- Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany
When fighting in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, approximately eleven million German soldiers were held as prisoners of war, many of them by the Soviet Union. Frank Biess's excellent book examines the homecomings of those POWs from the East to postwar Germany between 1945 and 1956, arguing that they both reflected and shaped the ways in which East and West German societies understood the catastrophe of the Second World War and rebuilt in its wake. The POWs' return home was significant because when Germans thought of the war's legacy in the decade after 1945, they very often thought of a POW, either still held in Soviet captivity or recently returned (5). Biess argues that over time a focus on the absent or shattered POW gave way as Germans came to emphasize a "redemptive" story about returned POWs overcoming their wartime suffering to contribute as male citizens to the building of either a socialist society in East Germany or a liberal capitalist one in the West.
This work, which represents a revision of Biess's dissertation, offers an interesting and significant account that deepens our understanding of not only the situation of returning POWs, but of East and West Germany, and postwar Europe more broadly. The book is based on exhaustive research in thirty-eight different archives. Biess grounds his study theoretically on the insights into memory, gender, and citizenship offered by recent historiography (10-14). The work adds in manifold ways to interpretations offered by historians such as Robert Moeller, on postwar German memories of wartime suffering, or Tony Judt on the war's powerful legacy in shaping postwar Europe. Biess continually, and with remarkable deftness, connects the specific findings of his own research to existing literature and European-wide trends, as when he concludes his examination of GDR regulations for issuing death certificates for missing soldiers by fitting it with Nina Tumarkin's argument that communist ideology tended to privilege the task of building socialism over mourning dead individuals (186).
The book encompasses both East and West German homecomings because the POWs had left one Germany, but came home to what were rapidly becoming two different German states and societies. The work thus affords an excellent vantage point from which to view the diverging societies as they wrestled with a common challenge. Cold War division and the respective relationships among the state, society, and the individual across the East-West divide emerge with new clarity from Biess's study.
The book persuasively shows how powerful actors in both parts of divided Germany made use of the POWs with some success to further their aims of legitimating their positions and their projects. Returnees and their families often found that where their individual recollections dredged up uncomfortable facts, they were encouraged to keep silent about them, and where desires conflicted with the prevailing currents, those hopes met frustration. In the East, for example, state and party leaders suppressed returnees' stories of suffering at the hands of the Soviets as inconveniently dissonant with the theme of comradeship between German and Soviet socialists. In the West prisoners returning from Soviet captivity were portrayed as victims of a totalitarian system that shared important [End Page 502] characteristics with the Third Reich. Institutions like the churches, as well as ordinary West Germans, looked forward to the returnees' smooth integration into family life as husbands and fathers as an important step toward restoring order. Biess shows that although the men's return to the family was often a difficult undertaking, the existence of tensions in returnees' family lives tended to be neglected in public discussions of their new start in West Germany. Biess offers the intriguing suggestion that this privatizing of the reintegration of the POWs contributed to the formation of a deep "fault line" between the generations, one that would contribute to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s (125).
With the return of the last group of POWs from the Soviet Union to...