26th October 2008
With the start of a new academic term, I’ve restarted posting on this blog, which aims to record my thoughts, ideas, and, I hope, some insights and discoveries, as I work my way through a six year, part time PhD project, on the British in Occupied Germany after World War Two. The approach I’ve adopted, for the time being at least, is to ‘Follow the People’. I’ve identified around 20 people I think are interesting for one reason or another, and am trying to find out as much about them as I can.
In my last post, I referred to General Sir Brian Robertson, Deputy Military Governor of the British Zone of Occupation, writing in January 1946, at the end of an article in the British Zone Review, the official journal of British Military Government and the Control Commission for Germany, that he and his colleagues in the British Control Commission should take as their motto “a line written many centuries ago by wise friend Horace:”
Justum et tenacem propositi virum
During a recent visit to the archives at the Imperial War Museum, I was surprised to find Robertson saying the same thing two years later, this time to journalists at a press conference on 22nd December 1947:
“I remember when I first came to Germany, somewhat to the alarm of the staff I asked them to refresh their memories about the opening lines of the ode by the poet Horace which began:
‘Justum et tenacem propositi virum’
If you want to know what I think should be our attitude in Germany then I recommend to you to read those lines yourselves.”
As I said then, this quotation brought home to me just how much has changed in the last sixty years. 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, not only to his staff, but to journalists at a press conference, and expect his readers and listeners to know and understand the rest of the poem?
The full quotation from Horace can be translated as:
“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.”
What can this tell us about the British in Germany after the war, who they were and what they aimed to achieve?
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 would appear to be their critics at home in the UK, in the press, in parliament, maybe even in the British government. The threatening tyrant could be Stalin, or could be the shadow of Hitler, or both.
Firstly, it seems to me, this reveals the supreme self-confidence of many of the British. Winning the war had demonstrated not only their physical, but also their moral superiority and, in their view, the superiority of the British way of life, government and society in general. As Michael Balfour, another general in the war and administrator in occupied Germany afterwards, said in the introduction to his history of the period, the book was written “from the standpoint of a British liberal democrat, to whom the political forms evolved in Britain and America seem the most satisfactory yet devised by man…”
Secondly, the audience Robertson was addressing was middle and upper class, educated men like himself, who, whether they were now army officers, civil administrators or journalists in the press, had all learnt their Latin at British public (ie private) schools. Because they shared the same upbringing and education, Robertson could assume, rightly or wrongly, that these men knew what was right, without having to be told.
Thirdly, by drawing on a classical tradition that was not unique to Britain, he could open the way to a common understanding with people in Germany who shared, or appeared to share, the same tradition. The first step towards reconciliation is to emphasise what people have in common, rather than what keeps them apart.
And fourthly, after the end of the war, the dangers against which the British officer - the just man, firm of purpose - had to guard, would appear to come, in his view, not so much from resistance or opposition from the German people, but from fellow citizens at home, who failed to understand the importance of the task and what he and his colleagues were trying to achieve, and from the threat of tyranny, represented on the one hand by a possible revival of German nationalism and on the other by the threat of Communism.
In practice, official British policy, as determined by the politicians in Westminster and the civil servants in Whitehall, came to be governed by concerns as to the cost of the occupation to the British taxpayer, and a desire to hand back responsibility for all aspects of government to German people as quickly as possible. The tensions between high and noble objectives, expressed by General Sir Brian Robertson and many other British officers and administrators in Germany, and the mundane practical concerns of those at home, is something that, to my mind, makes this a fascinating subject to study.