2nd November 2008
In January 1948, a short 10 minute documentary film, called simply K.R.O. Germany 1947, was released in Britain. The film was part of a continued public relations effort by the British Control Commission for Germany, to show people back home the work they were doing in the best possible light.
It aimed to show a day in the life of a Kreis Resident Officer (or K.R.O.) - the Control Commission’s ‘man on the ground’ in the British Zone of Germany. In the words of the film, narrated by the K.R.O himself:
“Germany is split up into a number of units. The smallest of these is a district – or Kreis - one hundred and fifty thousand people live in this one, in one large town and fifty-eight villages, which come under the supervision of a British civilian officer – called the Kreis Resident Officer or K.R.O.
I am the K.R.O. of this particular Kreis. It is my job to know everything that goes on. To advise, observe and report on local affairs. The Control Commission relies on K.R.O.s to ensure that their orders for making Germany work again are carried out.”
In previous postings on this blog, I’ve described earlier efforts by the Control Commission to portray their work in Germany to people back home, in three official sources all produced in the first year after the end of the war in May 1945: the film A Defeated People, directed by Humphrey Jennings, the British Zone Review and the exhibition Germany under Control. It was therefore interesting to see how much had changed in the two years since then.
In contrast to the film A Defeated People, which showed a grim picture of destruction, tempered only by under-stated sympathy and concern for the suffering of people as individuals, the picture shown in K.R.O. Germany was that of a benevolent and sympathetic British official, whose job was “to make the Germans do things for themselves and learn that they can’t call on us for ever.” To quote a review of the film in July 1948, in the magazine 'Film Sponsor':
“Necessarily we have only brief glimpses of his day, and of the difficult problems with which he must cope. But within its tiny limits the film does manage to convey something of life over there, its difficulties, hungers and sorrows.
One of its great assets is the officer himself, a middle-aged unmilitary type with a manner at the same time gentle and authoritative.”
The film opens by scanning across a townscape of ruins and empty shells of houses. We then see, coming in to the picture, a young barefoot boy pulling a handcart through the ruins, rifling through the rubbish in a dustbin, picking out an old discarded leather shoe and trying it for size, while the narrator says:
“This is the British Zone of Germany in the Autumn of 1947.
In 1939 this was a prosperous country town. Today fifty percent of the houses are in ruins. Even so, forty thousand people are still living here. Scenes likes these are familiar to everyone like myself, working in the Control Commission for Germany.
Life is hard for the Germans. Food is scarce and the people are hungry. They may have to queue for hours only to find that supplies have run out. The Bürgermeister – in England we would call him the mayor – has to listen to all the complaints and grouses – and he passes them on to me. If they concern us, I take them up with the British authorities for immediate action.”
One of the biggest problems in the town was finding accommodation for refugees. The town council had done all they could to find room, but there were still ten thousand people living in the town in overcrowded cellars. The K.R.O. had to take a firm line and say that although he sympathised with the Bürgermeister “… if he did not do something more, then the Council would have to elect a new Bürgermeister. I insisted that he must find accommodation for the refugees before winter …”
According to the film, the refugees were either “prisoners of war who have been released” or “civilians who have been uprooted by the war, and swept into distant parts of Germany” now returning home. This was the only time the film made the point (which was stressed several times in A Defeated People) that the German people brought all this upon themselves. To a close-up picture of a man with one leg, walking on crutches, the narrator says: “This is the price that Germany is having to pay for waging war.”
Interestingly there was no mention in the film of the real reason for the large numbers of refugees in the British Zone of Germany after the war - the expulsion of an estimated 12 million ethnic Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia, around 7 million of whom reached the Western zones of Germany by 1949, forming an average of around 16% of the total population, but more, up to 33% or higher in rural areas. The German refugee crisis had been a controversial topic in Britain and the subject of a high profile campaign in 1945 and 1946 by, among others, the publisher Victor Gollancz.
The film showed the K.R.O. visiting around 300 refugees, all living together in temporary accommodation in an open hall, sympathising with them, offering one man a cigarette because he felt sorry for him, and commenting:
“I find it a sad and rather terrible sight, to see all these men, women and children living like animals in the straw. But at least they have a place where they can rest.”
After visiting a school, to make sure the children had enough to eat, a factory, where the machinery had been standing idle since 1939 but which would soon be working again, and a farm where he found the farmer had a big house which could accommodate some more refugees, the K.R.O. returned home to his office, to complete his paperwork and report for his superiors. Finally, late in the evening, he had a call from the local police chief, who had received reports of three black marketeers raiding a farm and wanted the K.R.O. to go out with him to back him up.
The film ended with the K.R.O saying, to a picture of him and the German police officer walking down the road together in the dark:
“The Kreis Resident officer has a very important job in Germany today. He is the man on the ground. He has to see that our plans for making Germany work again are carried out … and that the Germans do the job properly.”
The film K.R.O. Germany, directed by Graham Wallace and produced by the Crown Film Unit, is held in the archives of the British Film Institute. I would like to thank BFI staff for locating the film and providing viewing facilities at the BFI Library in London.