4th December 2006
In my last post on 'The British Soldier's Pocketbook' issued to all British troops as they first entered German territory in 1944 and 1945, I wrote how soldiers were warned against 'feeling sorry for the Germans.' This reminded me of a debate on exactly the same subject, in the letters pages of the 'British Zone Review' which ran through five issues, from 13th October to 8th December 1945.
I've included some of the relevant pieces from both sources below. This makes this post quite long, but I think it's an interesting subject. Why were the British authorities so concerned that the ordinary British soldier would feel sorry for the ordinary German civilian? And the debate in the British Zone Review shows quite clearly the differences between the two schools of thought in Britain: on the one hand "The Germans deserve all they get," and on the other: "Humanity and justice cannot be based upon hatred and revenge."
To start with the Foreward to the 'Soldier's Pocketbook':
"The civilian population of Germany has seen the war brought into its homes in a terrible form. You will see much suffering in Germany and much to awake your pity. You may also find that many Germans, on the surface at least, seem pleasant enough and that they will even try to welcome you as friends."
However the British soldier is warned that "The Germans have much to unlearn" and "much to atone for" and needs to be on his guard. After discussing atrocities committed by the German Government and the German Army, the book goes on to say that "The German people as a whole cannot escape a large share of responsibility" and "...it is only by the sacrifice of thousands upon thousands of your fellow countrymen and Allies, and at a cost of untold suffering at home and abroad through five long years, that British troops are at last on German soil. Think first of all this when you are tempted to sympathise with those who to-day are reaping the fruits of their policy, both in peace and war."
The same theme is repeated on the next page, in a section headed: "To begin with - "
"But most of the people you will see when you get to Germany will not be airmen or soldiers or U-boat crews, but ordinary civilians - men, women and children. Many of them will have suffered from overwork, underfeeding and the effects of air raids, and you may be tempted to feel sorry for them."
Again the British soldier is reminded of: "... how the German armies behaved in the countries they occupied" and told in capital letters: "THERE WILL BE NO BRUTALITY ABOUT A BRITISH OCCUPATION, BUT NEITHER WILL THERE BE SOFTNESS OR SENTIMENTALITY."
The book continues: "You may see many pitiful sights. Hard luck stories may somehow reach you. Some of them may be true, at least in part, but most will be hypocritical attempts to win sympathy.... SO BE ON YOUR GUARD AGAINST 'PROPAGANDA' IN THE FORM OF HARD LUCK STORIES. Be fair and just, but don't be soft."
The same points are repeated later in the book, in a summary of Do's and Don'ts.
"DON'T be sentimental. If things are tough for the Germans they have only themselves to blame."
"DON'T fall for political hard-luck stories."
The debate in the British Zone Review on 'Feeling sorry for the Germans' was started by a letter from 'Lucia Lawson, Subaltern, A.T.S.' in issue 2, on 13th October 1945:
"In writing this I am probably bringing a storm of criticism down on my head, but I do not think that I am alone in my views. And I would be interested to know.
Some time ago I went to Berlin, prepared to experience the greatest satisfaction of my life, by seeing the town in ruins and the people with no place to live. I came away feeing sorry for some of the Germans.
It is hard to believe when we have just come through six years of a war which was not of our asking that anyone can feel sorry for the people who caused it, but I challenge any average English man or woman to spend one week in Berlin and not feel some small measure of pity for some Berliners.
You will say that those sweet little children with curly fair hair and blue eyes are all potential killers, but with their spindly legs and lips just turning blue from lack of food it is hardly in human nature to hate them. The old man and woman who I saw digging for tree roots in the ruins of the Tiergarten for food, surely deserve a little pity, or do they? The young girl dressed in a thin summer frock who I found sleeping under the shelter of a pile of rubble in the Kaiser Wilhelm church, is she to be hated too? Hundreds are now dying from starvation and disease. In a couple of months the number may easily be doubled.
Well, it is open to discussion, but think before you write, or get someone who has been to Berlin to tell you what conditions are like. Maybe I am too sensitive and soft hearted, but I still say I am sorry for some of them."
Three responses to this letter were published in the next issue of the Review, on 27th October. The first, from Duncan Wilson, ISC (Information Services Control) Branch starts:
"I for one am sorry that Sub Lawson is sorry that she feels sorry for the people of Berlin. Why should one feel shy about a decent human sentiment, whatever its direction?"
He continues by saying that the Germans are not unique in their suffering, but that this does not mean "we should be indifferent to indiscriminate suffering here or anywhere else." He distinguishes 2 kinds of collective guilt. That of the active perpetrators, and that of "those who sat by passively or who carried out orders unthinkingly.... It does not seem to me that the guilt of these latter people differs in kind (in degree it does) from the guilt of others outside Germany who found it more comfortable to forget the seamy side of Nazism and thought it possible even in 1938 to do business with Hitler."
"Let us not be self-righteous; let us remember history's indiscriminate judgement on ourselves; (the near catastrophe of 1940) and let us not pretend indifference to the sight of history being executed indiscriminately on the German people."
The second letter was from Margaret Beak, Sjt, ATS on the plight of children in Paris in December 1944, and in contrast, how well fed Germans in Frankfurt appeared:
"I personally cannot feel much pity for these people who are only suffering the same conditions that they have imposed on so many thousands of others in the past six years."
And the third from Sjt R.J. Dolamore:
"Surely no-one can feel sorry for any members of a race that has inflicted all the horrors of a second world war within a generation.... We all want to avoid another war in the future and the only way is to teach the Germans that war does not pay. We shall never do this by feeling sorry for them. Let them suffer all the hardships possible for the next 10 years and probably by that time the lesson will have entered their thick heads."
In the next issue, on 10th November, there were two further letters on the "Feeling Sorry" debate. The first from F/Lt E.A. Salmon, HQ Air Division:
"Subaltern Lawson's recent letter and the replies it evoked must be of great interest to the many who are trying to adopt a correct attitude to the Germans. Sub Lawson found that although she can probably hate the Germans as a nation, it is more difficult to hate individuals whom she sees suffering in Berlin. I feel with Mr D Wilson that there is no shame in being sorry.... but it seems to me extremely important that our feelings should be given a true perspective.... If we appear sorry for their plight, they will only too readily assume the role of martyrdom. If we are harsh and indifferent they will accept us as conquerors and wait for revenge, instead of learning the meaning of civilised conduct, which must be our ultimate aim to teach. Surely, then, we must continually strive neither to condone nor to condemn, but rather to point out with as complete detachment as possible that although it is their nation which has caused the terrible devastation and want now existing throughout Europe, maturer countries than Germany have grown out of tribal warfare and will try to help Germany to grow out of it as well. This will not feed hungry children. But everything possible is being done by the various organisations in the field to tide over the winter, and there is little more that individuals can do at present. Since, however, circumstances have made it inevitable that a lesson is to be taught, we can do our best to ensure that (unlike in the years after the 1914-1918 war) the moral is not lost."
And the second from F. Royen, Interpreters' Pool, Berlin:
"As one who has lived in Germany for some months and who has a fair knowledge of German mentality I feel that Sub Lawson's letter ('Feeling Sorry for the Germans') expresses not softheartedness but sympathy, which I am sure every decent human being must feel when confronted with cases of distress and misery.
We should however not be arrived away by feelings of sympathy, lest we 'forgive and forget' and by doing so help to create conditions leading to far greater distress and misery all over the world....
By methods of deceit and apparent servility, too much food is subtracted already now from rations which would far better be used to feed those who have suffered years of starvation in invaded countries, while the Germans were still doing well on food stolen from those countries.
It is necessary that they should suffer, and unfortunately innocent ones among them, to drive it home to them that aggression does not pay in the long run. Do not let us be deceived by some cases of sufferings, which, painful as they may be, constitute only a fraction of the misery the Germans have brought about all over the world. A repetition must be prevented by hard means if civilisation, or indeed the human race, is to survive."
In Issue 5, on 24th November, Sjt J.P. Noonan joined the debate:
"Sir, Sgt Dolamore would condemn all Germans - men, women and innocent children - to the same fate as that of the unfortunate peoples of Europe when the Nazis were in power. May I suggest that if such methods of 'justice' are applied, within ten years there will be no Germans left in Germany - starvation and disease will have done an effective job.
We have called ourselves the Army of Liberation, the Crusaders of Truth, Justice and Liberty. If we are democrats and liberators of the oppressed, entrusted with the mission of enlightening and reaching the principles of truth, justice and liberty, then, in the name of logic and commonsense, why not practice what we preach? Humanity and justice cannot be based upon hatred and revenge. Our mission is to show the Germans they failed because they ignored the principles of humanity. We must punish the criminals responsible and teach the others by example that we have something better to offer: we must show them that, when they have paid their debt to society, they may once again become a democratic nation and a self respecting people. Let us punish the war criminals and the war mongers who have brought horror, misery and chaos to the world, but not innocent women and children."
The final contribution was in Issue number 6, on 8th December, in a letter from 'D. G. Hannover':
"The correspondence concerning sympathy for German children appears to be wandering from the subject.
I would suggest that one must have two standards of conduct. The first, official, in which one carries out the policy of the Control Commission. The second standard must be a personal one."
I would suggest three rules for this. First that merely because the Germans have been wicked, we are not justified in a similar retributive offence. It is nearly two thousand years since a better formula than an eye for an eye was suggested. Our standards must be our own, and be kinder than those of the National Socialists, or I do not know for what positive aim we fought.
The second rule is that one should be kind where one is. These wise men who say never be kind to Germans, reserve your sympathy for the French, Yugoslavs or Greeks, speak a half-truth. Of course one is sympathetic towards such innocent victims of German aggression. If I were in Yugoslavia, the children there should have all my chocolate and the German children none. But I'm not in Yugoslavia.... Sooner than see kindness in the wrong place, some people would see no kindness at all.
The last rule which occurs to one is that one should remember that Western Europe is a cultural entity.... Germany is, however unpalatable a fact it may be - and I recognise that it is very unpalatable - a major contributor to the civilisation of Western Europe, and one whose destruction will impoverish us all."