Francis Graham-Dixon / History

Civilising the Germans and the Allied Occupation

In Germany, 1945, how could Britain reconcile wartime bombing with comprehensive and coherent plans for reconstruction? Francis Graham-Dixon considers the paradoxical legacy of Allied occupation in Germany.

Civilising the Germans and the Allied Occupation

Recent military interventions by the West highlight persistent and unresolved problems regarding future foreign policy. When states are occupied by overseas military powers on a mission to secure peace, stability and a transition to democratic government, this often leads to a host of unintended and sometimes counter-productive consequences – increased political instability, mass displacement and suffering of civilians, heightened social tensions and greater economic deprivation than existed before military intervention. Occupations rarely achieve their immediate aims. Some prove little more than blunt instruments to justify measures to protect states from total implosion but are nonetheless pursued as parallel means to project the occupiers’ global influence and from economic self-interest. Trying to export democratic liberal values into war-torn states within the constraints of a military occupation and as a means to reconstruct a civilised society is as paradoxical and prescient now as it was in 1945 when the victorious Allies set out to rebuild and remodel Germany. The wider legacy and precedent of the Allied Occupation thus gives much-needed historical perspective to the ongoing debates.

The Allies had anticipated no realistic alternative to a military occupation after Germany’s unconditional surrender. Despite wartime planning over what to do with a defeated Germany, the decision to agree future territorial borders and to ensure the homogenisation of ethnicity within those borders resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe as unprecedented as it was unimaginable in its scale. The flight of refugees from late 1944 and expulsions of ethnic Germans from 1945 continued into the 1950s accounting for the removal of up to fifteen million Germans from their former homelands in Eastern and Central Europe. Of these approximately eight million found themselves in the western zones of Allied-occupied Germany, eventually settling in what became the Federal Republic. At least 400,000 died en route. This is a familiar story to recent generations of Germans few of whom were not affected or traumatised by the consequences of these major post-war population upheavals. But it is not widely known that the post-war refugee crisis remains the single largest example of forced migration in 20th Century Europe. To this day, for example, most Britons think of German refugees as synonymous with the 65,000 or so Jewish refugees to whom Britain gave sanctuary before 1939.

Allied planning in 1942 and thereafter took little account of the human cost of ‘transferring’ the Germans, and as horrific details of Nazi crimes became known the more the entire German people, whether individual supporters of Hitler or not, were condemned guilty by association. This enabled the Western Allies to use German war criminality to distance themselves from the responsibility – and financial burden – of managing the refugee crisis by delegating an unmanageable task to the Germans themselves. Britain, under rationing, could justify a priority to feed its own. Nonetheless, millions of homeless refugees and ethnic German expellees, the majority comprising women, children and the elderly, became the most marginalized and disadvantaged in the food chain of occupied Germany, their hopes falsely raised when led to believe that their situation would improve, and resentment and mistrust exacerbated towards the occupiers when it did not. Overseas nationals however, who found themselves in Germany in 1945 as displaced persons were cared for and repatriated under the auspices of the United Nations. Housing, particularly in urban areas, transport links and vital economic and social infrastructure were destroyed. Food was scarce or only available on the black market. Medicines were needed to prevent the spread of disease. Refugee unemployment remained high, despite Currency Reform in 1948. Much of Germany’s industrial plant was destroyed or dismantled by Britain and the USA with output strictly controlled to forestall fears of its re-use for military purposes in any revival of German nationalism and to keep a lid on the pace of western Germany’s future economic expansion. Dismantling continued with controls not lifted until 1952 when the Federal Republic even had to buy back its own dockyards confiscated in 1945 as reparations. The Soviets merely helped themselves, removing plant and machinery in lieu of payments. Those expellees contributing manual skills – farming for example – found it easier to integrate within western German host populations who had to give over housing space to entire families. Most wanted to return to their former homelands, such as East Prussia and Silesia, but were forced to acculturate in the West. Given this background it is remarkable that a fledgling democracy through legislative will paved the way to improving the status and aspirations of refugees from the mid-1950s.

Britain’s growing economic dependency on the USA meant that humanitarian work to help refugees – most barely subsisting for several years in makeshift huts or camps – was left by the Allies to the charity of the churches and voluntary organizations. There was also a paradox in Britain in particular invoking a Christian moral mandate as an instrumental feature of its civilising mission while at the same time they continued to pursue a policy of retributive justice, showing the gulf between the rhetoric of reconciliation and the harsher day-to-day reality of Germans’ lives. The contradiction was heightened by an extended Nuremberg trial and the ensuing trials. Despite securing its reputation as a legal milestone in the evolving debate about states’ and individuals’ accountability, Nuremberg bore witness to a self-aggrandising display of victors’ justice and set the benchmark for further military trials as part of the denazification purges. Another curious anomaly emerged in Britain’s determination to pursue the more ‘minor’ war criminals and a pragmatic denazification policy whose effect was to place former Nazis in key administrative posts. Moreover, the much-criticised policy in Britain, and in Germany, of the continued incarceration of German ‘war criminals’ did not formally end until 1957, despite a pledge to review their sentences in 1951, proved largely self-defeating as Britain and America actively sought Federal Republic cooperation, and money, as a key prospective western defence partner to combat the Communist threat.

Narratives of the Second World War as the emblematic ‘just war’ of the twentieth century also helped to forge a collective consciousness and memory with enduring narratives of civilian loss, heroism and sacrifice were – and still are – defined primarily through each of Allies’ unique perspectives. Similar histories of a war fought on moral grounds have shaped enduring assessments of civilian suffering as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of a moral cause – the defeat of Nazism. Others view this emphasis as a convenient way to diffuse and discredit continuing controversy over the proportionality and morality of the wartime bombing campaign. Advocates of the Strategic Air Offensive policy against Germany argued in its justification that concerted bombing raids on population centres not only would destroy morale but hasten the end of the conflict. Absent from Allied narratives, as the Hamburg bombings of 1943 graphically illustrate, is that the Bombing Offensive policy proved in part self-defeating as it precipitated further problems for the occupiers after 1945 – in particular Britain – in trying to cope with an already unmanageable refugee crisis in its  zone of occupation, exacerbated by large numbers of homeless evacuees – again, unintended consequences. Nor do these accounts include 500,000 German civilians killed in raids in the same breath as 62,000 British who died as a result of German bombs.

And so the legacy of the Occupation is one better understood by giving equal weight to these differing perspectives, setting Allied aims, claims and achievements alongside the voices of those who lived under military rule. The demoralisation of comprehensive defeat and the consequential material and psychological privations experienced by German civilians wearied from a daily diet of regulations, controls and supervision left an indelible imprint on the collective German psyche. Although a once pariah nation was able to rebuild itself and eventually confront its past, the years from 1945-55 are as much a part of German collective memory as the dark years after 1933. ■

The Allied Occupation of GermanyFrancis Graham-Dixon is the author of our new book The Allied Occupation of Germany: The Refugee Crisis, Denazification and the Path to Reconstruction. He holds a DPhil in History from Sussex University and was Visiting Fellow at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University.

Top image: British soldiers look on as German civilians go about their daily lives, Detmold, North Rhine-Westphalia, circa 1946 © The National Archives (TNA)

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