19th May 2008
Last week I wrote about Major General Sir Alec Bishop and quoted some extracts from his unpublished memoirs Look Back with Pleasure which he wrote in 1971, and which are held, together with other personal papers, in the archives of the Imperial War Museum.
It is intriguing how, when the war was over, career officers, such as General Bishop, approached their work of civil administration, in a country whose people they had fought against for years and defeated in battle.
Some, such as Field Marshal Montgomery, the first Military Governor of the British Zone of Occupation in Germany, appeared to relish the task, whilst others, such as the second Military Governor, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Sholto Douglas, appeared to be deeply unhappy with it. Douglas, for example relates in his memoirs that it was "the unhappiest period of my entire official life" and towards the end of his year in office, in the summer of 1947, he "found all too often that the questions that came to my mind about what we were doing appeared to be insoluble ... I found myself wondering quite often why I, an Air Force officer, should be trying to solve problems which should have been in the hands of the politicians."
Alec Bishop appeared to have no such doubts as to the ability to army officers to manage the tasks of civilian administration and was critical of the civilians who followed them. He related in his memoirs how:
"In the early days of the Occupation, the Services had, as already mentioned, entered whole heartedly into the tasks of helping the Germans to reconstruct their shattered and chaotic economy, and to build up a democratically elected system of government. The Labour Government which came to office in Britain after the 1945 election found it at first difficult to believe that Army officers would be capable of, or even interested in helping the Germans in such tasks as the reconstruction of political parties and trade unions, and underestimated the strong desire of those who had fought during the five years of war to turn to constructive work. It was therefore decided by the politicians that Military Government should be 'civilianised' as rapidly as possible. The speed with which this was carried out hampered the contribution which Britain was making to the reconstruction of German life."
According to Bishop, it was difficult to recruit suitably qualified staff to work in the civilian Control Commission:
"One outcome of the recruitment difficulties was that some of those who were appointed to the Control Commission were not suitable or qualified to fulfil the responsibilities entrusted to them"
With his strong commitment to the British Empire, he added: "If more of the highly experienced members of the I.C.S. [Indian Civil Service] who were retiring from India at that time could have been invited to come and serve for a spell with us in Germany, it would have solved many of our problems."
I wonder if he knew of an ironic comment attributed to Kurt Schumacher, the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, referring to the tendency of some of the British to treat Germany as if it were part of the British Empire, that "the only thing he regretted about India getting back its independence was that, no doubt, all the Indian Civil Service would turn up in Germany."
One of the most remarkable stories Bishop told occurred later, in June 1949, when he was regional commissioner for the heavily industrialised area of North Rhine Westphalia, and had to carry out the British policy of dismantling German factories in order to pay reparations to the Allies. The dismantling of weapons factories was not in dispute, but as Bishop said: "...the inclusion of plant which were not designed for the production of armaments aroused the most violent reaction from all sections of the German population."
In his memoirs he wrote that the crisis came to a head in June 1949, with opposition by workers to the dismantling of synthetic oil plants at Bergkamen and Dortmund. The troops responsible for maintaining security in these areas were Belgian, (though under Bishop's command as Regional Commissioner), and were placed on alert.
Bishop decided to appeal directly to the German population and make a statement to be broadcast on the radio. In the statement, he said that the dismantling decision had been taken jointly by the American, British and French governments, and further resistance would result in the use of force, which he hoped and prayed would be unnecessary.
He told the same story, in more vivid terms than those he had used in his memoirs, in a BBC TV programme first broadcast in November 1981, not long before he died on 15th May 1984. (Zone of Occupation: Germany under the British, programme 4, Make Germany Pay). More recently, in September 2005, the same material was used in a BBC Radio programme introduced by Charles Wheeler (Germany: Misery to Miracle). In the programme, Alec Bishop could be heard saying:
"I thought that it was almost certain that force would have to be used, in other words that some of them would have to be shot. So I went to the Cologne broadcasting station and said I wished to take over broadcasting straight away and broadcast a message, which I did. In this message I said that I understood their feelings, but that if they insisted in opposing this by force, which had been ordained by the four allies, there was no doubt that they would get hurt and I said that there are other ways of dealing with this than using force. And I promise you if you will let up on this that I will do everything I can to find you alternative work And I said finally: don't you think (in a voice still shaking with emotion) that you've killed enough of us, and we've killed enough of you during the war. And they called it off."