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Crimes and Mercies

by James Bacque

Most reasonable people consider the Second World War to be the last morally unambiguous conflict. Nazis were the bad guys, the Allies were the good guys. Good triumphed over evil, right?

Toronto writer James Bacque would no doubt agree but with one big caveat, namely that some of the good guys sought revenge by taking measures that led to the unnecessary deaths of millions of Germans in the post-war years, a claim he makes in his latest book, Crimes and Mercies. Those deaths include about a million German soldiers Bacque says died in miserable neglect in prisoner of war camps, a charge made first in his controversial 1989 book, Other Losses. Those claims have been widely dismissed by historians as grossly exaggerated and Crimes and Mercies is headed for the same reception.

Bacque arrives at his conclusions by comparing German census figures from 1950 with 1946. Adjusted for births, recorded deaths, returning evacuees, and prisoners, the 1950 census shows a mysterious shortfall of 5.7 million. Toss in estimated deaths from the POW camps and among the Germans expelled from nearby countries and “at least 9.3 million Germans died needlessly soon after the war, the great majority because of the conditions imposed” by the Allies.

While professional historians are better equipped to deconstruct Bacque’s figuring, even the lay reader will be left with niggling doubts. Given the upheaval in Europe during those years, how reliable are data from any census, especially when they’re drawn from a variety of sources, including KGB archives in Russia? Even if the census figures are correct and consistently applied, are Bacque’s conclusions sound? Is there not a more benign explanation?

Here the reader can apply a little common sense. What are we to make of Bacque’s assertion that “millions of these people slowly starved to death in front of the victors’ eyes every day for years,” or that these alleged crimes “are being covered up even now, by the governments of France, U.K., the U.S. and probably Canada, with the help of some TV producers, some academics, archivists, editors and writers.” The idea that millions of Germans were dying in the street and the tragedy went unreported by the thousands of journalists, aid workers, and civilian authorities on the scene is ridiculous. The idea that a cover-up has been sustained for the past 50 years with the willing participation of historians, the media, and government is absurd.

The shame here is that there is a nugget of truth in Bacque’s work. Most historians now agree there was neglect of German POWs that led to unnecessary deaths, and the behaviour of Allies in post-war Germany deserves to be better scrutinized. But by leapfrogging over those important issues and asserting some monstrous conspiracy, Bacque has done history a disservice.


Reviewer: Stephen Northfield

Publisher: Little, Brown


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 292 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-316- 64070-0

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-12

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction, History