1 March 2012
In a personal message to his troops issued on VE Day, 8 May 1945, Field-Marshal Montgomery wrote: ‘We have won the German war. Let us now win the peace.’ This message was repeated many times in the months that followed, but what he meant by ‘winning the peace’ was never entirely clear. British policy in occupied Germany after the Second World War is full of apparent contradictions. Despite extensive planning undertaken before the end of the war, much of the work done by the occupation authorities was characterised by hasty improvisation. Firm principles, such as those embodied in the Potsdam Agreement, were interpreted flexibly and pragmatically and in some cases eventually discarded. Initial planning was based on the expectation that Germany would be occupied for at least twenty years, but no timescale was ever formalised. By the end of 1945 the priority changed to reducing the scale and cost of the occupation and a policy of direct control was replaced by one of transferring responsibility to German authorities as rapidly as possible. Economically, a policy of restricting industrial growth was pursued in parallel with one of rebuilding the physical infrastructure and promoting economic reconstruction. Though convinced of the superiority of the British way of life, the occupiers were reluctant to impose a British model of democracy by totalitarian means, preferring to allow the Germans to devise their own solutions to constitutional reform. ‘Parallel worlds’, in which occupiers and occupied could live separate lives without meeting each other, coexisted with extensive cooperation at work, numerous individual encounters through social and cultural activities and personal relationships with their former enemies that in some cases resulted in lifelong friendships and marriage. Whether examining the economic, political, social or cultural aspects of the occupation, these contradictions make it difficult to identify any logical, coherent and distinctive ‘British’ policy in occupied Germany, let alone compare this with that of the other victorious Allies: the French, Russians and Americans.
A general uncertainty as to British policy towards Germany and the German people was, of course, to be expected in the transition from war to peace, as the primary task of the Allied armies changed from achieving victory in battle to the civilian administration of a defeated enemy. Politicians in London had other priorities, not least the dissolution of the wartime coalition and the general election. The new Labour government, when it assumed office in August 1945, had an ambitious programme of domestic reform and once the Potsdam Agreement was finalised, little time or inclination to issue new guidance or instructions to the authorities in Germany. Policy directives prepared earlier did not provide for unexpected circumstances, such as the absence of any central German government, the scale of destruction in the cities, the shortage of food after initial supplies were exhausted and the influx of millions of refugees expelled from the former German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line. Those responsible for Military Government, at all levels, had to use their own initiative to decide what course of action to take in unfamiliar circumstances. Their problems were exacerbated by the temporary nature of the occupation and the need to work within a new administrative framework established to govern the twenty million people in the British Zone. The organisational structure of the occupation was in constant flux as it was changed in response to external pressures or reorganised in an attempt to achieve greater administrative efficiency. There was little staff continuity, as many of the military officers appointed early in the occupation left Germany when they were demobilised, to be replaced by civilians or other military personnel reluctant to return to civilian life in Britain. Those appointed to posts often had no relevant qualifications or previous experience of the work required of them. There was little established practice or precedent they could draw on, or organisational support.
Despite these uncertainties, the overall pattern of the occupation, from the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 to the formation of an independent West German government in September 1949, was fairly straightforward. With some differences in emphasis and timing, the same process can be observed in all three western zones. The largely negative policies agreed at Potsdam were replaced by more positive policies culminating in the European Recovery Programme, the transfer of power to elected German authorities, and the eventual inclusion of West Germany in NATO. The negative policies are often summarised as the ‘Four Ds’ of the Potsdam Agreement, though different historians have used more than four words starting with the letter ‘D’ describe these, referring variously to: Disarmament, Demilitarisation, Denazification, Decentralisation, Decartelisation, Deindustrialisation, Dismantling and Democratisation. Historians have not given the same shorthand description to the positive aspects of Allied occupation policy, but I would suggest that they could be similarly characterised as the ‘Three Rs’ of physical Reconstruction, political Renewal and personal Reconciliation, relating to the economic, political and social and cultural elements of British, US and French occupation policy respectively. (Re-education could possibly be added as a fourth ‘R’, but this was a contested term and an aspiration rather than a policy).
The reasons the Allies decided to impose the negative policies agreed at Potsdam are easy to understand and explain, based on their experience of the First World War and after and concerns for their own security. Disarmament and demilitarisation were considered essential to prevent another war and to destroy the power of the German army and officer class. Denazification was considered necessary to remove former Nazi Party members from positions of influence and to prevent another Hitler coming to power. Decentralisation and decartelization were designed to reduce the excessive power of the state and large industrial combines. Deindustrialisation and dismantling of heavy industry were aimed at reducing Germany’s economic capacity and ability to produce war plant and equipment and also to enable reparations to be paid, in the form of surplus capital equipment, to the victorious Allies and liberated countries. Democratisation was the exception among the policies agreed at Potsdam, as it cannot be described as negative. It was presented in the agreement in very general terms as a long term goal to ‘prepare for the eventual reconstruction of German political life on a democratic basis’ and for the ‘eventual peaceful cooperation in international life by Germany.’ None of these policies were especially controversial or subject to disagreement in principle, although there were disputes about the detail, such as the mechanism for the payment of reparations, and significant disagreements soon emerged among the allies over the way the policies were implemented. In general, the Potsdam Agreement represented the continuation of the wartime alliance. It formalised plans made and developed at earlier war-time summits attended by Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin or their deputies at Casablanca, Tehran, Quebec, Moscow and Yalta.
The reasons for adopting the more positive policies of the ‘Three Rs’ - Reconstruction, Renewal and Reconciliation - are less easy to understand and explain. In the first year of the occupation, each of the allies operated relatively autonomously with regard to internal policy in their own zone. Apart from discussions in the Allied Control Council, there was no formal cooperation until the agreement by the British and US to unify their zones economically with effect from 1 January 1947, to form what was called the ‘Bizone.’ My research examines the position in the British Zone, in which the positive policy of the ‘Three Rs’ started to be applied very soon after the start of the occupation in the summer of 1945, under the direction of the Military Governor, Field-Marshal Montgomery, with the active support of his senior generals. These more positive policies did not replace the ‘Four D’s’ agreed at Potsdam but were implemented in parallel. Over time they superseded them, as the negative policies were considered to have been substantially achieved.
The British ‘men on the ground’ in Germany, (and they were mostly men, not women), acted largely on their own initiative, without specific direction or guidance from the politicians, civil servants or diplomats based in London. In my research, I attempt to explain why so many British officers and civilian administrators devoted so much of their time and energy to the reconstruction of their former enemy, after a very bitter war, in contrast with the negative official policies agreed at Potsdam. In the absence of clear policy direction, established practice, well understood precedents, or institutional infrastructure, my research focuses on the motivation and intentions of individuals and tries to answer the questions: what did British people in occupied Germany aim to achieve, and why, and how did this change over the first three years of the occupation. In so doing, it aims to explain some of the changes and contradictions in British policy, arguing that these were not only a pragmatic response to unexpected circumstances, changing priorities determined in London or organisational uncertainties, but a result of the ‘mental baggage’ individuals brought with them: their education, social and personal background, previous experience, historical understanding, values and religious beliefs.