From Vengeance to Virtue: The Problem of Postwar Germany

While Americans have been deeply divided over many issues since the country’s creation, no issue has proved more divisive or revealed more about the nation’s character than the way it treats its enemies. One impulse has been to punish perceived enemies as harshly as possible. The other impulse has been to exhibit benevolence through mercy. The conflicts over which path to pursue have caused hundreds of thousands to suffer, and other times uplifted millions from disaster. At no point were these clashes more impactful than during and immediately after the Second World War.


Most of Franklin Roosevelt’s chief advisors favored a so-called soft peace for Germany after World War II, yet the first two years of occupation were punitive and harsh. The wartime policy debate pitted the venerable elder statesman, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, against the masterful Washington manipulator, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Their back-and-forth struggle to shape the future peace resulted in a compromise that proved devastating for millions of innocent German civilians. The basic contours of this battle are well-known; its underlying drivers have been less well understood. And its significance remains resonant today, as the wartime debate reflected a deep American divide over how we treat our perceived enemies, from combatants on a battlefield to migrants at the border.


Zachary Shore is a historian of international conflict. He focuses on understanding the enemy. Shore is Professor of History at the Naval Postgraduate School and Senior Fellow at the Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley. He earned his doctorate in modern history at Oxford, performed postdoctoral research at Harvard, and held a fellowship at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He is the author of five books, including three on enemy assessments. He has also written on decision making, “Blunder”, and he recently published a practical guide to success in graduate school, “Grad School Essentials”.


This event is sponsored by the Institute of European StudiesThe Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington, and the Department of History

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