A grunt’s-eye view of a terrible chapter in the last months of WWII: the enslavement of captured GIs, Jews and gentiles alike, to serve the dying Reich.
Inspired by Charles Guggenheim’s 2003 PBS documentary on the Berga concentration camp, military historian Whitlock offers an account enriched by the voices of many of the GIs who, captured at the Battle of the Bulge, were spirited away to work in the mines of southeastern Germany. Unfortunately for Whitlock, though, Guggenheim’s documentary also nourished Roger Cohen’s companion volume, Soldiers and Slaves (p. 96), which is far better on the big-picture complexities of religion, politics and psychology that the soldiers’ ordeal involved and is much better written to boot. Still, Whitlock acquits himself reasonably well, and though he slips into ill-advised tough-guyisms (“A Soviet operation known as Bagration . . . was a kick in the German ass. On 15 August, another Allied landing . . . was a knife in the gut. . . .”), he provides useful backstory on the Battle of the Bulge and how the GIs were captured in the first place. The best parts here, though, are straight from the mouths of the inmates. One remembers, for instance, that when the Americans objected to the segregation of Jewish soldiers, a German came back with: Well, after all, don’t you “separate blacks from whites in [your] own army?” Another, a Catholic, recounts that the non-Jews among the contingent of GIs sent into slavery could not understand how he had been picked for the duty. “We all had one thing in common, though,” he concludes, “we were all ‘undesirable.’ ” A third recalls that the slaves of Berga worked on rations of 400 to 600 calories a day—and, as if that were not bad enough, had to deal with brutal guards. “There were no gas chambers in Berga,” one German Jew who had survived Auschwitz and then been moved there noted, “but there were other killings.”
A worthy effort, though readers will want to turn to Cohen’s book first.