28th June 2008
Last Friday, June 27th, I gave a paper at the History Lab 2008 postgraduate conference on 'Turning Points.' The conference, as usual, was very well organised, with papers on a wide range of subjects, from (to give just two examples) the adoption of tungsten carbide cutting tools in Britain in the interwar years, to Parliamentary legislation affecting women. My own paper was on: 'The only really worth while thing he ever did in his life.' How three British army officers reacted to the transition from war to peace in Germany, 1945.
I started by quoting Brigadier F S V Donnison, the author of the relevant volume of the British official history of the Second World War Civil Affairs and Military Government. North-West Europe 1944-1946, who concluded the book with a "personal impression" based on discussions with many of the regular officers he spoke to during the course of his work. Although at first they disliked a posting to Civil Affairs, many "made it very clear to the writer that by the time their connection with military government was to be severed, they had come to feel it was the most rewarding work they had ever undertaken. One even said it was 'the only really worth while thing he ever did in his life.'"
The question I tried to answer was why did three senior British army officers react to the end of the war the way they did - by working energetically to rebuild and restore a country they had previously been doing their best to destroy? The examples I chose were three people I've written about before on this blog, Field Marshal Montgomery, commander-in chief of British forces at the end of the war and the first Military Governor, his deputy, General Sir Brian Robertson, who was himself appointed Military Governor in 1947, and General Sir Alec Bishop, who, as head of the Public Relations and Information Services Control division for the first year after the end of the war, was responsible for how British Military Government presented itself to the outside world.
I must say that, even after working on the paper, I'm not sure I really understand the answer to this question. In part it was their sense of shock at the chaos they found in Germany after the war, in part the lack of any clear guidance from the British government at home, to tell them what to do, and in part their own personal upbringing and previous experience, which led them to assume, without question, that it was their duty to try to restore law and order, to implement the policies of disarmament and denazification agreed by the four Allies at Potsdam, but also, in Montgomery's words, to help the defeated enemy to "find his own salvation", or as Robertson said, in an oral history interview with the Truman presidential library, to fight "a battle over the soul of Germany."
There seemed to be a clear link, for some officers, between their earlier experience in the British Empire, and their attitude to Germany. Bishop, for example, spent the whole of his working life, in his words "in the service of the British Empire". I quoted him saying in his, unpublished, memoirs, written in 1971:
"Many of the people in Britain and in other countries who take a delight in condemning the period of British Colonial rule in Africa and Asia had no part in its creation and administration, nor did they experience the devotion and idealism of the British administrators. I feel no doubt that when an authoritative history of our Colonial Empire comes to be written, the part played by the British officials who administered it in establishing and maintaining law and order, in holding the interests of the people above all else and in educating and preparing them to run their own affairs in due course will become fully evident."
Here he was speaking of the Empire, but this is exactly what these British officers set out to do and believed they were doing in Germany after the war: establishing and maintaining law and order, holding the interest of the people above all else, and preparing them to run their own affairs in due course.
At the end of my paper, I quoted an article written by Robertson in the British Zone Review, the official journal of British Military Government and the Control Commission for Germany, to try to illustrate what seemed to me to be the 'missionary idealism' of some of these officers. Here is an extract from the article:
"'First things first' was the motto when Military Government first raised its sign in Germany... 'Give me that gun Fritz' - 'Put that man behind the wire.' - 'Clear the rubble.' - 'Mend the drains.' - 'Get some roads open, some railways running.' - 'Food? Yes we will get you some food but tighten your belt.' - 'Pull yourself together, man. You look bomb happy.' - 'Get your roof mended.' - 'There is a school open down the road. Send that boy to school.'
Have we done these things well, these first urgent things? That is for others to say. Let others praise, let others carp. We are too busy. There is so much to be done. We have a mission."
Robertson continued by asking "What are we to do with Germany". He offered no specific answers, but did say, to his colleagues reading the article:
"Our responsibilities in the search for these answers are immense. We shall have many difficulties, many disappointments, many critics. Let us take as our motto a line written many centuries ago by wise friend Horace:
Justum et tenacem propositi virum
And if you know the rest of the poem, or if your Latin is still able to translate it, you will find that Horace wrote that Ode specially for the Control Commission in Germany."
I asked the audience at the conference if anyone recognised this quotation, or knew the rest of the poem, or was able to translate the original Latin. Not surprisingly, no one did. I didn't either, of course, but I had previously looked up the full quotation in my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, (you can also find it on the web), and this is one translation:
"The just man, firm of purpose cannot be shaken in his rocklike soul, by the heat of fellow citizens clamouring for what is wrong, nor by the presence of a threatening tyrant."
The just man firm of purpose, presumably, is the British officer in the Control Commission and Military Government. The fellow citizens clamouring for what is wrong and trying to shake him in his rock-like soul, must be their critics at home, in the press, maybe in parliament, maybe even in the British government. The threatening tyrant - I don't know - could be Stalin, or could be the shadow of Hitler, or both.
This quotation, from Horace, brought home to me just how much has changed in the last sixty years. This is not all that long ago, and there are many people alive today who lived through those times. But could you imagine a modern British (or American, or French or German or Italian) Commander-in-Chief quoting the first line of a Latin ode, as a motto for his troops and expect his readers to know the rest of the poem and be able to translate it?