3rd May 2008
Goronwy Rees, the writer, journalist, academic, company director and spy (see previous posts on this blog) was a senior British officer in Germany for a short period after the end of the war. Two weeks ago ago, I wrote about a six day tour which he and Sir William Strang, political advisor to the Military Governor, Field-Marshal Montgomery, made through the British Zone of Germany in late June or early July 1945, in which he described in graphic terms the conditions they found there.
I've started to realise that the complex and often contradictory attitudes of the British in Germany to their former enemy, depended as much on the prejudices and preconceptions they brought with them, based on their own previous experiences during and before the war, as on what they found on the ground when they got there.
Goronwy Rees knew Germany well. After the war he wrote a number of articles about his visits there in the 1930s. "Innocent Abroad" described a holiday job teaching English to the son of a Silesian aristocrat, during the Summer vacation of 1929 while he was still a student at Oxford; "A Winter in Berlin" described an extended visit he made to Berlin in 1934, to pursue his research into Ferdinand Lassalle, the founder of the German Social Democratic Party; and "Berlin in the Twenties" was a review of a book, Before the Deluge: A portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich. (References at the end of this posting).
Taken together, these articles help explain the attraction of Weimar Germany for a generation of young British left-wing intellectuals, reacting against the stuffiness and complacency of the British political and social establishment, and the disillusionment they felt when this Brave New World was replaced by the nationalist violence of Nazi Germany, followed by the chaos and disaster of war. As Rees wrote at the start of "Innocent Abroad" first published in 1956:
"It is hard now, nearly thirty years later, to explain even to myself the kind of attraction which Germany exerted on young men of my generation at Oxford. The image of Germany which we found so seductive has been irretrievable shattered by the events of the last twenty-five years; at the most a few scattered splinters are left, like the shards and fragments from which an archaeologist tries to reconstruct a lost civilisation. To try to recover the original image of Weimar Germany by which I, and so many others, were attracted is like trying to restore some lost masterpiece which has been painted over by a succession of brutal and clumsy artists; and in this case the task is all the harder because the masterpiece never really existed and the Germany of Weimar in which we believed was really only a country of the imagination."
What was it they found so attractive? In part, it was sympathy for the defeated country, arising from their own political reaction against what was, in their view, the senseless destruction of the First World War. In part it was an idealistic belief, shared by many at the time, that an international working-class movement was the strongest bulwark against another war, caused by the selfish interests of different nations and their governments, greedy for power. At that time, before Hitler came to power, the working class movement was stronger in Germany than in any other country in Western Europe, including Britain. As Rees wrote: "For the real bulwark of peace was not the League [of Nations] but the international working-class movement, and was not Germany, with its massive trade union and social democratic organisations, the strongest representative of that movement?"
The attraction of Weimar Germany, for Rees and others like him, lay also in its culture and society representing, so they thought, the opposite of everything they disliked about conventional life at home. "In saying this, of course, we were expressing our feelings just as much about our own country as about her defeated enemy. To sympathise with Germany was a mark of our violent revulsion against the Great War and its consequences, and against the generation which had helped to make it and to conduct it to victory. Germany was for us at the opposite extreme from everything we disliked in the land of our fathers; Germany indeed had done her best to kill our fathers, and we were not ungrateful to her for her efforts and sympathised with her failure..."
"For politics were only a part of our infatuation with Germany. Weimar also represented to us all those experiments, in literature, in the theatre, in music, in education, and not least in sexual morals, which we would have liked to attempt in our own country but were so patently impossible in face of the massive and infuriating stupidity of the British middle classes."
But all was not as it seemed. As Rees told the story in "Innocent Abroad", instead of experiencing the delights of Berlin, he found himself staying on a country estate near Breslau, in Silesia, in the middle of a boundless "golden ocean of corn," where his employer was a German baron. The family were kind to him, treating him as if he were an English country gentleman and therefore (more or less) one of themselves, but their outlook on life was totally different from his own, looking forward to a time when another war would return to Germany the lands lost at the end of the First World War in the Treaty of Versailles. The baron's son, Fritz, "was a charming companion and friend, and I was puzzled that I should find him none the less so even though most of his ideas and beliefs were to me both fantastic and repellent."
In "A Winter in Berlin", time had moved on. By 1934, to visit Berlin was, according to Rees, "in intellectual circles, an unfashionable thing to do, because Hitler had already been in power for a year, and in that short time had totally destroyed the culture which had made Berlin as irresistibly attractive to enlightened young men, particularly English ones, as Rome is to Catholics or Mecca to Muslims."
"The suppression of all organs of opposition had deprived the vast majority of Germans of any means of making an objective assessment of what was happening to themselves or to their country. No one who has never experienced it can quite understand the sense of helplessness and apathy which affects a people which is denied access to any source of information except that which is officially approved."
Rees provided pen-pictures of a number of people he met in Berlin in 1934, some young aristocrats, others supporters of the once powerful Social Democratic Party, but all of them survivors of a lost world, who still believed that Hitler could not last for long and who "could not realize or accept the magnitude or finality of their defeat."
An anonymous friend of his had set up a small hand printing press "on which he and others printed pamphlets and broadsheets denouncing the Hitler regime". Rees supplied him with material for his leaflets and copies of English papers "for what he and his friends wanted most was to feel that there, in Berlin, they were not totally isolated in their struggle, that somewhere, in another world, there were forces at work which would come to their aid, that they were not alone in trying to fight Hitler but were encompassed by a cloud of witnesses to the significance of what they were trying to do. In all this they were of course quite wrong; no one knew of their existence or their efforts, much less came to their assistance."
"Those who actively opposed Hitler were not only a tiny minority; they were a defeated and dispirited minority, living, in the middle of industrial Berlin, like castaways on some desert island with only their hopes and their dreams to sustain them. It was impossible to believe that they would ever feel the touch of victory."
"As the long winter drew on and gave way to spring, it became increasingly clear that, whatever happened to Hitler's regime, it would not fall as the result of any opposition from inside Germany itself, and with this realization I fell victim to a profound depression, as if for the first time I had really grasped the full horror of what had happened to Germany."
"I never saw my friends of that winter again but when I next returned to Berlin, in 1945, there were none of them left. In the years between I thought of them often, and always with affection, but the memory brought no happiness with it, as unconsciously I already thought of them as if they were dead."
In the third article, "Berlin in the Twenties" written in 1972, Rees "wondered at the fascination which Germany, and Berlin, of the 1920s still exerts both on those who preserve nostalgic memories of them and on the young, for whom the tragic story of the Weimar Republic has become a kind of pantomime," as shown by the success, both in the US and Europe, of the musical Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood's book Goodbye to Berlin. He continued by asking why Weimar Germany also continued to cast its spell on serious historians. "For Weimar really presents us with at least two quite different kinds of problem. One is the difficulty of understanding how and why a great and civilised country like Germany surrendered itself to the boa-constrictor embrace of a mountebank genius like Adolf Hitler. The other is why a period which began with the total defeat of Germany in World War I and ended in the even great defeat implicit, from a cultural point of view, in the triumph of Hitler, should have coincided with a brilliant flowering of literary and artistic activity, so that in some aspects it seems to look like a glittering cultural Renaissance rather than a spectacle of the decline and fall of a great people."
It's not for me to attempt to answer these questions. My research is on the British in Germany after the war, not Weimar Germany and the rise of Hitler. For me, what is interesting is what all this can tell us about the British in Germany, as victors in war and occupiers of a defeated country.
In my first post on Goronwy Rees, I said I could not understand why, in his preface to the book Der Fragebogen by Ernst von Salomon, he felt he needed to warn English readers not to be deceived by the book, because it was written by a very "gifted writer". It now seems to me that underlying the extracts I've quoted in this posting was the suspicion, the fear even, that what happened in Germany in the 1930s could also happen at home. That if one "great and civilised country like Germany" could be deceived by Adolf Hitler, so too could other great countries like Britain, or the United States. That if Goronwy Rees and others like him were attracted to Weimar Germany, but were powerless to prevent the rise of Hitler, they would be equally powerless to prevent the rise of another Hitler, or someone like him, at home.
As I wrote then, it was not only Weimar Germany which had attracted Goronwy Rees. In the 1930s, inspired by his opposition to fascism and dislike for the British establishment, he had also been a communist, and for brief period, a member of the spy ring working for the Soviet Union, of which the leading members were the "Cambridge Five": Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Perhaps, by the time he wrote these articles in the 1950s and 1960s, (by which time he had become a firm, anti-communist, member of the British literary establishment), Rees felt he personally had been deceived, by his attraction to Weimar Germany, by Stalin's communism, and by his own friends Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, in much the same way that people in Germany had been deceived by Hitler's national socialism.
In an oral history interview for the Truman Presidential Library, General Sir Brian Robertson, the most senior and influential British officer in Germany during the occupation, said: "The truth of the matter was that in those early days we were fighting a battle over the soul of Germany."
Perhaps Goronwy Rees and others like him at the end of the war and afterwards, felt they had to fight not only for the soul of Germany, but also, in one way or another, for their own.
"Innocent Abroad" and "A Winter in Berlin" are included in:
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
"Berlin in the Twenties" is included in:
Goronwy Rees: Brief Encounters (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974)