27 July 2016
One of the main findings of the Chilcot Enquiry into the Iraq war was that preparations for the aftermath were ‘wholly inadequate’. To quote Sir John Chilcot:
‘Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated. The planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were wholly inadequate.’
This is not surprising. As I wrote in a post in this blog back in 2008, soon after I had started researching the British occupation of Germany after the Second World War:
‘I need only mention the word 'Iraq' to make the point that what happens after the end of a war can be at least as important as what happens during the war itself.’
‘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.’
I have written before on this blog, and in a policy paper for History & Policy on Germany 1945-1949: a case study in post-conflict reconstruction about some of the lessons we can learn from British experiences in post-war Germany that are relevant to contemporary operations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
But there were differences as well as similarities. In the case of the Allied occupation of Germany, there was no lack of planning. Extensive preparations were undertaken, but the situation changed. Once the war was over, Field Marshal Montgomery, the Military Governor of the British Zone of occupation, and his colleagues found that planning undertaken earlier, and the directives and instructions they had been given by the politicians in London, were completely inadequate for the conditions they found once they arrived in Germany.
It was not that the planning undertaken was bad or wrong. Some of it was very useful. But the planners made some incorrect assumptions, such as that there would still be a functioning central German government in existence at the end of the war, that would accept and implement instructions given to it to it by the Allies, acting jointly through the Allied Control Council in Berlin.
And the planners failed to anticipate what the situation in the British Zone of Germany at the end of the war would actually be like, for example that instead of taking over the richest, most productive part of Germany, much of the zone would be a heap of rubble.
The problem they faced was therefore not, as the planners had expected, to restrict the level of German industry, but to build it up, so that German exports could pay for the food imports necessary to prevent starvation. Until that was done, the zone was a liability rather than the expected asset, costing the British taxpayer £80 million a year, (a very large amount in those days). Most of the cost was for food imports from the United States, required to secure the very low levels of rations in the zone of 1,500 calories a day – half the average consumption in ‘austerity Britain’.
The Chilcot Enquiry is therefore correct, but only partially correct. The problem was not only the lack of planning for the aftermath of war, but a failure to recognise that the outcome was bound to be uncertain, that assumptions might prove incorrect, that the situation might change, and occupying forces would need to be prepared for, and would have to respond to, circumstances that could not have been predicted before the decision was taken to go to war.
Until recently, the Allied and especially the British occupation of Germany after the Second World War has been a neglected subject. After a flurry of activity in the 1980s after official documents were released to the archives, interest in the subject faded away.
Since the Iraq war of 2003, there has been a revival of interest in the Allied occupation of Germany. Academic researchers, not only in Britain, but also in the United States, Germany, France and elsewhere, are now actively working on the subject, many in new and interesting ways.
Some of this new research will be presented at a conference I am co-organising, which will take place at the German Historical Institute, London, at the end of September: The Allied Occupation of Germany Revisited.
The conference is fully booked, but if you are interested in the subject, have a look at the conference web site. The Call for Papers, first issued in November 2015, describes the rationale for the conference; the programme shows the topics that will be covered; and the site also includes links to some fascinating early films, that go some way to showing what life was actually like in Germany immediately after the war.
We hope the conference will help to stimulate further interest in the subject of the post-war occupation of Germany, but also in the topic of military occupation generally. For example:
- Can different cases of occupation, such as the different zones of occupation in post-war Germany be usefully compared to each other, and to other cases of occupation, such as post-war Japan?
- What has been the legacy of occupation?
And to bring us back to Iraq, what is the relevance of the past to the present and to the future? What can we learn from the Allied occupation of Germany that is still relevant today?