Brilliantly written, lively, and occasionally sardonic, Europe on Trial evaluates the almost universal failure during the Second World War to live up to the standards of humanity in the face of brutality, opportunities for theft, and lack of empathy for others. István Deák grew up in Hungary in a Roman Catholic family with Jewish roots; he witnessed the vast suffering and destruction wrought by the Second World War on millions of people throughout Europe. In this book, he examines the issues of collaboration, resistance, and postwar retribution against the many perpetrators from different European nations.
The behavior of the Nazi Germans towards other European nations varied in response to those countries’ reception of them. In Austria, the 1938 union with Germany was welcomed by the majority of the population; in Czechoslovakia, government leaders had a failure of courage in the face of abandonment by their Western allies; in Poland, a brave but ultimately futile resistance was enacted. Where there was obedience and collaboration the Nazi forces behaved with relative discipline, but in Ukraine, Poland, and the Balkans, the German forces and their collaborators slaughtered vast numbers of civilians.
The mixed record of the French under German occupation raises questions about the responsibility of individuals in the local police and various government agencies who served Germany economically and politically — including in the roundup of tens of thousands of Jewish women, children, and men who were deported to their fates in Eastern Europe. Should those who snapped up abandoned Jewish property be counted as collaborators? Were women who socialized with German soldiers collaborators? Were the profitable metal and coal industries and weapons manufacturers in Sweden, Switzerland, and the Czech lands actively aiding the Nazi war machine?
Deák is particularly interested in the behavior of Germany’s numerous allies, all of whom engaged in projects of ethnic cleansing that usually included deporting Jews to their deaths. Europe on Trial examines most of the countries of Europe and finds their rulers and people to have largely failed the test of humanity during the Second World War. Moreover, despite the impressive body of evidence compiled at the Nuremberg trials, relatively few of the Nazi perpetrators were actually tried in Germany, and war crimes committed under Soviet rule were passed over in silence.
Overall, Europe on Trial tells the sad story of Europe’s failure to prevent the Nazi conquests and its consequences during the occupation and in the postwar years. America’s focus on the Cold War led it to permit Germany to minimize prosecution of war criminals, who often rose to great success in West Germany and retired with generous police or military pensions — or, like Werner von Braun, became major figures in America’s space and intelligence programs. The one great European success was the formation of the basis for a peaceful European Union, with Germany as part of the EU’s democratic bedrock. Europe on Trial is a book of rare value, both as a historical analysis and as a moral evaluation of many cases of questionable and ambiguous behavior.