12th April 2008
In my posting on 20th January, I said the approach I intend to follow for my research on "'Winning the Peace': The British in occupied Germany, 1945-1951" is to "Follow the People," and I provided a list of people who I think are interesting for one reason or another.
Some of them were senior British officers, such as the three Military Governors of the British occupied zone of Germany - Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Sholto Douglas and General Sir Brian Robertson.
Many of these people are best known for what they did at other times; for example, Montgomery as the victor of the battle of El Alamein, or Noel Annan as chairman of the committee which produced what came to be known as the 'Annan Report' on broadcasting. But it's often surprising what their time in Germany can reveal both about them, and about British politics, culture and society in general.
Goronwy Rees was another senior British officer, and I think I'll have to add him to my list of people to follow, for reasons I'll try to explain in this post. He was in Germany for only a short time, for six months from April to September 1945, as a senior intelligence officer in the Political Division of Military Government, with the rank of Lt. Colonel, reporting to the Political Adviser, Sir William Strang. He was succeeded in this position by Noel Annan and for a short time they overlapped.
I first came across Goronwy Rees when I read the preface he wrote to the English translation of Der Fragebogen by Ernst von Salomon. I'll write more about this another time, but suffice it to say that Der Fragebogen was a publishing sensation when it first appeared in Germany in 1951 and sold over 250,000 copies. Its author was a right-wing German nationalist who trained as a military cadet but was too young to fight in the First World War. After the war he joined the Freikorps, fought against the Poles in Silesia in 1920-1, worked with those who were attempting to subvert the Weimar constitution, and was an accomplice to the murder of the German Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau, in 1922, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. On his release he discovered a talent as a writer and published a number of books both before and after the Second World War. Although the Freikorps were idolised by the Nazis for their resistance to what they perceived as the iniquities of the Treaty of Versailles, Ernst von Salomon himself was no supporter of Hitler. He "found Hitler's methods of influencing the masses repugnant" and considered National Socialism to be "another, more advanced, form of Bolshevism", both of which, in his view, represented the disintegration of the traditional state and a descent into disorder and chaos. He felt he owed his allegiance to the state of Prussia, rather than Hitler's Third Reich and his heroes were the army officers and aristocrats who unsuccessfully attempted to kill Hitler on July 20th 1944. Many of them had been officer cadets like himself and with the failure of the plot, in his words: "July 20th 1944, marked the final collapse not only of the Prussian army but of the whole educational world of the nineteenth century."
In 1945 Salomon and his wife, who was Jewish and whom he had protected during the war, were arrested by the Allied Military authorities and imprisoned in a US internment camp, where he claimed he was beaten up and his wife raped by US soldiers. In 1946 he was released with no explanation except that his arrest had been "in error".
His book Der Fragebogen took the form of his own personal answers to the 131 questions in the questionnaire (or Fragebogen) which millions of German people had to complete after the end of the war as part of the Allied de-nazification process. The questionnaire proved to be a singularly ineffective method of doing this, and in the book, Salomon was able to pour scorn on the process, highlighting the hypocrisy of the Allies, while at the same time providing his own interpretation of the history of the previous 30 years, from the end of the First World War to the events following the end of the Second.
In his preface to the English translation, published in 1954, Goronwy Rees attempted to warn English readers not to be deceived by the book.
"It is easy to see that there was a fundamentally false assumption in the idea of conducting a written examination, of 131 questions, of the conscience of a people, and on the basis of the replies calculating the degree of responsibility of each individual ... It has been easy for Salomon to seize upon the naïveté and the falsity of the assumptions underlying the Fragebogen, and by taking that document at its face value to turn the examination into a farce, a procedure admirably suited to his literary talents ... Yet the English reader should not be deceived into taking Der Fragebogen at its face value. He should remember, firstly, that he is in the hands of a very gifted writer."
According to Rees, Salomon was not fully open about his past, as a member of the Freikorps, for his part in the murder of the German foreign minister Walter Rathenau, or the official approval his writings received during the Third Reich, even though he himself had retired from politics and worked as a film script writer during the war.
"The truth is that for a person of Salomon's past, and beliefs, to dissociate himself, as he does in this book, from all responsibility for the triumph, and the crimes, of National Socialism, is a piece of effrontery which only so brilliant a writer could have attempted with success."
"Since its publication in 1951, over 250,000 Germans have bought Der Fragebogen, despite the fact that some of Germany's most distinguished critics have condemned it violently both on political and moral grounds. It is difficult not to sympathise with such critics. They represent that class of humane and liberal Germans who still dare to believe, even after the disasters of the last fifty years, that Germany may yet redeem the errors of the past."
I was puzzled by this preface. I could understand that Rees wanted to draw attention to criticism the book had received within Germany, but why did he feel the need to warn English readers not to be deceived by the book? What was he afraid that an English reader might do or think? Why did he emphasise that the author was a "very gifted writer." It didn't seem to me that Salomon was trying to excuse himself or to conceal his past; the murder of Rathenau, his part in the Freikorps, his political views and his opposition Weimar democracy were all described quite openly. Maybe Rees, like other British and American critics at the time, objected to the razor sharp criticism at the end of the book of some of the actions of the Allies, highlighting their self righteousness and hypocrisy, and implying they should apply the same standards to themselves as they did to the defeated enemy?
I haven't discovered the answer to these questions. It still seems to me that you don't need to share Salomon's nationalist views and his interpretation of the history of the Weimar Republic, to believe that at least some of his criticisms of the actions of the Allies at the end of the war were fully justified. And in any case, why couldn't English readers be trusted to make up their own minds, living in a democratic country with all the advantages of freedom of information?
But I did discover more about Goronwy Rees. Like Salomon, he was a brilliant writer, as is evident from reading his own autobiography, or more correctly, two volumes of autobiographical sketches, A Bundle of Sensations, published in 1960 and A Chapter of Accidents, published twelve years later in 1972.
Rees was born in 1909 in Aberystwyth, a small university town in mid-Wales, where his father was a Minister in the Calvinist Methodist church. He won a scholarship to Oxford, and in 1931 was awarded a postgraduate fellowship at All Souls College, which in his own words was:
"One of the greatest gifts Oxford had to bestow, and a sure guarantee of success in whatever career one chose to adopt. When I was elected, the college included among its forty members one archbishop, one bishop, and ex-Viceroy of India, several cabinet ministers, the two brightest luminaries of the English bar and the editor of The Times."
Rees subsequently became a journalist and writer, for The Times, the Manchester Guardian, the Spectator and other journals, an army officer during the war, and a company director and successful author in the years afterwards. He maintained his connection with All Soul's College becoming Estates Bursar, responsible for college finances, and in 1953 was appointed Principal of the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth.
He also led a double life. One of his best friends was Guy Burgess, who recruited him as a Soviet agent in 1937. Other members of the so-called Cambridge spy ring included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Rees (who was at Oxford rather than Cambridge and who met Burgess through mutual friends) would appear to have actively worked as a spy for the Soviets for only a brief period, before becoming disillusioned with Communism following the Nazi Soviet pact in 1939. However he remained on good terms with Burgess right up to his and Maclean's defection to Moscow in 1950. Burgess was godfather to one of his children. After Burgess and Maclean "reappeared" at a press conference in Moscow in 1956, Rees published a series of articles in The People newspaper, which described his friendship with Burgess, and hinted strongly that others were also involved in the spy ring, including Anthony Blunt. Ironically, although Blunt was investigated at the time, no further action was taken, whereas Rees found himself severely criticised for his actions by some of his colleagues at Aberystwyth, who considered the articles to be "malicious, salacious and sordid" and he was eventually forced to resign as Principal.
In A Chapter of Accidents, his highly successful second volume of autobiography, published sixteen years after the articles in The People, Rees retold the story and implied he knew that Burgess, Blunt and others were Soviet spies as early as 1937, but claimed he believed that this had all stopped with the start of the war. He said nothing in the book about his own espionage activities, either as a Soviet agent working with Burgess before the war, or in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), afterwards.
It's therefore ironic that Rees should criticise Ernst von Salomon for not being fully open about his past, when he himself is less than fully open in his own autobiography.
Given the admiration Rees expressed for Ernst von Salomon as a "brilliant writer", I wonder to what extent the autobiographical style of Der Fragebogen was a literary influence on his own writing.
In his first volume of autobiographical sketches, A Bundle of Sensations, Rees makes a point of saying that this was not intended to be a conventional autobiography or life history. He made a virtue out of claiming that, rather than being "a personality with its own continuous history", he was someone who reflected, and was formed by, the events of his time:
"For I was quite certain that I had no character of my own, good or bad, that I existed only in the particular circumstances of the moment, and since circumstances were always changing, so fast, so bewilderingly, so absorbingly, how could it not follow that I must change with them?"
It seems there may be more parallels between Ernst von Salomon, the right-wing German nationalist, and Goronwy Rees, the Communist sympathiser and opponent of fascism, than might be expected. They were both superb writers, they both achieved their greatest public success using autobiography as a literary form to portray the world in which they lived, and they both tried to conceal or re-interpret aspects of their own past, one as a murderer and the other as a spy.
Ernst von Salomon, The Answers of Ernst von Salomon to the 131 Questions in the Allied Military Government 'Fragebogen' (London: Putnam, 1954) First published in Germany in 1951 as Der Fragebogen. English edition translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon with a preface by Goronwy Rees.
Goronwy Rees: Sketches in Autobiography: 'A Bundle of Sensations' and 'A Chapter of Accidents' with 'A Winter in Berlin', a further autobiographical essay. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001). Edited with Introduction and Notes by John Harris