24th November 2007
Last week I wrote briefly about Sir Brian Robertson, probably the most influential British soldier and administrator in Germany after World War 2. He was Deputy Military Governor from 1945 to 1947 and Commander-in-Chief and Military Governor from 1947-49.
I've now read the article he wrote for the journal International Affairs in 1965, in which he tries to answer the question whether the British and American occupation of Germany "all worked out successfully"?
As I said in my first post on this blog two years ago, in my view, the role of the historian is not to judge the past. Who are we to say, with the benefit of hindsight, what people should or should not have done, especially when they lived and worked in places and times which were far more difficult and dangerous than our own, and which we can understand only imperfectly?
In this view I follow the great 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke, whose words 'how it really was' (wie es eigentlich gewesen), I used for the name of this blog. The full quotation is worth repeating:
"Man hat der Historie das Amt, die Vergangenheit zu richten, die Mitwelt zum Nutzen zukünftiger Jahre zu belehren, beigemessen: so hoher Ämter unterwindet sich gegenwärtiger Versuch nicht: er will blos zeigen, wie es eigentlich gewesen."
This translates into English as:
The role, commonly attributed to History, is to judge the Past, to instruct the Present, for the benefit of the Future: such a high (noble) role is not claimed for this essay: it aims simply to show how it really was.
Rather than attempting to judge the past, what I try to do is discover and reveal, as best I can, how people in the past portrayed their work, their actions and their ideas, in their own terms and according to their own standards.
To return to Sir Brian Robertson and his article on whether the British and US Occupation of Germany was a success or not. The article was written in 1965 at the height of the Cold War. I've quoted a few extracts below. To my mind, they are interesting because they show, firstly, Robertson saying how the situation in Germany at the end of the war was completely different from what people in Britain and the US had expected and planned for, and secondly, looking back in 1965, his view of the 'miracle' that had happened in Western Germany in the previous 20 years.
"I was Field Marshal Montgomery's deputy for Military Government in Germany in 1945. Later I succeeded to the top position. I remained in Germany for five years, becoming High Commissioner in 1949, instead of Military Governor, when the Federal German Government was set up...."
"All things being considered ... [the occupation] has been surprisingly successful ... When I say 'all things being considered', I chiefly have in mind that the plans which were made for dealing with Germany after victory had been won were based on a series of complete misrepresentations as to what the real problem would be..."
"As for the men who came from the United States and from this country to confer in Teheran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam, [President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill and their advisors, at the Allied summits held during and immediately after the war], they had an entirely false picture in their minds as to what the situation would be in Germany, and they were aiming at a completely wrong objective. I do not say this in criticism. I do not for a moment claim that you of I might have been wiser if we had been in their shoes. I merely state what I believe to be the fact...."
"But the first discovery which I made, and made very quickly, [when he arrived in Germany in July 1945, two months after the end of the war], was that the men on the spot had their minds on other things. Very soon I could see that the assumptions on which our policy had been based were false, and that the objectives chosen were quite irrelevant. The real menace for the future of Europe and to world peace was not Germany, but Russia. The immediate objective was not to batter Germany down - she was sprawling in the dust already - but too build her up and to do so wisely. We had to save Germany physically from starvation, squalor and penury, spiritually from despair and Communism."
"Montgomery's agile mind had of course seen this clearly. His chief staff officer was Gerald Templer, a man whom I had always liked and respected. He was quite clear about the real state of affairs and I was glad to persuade him to join me as my Deputy...."
"Very soon we were driven by events to take action to restore the German economy in a manner that had certainly not been contemplated at Potsdam. The Germans in the British and American Zones were starving. Food had to be imported in large quantities and very obviously the German economy had to be geared to pay the bills... The war had wrecked the German economy ... It was in this appalling situation that a partnership was born between the occupiers and the occupied, a partnership with a common objective - to rebuild the German economy as fast as possible...."
"Western Germany today is a prosperous and contented country with a stable and democratic governmental system. She is a loyal member of NATO, a sincere partner in the European Economic Community ... There are no signs of a recrudescence of militarism of Nazi-ism...."
"If the authors of the series of agreements which culminated at Potsdam could have foreseen these days, they would no doubt have found the picture in many respects very satisfactory. In fact they deserve precious little credit for the good results, and they were greatly to blame for what was not so good. Wise statesmanship wilts in the over-heated atmosphere of victory...."
"Where then does the credit belong? Some of it should, in fairness, be ascribed to the innate decency and Christian charity of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. At the sight of starving Germany their consciences rebelled and that was the start of it. Much credit must [also] go to the German people ...
"National characteristics made possible miraculous results, but there will be no miracle unless the men are forthcoming to lead the nations. As I look back on the past 20 years I can see without any doubt that it has been the intervention of certain leading men that has been decisive for good.... the real miracle has been that they were found when they were most needed."
"There are those today who tell us that God does not intervene in human affairs, and that it is wrong to expect Him to do so. When with my simple mind I look back to Potsdam, 1945, and forward to Western Europe in 1965, it just seems to me that a cleverer hand has been at work than any hand of man."