Turcotte on Beattie, 'Allied Internment Camps in Occupied Germany: Extrajudicial Detention in the Name of Denazification, 1945-1950'

Andrew H. Beattie
Jean-Michel Turcotte

Andrew H. Beattie. Allied Internment Camps in Occupied Germany: Extrajudicial Detention in the Name of Denazification, 1945-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. xii + 248 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-48763-4.

Reviewed by Jean-Michel Turcotte (University of Potsdam) Published on H-War (December, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55837

The scholarship on internment camps has grown substantially over the last decades exploring diverse aspects of this modern and global phenomenon. Much of this research focuses either on the First World War or the period from 1939 to 1945, and examines governmental policies and wartime experiences of different categories of captives around the world: refugees, “enemy aliens,” prisoners of war, and displaced persons.[1] In spite of this large scholarly production, there are only few studies that examine Allied internment camps in occupied Germany after the Second World War. This subject, however, remains essential to study in order to understand immediate postwar Germany, considering that more than four hundred thousand Germans were interned without trial by the victorious Allied powers. In his recent book, Andrew Beattie, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, proposes to fill this gap in the voluminous historiography of internment by exploring the treatment of German internees by the American, British, French, and Soviet occupation authorities between 1945 and 1950. 

As stated by Beattie in the introduction, his book contributes to several scholarly and public debates regarding postwar Germany by offering “the first detailed, systematic, comparative study” of the internment operations during the occupation era (p. 2). By adopting what the he calls a “global” perspective on the history of camps, the author shows that democratic powers made use of internment more extensively than widely understood in the historiography, not only for specific ethnic and military groups of captives but also for political-ideological purposes. Neglected by historians, internment was an important part of Germany’s experience of postwar occupation. This story was for a long time limited to the comparison between western and eastern zones and analyzed through the scope of the Cold War dichotomy. In particular, western scholars have produced a narrative exposing the harsh Soviet treatment of Germans versus the “friendly” American policy. By comparing all Allied powers, Beattie’s book challenges this interpretation, offering a more nuanced and complex understanding of these operations. By doing so, it supports Geoffrey Wallace’s argument that liberal regimes “have resorted to illiberal methods and that democracies are not immune from abusing their prisoners.”[2] In other words, it contests here the “common tendency to view the Soviet internment overwhelmingly negatively and western internment uncritically” (p. 18).

Study of internment, according to Beattie, also contributes to a comprehensive reassessment of “transitional justice,” which characterized the Allied denazification efforts and the handling of the Nazi past in postwar Germany. Internment camps took part in the complex process of denazification. In addition to destroying Nazism, prosecuting war criminals, and removing Nazi influence from German public life, the denazification process deployed by Allied authorities involved the internment of a large group of broadly defined “dangerous” people. By exploring these operations, Beattie assesses that Allied attempts to eradicate Nazism were more “severe” and “variegated” that is often suggested. This point also nuances the debate among scholars of denazification regarding the collective guilt and responsibility of the German people. By exploring the use of the concept of “suspicion” by occupation authorities as well as the “preventive and punitive functions” of internment, Beattie highlights the multiple dimensions and aims of transitional justice between the Nazi era and the postwar regime. Finally, this book sheds light on the history of internment by showing that despite important differences in conditions of detention and death rates, internment in the four occupation zones shared numerous features. Beattie argues that “for all dissimilarities, internment in each zone shared key characteristics, as it was conceptualized in non-judicial terms and was both preventative and retrospective” (p. 24). 

The book is divided into four chapters. The first looks at the development of internment policy by Allied authorities from its wartime formulation in 1943 to the different directives issued in late 1945. It argues that western and Soviet authorities failed to establish a common internment policy even though this issue was on the Allied agenda and had broad support. Despite this failure, occupying powers shared much common ground in their conceptualization of internment. The following chapter adds to this argument by exploring the concrete practice of internment in Germany and Austria, from the initial arrests without trial of thousands of Germans in the aftermath of the war to the closing of the camps in 1950. As claimed by Beattie, differences between Allied policies appeared more in their “approaches to categorizing, processing and releasing their internes than in the basis of arrests” (p. 60). In all zones, authorities deployed punitive, extrajudicial, and preventive internment policy through automatic arrests and mass detention on security justification. Moreover, only a minority of internees were handed to the judiciary or criminal court. However, an important difference between Allied internment operations lay in that the release process was quicker in the western zones than in the Soviet one.

The third chapter examines who the internees were. This issue raised complex questions regarding the definition of “criminals” and “pro-Nazis” elements among the German population. Except for high Nazi leaders or henchmen such as members of the SS, generalizations of who was considered a “dangerous” Nazi individual and their relation to the Nazi regime remain complicated “by the various categories of detainee, by differences among camps, and by changes over time, as well as by the fact that many internees held multiple positions in Nazi organizations that made them liable for arrest” (p. 105). Nevertheless, the chapter identifies numerous similarities among the interned populations according to sex, age, and political orientation. The last chapter explores the various conditions of internees in camps. It argues that although the Soviet approach was worse, western treatment of captives should not be idealized considering evidence of physical violence in camps that were often located in Nazi-era facilities: concentration camps, prisons, military barracks, and forced labor camps. Beattie highlights the camps’ functional complexity, identifying multiple aims other than internment (i.e., denazification). Camps in Germany and Austria were complex sites that according to Beattie, “defy simple characterization and generalization” (p. 145). The author concludes his book with a discussion on the nature of internment operations and the broader interpretation of these camps’ significance and impact.  

Beattie provides a new perspective on the history of internment in post-1945 Germany. His arguments on the political nature and function of these operations and the importance of similarities as well as differences between the four occupying powers are deeply grounded in a large historiography. The extensive use of existing works certainly makes the book an important contribution to the literature on internment, but at the same time, it also reflects a certain weakness. More precisely, the chapters often devote more space to historiographical discussion than to new archival analysis, which sometime blurs the novelty of Beattie’s arguments. Moreover, although the author makes impressive use of German and English literature, French and Russian historiographies are unfortunately neglected. The study of Soviet and French policies is thus uniquely based on translation and secondary sources. 

In terms of demonstration, the author provides meticulous statistics and details on internment that reveal important similarities among Allied policies. The “global” character of these Allied operations, however, remains difficult to grasp. The relation that British, American, French, and Soviet authorities made with their own experience of internment before 1943 are absent from the analysis, as well as the exchanges and transfers between western Allies. In order words, the relation that the Allies developed regarding internment in terms of influence, knowledge, and expertise-sharing could be an interesting aspect to explore. Although the denazification issue is well examined, the influence of communism and liberal capitalist ideologies in the shaping of internment and denazification could also have improved the study. Finally, the context of postwar Europe for internees and prisoners of war as described by Fabien Theofilakis—lack of resources, thousands of displaced populations, and destruction of the territory—needs more consideration, as do the conceptualizations of reconstruction and réconciliation in the case of the western zones.[3] Allied authorities needed to quickly reorganize German society while handling the particular, difficult social, economic, and political circumstances of Europe. Despite these minor points, Andrew Beattie offers an essential contribution to our understanding of postwar internment. This book remembers the fact that the history of Germany from 1945 to 1950, which is often viewed through the lens of Cold War antagonism and the uncritical western narrative, desperately needs to be reviewed by historians. 


[1]. See Matthew Stibbe, Panikos Panayi, and Stefan Manz, eds., Internment during the First World War: A Mass Global Phenomenon (New York: Routledge, 2019); and Matthew Stibbe, Civilian Internment during the First World War: A European and Global History, 1914-1920 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[2]. Geoffrey P. R. Wallace, Life and Death in Captivity: The Abuse of Prisoners during War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015).

[3]. Fabien Théofilakis, Les prisonniers de guerre allemands. France, 1944-1949Une captivité de guerre en temps de paix (Paris: Fayard, 2014).



Citation: Jean-Michel Turcotte. Review of Beattie, Andrew H., Allied Internment Camps in Occupied Germany: Extrajudicial Detention in the Name of Denazification, 1945-1950. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55837

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