Next Thursday 12th July, I will be giving a paper at the Centre for Contemporary British History (CCBH) annual summer conference, on Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century.
Here is a copy of my paper. Next week I hope to write about any comments and questions from those attending the conference.
‘Winning the peace’: Germany under British occupation, as portrayed in Humphrey Jennings’ film ‘A Defeated People’ and the ‘British Zone Review’
At the end of the First World War crowds in the streets in London were calling for the government to ‘Hang the Kaiser’. In more recent times Anglo-German relations are often trivialised as being about football hooliganism, towels on the beach and Fawlty Towers. At the end of the Second World War things were very different, and more serious, as British soldiers and administrators in occupied Germany struggled to cope, as best they could, with the challenge of winning the peace after winning the war; of occupying a country they had just defeated in battle; and of governing a country where the physical infrastructure had been destroyed and the existing political, social and moral frameworks had collapsed.
The British knew only too well that, although the military conflict was over, their job had only just begun. On 4th May 1945, after receiving the unconditional surrender of German forces in North West Germany, Holland and Denmark on Lüneburg Heath, Field Marshall Montgomery issued a personal message to the troops under his command, in which he said: ‘We have won the German war. Let us now win the peace.’ This message was repeated many times in the months which followed.
As there was no German government in existence any more, the British now ruled an area half the size of their own country with direct responsibility for a population of over 20 million people. With the self-confidence engendered by victory, many people expected that the occupation would last 25 years or more. Contemporary sources frequently refer to the scale and importance of the task: “…an enterprise of great magnitude and difficulty for which there is indeed no precedent in human history” as J B Hynd, the minister responsible for Germany, said in his speech at the opening of the London exhibition ‘Germany under Control’, in June 1946.
In this paper I intend to show how the attitudes of many British soldiers and administrators in Germany changed in the first year of the occupation, in the transition from war to peace, with particular reference to Humphrey Jennings’ documentary film ‘A Defeated People’. I’ll also refer to two other sources, the exhibition ‘Germany under Control,’ and the British Zone Review, the official fortnightly review of the activities of the British Control Commission for Germany and Military Government.
These were all official sources, and were all sponsored by either the Ministry of Information, or the British Military Government and Control Commission for Germany, or both. They therefore show, not only a personal view of the film’s director, the exhibition organisers, or the Review’s contributors, but an official British view of Germany after the war, in the first few months of Occupation.
Firstly, I would like to set the scene by describing some contrasting British attitudes to Germany and the German people at the end of the war. Attitudes in Britain are well documented by Mass Observation surveys, Gallup opinion polls and general press comment, and show that opinion hardened during the course of the war, moving from general agreement with Chamberlain’s much quoted speech on 1st September 1939 that: “We have no quarrel with the German people except that they allow themselves to be governed by a Nazi Government,” to outright hostility and a belief in the collective guilt of an entire nation. This change started as early as the Norwegian campaign in 1940, when the BBC was instructed to abandon making any distinction between Nazis and Germans, grew stronger throughout the war as people reacted to the bombing of civilians and reports of atrocities; and culminated with the newsreel films of the concentration camps shown very widely in Britain in April and May 1945. To quote historian Nicholas Pronay, writing about how a defeated Germany was presented in British newsreels: “Any lingering doubts about the thesis of the collective guilt of a whole nation were … crushed at the end of April by the footage from the concentration camps.” From now on, according to Pronay, even when German people after the war were shown as suffering and in distress, this was always presented in the context of a collectively guilty people getting their just deserts.
Similar attitudes were shown in a US training film, ‘Your Job in Germany’, originally made in 1944 by the noted director, Frank Capra, and first released in April 1945. The film was designed to be shown to troops immediately following footage from the concentration camps. The message of the film to the US soldier entering German territory for the first time was to be suspicious: “You’ll see some mighty pretty scenery. Don’t let it fool you. You are in enemy country. Be alert, suspicious of everyone. Take no chances. You are up against more than tourist scenery. You are up against German history. It isn’t good.” Somewhere in this Germany there were still SS guards, Gestapo guards, thousands of storm troopers, two million Nazi officials, and most dangerous of all, German youth. To pictures of apparently friendly, smiling people, the commentator says: “You are not being sent into Germany as educators … Every German is a potential source of trouble. Therefore there must be no fraternisation with any of the German people. Fraternisation means making friends. The German people are not our friends. You will not associate with German men, women or children. They’re not sorry they caused the war, just sorry they lost it.”
In contrast with these public and official attitudes in Britain and also in the US, as British soldiers and administrators in Germany came face to face with individual German people, and saw the scale of the destruction in the cities, far worse than anything they had experienced at home, they grappled with two contrasting emotions – should they leave the Germans to ‘stew in their own juice’ even if that meant that possibly millions would die of starvation, or should they feel pity for the suffering of the former enemy, and do what they could to alleviate it.
This was no academic discussion. Before he left London, General Templer, director of Civil Affairs for the British 21st Army Group, was told by PJ Grigg, Secretary of State for War, that: “You must resign yourself to the fact that two million are going to die of hunger in Europe this spring. You and the Army must do all you can to mitigate it, but you won’t be able to cure it.”
Field Marshal Montgomery, the British commander-in-chief was equally aware of his responsibilities. He tells in his memoirs how, following the unconditional surrender on 4th May 1945: “I had suddenly become responsible for the government and well-being of about twenty million Germans. Tremendous problems would be required to be handled and if they were not solved before the winter began, many Germans would die of starvation, exposure and disease.”
In the event, in the British Zone, despite widespread hunger and appalling living conditions, relatively few people did die of starvation and disease as, almost overnight, the British army and Military Government, transferred their attentions from destruction to re-construction, with equal energy and determination. In the former German Eastern territories, of course, it was a different story. The number of people who died as a result of the expulsion of around 12 million ethnic Germans from the East is a highly contentious topic, but was certainly substantial. Estimates vary from around 500,000 to nearly 3 million.
In the words of Noel Annan, political adviser to the British Military government, “Templer’s energy transformed the British zone.” The British Official History of the war tells the same story, of how Templer, “more than any other man saved the zone from famine and anarchy through the desperate winter of 1945-6.” Equally remarkable, the author of the official history concludes his work with a personal impression. Although many of the regular officers he spoke to at first disliked a posting to Civil Affairs, many from Templer downwards: “made it very clear to the writer that by the time their connection with military government was to be severed, they had come to feel it was the most rewarding work they had ever undertaken.” One officer even said it was “the only really worth while thing he ever did in his life.”
‘A Defeated People’
I’d now like to return to the film, ‘A Defeated People’ and examine in more detail what it can tell us about the complex and varied, often confused and contradictory nature of British policy and attitudes to Germany in the first year of the occupation; bearing in mind that this was an official film, designed to show people at home what life was really like in Germany.
The film was made shortly after the end of the war, in the Autumn and Winter of 1945, by the Crown Film Unit, part of the Ministry of Information. The film’s director, Humphrey Jennings was probably the greatest of all the British wartime documentary film makers. Angus Calder, for example, in 'The Myth of the Blitz' refers to him as “Britain’s most remarkable maker of official films.” His wartime films include well known classics such as London can Take It, Listen to Britain and Fires were Started, the last of which has been described by the film historian Jeffrey Richards as “one of the key works in creating the mythic image of the London Blitz. Those heroic figures silhouetted against the blazing inferno sweeping the dockside warehouse etched themselves into history, embodying the epic of the ordinary men and women who calmly and courageously took up the defence of their city.”
His films were remarkably popular, at a time when film was still a mass medium, and the British documentary film movement was at its peak. In 1946, at the height of its popularity, a third of the population visited the cinema at least once a week. In addition to cinema showings, the Ministry of Information arranged so called non-theatrical film shows in factories, village halls and clubs, reaching an audience of twenty million people over a two and a half year period. In the heightened emotional atmosphere of wartime, these non-theatrical audiences sometimes wept, or broke out into spontaneous applause, when they saw Jennings’ films. Helen Forman, who was second in charge of the non-theatrical distribution section of the Films division of the Ministry of Information, wrote that: “One of the … films … which was liked and applauded was Humphrey Jennings’ magical Listen to Britain. All sorts of audiences felt it to be a distillation and also a magnification of their own experience of the home front.”
It is therefore intriguing to ask what did this Englishmen, who created the mythic image of the London Blitz, and whose audiences felt his films were a distillation and magnification of their own experiences, make of Germany after the war.
The picture his film ‘A Defeated People’ shows of Germany after the war is grim. It shows not only the physical destruction at the end of the war, but its effect on the people, who were shown as stunned, dazed, as if they didn’t know what had hit them. In the words of the commentary: “Place and time meant nothing, because the people; the links between the people, were smashed too. They were just left wandering, looking for food, looking for their homes, looking for each other.”
Nicholas Pronay, the historian of British newsreels, has argued that the left-wing idealist documentary film makers in general, and Humphrey Jennings’ film ‘A Defeated People,’ in particular, presented the same image of Germany after the war, that of a guilty people getting its just deserts, as the right wing commercial newsreels and this reflected a basic consensus in Britain about Germany.
The thesis of my paper today is that Pronay may have been right about the newsreels but was wrong about Humphrey Jennings and his film ‘A Defeated People.’ While the script of the film tells one story, the images show a different and more complex picture. On the one hand, the voice-over commentary, accompanied by pictures of destroyed cities, factories and bridges, has no hesitation in blaming the Germans for “the war they started.” But the images also show German people as individuals, not as a collectively guilty nation; men and women looking for lost relatives, children playing in the rubble on the bomb sites, people living underground in cellars because that’s all that remains of their houses, old women sawing up logs to take home for fuel because they have no coal.
Not only, I would argue, has Pronay misunderstood the film, but he has also underplayed several important and contrasting aspects of the British view of Germany and the German people after the war, which are clearly evident in the film: firstly, awe at the scale of destruction they saw all around them, secondly, the energy and determination with which the British Military Government tackled the process of reconstruction; thirdly, their perceived need to explain to people back home that that they were doing this out of self-interest, not altruism, to prevent disease and prevent a resurgence of fascism which could lead to another war; fourthly, the unquestioned belief of the British in their own superiority and moral self-righteousness; and fifthly, and this is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film, sympathy with the undoubted suffering of the former enemy, recognition that life goes on in the midst of destruction, and hope for the future.
What evidence is there to support this case? Of course we can watch the film, but as with all visual materials, we have to do this critically and question its value as historical evidence, because, especially when referring to images rather than the script, we are dealing with a work of art and different people will respond to it in different ways. When we watch the film now, our reactions may tell us more about our own personal experience and beliefs, and about popular memories in the society in which we grew up, than what were the original intentions of the director, or whether the film reflected official policy or popular attitudes at the time it was made.
Fortunately there is other evidence available. Firstly when the film was first shown in London in March 1946, it was extensively reviewed by the Press, which helps us understand how it was perceived when it was first released. Secondly, while filming in Germany in September and October 1945, Jennings wrote a number of letters to his wife and these provide an indication of his state of mind, his reactions to what he saw in Germany and the ideas he intended to convey in the film. And thirdly, we can compare how certain themes were treated in the film, with the presentation of similar themes and images in other historical sources, such as the exhibition ‘Germany under Control’ and the ‘British Zone Review’.
What the film reviews said in 1946
The film was first shown to the public at the Tivoli cinema in London on March 17th 1946, after a private press showing earlier in the week. It was reviewed in all the major papers, including The Times, Manchester Guardian, Glasgow Herald, Daily Mail, Daily Express, News Chronicle, Daily Telegraph, Daily Worker, Sunday Dispatch, Sunday Times, Sunday Express and Reynolds News.
The publicity material for the film stated that, as the “first official film record of life in Berlin and Hamburg under the British Control Commission,” it would answer the question everyone was asking: “What is it like inside Germany today?” It would show the scale of the destruction, but also how a curl of smoke emerging from the rubble showed someone, still living in the cellar of a destroyed building, was trying to make a home out of chaos. The role of the British Control Commission was stressed in bringing order out of ruin and despair. And in the final sentence, there was a glimmer of hope for the future as, “In the wintry sunlight the children are beginning to laugh and dance again, the horrors of war behind them.”
The reviews in all the papers, regardless of their political persuasion, were universally favourable and followed much the same line as the publicity material. It had been a week in which there was a shortage of good new feature films and the News Chronicle said: “it is left to documentaries again to bring weight and dignity to the week’s screen.” According to the Daily Worker: “the most important film of the week is A DEFEATED PEOPLE” and Reynolds News agreed that this was a “documentary film you must see.”
Some reviewers, such as the Daily Telegraph saw in the film a clear expression of sympathy: “A DEFEATED PEOPLE, made by Humphrey Jennings for the Crown Film Unit, gives a picture of life in the British Zone of Germany all the more impressive for its restraint. The tone is agreeably free from gloating, and it would need a much more vindictive race than ours to see without sympathy women cooking amid the ruins and crowds studying huge boards covered with the names of missing persons.” In summary, the reviewers recognised that the situation in Germany was grim, that conditions were bad and people were suffering. The British, as the occupying power, had an obligation to do something about this, but there was no single answer and no easy solutions. As Joan Lester said in her review in Reynolds News, the film dealt with “the vital and complex problems arising out of the economic, political and human tangle created by Nazism in defeat. Mr Jennings has, within certain essential limitations of time and opportunity, brought to his subject understanding, intelligence and humanity.”
Humphrey Jennings’ letters to his wife while filming in Germany
Humphrey Jennings’ own reactions to the situation in Germany are revealed in the letters he wrote to his wife in September and October 1945. These show that he was initially confused and uncertain what to make of it. In his first letter, written on September 1st, he says:
“Well I have been quite overwhelmed by Germany in the past few days and can’t really say anything sensible yet – it is quite unlike anything one has been told or thought – both more alive and more dead.”
A week later he was still none the wiser:
“I am still unable to give any sort of reliable picture of Germany – even of the bits (Cologne, Essen, Hannover, Hamm) which we have seen - for the moment the contradictions are too great …”
Jennings' mixed, complex and uncertain reactions, were perhaps best expressed in a letter he wrote on 10th September. I would like to quote from this at some length, because it illustrates both his eye for visual detail and his attempts to make sense of what he saw. Many of the sights he describes in this letter, appear as images in the film:
“At lunchtime today we were photographing a [German] family cooking their lunch on campfires in dixies on the blitzed main stair-case of the Palace of Justice at Cologne – one of the few buildings still standing in the centre of the city – outside apparently deserted – surrounded by miles of rubble and weed-covered craters – but inside voices cries of children and the smell of drifting wood-smoke – of burnt paper – the sound of people smashing up doors and windows to light fires in the corridors – the smoke itself drifting into side rooms still littered with legal documents – finally adding to the blue haze in front of the cathedral. The cathedral now with all the damage round immensely tall – a vast blue and unsafe spirit ready to crumble upon the tiny black figures in the street below … and then returning to Duesseldorf – much less knocked about – blitzed but not actually destroyed like Cologne and Essen and Aachen – still a beautiful city, returning here to tea we meet sailing through the park-like streets a mass of white Sunday-frocked German school children standing tightly together on an Army truck and singing at the tops of their voices as they are rushed through the streets … In Essen they still fetch their water from stand-pipes and firehose in the streets and the sewers rush roaring and stinking open to the eye and the nose – seep into blitzed houses into cellars where people still live.
“Once no doubt Germany was a beautiful country and still remembers it on summer evenings in the country. For the people themselves they are willing enough or servile enough or friendly enough according to your philosophy of History and the German problem. They certainly don’t behave guilty or beaten. They have their old fatalism to fall back on: ‘Kaput’ says the housewife finding the street water pipe not working … and then looks down the streets and says ‘Kaputt … alles ist kaput.’ Everything … how right – but absolutely no suggestion that it might be their fault – her fault. ‘Why’ asks another woman fetching water ‘why do not you help us?’ ‘You’ being us. At the same time nothing is clearer straight away than that we cannot – must not leave them to stew in their own juice … well anyway it’s a hell of a tangle.”
This is not the uncompromising view, claimed by Pronay, as the consensus in Britain, of a guilty people getting its just deserts. There is no doubt in Jennings’ mind that the Germans were to blame for the war, but he also clearly is looking beyond this to the plight of people as individuals, to the obligations of the British as occupiers, and even to a Germany that once was a beautiful country, and might become so again.
The British Zone Review.
It is interesting to compare how these themes, revealed in the film, were handled in the British Zone Review, the official fortnightly review of the activities of the British Control Commission. Not surprisingly, the same themes which emerge in the film appeared in numerous articles in the early issues of the publication:
As one example, I’d like to quote from an article in the first issue, dated 29th September 1945, which described what the British had already achieved in the small town of Buxtehude, near Hamburg. Using the familiar image of life in Germany as a broken clock, the article tells the story of “what Military Government has done and is doing to restore to the British Zone the essential things of life which were swept away in the collapse of Nazi Germany….”
The article continues:
“When the British 213 Military Detachment took over the Nazi-run town on May 10, Buxtehude was like a clock with its spring unwound. There was no gas, and there was no electricity. The water was impure. The town’s small industries were at a standstill. The flour mills were idle. Road transport had stopped, and no trains ran. Today the Nazi bosses are gone, and the town has a Burgomeister, a social democrat, who was three times imprisoned by them. The public services have been restored. Trains are running, and there is a daily bus for those who have passes to say that their journeys are really necessary… How have these things happened?
‘It has just been part of the drill for dealing with such problems’, a British Army officer … told me. ‘The German people have been obedient and cooperative. We have told them what they must do and they have got on with the job.’”
A long running series on “The Price of War” catalogued the devastation in most of the major cities in the British Zone, followed by the work being done to put things right again. In article after article similar themes appear – awed descriptions of the scale and extent of the damage, usually caused by RAF bombing, followed by descriptions of the work being done by the British to repair it.
Other articles in the Review explained why reconstruction was in their own self interest. Chief of these was the fear of disease and unrest. “Epidemics need no passports” as Montgomery had said in his introductory message in the first issue; the economic and social collapse of Germany would be “as disastrous for Western Europe as a whole as it would be for Germany”.
The British in Germany clearly felt their work of reconstruction was not fully appreciated. The lead article in issue number 6, titled ‘For Those at Home’ spoke in almost biblical terms of the need to ensure that all those at home understood the enormity of the task: “The truth is that mere words and pictures cannot convey to those at home the enormity of the disaster that Germany has reaped. It must be seen and felt. …. Many of us returning from leave have remarked with some bitterness ‘They don’t seem to realise the problems we are up against.’
We must preach the gospel of information by every means …” the article continued “What sort of picture do they have in England of Germany, British Zone? London, at the height of the blitz, was well-nigh a land of plenty compared with life today in Dortmund, Munster, Hannover, Hamburg or Cologne … The mind reels when it attempts to assess the proportions of the problem…”
But if the need for reconstruction was obvious, if unappreciated by those at home, the same article went on to say that: “These pitifully inadequate pen-pictures which have many omissions, are not drawn in any attempt to win sympathy for the German … Sympathy for the Germans does not exist for us; our job is to see facts and evaluate them. Having helped to win the war we must strive to win the peace.”
Was it acceptable to feel sorry for the enemy or not? An extensive debate on the issue, under the headline, ‘Feeling sorry for the Germans’, was conducted in the letters pages of the Review, over five issues, from 13th October to 8th December 1945, with correspondents expressing a wide range of views. I’d like to conclude my talk by quoting from the letter which started the debate from ‘Lucia Lawson, Subaltern, A.T.S.’
“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 …
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.”
To sum up, British policy and planning for Germany after the war is often described in terms of four D-words, denazification, decentralisation, demilitarisation and democratisation. To these are sometimes added another four D-words: destruction, disarmament, dismantling and dismemberment. But if this typifies the largely negative official policy of the British, the US, the Soviet Union and later France towards Germany, at the diplomatic level, as discussed and agreed at the numerous three and four power summits held during the war and afterwards at Potsdam, it is incomplete, even misleading, as a description of the policy, attitudes and activities of the British Military Government and personnel directly responsible for the occupation. These were often very different, and were determined, not by the official Four Power policy as agreed at Potsdam, but by their direct experience on the ground.
This paper has aimed to show that the film ‘A Defeated People’ and the ‘British Zone Review’ reveal other aspects of British policy and actions in Germany during the transition from war to peace, which are neglected or underplayed by those historians focussing on the high politics of the period. Firstly the uncertain and complex reaction of the British to the destruction they saw all around them; secondly the surprising energy and determination with which the British in Germany tackled the process of reconstruction; and thirdly despite the many voices both in Britain and Germany, expressing the view that the former enemy were a collectively guilty people receiving their just deserts, there was another strand of opinion, which showed sympathy with the undoubted suffering of people as individuals, recognition that life goes on in the midst of destruction, and hope for the future. In summary, reconstruction not destruction and reconciliation not revenge.