10th December 2006
It's always interesting to compare how the same people, places and themes are portrayed in different historical sources. The subject of my research is how Germany after the war was portrayed in Britain, with special reference to two events: Humphrey Jennings' film - "A Defeated People" - and the London exhibition "Germany under Control."
I chose the film and the exhibition, because they were both sponsored by the British Ministry of Information, and made with the full support of the British Military Government and Control Commission for Germany, and can therefore be taken as representing an official view, rather than being individual personal accounts.
To cross reference and validate my understanding of what was portrayed in the film and the exhibition, I have found it useful to refer to another official source, the British Zone Review, a fortnightly review of the activities of the British Control Commission for Germany. I've also been looking at the official publications given to British forces, telling them what they should and should not do, once they crossed the frontier into Germany, such as Germany 1944: the British Soldier's Pocketbook.
One theme which appears, in different ways, in the Film, the Review and the Pocketbook, is whether it was acceptable for the British to feel sympathy for the suffering of the German people after the war. The British public were clearly divided over the issue. See for example my post last week, when I wrote about the debate in the letters pages of British Zone Review, on 'Feeling sorry for the Germans' which was started by a letter from Subaltern Lucia Lawson.
I was therefore interested to come across a reference both to Lucia Lawson and to her letter, in another account of Germany after the war. Berlin Twilight, originally published in 1947, was written by Lieutenant-Colonel Byford-Jones, a British officer on Field-Marshal Montgomery's staff in Berlin. Describing one of his visits to the bars and cafes of Berlin, to meet and talk to local people, he says: "With me went Mr Vincent Evans (Daily Express war correspondent) and Subaltern the Hon. Lucia Lawson, with whom I flew to Germany from London and who had already expressed sympathy with the German women and children, which had brought her both criticism and support in the British Zone Review."
Written in an entertaining, not to say racy style, the book is a vivid description of life in Berlin at the time. Though a personal, rather than an official account, it's a useful additional source for evidence of how the occupation of Germany was portrayed, by the British, to an audience of people at home.
Here are a few extracts from the first part of the book, called "Meeting the People;" a description of conditions in Berlin shortly after the end of the war:
On his first impressions of Berlin:
"It will be a long time before I forget my first sight that day of the city of Berlin.... So many poignant memories flashed though my mind as I began to see what war, bombs and artillery could do to a vast city, as clean, as well organized, as comfortable, and as stately as any of its age and size.... Berlin virtually was destroyed. Naturally the bombs and the artillery and mortars had missed buildings here and there, as they had missed the Hotel am Zoo, in Berlin's Piccadilly, where I was quartered, but Berlin as I knew it had disappeared.... Never for a second could one forget the destruction and tragedy of Berlin."
On the outlook from his office, looking out onto the rubble:
"From beneath it all, rising on the heat of the day to my bedroom, came a hideous small of dampness, of charred remains, of thousands of putrefying bodies."
On the notices pinned to trees with messages from people looking for lost friends or relatives, or seeking work or money, (as also shown in the film A Defeated People):
"On the trees that flanked the pavements were many thousands of little cards and envelopes bearing desperate messages in pencil, ink, or typescript, some embellished with a crude drawing, asking people to change luxury articles for something that could be eaten or worn, or appealing for work of any kind, or offering marriage, companionship and more doubtful liaison. Everywhere there were these pathetic appeals, literally tens upon tens of thousands of them, and around each tree from early morning until late at night crowds gathered, making notes."
On the US soldier:
The US soldier has plenty of money and has "a Leica camera round his neck, perhaps two.... The most surprising thing was the German girl. She was so like the girl back home, the girl he had met in England, so unlike those in France, who were exotic, or those in Holland, who were dull. After all something like twenty-five per cent of the people in the States were German.... 'Somehow or other we'd been led to believe that a German girl was fat and ugly, with fanged teeth, who beat her fist on Mein Kampf and shouted Heil Hitler, I am a Nazi.' (Psychological warfare and scientific orientation had told him everything about the Germans, except that they were human beings.)"
On the black market and the purchasing power of cigarettes:
"It was not long before the Allied soldier realized the vast purchasing and persuasive power he had in his possession of cigarettes.... He saw that he could make money on which to have a good time, that he could not only keep his pay intact but could also acquire fountain pens, cinematograph apparatus, jewels, watches, antiques, diamonds and binoculars."
On the banquets which followed the Allied Control Council meetings:
"...each meeting of the Council was followed by a banquet such as few emperors can ever have improved upon when entertaining visiting Royalty.... This small body of men, most of whom had seen or known the worst of human suffering and deprivation on the world's worst battlefields in the bloody years, then sat down for an hour in a ruined city of over three million souls, all of whom were learning in hunger and poverty the high cost of aggression, and ate the choicest of food and drank the finest of wines the needy could produce."
On the German refugees expelled from former German territory now ceded to Poland:
"In the course of two or three months, I made periodic visits to various railway stations.... Everywhere I found men and women who had lost, together with their homes, families and property, all human dignity and had become animals, sleeping like animals on the floor, and going periodically into any corner at hand.... They looked like tramps, who had been on the road for life. When I saw their passport pictures, taken a few months before I was staggered. The change these people had undergone was incredible. They had all lost weight, aged ten years, had lined faces. They were sick and mentally unbalanced....
I went round some of the refugee camps - former barracks, schools, quarantine stations, Red Cross centres - which were like a crown of thorns round the festering head of Berlin - and I saw such human degradation, depravity and tragedy that I was physically sick after a few hours of it....
The deportations had obviously not been the subject of any
organization. The Poles had ordered entire populations to leave at half
an hour's notice. The Poles had not previously been in touch with the
German authorities to warn them, or with the Allied Powers in the
various zones. Thus, day after day entire families had set off with
handcarts, wheelbarrows, going west. New-born infants and people who
had died of malignant diseases were found lying amid the belongings on
the trucks. The refugees tried each night to reach inhabited centres,
and next morning were moved on again; only those who were dying remained....
In the month of July, when the first count was made, 500,000 had reached and roamed through Berlin terribly disillusioned, regarding silently the burned-out ruins.... Few families arrived in Berlin without casualties. Either people had fallen off trains, got lost on the way, or had become sick and been retained by municipalities in hospitals which refused to keep the rest of their families...."
These comments by a British observer on the German refugee crisis after the war were by no means unique. In a recent article in Twentieth Century British History, Matthew Frank has written about the origins and development of a campaign in Britain to raise awareness of conditions in central Europe in late 1945, and to rally support behind measure to find a solution to the German refugee crisis. In view of my interest in how the British Occupation of Germany was portrayed to people back home, I found it interesting that he says in the article:
"The British response to the expulsions and the ensuing German refugee crisis... has been almost totally overlooked [by historians]. As a result one still gets the impression, even from more recent studies, that this vast movement of population passed with scarcely a word of comment or criticism in Britain, when quite the opposite was the case."
In fact, vivid accounts of the crisis were published in the British press, and an appeal launched by the publisher Victor Gollancz, to highlight the need to relief and reconstruction in Europe, which led to the formation of the campaigning group "Save Europe Now." I first wrote about Victor Gollancz and Save Europe Now (in a different context) on this blog over a year ago in my posts on 27 October 2005 on Gollancz's book "In Darkest Germany" and on 5 November 2005 on "Victor Gollancz, Peggy Duff and Save Europe Now."