14th September 2009
It’s intriguing how memories of the First World War and its aftermath influenced British people in occupied Germany at the end of the Second World War.
At the end of the First World War, French, British, Belgian and US troops occupied the Rhineland. This was agreed as part of the Armistice signed on November 11th 1918. The details, including zones of occupation, were worked out by the French Marshal Foch and the British were allocated the city of Cologne and surrounding area. British troops first crossed the frontier into Germany on 2nd December 1918.
The occupation was originally intended to last for 15 years, with the number of Allied troops reduced in stages after 5 and 10 years, subject to certain conditions being met. The British left Cologne in January 1926, but some troops stayed on in Wiesbaden until 30th June 1930.
Looking back to memories of the First World War and its aftermath helps to explain some of the ambivalence in British policy and attitudes towards the German people after the Second World War. On the one hand a concern not to be deceived again by a duplicitous people, who, so the story went, had courted sympathy from well-meaning Allied soldiers, claiming they were victims of an unjust peace settlement, while at the same time planning their revenge and preparing for war. But on the other hand, a concern that the Allies had also made some mistakes, and the economic depression, hunger and unemployment which followed the First World War should not be repeated, for fear that an even worse disaster may occur in the not so distant future.
As examples of the view that this time, in 1945, they had to “stay the course” and “do the job properly”, here are some extracts from three articles in early editions of the British Zone Review, the official journal of the British Military Government and Control Commission for Germany:
“Experiences of Rhineland Occupation: 1919-1925
You will not, I think, be surprised at my conclusions – that the occupation, intended as a measure for preventing their making war, was used by the Germans as a means of dividing the Allies and of getting their propaganda into the very heart of each of the Allied countries. Moreover we failed to see that Germany was only shamming dead economically and financially and was exploiting the situation to arouse a wholly unjustified sympathy and causing us serious trade difficulties, for which we would blame the peace settlement and our Allies.”
(British Zone review, October 13th 1945)
“Lessons of History
We set out to see whether there was a lesson to be learnt from history. It now stares us in the face. To cut down our occupying forces below an effective minimum or to let considerations of retrenchment weaken our control organisation would be to fly in the face of experience.”
(British Zone Review, November 24th 1945)
“Why Weimar failed
Behind the welter of political strife, the confusion of unversed and inept politicians, the militarists and industrialists waited and planned to avenge themselves of their defeat.”
(British Zone Review, December 22nd 1945)
On the other hand, if we look at contemporary accounts of the British occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War, written in the 1920s rather than in 1945, we find that the troops generally got on well with the local population, and in many cases returned home “definitely pro-German.” Violet Markham, who spent two years in Germany with her husband, who was chief demobilization officer for the British Army of the Rhine, wrote in her book 'A Woman’s Watch on the Rhine' published in 1921, that “Life in Cologne is very pleasant for the occupying army” and “surely no Army of Occupation was ever so well housed or so comfortable as we are.” On first crossing the border into Germany, she remarked that “It is almost with a shock you realise that German civilians are not equipped with hoofs and horns or other attributes of a Satanic character” and she soon came to see people as individuals, rather than as the stereotypes promoted by governments in wartime:
“It is easy to hate the abstraction called Germany, but for individual Germans one feels either like, dislike or indifference the same as for other people.”
Although she had no doubts as to the “noble ideal” for which the British had fought the war, and was irritated at Germany’s “refusal to say she is sorry”, she was also critical of Allied post-war policy; especially the continuation of the economic blockade; and the Treaty of Versailles, which she said had “scrapped the fundamental ideals for which we fought the war.”
In her view, the democratic government which emerged in Germany in 1918 had an impossible task as it was “confronted by hunger, defeat, despair, and the miseries which resulted from the blockade” and the Allies were partly to blame for the rise of the extreme parties and the decline in the vote for the Social Democrats in the elections of 1920:
“The party standing for ordered democratic development had been knocked out. The British public should try to realise it has been killed by the Allied policy.”
She was not optimistic for the future. In a prediction, which may have seemed extravagant at the time, but which turned out to be unpleasantly close to the truth, she wrote that:
“The post-war chaos appears so complete that men turn from it in despair. Moral disillusion and weariness have their counterparts in recklessness and wild extravagance. There is a sense of an approaching Twilight of the Gods; of a collapse of the foundations of society.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that official British policy after the Second World War, at least as implemented by those on the ground in Germany, was influenced as much by this second strand of thought, of the need to avoid hunger, despair and unemployment, as by concerns that German militarists would re-arm and seek their revenge. This can be traced in the papers of General Sir Brian Robertson, arguably the most influential British soldier and administrator in Germany after the end of the war. His father, General, later Field-Marshal, Sir William Robertson had been Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the First World War and for a time, in 1919, Military Governor of the British occupied part of the Rhineland.
In a speech in November 1939, when he was President of the Natal Chamber of Industries in South Africa, well before he had any idea of his future role in post-war Germany, Brian Robertson looked forward to the end of the war, saying:
“This war, so far at least, is very unlike the last. It is equally certain that the peace treaties, which have yet to be made, will be quite unlike those which ended the last war. Those treaties were failures because they were based upon fear and vindictiveness. The next treaties, if they are to give lasting peace, must be founded upon confidence and generosity, and they must strike at the root causes of international unrest. Chief among these causes is that economic nationalism which has grown up like a rank week to stifle the national flow of trade between nations.”
Many years later in 1965, in a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Brian Robertson referred to his experience as a member of the British delegation at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1932-3 and how this had made him: “a first hand witness of the failure to deal properly with Germany after World War 1.” He continued by saying:
“My father had been Military Governor for a period then. He often talked to me about the mistakes and problems of those years. ‘The idea that you can hold down a country like Germany with her face in the dust indefinitely is a foolish one’ he used to say.”
If it was not possible to 'hold Germany down' for ever, there had to be an alternative policy to one that was purely negative, based on disarmament, demilitarisation and economic controls. In an article in the British Zone Review in October 1945, Robertson tried to explain his own personal philosophy, which suggested he had learnt a different 'lesson from history' from the other articles I quoted earlier in this posting. The analogy Robertson used was that of education: the German people had to be treated as one would treat a child. Firstly it was necessary to be stern, as the child had “inherited some very bad qualities from its parents”. But secondly it was necessary to be just, as:
“Lack of justice towards the Germans will bring us no profit but will evoke a spirit of embitterment and martyrdom which is as certain to lead to a desire for revenge as it did during the years which followed the First World War. Starvation and disease are not suitable punitive measures.”
In a talk he gave in December 1945 at a conference of British Army Corps Commanders, who at the time also acted as regional governors, responsible for all aspects of Military Government in their areas, Robertson gave his view of the attitudes of the four Allies in Germany, claiming that it was only the British who had a constructive policy. The French were concerned above all with their own security and the Russians with the payment of reparations. The Americans went from one extreme to the other and “their main contribution to Quadripartite government is to produce a series of unpractical laws which have very little bearing on the main problems.” The British were, in his view: “the only power that really cares what happens to Germany. We flatter ourselves that we can regenerate her. Probably we feel instinctively that our interests will not best be served by turning Germany into a helpless desert.”
David G. Williamson, The British in Germany 1918-1930: the Reluctant Occupiers (New York, Oxford: Berg, 1991)
David Williamson, A Most Diplomatic General: The life of General Lord Robertson of Oakridge (London, Washington: Brasseys, 1996)
Violet Markham, A Woman’s Watch on the Rhine (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1921)