2nd July 2007
The official exhibition 'Germany under Control', sponsored by the British Ministry of Information, was formally opened in London on June 7th 1946, three months after Humphrey Jennings' film, 'A Defeated People' (see earlier postings) received its first showing.
The exhibition was held in London on a large site on Oxford Street, which had been used the previous year for another Ministry of Information exhibition: 'Victory over Japan'. This ran for four months from August to December 1945 and had attracted huge crowds - over one and a half million in total, more than 10,000 people per day on average. Perhaps they were attracted by the heat, as the temperature inside was kept at 120 degrees (Fahrenheit), to simulate conditions in the jungle. To quote The Times report on August 21st, visitors could also experience "giant cobwebs [brushing] against the face as one passes, and spiders, the size of a man's hand, are seen curled up in the web. One hears the sound of running water, the noise of insects and the wails of jackals and hyenas."
'Germany under Control' was altogether more serious. Although it never achieved the huge numbers attending the Japan exhibition, a total of 220,000 people visited it in the two months it was open between June and August 1946. On Whit Monday bank holiday on June 10th it was attended by over 9,000 people and at one point the queue of people waiting to get in built up to over 500.
The idea for the exhibition came originally from the British Military Government and Control Commission in Germany, in a letter dated 27th December 1945 signed by General Templer, on behalf of Brian Robertson, the deputy Military Governor, in which the aim of the exhibition is stated as: "the enlightening of the British public in regard to the problems and tasks of the Control Commission for Germany" and so meeting the demand in Britain, from both members of Parliament and the general public, for more information about what was going on in Germany under British occupation, at the end of the war.
Originally the proposed date for the opening was March 28th, as this would coincide with financial provision for the Control Commission for the new financial year, starting in April. This shows that the cost of the occupation was already a sensitive issue, well before Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequer, revealed in the Budget debate on 9th April 1946 that the estimated cost for the coming year would be £80 million, and went on to say that this meant that Britain was in effect paying reparations to Germany, instead of the other way round.
Subsequent discussions within the Control Office for Germany and Austria, (known as COGA) the UK based arm of the Control Commission, which had taken on responsibility for organising the exhibition, show officials expressing concerns as to how the story should be presented to the British public, in particular why should the British taxpayer pay to put Germany on its feet again. For example, in a memo to Sir Arthur Street, the Permanent Secretary, regarding the name to be given to the exhibition, Group Captain Houghton, Director of Information Services, wrote that: "The show will largely illustrate the steps which are being taken to reconstruct and govern. But we must not use slogans like 'Germany Today' or 'The New Germany', since the public ... may form wrong opinions." The answer, he believed was that: "The British public must be told they will directly profit from what we are doing in Germany."
These tensions between grand and worthy objectives, and practical concerns at the public's reaction were never resolved.
Logistical issues meant that the opening was delayed until 7th June 1946, the day before a Victory Parade in London celebrating one year since Victory in Europe. In his speech opening the exhibition, in front of an audience of 3,000 people at the Dominion Theatre, including Mayors and Mayoresses of London Borough in their full regalia and other distinguished guests, J B Hynd, the minister responsible for Germany, highlighted the scale and importance of the task: "...an enterprise of great magnitude and difficulty for which there is indeed no precedent in human history ... It is therefore, in the beginning a costly job, but investment for peace is better, and infinitely cheaper than investment for war, and the work we are doing is no less than a great, perhaps final, effort to establish conditions in which the world may be freed from the menace of war forever."
An earlier article in the Evening Standard on 25th April, promoting the exhibition, was less high minded. This stated simply that the exhibition "aims at showing to the British taxpayer that his money in Germany is being well spent" and mentioned a number of specific exhibits including; a comparison of British and German food rations, pots and pans made Wehrmacht helmets to illustrate the theme of 'swords into ploughshares' and a small box containing locks of hair from figures in German history including Henry the Lion and his English wife Mathilda. These had been disinterred in secret in by the Nazis in 1935, and were subsequently found by the British to have been originally black, but died blond by the Nazis.
The British official responsible for the exhibition wrote wryly to a colleague, in an internal memo enclosing the cutting: "To get the maximum of linage, you will understand that we will have to approach the affair from different angles. In the process, a certain amount of dignity, I am afraid, must be sacrificed, but I think we should get the required result."
Official British policy was now shifting, almost exactly one year after Victory in Europe (VE) Day, looking towards ending the occupation sooner rather than later. The draft text of a leaflet given to all attendees at the exhibition was changed to reflect this. The concluding paragraph of the original draft text expressed similar sentiments to Hynd's speech at the opening: "We are going to ensure that Germany does not again make war on us. We are going to convert the British Zone from a liability into an asset. We are going to maintain a Control Commission in Germany until we have attained these aims." In the printed version, the final paragraphs read very differently, looking forward to the time when the British would leave: "The Germans know best how to solve Germany's difficult problems. It must be our constant aim to make the Germans run their own affairs. If we fail to do this, we shall leave chaos behind us when we go. For we are not going to remain in Germany indefinitely. We must therefore train the Germans to govern themselves on the lines which we believe to be right, gradually and cautiously transferring more and more responsibility to them."
The British public was turning inwards. No longer as interested in the big issues of how to prevent another war, or prepared to take on the responsibilities and burdens of reconstructing, re-educating and democratising Germany, their main concerns were more practical and down to earth. The most popular exhibit at the exhibition was a comparison of British and German ration scales, with models of each in glass cases, complete with calorific values. In a review after the first two weeks, the exhibition organisers expressed concern at the reactions of the visitors, some of whom thought the Germans were getting too much, and the British not enough, because they did not read the captions correctly and thought the larger British ration was actually the smaller German ration, and vice versa. This has remained a persistent myth. (See my earlier postings on Bread Rationing in Britain). No longer prepared to take on and solve the problems of the world, the British now complained about austerity at home and how much worse off they thought they were than their neighbours.