14th March 2009
I’m still trying to make sense of Field-Marshal Montgomery’s year as Military Governor of the British Zone of Germany.
His four messages to British troops on non-fraternisation, issued between March and September 1945, show how his policy gradually eased from a strict ban on any contact with the enemy.
It seems to me they also show British attitudes and assumptions changing; from an over-riding concern with the past, to concern for the future; from viewing the German people collectively, to seeing them as individuals, different from their rulers, and perhaps most bizarrely, from seeing the non-fraternisation ban as a form of collective punishment for the German people, to seeing its relaxation as the first step in a process of positive engagement between occupiers and occupied.
Montgomery’s first message, issued in March 1945, two months before the end of the war, forbade any contact with German men, women or children. It warned soldiers not to repeat the mistakes, believed to have been made at the end of the First World War, when British and French armies occupied the Rhineland:
“Twenty-seven years ago the Allies occupied Germany: but Germany has been at war ever since. Our Army took no revenge in 1918; it was more than considerate, and before a few weeks had passed many soldiers were adopted into German households. The enemy worked hard at being amiable…”
Meanwhile, according to the message, the German general staff prepared for war, and “‘organising sympathy’ became a German industry.… So accommodating were the occupying forces that the Germans came to believe we would never fight them again in any cause.”
This time the instruction to British troops was quite clear:
“In streets, houses, cafes, cinemas etc, you must keep clear of Germans, man woman, and child, unless you meet them in the course of your duty. You must not walk out with them, or shake hands, or visit their homes, or make them gifts, or take gifts from them. You must not play games with them or share any social event with them. In short you must not fraternise with Germans at all.”
“You will have to remember that these are the same Germans who, a short while ago, were drunk with victory, who were boasting what they as the Master Race would do to you as their slaves …”
“Our consciences are clear; ‘non-fraternisation’ to us implies no revenge; we have no theory of master races. But a guilty nation must not only be convicted: it must realise its guilt. Only then can the first steps be taken to re-educate it, and bring it back into the society of decent humanity….”
“Be just; be firm; be correct; give orders, and don’t argue. Last time we won the war and let the peace slip out of our hands. This time we must not ease off – we must win both the war and the peace.”
Three months later, on 12th June 1945, just over a month after the end of the war, Montgomery issued a brief second message that “We cannot let up on this policy … But these orders need no longer apply to small children.” A month later the ban was relaxed further and soldiers were told, in a third message to British forces, dated 14th July, that “conversation with adult Germans in the streets and in public places” was now permitted, but they were still forbidden to enter homes. Following consultations with the other occupying powers, and agreement at a meeting of the Control Council, a fourth message to all members of British Forces in Germany, dated 25th September, announced the full relaxation of the ban, except that no Allied soldiers were to be billeted with Germans or allowed to inter-marry.
Montgomery claimed in his memoirs that: “It was a great relief to get this matter settled. I had never liked the orders which we had to issue; but it was Allied policy.” This implies that in his first message he was reflecting official policy, and the easing of the ban was his response to the conditions he found on the ground.
The papers in the archives at the Imperial War Museum appear to back up this claim, at least from June 1945 onwards. They show Montgomery writing to the Secretary of State for War in London, James Grigg, recommending the relaxation of the ban, and approval to do so reluctantly granted by the government in London.
Other sources show that the ban was clearly unenforceable, and it was impossible to stop soldiers at the end of the war talking to German civilians, but I find it interesting to track the reasons given in the various messages, and in the correspondence between Montgomery and the government in London, for gradually relaxing the ban.
On 5th June Montgomery wrote to Grigg as follows:
“In March, just before the battle of the Rhine, I issued a card to every soldier on the subject, that order has been obeyed.
But we have now won the war and the problem is changed.
I consider we should ‘let-up’ by bounds, or phases; if we do not the soldiers will force our hands. We cannot expect the soldier to go on snubbing little children; he must be allowed to give full play to his natural kindly instincts. We do not want the German children to regard the British soldier as a kind of queer ogre.”
On 9th June he sent a telegram to Grigg confirming that the US army had now issued a statement that US soldiers could talk to small children and claiming it was “absurd and also very awkward” if British troops could not do the same. He went on to say he would issue an order permitting British troops to talk to small children on the following Monday, 11 June, if he had not heard otherwise.
He received a reply from a senior official at the War Office saying that his message had been referred to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and may have to go to Cabinet. “Question had highly political aspects though importance of military aspects is fully appreciated. Please do NOT repeat NOT issue any orders on Monday unless and until we have communicated authority to you. We will do our best to get early decision.”
On 11th June he received a personal message from the Prime Minister saying that “I think all you say is very good. I have great confidence in your handling of the situation. If you act in the (spirit) of your [previous messages] you will have my unflinching support. Surely you should pardon quietly those [British soldiers] who have previously offended. I see one man got 56 days.” Montgomery also received a telegram from Grigg, also dated 11 June, referring to the PM’s telegram and saying he personally was also in favour of “trusting to your discretion” but suggesting the action “should NOT have too much formal publicity in this country.”
All of this suggests that that Churchill and Grigg were prepared to give Montgomery their qualified support, but were not willing, at this stage, to ask for formal approval from Cabinet. Montgomery went ahead anyway and issued his brief message on 12th June telling troops the ban “need no longer apply to small children.”
On the same day, 12th June, he issued his second personal message to the German population of the British Zone, attempting to explain the ban to them. With hindsight, at this point, the story seems to me to become surreal. In this message, the German people were addressed as if they were naughty schoolboys, punished for “allowing themselves to be deceived by their rulers” by being sent to Coventry, and Montgomery sounds like a headmaster, trying to explain to them why it was all really for their own good. I wonder what any German men, woman and children thought of it, if they read it. Here is an extract:
“Again after years of waste and slaughter and misery, your Armies have been defeated. This time the Allies were determined that you should learn your lesson – not only that you have been defeated, which you must know by now, but that you, your nation, were again guilty of beginning the war. For if that is not made clear to you, and your children, you may again allow yourselves to be deceived by your rulers, and led into another war.….
This we have ordered, this we have done, to save yourselves, to save your children, to save the world from another war. It will not always be so. For we are Christian forgiving people, and we like to smile and be friendly. Our object is to destroy the evil of the Nazi system; it is too soon to be sure that this has been done….
You are to read this to your children, if they are old enough, and see that they understand. Tell them why it is that the British soldier does not smile.”
A few weeks later, Montgomery received a note from the Prime Minister dated 6th July, saying the question of fraternisation would be discussed at a Cabinet meeting that evening and asking for his views. Montgomery replied as follows. This time the emphasis is on re-education, rather than punishment:
“I have some 20 million German civilians in the British Zone. You cannot re-educate such a number of people if you never speak to them.
The Germans have had their lesson; we have not spoken to them for two months.
I consider we should now withdraw the ban on fraternisation; intimate relations should be discouraged; the exact methods must be left to Commanders-in-Chief.”
A few days later, on 10th July, he received another telegram from Grigg giving him qualified authority to relax the ban further:
This telegram started by attempting to explain why the ban had been put in place in the first place, in similar terms to Montgomery’s message to the German population a few weeks earlier. According to the telegram, this had been done partly as a security measure but “mainly to (impress) on German and Austrian populations (a) their responsibility for the war which has brought them to their present straits (b) what other countries think of their past (conduct) and (c) as a deterrent for the future than war does NOT pay.”
The telegram went on to say that the matter had been discussed in Cabinet and Montgomery now had discretion to relax the ban further, provided this was done gradually, and timed so that “the attitude of the British occupying forces is less severe in Austria than in Germany” and he should consult General Eisenhower [the US Military Governor] so similar policies were followed in both Zones. He should also “have regard to the likelihood that the Germans might attempt to play off the Russians against the other Allies” and therefore have the matter dealt with by the Allied Control Council, rather than act on his own.
Montgomery sent a message to Eisenhower the same day, suggesting that troops should be permitted to speak to adults as well as little children. He received a reply from Eisenhower agreeing in principle and suggesting both released statements on 14th July, which they duly did. A third letter to British forces on non-fraternisation, dated 14th July, permitted “conversation with adult Germans in the streets and in public places” but still forbade them to enter homes.
Interestingly, it seems Montgomery may have jumped the gun a bit, as he had already explained his policy on non-fraternisation in a long document (the second of his 'Notes on the Present Situation') dated 6th July, sent to his army Corps Commanders and Control Council Heads of Divisions. This outlined the policy they should follow in a wide number of areas, and even included a tear-off slip they should fill in and return to confirm they had received and read the document.
The section on fraternisation ran as follows, in Montgomery’s typical style for these types of documents, of brief numbered points:
"14) We cannot resuscitate Germany without the help of the people themselves; we cannot re-educate 20 million people if we are never to speak to them.
15) We crossed the Rhine on 23 March and for nearly four months we have not spoken to the German population, except when duty has so demanded. The Germans have been told why we have acted thus; it has been a shock to them and they have learnt their lesson.
16) To continue this policy is merely to make our own task very difficult, if not impossible,
17 I consider the ban on fraternisation should be lifted at once.
Fraternisation should be discouraged, but not forbidden
Commanders-in-Chief should be given a free hand to decide the best methods of applying this general directive.
18) At present the policy of the various Allies is not even the same
In the Russian Zone an officer or man is allowed to speak to and mix with civilians; in the British Zone he is tried by court-martial for so doing.
The Allies must all adopt the same policy."
Two months later, following discussions and agreement between all Allies at a meeting of the Control Council, in a fourth message to all members of British Forces in Germany, dated 25th September, Montgomery announced the full relaxation of the ban, except that no allied soldiers were to be billeted with Germans or allowed to inter-marry.
The ban on inter-marriage remained for a further 18 months or so, and the first marriages between British soldiers and German women were permitted in early 1947.