Ike and the Disappearing Atrocities
by Stephen E. Ambrose
New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1991
Seldom has the publication of a historical monograph on a subject
ordinarily of interest only to a few specialists – the treatment of
prisoners of war – received so much attention or excited so much
anger as James Bacque’s “Other Losses.” Published in 1989 in
Canada, it was the subject of a cover story in the popular Canadian
magazine Saturday Night, of a British Broadcasting Corporation
documentary, of two German television documentaries and of a coming
Canadian Broadcasting Network documentary. (The Canadian book, I
should say immediately, carries a jacket blurb from me that was
taken out of context and used without permission) It has been
discussed on American television, in Time magazine and in many
other news media outlets. In its German edition, it was a runaway
best seller. The British edition elicited major reviews in the
Times Literary Supliment and elsewhere. Prima Publishing of
California intendes to publish the book in May, which could fan the
flames in the United States.
The reason for the notoriety is the author’s conclusion that Gen.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, as head of the American occupation of Germany
in 1945, deliberately starved to death German prisoners of war in
staggering numbers. Mr. Bacque charges that “the victims
undoubtedly number over 800,000, almost certainly over 800,000 and
quite likely over a million. Their deaths were knowingly caused by
army officers who had sufficient resources to keep the prisoners
Eisenhower’s method, according to Mr. Bacque, was simple: he
changed the designation of the prisoners from “Prisoners of War”
(P.O.W.), required by the Geneva Convention to be fed the same
rations as American G.I.’s, to “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (D.E.F.),
which allowed him to cut their rations to starvation level. Mr.
Bacque says the D.E.F. were also denied medical supplies and
shelter. They died by the hundreds of thousands. Their deaths were
covered up on Army records by listing them as “other looses” on
charts showing weekly totals of prisoners on hand, numbers
discharged and so forth.
So outraged is Mr. Bacque by his discovery of this heinous crime
that he has been quoted in a wire service interview as saying
Americans “should take down every statue of Eisenhower, and every
photograph of him and annul his memory from American history as
best they can, except to say, ‘Here was a man who did very evil
things that we’re ashamed of.'” Questions immediately arise. If
there were a million dead, where are the bodies? Did Eisenhower
have such vast power that he could order starvation on a mass scale
and keep it a secret? Was the undoubted suffering in the camps,
especially the transit camps along the Rhine, the result of
Eisenhower’s policy or the result of the chaotic conditions that
prevailed in Europe in the spring and summer of 1945?
Mr. Bacque, a Canadian novelist with no previous historical
research or writing experience, says in his introduction:
“Doubtless many scholars will find faults in this book, which are
only mine. I welcome their criticism and their further research,
which may help to restore to us the truth after a long night of
lies.” Last December, the Eisenhower Center at the University of
New Orleans invited some leading experts on the period to examine
the charges. The conference participants, including me, plan to
publish the papers in book form.
Our first conclusion was that Mr. Bacque had made a major
historical discovery. There _was_ wdiespread mistreatment of German
prisoners in the spring and summer of 1945. Men were beaten, denied
water, forced to live in open camps without shelter, given
inadequate food rations and inadequate medical care. Their mail was
withheld. In some cases prisoners made a “soup” of water and grass
in order to deal with their hunger. Men did die needlessly and
inexcusably. This must be confronted, and it is to Mr. Bacque’s
credit that he forces us to do so.
Our second conclusion was that when scholars do the necessary
research, they will find Mr. Bacque’s work to be worse than
worthless. It is seriously – nay, spectacularly – flawed in its
most fundamental aspects. Mr. Bacque misuses documents; he misreads
documents; he ignores contrary evidence; his statistical
methodology is hopelessly compromised; he makes no attempt to look
at comparative contexts; he puts words into the mouth of his
principal source; he ignores a readily available and absolutely
critical source that decisively deals with his central accusation;
and, as a consequence of these and and other shortcomings, he
reaches conclusions and makes charges that are demonstrably absurd.
Apart from its assessment of Mr. Bacque’s findings, however, the
conference – along with the book itself – raises a larger issue:
how are readers who are not experts to judge a work that makes
new, startling, indeed outrageious, claims? Without the knowledge
or the time to investigate, how are they to know if an author has
finally revealed the truth “after a long night of lies,” or is
simply misleading an unwary public?
As for Mr. Bacque’s claims, the most immediate question is that of
Eisenhower’s motive: why on earth would Ike do such a thing? Mr.
Bacque answers that Eisenhower hated the Germans. Now it is
absolutely true that in the spring of 1945, Eisenhower’s anger at
the Germans was very great. He never attempted to hide these
feelings. In “Crusade in Europe,” published in 1948, he wrote, “In
my personal reactions, as the months of conflict wore on, I grew
constantly more bitter against the Germans.” He relates that he
signed tens of thousands of letters of condolence to the wives and
mothers of his fallen men, and he wrote, “I know of no more
effective means of developing an undying hatred of those
responsible for aggressive war than to assume the obligation of
attemption to express sympathy to families bereaved by it.” The
uncovering of the concentration camps added to his emotion.
Eisenhower was an enthusiastic supporter of denazification, but not
because he hated the Germans or believed in collective guilt. To
the contrary, he believed that there were Germans who were
committed to democracy and that the task of the occupation was to
find them and bring them to the fore. In a speech in Frankfurt in
1945, he declared “The success or failure of this occupation will
be judged by the character of the Germans 50 years from now. Proof
will come when they begin to run a democracy of their own and we
are going to give the Germans a chance to do that, in time.” This
does not sound like a man who simultaneously was directing the
death by starvation of one million young Germans.
Mr. Bacque completely misunderstands Eisenhower’s position and
activity in the occupation. He puts full responsibility on
Eisenhower for every policy decision, never recognizing that he had
superiors from whom he took policy directives and orders –
specifically, the Army Chief of Staff, the European Advisory
Commission, acting in the name and with the authority of the
British, Soviet and American Governments, the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, the Combined Chiefs of Staff, that is, the American Joint
Chiefs and the British Chiefs of Staff; and the heads of the
British and American Governments. The report at the New Orleans
conference on the diplomatic background, by Brian Villa of the
University of Ottawa, noted that the policy of Eisenhower’s
superiors was to impress upon the Germans the fact of their defeat,
the fact that they had brought it on themselves and in other ways
to “treat ’em rough.” Denazification was one aspect of that policy.
Another was that German prisoners would not be fed at a higher
level than German civilians, than the civilians of the liberated
nations, or than the displaced persons (DPs).
An assertion that is central to Mr. Bacque’s accusation is his
contention that there was no European food shortage in 1945. He
points to warehouses in Germany full of food. He says that the Red
Cross had food available. One of his most daming pieces of evidence
is that a train from Geneva loaded with food parcels sent by the
Red Cross to feed German prisoners was forced to turn back.
This is shocking – food was available, men were hungry and American
officers ordered the train to return to Geneva. But there was a
reason: the Allied Governments had decided that Red Cross food
parcels would be used to feed displaced persons, of whom there were
more than two million in Germany, and the orders to Eisenhower on
this policy were explicit. So DPs got those food parcels. It is
painful beyond description to have to set food priorities in a
hungry world, but it had to be done, and who could argue with the
In his conference report on the food situation in Germany, James
Tent of the University of Alabama – Brimingham says there was no
question that there were severe shortages. Still, as Mr. Tent
points out, there was food stocked in warehouses that was not
distributed to prisoners living on a near-starvation diet. Again,
this is shocking, until the reason is noted. The Allied Governments
were fearful of famine in the winter of 1945-46, and they were
stockpiling food. Even with the reserves, they barely got through
the winter, and it was three years before the European foot
shortage was overcome.
Mr. Bacque’s myth was Eisenhower’s nightmare. No food shortage?
Eisenhower wrote the Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, in
Februayr 1945: “I am very much concerned about the food
situation… We now have no reserves on the Continent of supplies
for the civil population.”
And here is Eisenhower writing to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on
April 25, 1945: “Unless immediate steps are taken to develop to the
fullest extent possible the food resources in order to provide the
minimum wants of the German population, widespread chaos,
starvation and disease are inevitable during the coming winter.”
These – and many, many similar messages – went out before the
surrender. After the first week of May, all of Eisenhower’s
calculations as to how many people he would be required to feed in
occupied Germany became woefully inadequate. He had badly
underestimated, for two reasons. First, the number of German
soldiers surrendering to the Western Allies far exceeded what was
expected (more than five million, instead of the anticipated three
million) because of the onrush of German soldiers across the Elbe
River to escape the Russians. So too with German civilians – there
were millions fleeing from east to west, about 13 million
altogether, and they became Eisenhower’s responsibility. Eisenhower
faced shortages even before he learned that there were 17 million
more people to feed in Germany than he had expected.
No food shortage? This is the report of the Military Governor for
Germany in July 1945: “The food situation throughout Western
Germany is perhaps the most serious problem of the occupation. The
average food consumption in the Western Zones is now about
one-third below the generally accepted subsistence level.” The
September report declares, “Food from indigenous sources was not
available to meet the present authorized ration level for the
normal consumer, of 1,550 calories per day.”
Mr. Bacque says that the prisoners were receiving 1,550 calories a
day, and he contends that such a ration means slow starvation. He
apparently never looked at what civilians were getting, in Germany
or in the liberated countries. In Paris in 1945, the calorie level
was 1,550 for civilians. It was only slightly higher in Briatin,
where rationing continued. It was much lower in Russia, where
rationing also continued. As noted, the official ration for German
civilians was 1,550, but often not met. In Vienna in the summer of
1945 the official ration sometimes fell to 500.
There is such a thing as common sense. Anyone who was in Europe in
the summer of 1945 would be flabbergasted to hear that there was no
According to Mr. Bacque, Eisenhower personally, secretly, and with
sinister intent changed the status of surrendered German soldiers
from prisoners of war to disarmed enemy forces. In fact, the change
in designation was a policy matter. The decision was made not by
Eisenhower but by his superiors, specifically by the European
Advisory Commission. Nor was any attempt made to keep it secret.
All those involved acted with the authority of the British, Russian
and American Governments, and they were perfectly straightforward
about the reason for the change in status.
What happened is simple enough: the Allies could not afford to feed
the millions of German prisoners at the same level at which they
were able to feed German civilians, not to mention the civilians of
the liberated countries of Western Europe, and not to mention as
well the displaced persons. But the United States and other Allied
nations had signed the Geneva Convention, which had the force of a
treaty. They did not wish to violate it, so they used the new
designation of “Disarmed Enemy Forces.” The orders to the field
commanders were straighforward: do not feed the DEF’s at a higher
scale than German civilians.
With regard to another of Mr. Bacque’s conclusions, he arrives at
his sensational figure of one million dead through a system of
analysis that has left almost everyone who has tried to check his
statistics and methods befuddled. He did make one mistake because
of a typing error by a clerk. He saw a figure of 70,000 prisoners
in an Army medical report and then calculated the total death rate
for all prisoners in American hands on the basis of that number and
the 21,000 deaths also mentioned in the report. That is, he arrived
at his most basic conclusion, a death rate in all camps of 30
percent, by dividing the 21,000 deaths by the 70,000 prisoners.
However, the 70,000 figure should have been 10 times higher. All
other figures in the document make it clear that the correct number
of prisoners was 700,000. This would make the death rate not 30
percent but 3 percent.
In fact, as Albert Cowdrey of the Department of the Army’s Center
of Military History reported to the conference, the overall death
rate among German prisoners was 1 percent.
Mr. Cowdrey’s conclusion, strongly supported by another conference
participant, Maj. Ruediger Overmans of the German Office of
Military History in Freiburg (who is writing the final volume of
the official Germany history of the war), is that the total death
by all causes of German prisoners in American hands could not have
been greater than 56,000.
Finally, there is the matter of the column of figures in the weekly
reports of the United States Army Theater Provost Marshal entitled
“Other Losses.” It is here that Mr. Bacque finds his “missing
What were the “other losses?” Mr. Bacque interviewed Philip S.
Lauben, a retired Army colonel who was a member of the German
Affairs Branch of Eisenhower’s headquarters in 1945. He writes that
Colonel Lauben told him “other losses” meant “deaths and escapes.”
“How many escapes?” Mr. Bacque asked.
“Very, very minor,” Colonel Lauben replied. Mr. Bacque says they
were less than one-tenth of 1 percent, with no explanation of how
he arrived at such a figure.
Neil Cameron, the producer of the BBC documentary about “Other
Losses,” told the conference that he had obtained from Mr. Bacque
the tape of the interview. It seemed clear to Mr. Cameron that Mr.
Bacque had got an old man to agree with words that Mr. Bacque used
and then put in his mouth. Mr. Cameron did his own on-camera
interview with Colonel Lauben; in it, Colonel Lauben said he was
misled by Mr. Bacque and was wrong about the meaning of the term
David Hawkins of CNN wanted to do an interview with Colonel Lauben.
Colonel Lauben turned him down, explaining in a letter “I’m not
being difficult. I am 91 years old, legally blind, and my memory
has lapsed to a point where it is quite unreliable. Furthermore I
am under regular medical care. Often during my talk with Mr.
Bacque I reminded him that my memory had deteriorated badly during
the 40 odd years since 1945.
“Mr. Bacque read to me figures…It seemed to me that, after
accounting for transfers and discharges, there was nothing left to
make up the grand total except deaths and escapes, i.e. the term
‘Other Losses.’ I was mistaken.”
Thus, Mr. Bacque’s only witness for the charge that “other losses”
was a cover-up term for deaths has twice repudiated what Mr. Bacque
maintains that he said.
What then were the “other losses?” In many cases they were
transfers from one zone to another, something that was regularly
done for a variety of reasons, none of them sinister, and all duly
recorded in footnotes on the weekly reports.
But the greatest number of “other losses” is revealed in the August
1945 Report of the Military Governor. (These monthly reports are in
the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kan., in the National Archives
in Washington and elsewhere; they are a basic source on every
aspect of the occupation, including food shortages and prisoners.
Mr. Bacque did not cite them and there is no evidence he examined
them.) The August report lists the numbers of disarmed enemy forces
discharged by American forces and those transferred to the British
and French for forced labor.
The report continues: “An additional group of 663,576 are listed as
‘other losses,’ consisting largely of members of the Volksturm
[Peoples’ Militia], released without formal discharge.”
It takes little imagination to see what happened here. The People’s
Militia consisted of older men (up to 80 years of age, mainly World
War I veterans) and boys of 16 or sometimes less. American guards
and camp authorities told the old men to go home and take care of
their grandchildren, the boys to go home and return to school.
Along with the transfers to other zones that Mr. Bacque ignores,
these people account for all the “missing million.”
In short, Mr. Bacque is wrong on every major charge and nearly all
his minor ones. Eisenhower was not a Hitler, he did not run death
camps, German prisoners did not die by the hundreds of thousands,
there was a severe food shortage in 1945, there was nothing
sinister or secret about the “disarmed enemy forces” designation or
about the column “other losses.” Mr. Bacque’s “missing million”
were old men and young boys in the militia.
Nevertheless, Mr. Bacque makes a point that is irrefutable: some
American G.I.’s and their officers were capable of acting in almost
as brutal a manner as the Nazis. We did not have a monopoly on
virtue. He has challenged us to reopen the question, to do the
research required, to get at the full truth. For that contribution,
he deserves thanks. But as to how he presented his discovery, I
turn again to Albert Cowdrey: “Surely the author has reason to be
satisfied with his achievement. He has no reputation as a historian
to lose, and “Other Losses” can only enhance his standing as a
writer of fiction.”
There remains, finally, the larger issue. It took a conference of
experts to challenge Mr. Bacque’s charges. Individual scholars have
hesitated to take him on because to do so required checking through
his research – in effect, rewriting his book. Instead, many of them
have said in their reviews in Britain, France, Germany and Canada
that they cannot believe what Mr. Bacque says about Eisenhower is
true, but they cannot disprove it. Mr. Bacque has all the
paraphernalia of scholarship; it looks impressive enough to
bamboozle even scholars.
Under these circumstances, what is a lay reader to do? I suggest
that he or she trust common sense. As when confronting the
Holocaust-never-happened school, ask the obvious questions. If the
answers aren’t clear, the charges have not been proved. In Mr.
Bacque’s case, two such questions are: Where are the bodies? and Is
this book consistent with our picture of Eisenhower’s character as
we know it from innumberable other sources? Ultimately, in cases
such as this one, it is often the obvious questions that bring us
closest to the truth.
Subject: Stephen Ambrose on Bacque’s “Other Losses”