26th May 2010
One of the most recent and best books on post-war Germany is Richard Bessel’s Germany 1945: from War to Peace.
This highlights the devastation in Germany, especially the sheer scale of violence, death and destruction in the final months of the war and the chaos caused by millions of refugees and so called ‘Displaced Persons’ either returning home, or expelled from their former homes, or in some cases, both.
He also looked at and tried to explain the achievement of post-war Germany in surviving total military defeat, foreign occupation and economic deprivation, and moving forward to peace and prosperity. In his words:
‘Among the most remarkable aspects of the transformation of German mentalities that stemmed from the catastrophe of 1945 was the turn away from war and from the glorification of things military in the second half of the twentieth century.’
In his conclusion, he claims there were five reasons for this. I agree with him on three:
- ‘the completeness of Germany’s defeat’
- ‘the complete and obvious bankruptcy of National Socialism’
- ‘the vast extent of the losses’
I’m not sure about the fourth, ‘the overwhelming focus of Germans upon their day-to-day concerns’. Perhaps I can write more about this in a future post.
On the fifth reason, it seems to me, he is fundamentally wrong:
- ‘the harshness with which the Allies imposed their occupation’
‘It was not just the Russians who came determined to stamp their authority on the occupied enemy country in no uncertain terms … The harshness of the occupation in its initial months left no room for successful resistance.’
A ‘harsh occupation’ may be the right description for what the Russians, the Americans or the French did in their zones of occupation in 1945, (I’m no expert on this), but in the British zone, firstly there was no resistance anyway, and secondly, British policy (as determined by those on the ground, if not the politicians in London) changed very soon after the end of the war from destruction to reconstruction. I’ve written about this several times on this blog, for example in a post on Turning Points: when and why did British policy in Germany change after the end of the Second World War? and another on Goronwy Rees and Sir William Strang's six day tour of Germany in June 1945.
The examples Richard Bessel used to justify his claim for a ‘harsh occupation’ were nearly all taken from the US Zone. I wonder if the book therefore reflects a predominant US historical view and an (in my view, incorrect) assumption that what the British did was, more or less, much the same as the Americans. For example, another recent book by a US based historian, Konrad Jarausch, After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995, takes a similar view, emphasising the negative aspects of the occupation, following the author’s understanding of the ‘famous three ‘Ds’ – demilitarization, denazification, and decartelization’ of Potsdam.
The British zone was different, and British attitudes and policy changed with the end of the war in May 1945, earlier than any corresponding change in US policy. To quote three examples from three of the top British generals:
General Sir Brian Horrocks wrote in his memoirs, about how things changed ‘almost overnight’ after the end of the war:
‘During those first few days after the German capitulation we all felt as though an immense weight had been lifted from our shoulders; but this wonderful carefree atmosphere did not last for long. We were faced by the many intricate problems involved in the resuscitation of a stricken Germany. Having spent the last six years doing our best to destroy the German Reich, almost overnight we had to go into reverse gear and start building her up again. This required a considerable mental switch.’
Field-Marshal Montgomery, Military Governor of the zone, wrote about needing to offer the defeated German people ‘hope for the future’, for example in the third of his ‘Notes on the Present Situation’ in July 1945:
‘Our present attitude towards the German people is negative, it must be replaced by one that is positive and holds out hope for the future.’
His deputy, Brian Robertson, wrote in an article in the British Zone Review in October 1945, that it was necessary to be ‘stern but just’. The negative aspects of the occupation, disarmament, demilitarisation and denazification were, in his view ‘comparatively straightforward’ and there was no disagreement among the Allies in how to achieve these. On the other hand:
‘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.’
Does this matter? It seems to me it does for two reasons.
Firstly, concentrating on the negative aspects of the occupation, means that the more positive aspects are neglected or ignored. Reconciliation between British and German people in the aftermath of war, after a very bitter conflict, did not happen automatically, as a result of a ‘transformation in German mentalities’ due to the ‘vast extent of the losses’ or ‘the harshness of the occupation’, but required a conscious and deliberate effort from many individuals on both sides. The story of how and why this was done needs to be told.
Secondly, it is all too easy to extend the idea that ‘a harsh occupation worked’ to the idea that ‘war works’. Richard Bessel ended his book by writing (correctly in my view) that in Germany in 1945 (in contrast to Germany in 1918): ‘War was seen not as a glorious crusade but as a terrible cataclysm which created only victims and was to be avoided at all costs.’
Unfortunately in Britain and the United States, if not in Germany, the Second World War is still remembered, by many people, as a ‘glorious crusade’.
This is not surprising, as that is now it was presented at the time. Konrad Jarausch quoted a private letter from President Roosevelt in which he described the war as a ‘crusade to save … civilization from a cult of brutal tyranny, which would destroy it and all of the dignity of human life’ and shortly before the Normandy Landings on D-Day, General Eisenhower gave all those involved a message which started by saying ‘You are about to embark on the Great Crusade.’ (I still have the copy my own father, who was there, received and you can read Ike’s D-Day message on the Web).
Unfortunately what some people forget, as we know only too well from more recent events, is that war may sometimes be just and necessary, but there are always victims, and if it works, (which is never certain), it only works if the right things are done after, as well as during, the war.
Richard Bessel, Germany 1945: from War to Peace (London, New York, Sydney, Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2009)
Konrad H. Jarausch, After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, A Full Life (London: Leo Cooper 1974) Revised and extended edition. First published by William Collins, 1960
Imperial War Museum, London, Montgomery papers, BLM 85/15, 'Notes on the present situation', 14 July 1945
Brian Robertson, ‘Quo Vadis?’, British Zone Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, 27 Oct. 1945