15th June 2010
As I said in a previous post on this blog on Max Weber and the Ideal Type the problem we face as historians is how to make sense of the mass of facts and circumstances we discover and how to communicate this to our listeners or readers.
The approach I have adopted in my research, on British people in occupied Germany after the war, is to ‘follow the people’ and study a number of individuals who are interesting for one reason or another and who collectively illustrate what different British people aimed to achieve once the war was over.
The advantage of this approach, it seemed to me, was that it avoided excessive generalisation, claiming for example, that the ‘British’ did this, the ‘Americans’ that, and the ‘Germans’ something else. Different people of all nationalities thought and acted in very different ways, depending among other things, on their age, education, previous experience, personal moral and religious beliefs.
To ‘follow the people’ also seemed a suitable approach for researching a time when the ‘people on the ground’ received very little in the way of clear policy direction from their government; from those they reported to and worked for. As a result they often ended up doing what they personally thought was best. In the chaos and confusion that followed the end of the war, any study of official government policy could be misleading. What politicians and diplomats said and wrote in London did not necessary reflect what people actually did in Germany.
But history is more than a collection of individuals and I need to group the people I study in a way that makes sense to my readers or listeners. So here are some thoughts on different ways of grouping or categorising people that makes sense to me in my own field of study, but which could also apply more generally in other areas:
I study British people, not French, Americans, Russians or Germans, though part of my work involves looking at how the victorious British soldiers and administrators interacted with people of other nationalities, notably the defeated Germans. One day it might be interesting to compare the British people I study with what the French, Russians or Americans did in their zones, but one problem with doing this is that I would need access to a different set of sources and ideally would be able to read French and Russian as well as English and German. I suspect that nationality is an artificial distinction and there are more similarities than differences across national boundaries, as people in similar circumstances tend to think and act the same way, but I have very little evidence to prove this one way or the other. So nationality is an unavoidable category, as that is how our sources are often organised, but it can be difficult to make meaningful comparisons between groups of people of different nationalities.
Power and influence
I decided to limit the people I study to those who worked in an official capacity in British Military Government, the Control Commission, or the occupation forces. Where suitable sources are available, I am looking at those at the top of the organisation, as they had the power and influence to carry out whatever it was they decided to do; or more accurately, they could attempt to carry it out, in the face of the various obstacles and difficulties they encountered in the course of their work. Sometimes I have found people at a more junior level possessed considerable discretion in their own area, together with a high degree of power and influence and I have included some of these people in the study. Some exceptional individuals went ahead and did whatever they thought was right, without their immediate superiors knowing, or regardless of what they thought about it. But I did decide to exclude short term visitors and those who held no official position, such as journalists and politicians based in Britain and the wives and families who joined their husbands in Germany from 1946 onwards. Though it is interesting to study these groups, both in their own right and as a source of independent observations and descriptions of the time, they could not be taken to represent an ‘official view’ of what British people aimed to achieve in postwar Germany.
The number of British women who worked in an official capacity for Military Government or the Control Commission was very small. Nearly all the people I study, therefore, are male and there is no point categorising them by gender, though there is plenty of scope, outside my own field of study, for looking at the topic of ‘British women in post-war Germany’.
Social and economic class is often seen as a key distinction in British society. Those at the top of Military Government tended to come from wealthier and more privileged backgrounds and formed part of what might be called the British professional establishment. Many British people in Germany also seem to have been very conscious of class distinctions; between officers and other ranks in the army, or between the pilots and ground crew in the air force. But categorising the victorious occupiers by social class seems to have limited value in an occupied country in the aftermath of war. In postwar Germany all British people were members of a relatively wealthy and privileged upper class, compared to the defeated enemy soldiers and prisoners-of-war, a civilian population of mainly old men, women and children, let alone homeless Displaced Persons, refugees or concentration camp survivors.
More than social class, educational background does seem to have influenced what some British people did in postwar Germany: with common attitudes shared by those who went to university, to the military academies at Sandhurst or Woolwich, to the major public schools, or to a state-funded grammar school.
Those at the top of Military Government, with the greatest power and influence, were inevitably part of an older generation. The Military Governors and senior officers I studied were all born between 1887 and 1897 and so were between 48 and 58 years old when the war ended in 1945. They had a very different outlook on life from a younger generation of more junior officers, men and women, around 18 and 32 years old in 1945 with no adult experience apart from war.
Those working in the various divisions and branches of Military Government seemed to share a common attitude and approach to their work that differed from other divisions. It should therefore be possible to group people by their role and job function: among the occupation forces, those who were part of the army, navy or RAF, or at a more detailed level, those who were stationed in Berlin compared to those in British zone of occupation; those who worked for the Information Services Control, Education, Political, Economic or Local Government divisions, those who were engaged in de-nazification, security, prosecuting war crimes, or the care and welfare of refugees or Displaced Persons.