Last week I wrote about Goronowy Rees and his preface to the English translation of Der Fragebogen by Ernst von Salomon.
This week, I'm writing about his experiences as a British officer in Germany after the war, based on the chapter 'Victory' in his book of autobiographical sketches A Bundle of Sensations, first published in 1960.
Goronwy Rees was in Germany for six months from April to September 1945. He was a senior intelligence officer in the Political Division of Military Government, with the rank of Lt. Colonel, reporting to the Political Adviser, Sir William Strang.
Of particular interest was the account of a six day tour they made through the British Zone of Germany in late June or early July, in which Rees describes in graphic terms the conditions they found there. In many ways, it's similar to the 'First Impressions' of other British officers, diplomats, administrators and journalists, which I've quoted in earlier postings. He writes about his shock at the scale of destruction, especially in the industrial cities of the Ruhr, which were now like "some landscape on the moon", and the extraordinary efforts of some British officers to help people whom, a few weeks earlier, before the war had ended, they had been doing their best to destroy.
There are also interesting comments on the peace and quiet of the German countryside, compared to the destruction in the cities, echoes of empire in the comparison of defeated Germany with "tropical Africa", and the life of luxury led by a British Corps commander at the 'Schloss' (or stately home) he had commandeered for his headquarters. I've provided some extracts below.
I've also written about Strang before, so I was interested in what Rees had to say about him:
"I found him [Strang] in every way a surprising contrast to my idea of what a British diplomat should be like. The son of a farmer and educated at a grammar school and University College, London, he was entirely free of those mannerisms of speech and behaviour which are acquired at a public school and the older universities; he was modest and shy and diffident, irked by the grandeur imposed on him by his ambassadorial rank, and had a touching faith in my abilities as a soldier to overcome any difficulties which might meet us on our journey."
He also had an "immense capacity for work" and "corrected the drafts of messages and dispatches with a meticulousness that was very near to pedantry."
As Political Adviser to the Military Governor, Strang's rank was equivalent to that of an ambassador. On the tour, he and Rees travelled, driven by a chauffeur, in a large black Humber car, which had been specially prepared for the Political Adviser, until his Rolls Royce arrived from England.
At one point on the way from the spa town of Bad Oeynhausen, where the headquarters of the British Zone was located, to the industrial district of the Ruhr, they stopped for lunch, unpacked a hamper of food and wine, and sat down to eat and drink "in a rich green meadow, under the shade of a tree, on the banks of a smooth and clear stream. It was wonderfully quiet and peaceful and difficult to think of the problems of Germany; as he raised his glass of hock to his lips the Political Adviser rather wistfully murmured: 'Do you know, I've never done anything like this in my life.'"
But the outlook soon changed. As Rees wrote:
"But we were driving towards the Ruhr; we were soon out of the un-ravaged countryside and evidence began to collect of the consequences of war and defeat. I began to understand the man who said that war may be hell but defeat is worse. For in most of Germany at that time, and certainly in its industrial areas, it seemed true to say that even the most elementary conditions of civilised life had ceased to exist. Wherever the war had been, it had remorselessly ground to pieces the whole structure of organised society and all we could see around us was the ruin and rubble that remained."
They were "like lost travellers painfully exploring some landscape of the moon. And all around us, at every turn, was the same monotonous repetitive vista of gap-toothed buildings, houses brutally torn apart, endless miles of fallen and broken buildings, and a few bent and solitary figures scratching in the ruins for anything that might be useful to them in the struggle to survive. It was a landscape as mournful and fantastic as those Piranesi drew of the ruins of ancient Rome, in which a few tiny human figures are dwarfed and overshadowed by the colossal fragments of a ruined world."
When they reached Düsseldorf, "the streets were totally deserted; in this dead city there was nothing any longer to support life, neither food nor water nor shelter nor heating and everyone who could leave had already left; only the rats still scuffled in the rubble."
They drove to the local [British] commander's office where "We found the local commander at work among a litter of papers in his naked ground floor office; from his window he had a view, through the rain, of the ruins which constituted his empire. He was a lieutenant-colonel who only a short time ago had commanded a battalion which enthusiastically engaged in completing the final downfall of Germany; now, with equal enthusiasm, he was doing what he could to mitigate the effects of her defeat ... By one of those magical transformations, like a scene in a pantomime, which occur in war, he now found himself the administrator and absolute ruler of an area containing over one million human beings who had suddenly been deprived of the means of existence. He might just as well have been dropped from the skies in the middle of tropical Africa and told to get on with the job of governing some primitive tribe living on the edge of starvation."
"Indeed he might have been better off, for there at least he would have found some form of tribal organisation through which he could have given his commands." But in Germany after the war, the complex structure of government had "... been swallowed in defeat. So far as local administration was concerned, the lieutenant-colonel might just as well have been operating in the desert, and to a more rational man the task in hand would have seemed so grotesque and futile as to be not worth attempting; but he was not a rational man, particularly because he seemed quite unaware of the irony of his endeavours to succour a people whom a short time ago he had been doing his best to destroy. When the Political Adviser suggested that there might be dangers in adopting so wholeheartedly the cause of our defeated enemies, he asked rather angrily whether it was the intention that they should be left to starve, or in winter to freeze, to death."
His only "obsessive interest in life" was how to bring enough coal into the city, without transport, so that Germans were able to work again.
"But the lieutenant-colonel also had another obsession as well as coal, without which the Germans, or what he sometimes referred to as 'my people' would also lack all the other means of subsistence."
"For his area, like other areas of Germany, was at that moment overrun by thousands of foreign workers, Frenchmen, Poles, Czechs, Russians, who had been the slaves of the Reich and now, suddenly released and at liberty, were determined both to keep themselves alive and take their revenge by plundering its corpse. At night the countryside was alive with bands of what were politely called 'displaced persons', who with considerable reason felt themselves entitled to pillage, plunder, rape, and murder with impunity; for what crimes could they possibly commit worse than the crimes which had been committed against them...."
The lieutenant-colonel solved this "moral dilemma" on the "simple principle that of all evils the complete absence of any form of law and order is the worst, worse even that the lack of the means of subsistence, and that his first task was to re-establish them."
The Political Adviser had little advice to give the local commander: "So he contented himself with saying that he would report the condition of affairs to London, and that he thought this might make some difference to those politicians who, following in the footsteps of Mr Morgenthau and Mr Noel Coward, still thought that the fundamental problem in German was how to be beastly enough to the Germans."
Rees and Strang left the local commander in Düsseldorf "... to find our way to the luxuries and comforts of a [British] Corps headquarters, where the Political Adviser was received with the lavish hospitality befitting his rank but so repugnant to his taste.... The Corps Commander was giving a very good imitation of a Renaissance prince enjoying the pleasures of his latest conquest, and was anxious to show that in him the exuberance of victory was refined by the discrimination of taste."
He lived in a "freshly furnished" stately home "... from which all traces of war had been effaced ... it became almost impossible to believe in the dark picture painted for us in Düsseldorf, of a population not merely ruined but abandoned and betrayed and a country devastated and denuded and systematically pillaged by bands of brigands who would have been affronted by the mere suggestion that Germans could have any rights against themselves; indeed we might well have thought the local commander guilty of sentimentality or exaggeration if we had not heard the same account at every post we visited in the course of our journey."
Goronwy Rees: Sketches in Autobiography: 'A Bundle of Sensations' and 'A Chapter of Accidents' with 'A Winter in Berlin', a further autobiographical essay. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001). Edited with Introduction and Notes by John Harris
A Bundle of Sensations was first published by Chatto & Windus, London, 1960