's Reich' describes with chilling detail the personal confrontation with the most gruesome elements of the Nazi regime. The unique characteristic of Conquerors' Road is the inability of the reader to distance themself from the personal and emotional upheaval that the author experienced during the inspection of Buchenwald concentration camp. However, it is to White's credit that this emotional and disturbing experience does not overly dominate the content and context of his later writings. One would imagine that such an experience would be difficult to exclude from further writings on the nature of the Nazi regime, or even when presenting a view on German population which accommodated the regime.
Through his consciousness to post-war political and strategic affairs, the response of German populace to military occupation, and the attention given to the 'human face' of war, Conquerors' Road makes for an intriguing and enlightening read - especially to those who seek to understand the immediate Cold War period.
Department of Politics, School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University