4 July 2011
As a student researching British people in occupied Germany after the Second World War, I was intrigued to read a recent book by Peter Stirk on The Politics of Military Occupation. In this, he proposed the following definition of military occupation as:
“A form of government imposed by force or threat thereof that establishes a type of mutual obligation between the occupier and the occupied, but without bringing about any change in allegiance.”
If we accept this definition, (which seems reasonable to me), this implies that occupation is the de facto rule of the inhabitants of one country, by people appointed and controlled by the government(s) of another country or countries, by the use of force if necessary, usually, but not exclusively, as a result of the invasion, capture and occupation of territory in war.
- It therefore represents the conscious denial of self-government to the inhabitants of the defeated country, on a temporary basis. (There may, of course, be good reasons for this, such as self-defence while the war is in progress, or the need to avoid chaos and anarchy).
- It combines alien rule with military dictatorship and rule by force.
- Though established and maintained by force, there is still an obligation on the occupier to protect the community, arising from the responsibility that goes with assumption of the authority to govern, and a corresponding obligation on the occupied to obey, or at least not frustrate the authority of the occupier. These mutual obligations may often be violated in practice, on both sides, but this does not mean they should not be accepted as the normal standard of behaviour.
Occupation is often presumed to be inherently disreputable; an unstable and illegitimate form of government, unlike two other outcomes of war: a) conquest and annexation of territory formerly held by the defeated government or b) liberation from the rule of an oppressive regime and the restoration of self-government. Occupiers may try to describe themselves as something else - conquerors, liberators or allies - to avoid the charge of alien rule or military dictatorship.
Occupations are often described from the point of view of the occupied, as a period of oppression before liberation and the restoration of a legitimate government – for example Belgium under German occupation during the First World War.
On the other hand, where occupation was followed by a successful annexation, the period of occupation tends to be forgotten, subsumed in the subsequent history of the territory as an integral part of the victorious country – such as the conquest and annexation of California and New Mexico by the USA, following the Mexican-American war of 1846-8.
In some cases, occupation represents the period between the cessation of hostilities, the end of active conflict, and the signing of a peace treaty. However, military occupation of all or part of a country can also continue after a peace treaty is signed, such as the occupation of the Rhineland, after the First World War.
Occupation can also be followed by self-determination and independence. In these cases it comprises a continuum, not a fixed status. For example the degree of control exercised by the occupying power could range from absolute control of all aspects of government, to reserved powers agreed by treaty and enforced by a military presence stationed in a small number of bases – such as the occupation of Germany by the Allies after the Second World War.
In these circumstances, it seems to me that occupation can perhaps be best understood by a comparison with Empire, thinking of the occupied territory as a ‘temporary colony’, administered by the occupier (the imperial power) on behalf of the local inhabitants and expected in due course, by both occupiers and occupied, to acquire full independence as a separate country. That, of course, is a fairly positive way of seeing it. It could also be viewed in more negative terms as a 'temporary colony' controlled and exploited by the occupier for political, economic or strategic reasons.
Occupation is essentially temporary, though it may be prolonged over several decades. It assumes the continued existence of a country, (as a defined area of land), even if that country has no government, the government is not able to enforce its rule in the occupied territories, or the juridical authority of the government is limited to less than would be considered full independence.
Although occupation may appear harsh, the idea was originally designed to limit the arbitrary conquest and annexation of territory following victory and defeat in war, creating a distinction between temporary occupation, and the permanent assertion of authority over a conquered territory, legitimised by a peace treaty.
There have been many occasions when countries, such as France, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Germany and Japan, have both been occupied and have acted as occupiers themselves. This makes it interesting to study attempts to create a set of principles which apply generally to military occupation, and which are fair to both occupiers and occupied. One such set of principles was embodied in international law in the Hague Conventions of 1907, which remain in force today. The relevant section is headed "Military authority over the territory of the hostile state’. It defines occupation as "the authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant," and specifies some principles which limit the absolute power of the occupying authority. See articles 42-56 of the Convention.
Where does my own subject of research, the British Occupation of Germany after the Second World War, fit within a generalised understanding of Military Occupation?
Germany was not treated by the Allies as a liberated country (unlike Austria), and they had no intention of restoring the Weimar Republic as it had been prior to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. The British and US had no intention of annexing any part of the country (unlike the Soviet Union and arguably the French), but they did intend to control its future political and economic development, though for how long they could continue to do this, and by what means, were not clear. The declaration of assumption of supreme power by the Allied Commanders at the end of the war included the assertion that the Hague Convention did not apply and they did not consider they were bound by them. The occupation was therefore a fairly rare example of one that was clearly not perceived as liberation and restoration of the previous order, though it was expected to be followed by self-determination and independence, subject to approval of the Allies. Nowadays we would probably call this ‘regime change’. From a British perspective, it seems a good example of occupation as a ‘temporary colony’, that would eventually be allowed independence, in line with British imperial ideas at the time. Remarkably, although at first it was expected that the occupation would last twenty years or more, it all happened very quickly, with an independent West German government created and approved by the Western Allies in 1949, though still subject to the restrictions of an Occupation Statute.
According to Peter Stirk: “Military occupiers have been consistently inadequately prepared for military government, even on those occasions where they have recognised the problem in advance and made great efforts to prepare for it, such as the Allied occupation of Germany and Japan at the end of the Second World War.”
Too often, he continued, occupation has been subject to improvisation. Occupiers have been surprised at the enormity of the task, perceiving its extent as "unprecedented" and complaining about lack of resources and inadequate personnel. This certainly matches my understanding of the British in post-war Germany.
Military occupations in the aftermath of war do occur, and however difficult, there is a good case that a properly organised and regulated occupation is better than the alternatives: unnecessary conquest and annexation that might cause resentment many years into the future, the application of brute force to maintain control or enforce specific policies against the wishes of the inhabitants, or simply walking away after military intervention and doing nothing. All three options were considered suitable, by some people, for post-war Germany, but fortunately never taken further.
The dilemma for the occupier, of course, is that they may still feel threatened by the country they defeated in war, invaded and occupied, or they may dislike or disapprove of the conduct of the government there (perhaps with good reason), but fighting a war does not lead directly to the creation of a new and better government. If the country has been invaded, victory leads to military occupation, with a whole new set of problems and challenges. Peter Stirk defined Military Occupation as a form of government, which seems correct to me, but it is one that contains the seeds of its own destruction, as the purpose of the occupation must be to make itself redundant and hand over control either to the previous government or to a new, legitimate authority. Successful occupations are those that achieve this reasonably quickly. Unsuccessful occupations are those that last longest.
Peter Stirk, The Politics of Military Occupation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)