15th December 2008
What British people aimed to achieve in Germany after the war, depended not only on what they found when they got there, but to a large extent on their views and beliefs as to why they fought the war, and why it started in the first place.
This helps to explain some of the complexity and apparent contradictions in the attitudes of British people, who were in Germany as soldiers in the army of occupation or as diplomats and administrators in the Military Government and Control Commission, towards Germany (the country) and the German people (collectively and as individuals).
If they thought the war was caused by a tradition of ‘Prussian Militarism’, as some did, the answer was to disband the German army and dissolve the state of Prussia (which still existed as a legal and administrative entity through the Weimar republic and the Third Reich). If they thought, following Marxist lines, that both the war and the rise of the Nazi Party were due to desperate attempts by industrial capitalists to preserve their power and wealth, the answer was to nationalise the steel factories and coal mines and dissolve or split the large industrial holding companies and cartels. If they thought it was due to weaknesses in the Weimar constitution, which allowed one party to seize power too easily and establish a totalitarian dictatorship, the answer was to reform the political institutions of the country, to establish more checks and balances, and so, they hoped, create a liberal democracy.
For some people, social and political explanations such as these were not enough. In addition to materialist, economic or historical causes, they believed the war had a religious and spiritual dimension. It was a battle between good and evil, and the rise of the Nazi Party within Germany was due, so they believed, to spiritual factors, or more precisely, to a lack of spirituality and a lack religious faith. The growing secularisation of society, (in Germany and elsewhere) so some people believed, meant that young people were all too easily attracted to an ersatz religion, with the ceremonies and the sense of belonging to and being part of a larger group, that the Nazi party provided.
When I started to study this period I was surprised to find, in the sources I read, British people speaking of their work as a ‘crusade’ or as ‘fighting a battle for the soul of Germany’. For example, an army sergeant wrote in a letter to the British Zone Review, as part of the debate on ‘Feeling Sorry for the Germans’, that: “We have called ourselves the Army of Liberation, the Crusaders of Truth, Justice and Liberty. If we are democrats and liberators of the oppressed, entrusted with the mission of enlightening and reaching the principles of truth, justice and liberty, then, in the name of logic and commonsense, why not practice what we preach?” and a Colonel in the Information Services Control Division wrote in another letter that: “the re-birth of Germany is fundamentally a moral and not a material issue. It is in fact a moral Crusade … Too much talk about ‘democracy’ (that overworked word) and not enough about Christianity will tend to place the whole of the vast undertaking to which we are committed on too low a plane.”
Some British people in Germany after the war appeared to see their task in missionary terms, as converting the heathen. Both Field-Marshal Montgomery, Military Governor of the British Zone from 1945-6, and his deputy and successor, General Sir Brian Robertson, spoke of the need to save the ‘soul of Germany’. For example, in a letter to Robertson after visiting the city of Berlin in early 1948, Montgomery wrote that in Berlin: “In fact you find yourself in the front line of the conflict between the East and West. This conflict, I have always maintained, is for the possession of the German ‘soul’; once this is realised everything becomes quite clear,” and in an oral history interview in 1970 for the Truman presidential library, Robertson summed up their task as follows: “The truth of the matter was that in those early days we were fighting a battle over the soul of Germany.”
As an atheist with no religious faith myself, I found it hard to understand just what did Montgomery, Robertson and others mean when they spoke of the ‘soul’ of Germany. I can accept that some people believe quite sincerely that every human being has a ‘soul’ that outlives their physical and material existence, but how could they believe that a nation of 70 million individuals had some kind of collective ‘soul’ that could be fought over and possessed by other nations? Did they believe that every country had a ‘soul’ that survived the physical destruction of land and buildings and millions of individuals who once lived there?
I think I now understand what we could call this ‘spiritual dimension’ to the war and its aftermath, a little better, after reading the book ‘Darkness over Germany’ by Amy Buller. This was published in 1943 and so had nothing to say about Germany after the war, but she was very clear in her view of the causes of the rise of the Nazi party and thus of the war itself, and therefore, by implication, of what needed to be done to ‘win the peace’ after the war was won.
She refered to the “fundamentally religious appeal to the Nazi youth in much of the teaching given to them” and at the end of the book summed up her views as follows:
“It is commonly recognized that Hitler gained support because he assured the youth of his country not only that there would be jobs for them but they had an important part to play in the great struggle for the resurrection of the nation from defeat and despair. It is less often recognized that in addition to these two things he made them feel they belonged to something much greater than the organization they were in and that their destiny was linked with a kind of mystical destiny of the Fatherland. Now it is this last point which is so important and which constitutes what I have called the essentially ‘religious’ side of the Nazi movement.”
In her view, the experience of the fellowship and ceremony of the party gave young people, many of whom had suffered hardship and unemployment during the economic depression, a “new life and energy” which “transcended as well as transformed their immediate tasks and gave their own little existence a cosmic significance and eternal destiny.”
“To a generation without faith, the Nazis gave a brutal philosophy and millions of lives have been sacrificed to free the world of this false answer to a real need, but let us not fail to understand that it was caused by real need. We are now faced with the greater task of bringing healing to the nations including our own. I am convinced this cannot be done without a faith in God adequate to the tremendous task of reconstruction.”
Please note, if you have read this far, that I make no judgement as to whether this view of the rise of Nazism in Germany, and its appeal to young people, was correct or not. The focus of my research is not on Nazi Germany before or during the war, but on who were the British people in occupied Germany after the war, what was it they aimed to achieve and why, and how did this change over time. But the past is connected to the present, and reading Amy Buller’s book, ‘Darkness over Germany’ prompted me to find references by other British people to the ‘soul’ of Germany and to the ‘spiritual dimension’ to the war and its aftermath. To my mind, this helps explain what now, more than sixty years later, appear to be the extraordinary and almost incomprehensible things that some people said at the time.
For some British people, there was something unique to Germany and the German people, which explained a history of unmitigated evil, going back at least 2,000 years to the time of Julius Caesar and Tacitus – much like the religious doctrine of original sin. Lord Vansittart wrote in his notorious book ‘Black Record’, published in 1941, that “The ages during which civilizing influences have changed other nations have so far left the Germans relatively untouched” and “The ground was already prepared for Nazism before Hitler sowed the dragon’s teeth in it.” In a passage referring to a need for a change of heart, mind and soul, he wrote that:
“Of course there have been potential reformers in Germany, but they have always been a weak minority, and have never been able to impede the iniquitous habits and course of the majority. That does not necessarily mean that it is hopeless ever to expect them to be in the ascendant. But the facts which I am going to connect for you do show that if Germany, after a long and unbroken record of evil-doing, is ever to cease to be a curse to herself and to everyone else, she will have to undergo the most thorough spiritual cure in history; and part at least of that cure will have to be self-administered. It will have to comprise a complete change of heart, mind and soul; of taste and temperament and habit; a new set of morals and values, a new, a brand-new way of looking at life.”
For others, such as Robert Birley, Education Adviser to the British Military Governor in Germany and later headmaster of Eton, (as also for Amy Buller), the moral and spiritual problem was expressed in very different terms and was not confined to Germany. In a lecture given in London in December 1947, Birley said that the experience of the First World War had “…taught us that military victory was not enough and that Germany would only cease to threaten the peace of the world if there were a change in the mind and outlook of the German people. Above all we were faced with what was pre-eminently a spiritual problem…
Our occupation of the British Zone of Germany should force us to face the truth. We are now committed to a direct interest in and responsibility for a country which openly accepted Evil as its Good. The eventual success of this occupation depends very largely on our readiness to appreciate the real nature of the responsibility we have accepted. That responsibility means that we must attempt to change the spirit of the people that we have defeated in battle. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult tasks we have undertaken in our history….
First, it is necessary to recognise that this moral collapse was not merely an isolated German phenomenon. It was largely a manifestation in an extreme form of a diseased condition in Western civilisation as a whole.”
Above all else, this placed a tremendous responsibility on English people to set an example to the rest of the world, as: “We have our own troubles, of course, but the traditional foundations of public morality in our country remain secure. The contrast seems still too great to be convincing. We have not yet a real sense of the break which has occurred in the history of civilisation….
Englishmen should realise that there are millions in Europe today, who feel that we in this country will decide whether the way of life of our western civilisation will survive or perish. Material resources can only come, no doubt, from across the Atlantic, but the spiritual example must come in very large measure from us, just because we are ourselves suffering the same crisis. It is surely not enough to tell ourselves only that ‘we work or want.’ On our readiness to work, which depends ultimately on our solution of our spiritual problem, will depend the survival of faith in other lands that our own. We are fighting a bigger battle than many of us realise.
One thing, at least, we can do ourselves. We can offer the strength of our own traditions to Germany.”