25th February 2007
Many of my previous postings have quoted extracts from contemporary British observers who were highly critical of many aspects of the British occupation of Germany after the Second Word War. (See Ethel Mannin, Germany Journey; Fenner Brockway, German Diary; Byford-Jones, Berlin Twilight; and Victor Gollancz, In Darkest Germany.)
As always, there is another side to the picture, and this week I will quote a few extracts from a book written in 1960 by Raymond Ebsworth, who was a member of the British Military Government administration local government division. (Raymond Ebsworth, Restoring Democracy in Germany: The British Contribution. London: Stevens & Sons Limited, 1960).
The forward to the book is written by Robert Birley, who was Educational Adviser to the Military Governor and head of the Control Commission Education Branch.
Three interesting themes emerge from the forward. Firstly many of those directly involved at the time believed that the British military government of Germany after the war was a qualified success and something they had reason to be proud of. Secondly, if the British aims were to change German government, society and politics, to become less authoritarian, this could not done by force. Totalitarian means could not be used to make a totalitarian society more democratic. Change had to come from within, and the role of the British was to advise, influence and persuade, not to compel. And thirdly, for many British administrators, their time in Germany after the war was one of the most rewarding, stimulating and exciting periods of their lives.
Here are some extracts from Birley's forward to the book:
"If the work of such an organisation as the Administration and Local Government section of the Commission, whose story the author tells, was successful - and to my mind its success was remarkable - this was very largely due to some instinctive realisation on the part of its members that to use control to replace a totalitarian system would be a contradiction in terms.... A description of an experiment of this kind could only be written by someone who actually took part in it.... And what a stimulating and exciting time it was for those of us engaged in this work in Germany in those years just after the war.... This is a book which needed to be written lest a piece of work of which our country can afford to be proud should be forgotten."
Ebsworth himself makes many interesting observations on his time in Germany and the work done by the British. Here are a few extracts:
In the preface he describes four phases of the British occupation:
- a short period in 1945 when "many Germans welcomed the Allied armies as liberators rather than victors"
- "...disillusionment, when it became clear that Germany's wartime enemies could not forgive and forget as quickly as she had hoped"
- "complete economic breakdown, food shortages and a general deterioration in health"
- the "fantastic economic recovery"
He describes the British Control Commission in the following terms: "that hastily recruited and unwieldy organisation which in its early period came in for severe criticism in our own national Press. The criticism was partially justified in that a few members, after several years of wartime privations, found the temptation of tax-free alcohol too much for them, and succumbed."
But whilst a few members of the Control Commission were succumbing to tax-free alcohol, this was by no means representative of the majority. Ebsworth describes the work of the Administration and Local Government section, the subject of his book, as follows: "...this was an inspiring task, which meant that it attracted the conscientious amateur rather than the expert. Many joined it because they were deeply interested in the German problem, and were prepared, in spite of the very uncertain tenure of their posts, to devote some years of their life to working on its solution."
Ebsworth describes his first impressions on driving into Germany in May 1945, at the border near Aachen, seeing a sign saying: "You are entering Enemy Territory - Be on your Guard" and being struck by the emptiness and absence of people: "There was just a deadly silence in the streets, and of course the indescribable ruins."
Ebsworth's perception of German history (unlike others in Britain) was that "after all, democracy was not new to Germany" and he speaks of the Weimar constitution as founded on the principles of liberal democracy. The role of the British was to "help the Germans try again."
In their reforms of the German electoral system, the British went to great lengths to try to establish the principle that elected members represented a constituency and the name of the party they belonged to should not be included on the ballot paper. (This reflected British practice at the time although this changed in, I think, the 1970s, when the name of the candidate's party was included on British ballot papers).
The British view was that proportional representation (where members were elected in strict proportion to the number of votes cast by the electorate for each party) had contributed to the weakness of elected parliaments and councils in the Weimar period, as those elected owed their success to their position in the party, not to having been elected by voters as individuals. In Ebsworth's words: "Even it they could not introduce the British electoral system complete, which was the intention of the more ardent democratisers, they could at least insist on a scheme which would bring the elected councillor or parliamentarian into close contact with his constituents."
The British looked for, and found, German opponents to Nazism with whom they could work and place in positions of responsibility. According to Ebsworth, whereas some may have been former Nazi fellow travellers, now disillusioned by defeat, "there were also others whose dedication to democracy was deeper and far more genuine. These were the men who had suffered at some time for their political views at the hands of the Nazis; many had only recently been freed from concentration camps....They included Communists, and in those early post-war days, we were ready to accept them."
Communists were not given positions of responsibility in the British zone of Germany for long. Ebsworth continues: "This was before the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and the political situation in the other countries under Soviet occupation was not yet clear. The Communists were prepared to cooperate, and we accepted them, but the cooperation was short-lived; it soon became clear that the party was coming under direct Russian influence and they would not be allowed to work with the British."
As with other contemporary accounts, it is possible to see the origins of the Cold War reflected in the attitudes of the British administrators in Germany to members of the communist party and to the Soviet Union.
Ebsworth came to see the communists in Germany as no different from the Nazis. He describes attending a communist rally as follows: "There were all the old paraphernalia of the Nazi mass meetings - loudspeakers every few yards, vast banners, and, of course, at the stadium itself an orchestra playing Beethoven. The only difference was the flags; they were plain red, instead of the black-white-red and swastika."
He describes British policy towards the Russians as follows: "As soon as it became clear that the Russians intended to apply the same ruthless coercion in their zone of Germany as they had done in the other satellite states of Eastern Europe, the Western Powers realised that any further cooperation with them over political reconstruction was useless."
The book is also interesting for what it reveals of tensions and differences in outlook within the British administration. According to Ebsworth, the British envisaged, at least initially, a long occupation "during which powers would be handed over to German elected bodies by carefully planned stages." By 1950 this had changed to a policy to leave Germany as quickly as possible.
"Yet even in those early days there were Englishmen in high places who regarded such a policy [a long occupation] as too idealistic. The professional diplomats in particular took a more cynical view: it was useless, they said, to try to change the character of a nation, and the Allies should leave her to work out her own solution, even if she decided to try authoritarianism again. She might be an awkward friend, they said, but she was a vigorous and potentially powerful nation. What really mattered was that she should be on our side next time."
There were clearly differences of opinion between British administrators in the local government branch and Foreign Office diplomats. Ebsworth complains that, in the later years of the occupation, although the staff in Germany occasionally received polite congratulations, more often they were criticised for "interference in matters in which the Germans now had full sovereignty" by "the senior foreign servants who were now beginning to take over the key posts in the British administration."
"Each year the summer school [at which British and Germans jointly discussed local government issues] was opened by a senior Foreign Office official with an apologetic speech. His theme would be: 'please forgive us for giving you a few tips about local government; we have no business to do it, really. Anyhow this is the last year we will be doing it.'"
According to Ebsworth, in 1949, there was a complete change in policy in favour of complete withdrawal: "The British volte-face was a deep disappointment to many of us. What perhaps irritated us most was the attitude brought by men new to post-war Germany. Most of them were professional diplomats posted from the other side of the world whose experience and training had taught them that any kind of intervention in the affairs of other nations was bad."
"The 'new men' when they arrived, seemed to have only one real end in view; to wind up the whole apparatus of the Control Commission ... and restore as quickly as possible, a normal British Embassy."
This change was felt acutely in relation to the issue of German rearmament (which was in stark contrast to the earlier British and Allied economic policy of dismantling German industries and armaments factories). Ebsworth describes the embarrassment felt by himself and his colleagues as they had to adopt a "new approach ... brought by new young men from London" and go out and persuade reluctant Germans to re-arm."
"But in 1950, the year when we were really made aware that the Foreign Office proper was taking over from the Control Service, we had to change our attitude overnight. We had to go to our old [German] colleagues and say: 'Are you not ashamed to leave the defence of your country to foreigners? It is time you shared the burden with us.' Over armaments manufacture we had to eat our words too. Although we had dismantled nearly all the plants capable of producing war materials, we now had to say: 'Of course, we expect you to join in the unpopular and unproductive task of manufacturing arms. So far you have dodged it, and concentrated instead on producing more profitable wares such as consumer goods; hence your striking economic recovery.'"
In summary, we are left with the impression of idealistic British administrators, attempting to reform German politics and society after the war, to make it more democratic; achieving success by working in close cooperation with German colleagues, many of whom had been opponents of Nazism during the war, only to find towards the end of the occupation that they now believed that their work was being undermined by those on their own side forcing them to leave too soon, before the job was complete.
But then, looking back in 1960 when the book was written, these same idealistic British administrators now seemed to believe that, despite not having achieved all they had wished, in Robert Birley's words, their "success was remarkable", and "a piece of work of which our country can afford to be proud" especially when they compared a democratic West Germany with the totalitarian communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the other side of the iron curtain.