13th January 2008
Last week I attended the annual postgraduate conference at the German Historical Institute in London. It was interesting to hear what other students were working on and how they approached their subject. Most those attending gave a short, 15 minute talk, followed by 15 minutes for questions and comments from the audience.
My own talk was on the conclusions of my MA dissertation, (on the British Occupation of Germany, as portrayed in three official British sources, Humphrey Jennings' documentary film A Defeated People, the exhibition Germany under Control, and the British Zone Review) and an attempt to describe some of the principles I intend to follow for my PhD thesis.
As I have only recently started working on this, I wasn't able, as others did, explain the structure of the PhD thesis, or describe in detail the sources and archives I propose to use. But preparing for the talk did make me think about how I should approach my research. In summary, I decided the best approach was to "follow the people", and here is the part of my talk where I tried to explain and justify this approach:
Aims of my PhD thesis on 'Winning the Peace': The British in occupied Germany, 1945-1951.
So where should I go from here? The aim of the PhD thesis is to take the same topic [as the MA dissertation]: the British in Germany after the war, through their own eyes, what they said they hoped to achieve, what they thought they were doing, and why they were doing it, and how this changed over time - and explore this in more detail, over a longer period, across a wider range of sources.
Why should we be interested now in what a relatively small number of people thought and did? At its peak there were 26,000 British staff in the Control Commission, the body responsible for administering Germany after the war, compared with a population of around 50 million in Britain and 20 million in the British Zone of Germany.
It seems to me there are three things in particular which make this subject worth studying:
Firstly, what the British in Germany did was different from British government policy made in London, and their attitudes, policies and actions, were formed not by official policy, but by the combination of the reality of what they found on the ground and the prejudices and preconceptions they brought with them.
Official British government policy, in general, did little more than reflect the decisions made at Potsdam and at subsequent Allied Foreign Ministers' conferences at Moscow, Paris, London and New York, and bore little relation to the issues and problems faced by those responsible for day to day administration in Germany. In fact there had been extensive planning for what should be done in post-war Germany, but British officers interviewed or writing afterwards, said they either received no policy instruction at all, or that which they did receive was completely inappropriate. To quote Brian Robertson, Deputy Military Governor from 1945 to 1947, Commander-in-Chief and Military Governor from 1947-49, and High Commissioner from 1949-51, and probably the most influential British figure in post-war Germany, writing in 1965:
"As for the men who came from the United States and from this country to confer in Teheran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam, [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 or I might have been wiser if we had been in their shoes. I merely state what I believe to be the fact...."
Secondly, what the British in Germany actually did, and why they did it, is not well understood, in part because it is so difficult to generalise. Because there was no clear guidance from London it is not really possible to speak of British policy as such, or even, therefore, of British influence on this or that aspect of West German society. Instead, the British in Germany were a collection of individuals, who may have shared some common principles and prejudices, but who reacted to different circumstances in different ways. Because German political, economic and social structures had collapsed in chaos at the end of the war, some British individuals possessed enormous power and influence in particular areas. We therefore find many extraordinary, but disconnected stories, such as, to quote one of the best known, the very young, 22 year old British Major John Chaloner, giving the, even younger, 21 year old Rudolf Augstein a licence to publish the news magazine Der Spiegel, in part because they shared the same birthday, and he trusted him, but also because he liked someone who didn't always say yes and was prepared to argue with him. When his senior officer discovered what he had done, Challoner was disciplined and removed from his post for exceeding his duties. In an interview many years afterwards Challoner said:
"The Spiegel was my baby. I told them how to do the magazine and what it should look like, by producing a dummy. This was the famous 'Probenummer.' ... I used my, what I will call 'sweeping powers' that I had, to commandeer offices, commandeer people, recruit people from all over the zone and push them into this one title, that I wanted to be a success, if nothing else, and it was."
Thirdly, the period is of considerable interest in its own right, not only as part of British or German national histories, because it provides an illustration, or maybe a case study, of three important themes which continue to be relevant today. The first is the transition from war to peace. I need only mention the word 'Iraq' to make the point that what happens after the end of a war can be at least as important as what happens during the war itself. Secondly, the meeting of different cultures. During the war there was very little contact between British and German people, apart from when they were shooting each other, or dropping bombs on each other, and as a result people tended to see each other in terms of collective national stereotypes, reinforced by government propaganda on both sides. After the war, this changed as occupiers and occupied had to deal with each other face to face as individuals, and as the historian Anthony Nicholls has said "Before long, therefore common sense overcame the myths about national character." The third theme I wish to highlight, related to the other two is: coming to terms with the enemy. How did people, on both sides, become reconciled to the former enemy, after a very bitter war, and even, in many cases, become friends, allies and partners?
Lastly, and to conclude this talk, what approach should I adopt to research these issues and what sources should I use? Clearly I need to be selective, but how do I find the most relevant and interesting topics and sources?
In my view, history is a process of discovery. As L P Hartley famously said in the opening words of his book, The Go-Between: "The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." We can study the past in the same way as we visit a foreign country. We can read the guidebooks, plan our visit and use our time as effectively as possible. Or we can simply go and see what we find when we get there. It may take longer, but I prefer the second approach, because you are more likely to find something unexpected.
Unfortunately, I don't think there is another film I can use as the focus for my research, in the same way as I used A Defeated People, and in any case, I'm not sure this would be right for a PhD.
As I said earlier, in my view the British in Germany are best seen as a collection of individuals, some of whom had far more power and influence than would normally be expected from someone in their position. The approach I plan to use for the PhD, therefore, is to follow the people. There is no shortage of material available to do this. Many have written memoirs, or left personal or official papers in the archives. Some are still alive. I recently interviewed one elderly gentleman who worked in Germany for 16 years from 1945 to 1962 and claims he was the first British soldier to be given permission to marry a Germany woman. For two years after the end of the war, until 1947, this was forbidden. I may try an oral history approach and interview others, but there will probably not be time to do this, as I already have a list of around 15 people I think are especially interesting, for one reason or another and whose papers are in the archives.
What I hope to find are individual accounts which reveal something unusual or unexpected, but which can also be substantiated by reference to other people and other sources, and therefore accepted as representative of at least one aspect of the British in Germany.