Saturday, 24 January 2015

Being beastly to the Germans

On January 17 1947, a book review by George Orwell appeared in Tribune. “I hope everyone who can get access to a copy will take at least a glance at Victor Gollancz's recently published book, In Darkest Germany,” he wrote, and continued: “It is not a literary book, but a piece of brilliant journalism intended to shock the public of this country into some kind of consciousness of the hunger, disease, chaos and lunatic mismanagement prevailing in the British Zone."

Eilbek, Hamburg, in 1945 (Imperial War Museum/F/O J. Dowd)
He was not joking. The letters to newspapers and other documents that made up In Darkest Germany had already caused quite a rumpus. But its author liked a rumpus. Gollancz is remembered today as a publisher, but was as much an activist and polemicist. The Nazi regime was an early target. As early as 1933, the year Hitler came to power, he produced a pamphlet, The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror. During the war he published another, Let My People Go, in which he argued that “a million or two” Jews had already been murdered in Europe, and said, with chilling prescience, that six million would die. 

Gollancz's support for the Germans after the war will have surprised some. He was Jewish. Yet in the postwar years he would devote considerable energy to call for better treatment for German, as well as other European, people.  Although he was a successful as a publisher (producing Orwell’s first books, among others), in 1947 many people would have known him as a political activist. In the later 1930s he had followed the Moscow line, and had not published Homage to Catalonia, which cast doubt on the ‘official’ Left's view of Spain. But Gollancz himself would split with it over the Nazi-Soviet pact, and in later years was no-one's man but his own. 

In October and November 1946 Gollancz made a six-week visit to the British Zone. The resulting book, In Darkest Germany, was based on the letters, public and private, that he wrote during the visit.  It could therefore be rushed out quickly on his return. Nonetheless one is impressed at the speed with which it was done, at a time when books were set in hot metal and there were also austerity regulations for book production. The book is 128 pages, plus 144 photographs – the latter would each have required an individual block to be made.  But the book was out in January 1947. Moreover, my own copy shows it to be a second impression in the same month – suggesting that sales had been brisk.

The pictures are stark. Plates 4 and 5 are the heads of men lying on hospital beds. Plate 8 is a full-length picture of a naked man from the back; it is captioned, “Emaciation, not oedema. 56, looked 70. Was clearing rubble and got half heavy worker’s ration.”  Plates 14 and 15 show boys of about 10 or 11, though they may be older. They are stripped to the waist; according to the caption, at the author’s request.  They are thin; their ribs show, and they are clearly undernourished, which seems somehow wrong, because they are white.

Neither is the text easy reading, although the facts have long passed away. In Hamburg, Gollancz reports, about 100,000 people were suffering “from hunger oedema or the equivalent”.  In the same city, he stated, “active lung tuberculosis is at least five times as prevalent as before the war, and may even be 10 times as prevalent.” The reasons for the growth in TB, he argued, were twofold – malnutrition and overcrowding: “In the British zone 12,000 people with open, infectious tuberculosis live in the same room with others – sometimes in the same bed with children.” It should be said that he does not quote a source for this (though his own observations do seem to bear it out). But he does quote a survey under British auspices of around 1,000 Hamburg postal employees in which the incidence of hunger oedema was found to be 17% amongst males and 9% amongst females. Reproducing one of his own letters, he also gives a figure of 13,000 hospitalized cases of hunger oedema for Düsseldorf in September; this apparently was challenged, so he goes on to point out that the British colonel in command of the Düsseldorf district had said that the number of non-hospitalized cases was nearly double that.

The reason for this was not hard to see, according to Gollancz. The standard ration (that is, for people not doing heavy work) had recently been increased but was still just 1,550 calories, in contrast to the 2,650 that UNRRA had stated as necessary for “full health and efficiency” in a normal population. (Today Britain’s NHS says men need  about 2,500 to maintain body weight, women about 2,000.) However, most people in Düsseldorf were not even getting 1,550 calories a day as most basic foodstuffs were in short supply. Gollancz went so far as to say that those who could not or would not supplement their rations on the black market were managing on 400-1,000 calories a day. Once again, it is not clear where he got this figure; he is perhaps giving his own observations – but sometimes he is able to quote more official figures:

In the Control Commission’s information room at Bünde there is a chart ...showing a graph of seven diseases with March 30 1946 as the first date and September 14 as the last. Scarlet fever is about the same... diptheria is a trifle higher, gonorrhea considerably higher, syphillis much higher, tuberculosis about a third higher, and typhoid nearly double. But what really matters is a more generalised degeneration in the health and strength of the whole community.

A British health official, thinking Gollancz to be a visiting politician, let fly at him in a mess in Hamburg one afternoon. “What on earth are you politicians up to? ...Do you realise what’s going on here?” he asked. “An epidemic of any kind would sweep everything before it. ...If you...don’t do something about it two problems that seem to have been worrying you will be solved. The size of the German population and manure.”

Homeless in a Hamburg air-raid shelter (Imperial War Museum/Sgt Smith)
There can be no doubt that the refugees from the east worsened the situation. Gollancz recounts being shown a list of the clothing needs for those in Schleswig-Holstein. He calls them “expellees” and they will have included some who were literally expelled from what had been eastern Germany, but one suspects that many will have arrived earlier as part of Operation Hannibal, the German navy’s mass evacuation of the Eastern regions in the last few months of the war. They numbered 1.2 million out of Schleswig-Holstein’s 3 million population and needed 200,000 men’s overcoats, a million pairs of shoes, 800,000 undergarments and half a million blankets. Gollancz visits a ship and a camp in which expellees are housed, and sees “mostly stretchers, wooden bunks, and bundles of sordid beclothes on the floor: indeed ...I don’t recollect seeing a single bed.” Not that the people of Hamburg were doing much better; Gollancz enters one building and finds a woman and her four children living in a single room. The husband is a prisoner in Russia. Nearby, a couple, their seven children and a dog are living in a two-room makeshift shelter totalling 200 sq ft.

Rebuilding was clearly urgent. According to Gollancz, the cement works in the British Zone had a capacity of 7.7 million tons. But 25 cement works, accounting for about half of this total, were threatened with closure as reparations.  This was an iniquitous facet of the 1945 Potsdam four-power agreement under which plant and assets were not only to be seized as reparations, but also destroyed if they could be used in the future to make war. Cement could be used to construct docks for U-boats, fortifications etc., so must not be allowed – although it was not clear how ordinary Germans were to be housed without it.

This lunacy extended right across large parts of the economy, affecting even food production. Thus 13 fishing vessels at Bremerhaven had been used during the war as minelayers; the Germans wished to return them to their real purpose, but the British would not permit it. In another case, a fishing vessel was a metre longer than the permitted length. The Germans offered to reduce the vessel’s size, but the British refused and blew it up instead. “Meanwhile, the wretched German fish ration has been reduced,” writes Gollancz, “and we complain that the cost of feeding Germany is almost more than we can bear.”  He quotes other examples of this crass stupidity, and others were raised in Commons debate on November 27 1946, in which his reports were debated.

Gollancz regarded the destruction as wholly irrational – including the shipyards. He would, he said, be asked whether he had forgotten the weapons that Blohm & Voss  had built. No, he said, and indeed he had warned of the dangers of fascism in the 1930s (this was true; Gollancz had been a vigorous opponent of appeasement). “But I say that if there is one absolutely certain way of making a repetition of the last few years inevitable, it is to acquiesce in this godless destruction, and to drive a whole people, with whom we have to live, into hatred and despair.”

Why had the British Zone, with its 23 million inhabitants, got into such a state? Was this an act of revenge by the British for a war that they had not wanted?  Many British people were deeply angry with Germany well into my own lifetime (I was born in 1957). Was this a mass punishment-beating?

The evidence, at least for the British Zone, strongly suggests otherwise. To be sure, the Germans were not the flavour of the month. But there was genuine public concern in Britain about their conditions; much of it was humanitarian, and it was reflected in Parliament and in the Press. It is especially evident from the support Gollancz had for his campaign, which had begun in earnest only a few months after the war had ended. It focused initially on the mass expulsions of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia. The campaign was driven by vivid descriptions in the Daily Herald and the News Chronicle of the scenes around Berlin’s Stettiner Bahnhof, where refugees were arriving from the east. 
Aircraft at Flensburg airfield await disposal (Imperial War Museum/Saidman) 
The skill and energy with which Gollancz latched onto these events as a humanitarian cause has been recounted in an interesting and engaging 2006 article by Matthew Frank (The New Morality – Victor Gollancz, Save Europe Now and the German Refugee Crisis, 1945-1946, in Twentieth Century British History, 17:2). Frank describes the startling extent to which Gollancz managed to mobilise the chattering classes, and a big chunk of the political establishment on both right and left. Gollancz asked people to send in a postcard pledging their willingness to give up ration points in support of German refugees. Within just over a week he had received 20,000. One wonders how many signatures would have been received had one been able to respond online.

By mid-September 1945, according to Frank, the issue was receiving extensive coverage right across the British press, even the right-wing dailies (apart from the Beaverbrook group. And one newspaper that did support the campaign headed its leader “Feed the Brutes”).  On the left, J. B. Priestley, a writer so sympathetic to the USSR that Orwell later fingered him as a fellow-traveller, wrote a dispatch from Berlin for the News Chronicle. “Whatever happens to the German people this winter ...the world conscience must see to it that the children of Germany do not starve,” he rumbled.  To be sure, not all of this was compassion. Frank makes it clear that much of it was based on the argument that an epidemic or disorder in the British Zone meant trouble for Britain, for it would spread. Nonetheless there was a strong humanitarian undertone. The wave of sympathy and/or self-interest reached a peak at the end of November 1945, when Gollancz’s Save Europe Now (SEN) held its inaugural meeting at the Albert Hall. The crush was so great that there were two overflow meetings in the nearby church of the Holy Trinity, Brompton. The speakers included such diverse figures as the former Conservative minister Bob Boothby and the young left-wing MP and journalist Michael Foot.

Matthew Frank is unimpressed, seeing the moral crusade less as a humanitarian movement than as an affirmation of Britain’s image of itself. This is not entirely fair – but there is truth in it. However, what the SEN episode does suggest is that the British establishment, and for the most part the people, did not want unnecessary suffering for the Germans, however self-inflicted it might be. Their attitude was probably summed up in Noel Coward’s flippant and rather silly satire from 1943:

Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans
When our victory is ultimately won...
Let's be meek to them
And turn the other cheek to them
And try to bring out their latent sense of fun
Let’s give them full air parity
And treat the rats with charity
But don’t let's be beastly to the Hun.

The British, then, had no wish to make the Germans in their Zone miserable. So why the shambles?

Surprisingly little has been written about the British occupation of north-west Germany, an area of 23 million people. This is beginning to change as interest grows in the entire post-war era, and modern scholars of the occupation, such as Christopher Knowles, are not always so bleak about it. But Gollancz was right that the Germans under British occupation faced terrible hardship (though conditions elsewhere in Germany were scarcely better).

British Army of the Rhine headquarters inGermany (Imperial War Museum) 
There were several reasons. Perhaps the Attlee government simply did not pay enough attention to Germany. It was extremely busy – not just with Germany but with the crisis in India, which looked likely to explode at any minute if no agreed path to independence could be found. Britain was also still fighting in both Greece and Palestine. She was also broke; much of her gold reserves had been spent on the war, and the US had insisted, as part of its postwar loan agreement, that sterling be convertible within a few years. This was a huge financial bomb waiting to go off, and the occupation of north-west Germany was costly (in the end, reparations would cover just 2% of its cost). At home, labour shortages in the mines restricted coal supplies and would immiserate everyone in the winter of 1946-47, still the worst in Britain in living memory.

Moreover, the British found the Zone in a terrible state, not least because of their own bombing.  In a recent (2014) article in History and Policy, Knowles states that 66% of the houses in Cologne were destroyed, and in Düsseldorf 93% were uninhabitable – figures that confirm Gollancz’s own impressions.  The housing shortage was exacerbated by German refugees from what had been eastern Germany and from other parts of central and eastern Europe where Germans were no longer welcome. Meanwhile, the country was full of displaced persons (DPs), often former forced or slave labour brought forcibly to Germany by the Nazi regime. All were walking somewhere.  Knowles quotes Ivone Kirkpatrick, a British diplomat who later became head of the Foreign Office, describe his first impressions of Germany in 1945; there were “hundreds of thousands of Germans on foot, trekking in all directions … as if a giant ant-heap had suddenly been disturbed.”

The British authorities were also hamstrung by the Potsdam agreement in the summer of 1945, under which the four-power occupation had been agreed in detail. Potsdam had decreed the “orderly” transfer of populations (it was anything but orderly) but also had clauses on reparations and demilitarization. Clause 3(i) called for: “The complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany and the elimination or control of all German industry that could be used for military production.” It was this clause that had led to the orgy of bureaucratic destruction that Gollancz had described. In fact, the agreement stated that Germany could retain industries essential for war to the extent that it needed them for its prewar peacetime economy. However, there was also a provision for reparations that was effectively a license to loot. Moreover it was specified that 10-15% of industrial plant from all three Western zones should be dismantled and sent to the USSR, meaning that even if the British had decided to remove nothing as reparations for themselves, they would still have had to dismantle some plant that the Germans really needed to keep.

There were other constraints. The Potsdam Agreement stated that occupied Germany should be treated as a single economic unit, but not everyone cooperated. Eventually, frustrated, the British and Americans would merge their zones. In 1948, failure to agree with the USSR on currency reform, among other things, would lead the Western allies to clear the way for the creation of the Deutschmark in the three western zones. At the time of Gollancz’s visit, however, the British zone was effectively an economy on its own. An industrial region, it could not import sufficient food from areas further east that had supplied it, even those that were still part of Germany – which they were often not.

Gollancz must have been aware of all this, but did not allow it to blunt his attacks. He was at least partly right not to; although the British administration in Germany faced a difficult situation, some of its problems were of its own making.

For a start, not everyone was as punctilious on Potsdam as the British, who could have taken it a little less literally. As the Conservative Bob Boothby put it in the Commons debate in November:  “Are we going to continue to sabotage industrial production in the British zone in Germany...  by carrying out the terms of an Agreement which most of us believe the other signatories are making not the slightest attempt to carry out? ” Besides, the British administration was not always up to it. This has been discussed by John E. Farquharson, in a paper in German History (The British Occupation of Germany 1945-6: A Badly Managed Disaster Area?, 1993, 11:3). Farquharson describes how authority was vested, after some confusion, with the Control Office for Germany and Austria, or COGA, which was based in London. (There was also a British Zone of Occupation in Austria, centred around Klagenfurt in Carinthia.) Not only was COGA not in Germany; it was headed by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, John Burns Hynd, who almost never went there, did not have Cabinet rank, and did not impress his contemporaries. (According to Farquharson, British staff in the Zone itself referred to COGA as “Hyndquarters”.)

The quality of the British control commission staff in Germany itself was mixed. They had no future when the occupation came to an end, and they would have to return to Britain, where the best jobs would already have been taken. So it was hard to get the best people. Farquharson quotes a London civil servant as saying in 1946 that they were mainly “a highly-paid army of retired drain inspectors, unsuccessful businessmen and idle ex-policemen.” Farquharson also refers to heavy drinking after wartime abstinence, and corruption (“Officials were making hay while the sun shone, as there was no real future in Germany”). Some of this may have been unfair. Some of it may have been all too fair. One staff member was the former star record-breaking pilot of the early 1930s, C.W.A. Scott; unable to handle loss of fame as the war approached, he struggled in later years, and eventually joined the control commission staff in 1946, perhaps for want of something better. Soon after arriving, he blew his brains out.

Gollancz himself encountered attitudes amongst the control commission staff that he did not like. “Though there are many fine exceptions, the general attitude varies from a disgusting offensiveness, through indifference... to that humane and almost unconsciously superior paternalism which is characteristic of the “white” attitude to “natives” at its best.” He quotes examples of misuse of privilege: a hairdresser keeps a British wife waiting for 20 minutes, and the next day is warned that her premises may be requisitioned; there are separate queues at the cinema. The building of a new headquarters and facilities in Hamburg, when the materials and labour were desperately needed to rehouse Germans, was especially iniquitous. As Benn Levy MP was to remark in the November 1946 Commons debate: “It is not good for a nation to be conquered. But it is also not good for people to be conquerors.”

In Darkest Germany was not the end of Gollancz’s campaign. In August 1947 he was back in Germany; on his return to London he penned a 40-page pamphlet, Germany Revisited, in which he reported that, “during the Spring and Summer...  rations for the normal consumer of about 1,000 calories or even considerably less were common...”. “For 25 percent,” he added, the diet is a daily experience of dull and devitalising misery.” He once again expounded on shortages of underwear, shocking housing, wanton acts of destruction under the guise of reparations or demilitarisation, and the surreal bureacracy of denazification.  One wonders how the British administrators in the Zone saw him; probably as a pompous pain in the arse.

Lighter with a map of the British zone (Imperial War Museum)
But in the end, of course, Gollancz and the British administration were both moot. Most Germans would have known that they had got themselves into this situation and would have to get themselves out, and they did. In 1948 a currency reform ushered in the Deutschmark in the three Western zones, and the next year saw assumption of power by the new republic. 

From then on, the British army was only nominally an army of occupation; in reality, it became part of Germany’s defences. It will finally leave in 2019, after which it will likely be remembered chiefly as a traffic hazard. Meanwhile the Germans rebuilt their country with lightning speed. They may have had another, longer, journey, summed up perhaps in Heinrich Böll’s novella, The Bread of Those Early Years. But that journey they took alone.

What should we make of Gollancz’s extraordinary crusade, 70 years on? Like Orwell, he should not be seen as some sort of secular saint. (One remembers Orwell’s own comment in Reflections on Gandhi: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”)  Although Gollancz split with the Communists after the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he had hitherto supported them, despite mounting evidence of their real nature from the war in Spain. His April 1945 pamphlet What Buchenwald Really Means, which appeared to pin as much blame for Hitler on the British as on the Germans, was premature and ill-judged, and drew a stinging rebuke from an Austrian former prisoner, Franz Burger.  Gollancz may also have been something of a gadfly, flying from one fight to another. By 1948 he had moved on to other causes, including relief for the Middle East and eventually the abolition of capital punishment.  In The New Morality, Matthew Frank quotes him thus:  “‘There is nothing so depressing’, Gollancz once told a veteran of one of his many campaigns, ‘as a movement which has attained its aims’.”

As for In Darkest Germany, it is a museum piece; it was not reprinted after 1947, and is now very hard to find. Victor Gollancz Ltd is now part of Orion, and publishes science fiction and fantasy. There is a Victor Gollancz  elementary school in Berlin, but one wonders if the pupils, or residents of the Gollanczstraße in which it stands, know who he was.

But perhaps that would not have bothered him greatly. One can view him as a gadfly or polemicist, but his actions were underpinned by a profound morality. He would probably have argued that his compassion towards the Germans was not in spite of his Judaism but because of it. In What Buchenwald Really Means he argues that the Judaeo-Christian tradition cannot compromise with fascism: “For the one the ultimate reality is the human soul, individual, unique, responsible to God and man, while for the other this ultimate reality is some abstraction – a State, Folk or Collective which men have created out of nothing, and which has no existence except in their vain imagination. ...This Judaeo-Christian tradition is our inner citadel.” In the end, Gollancz was at least touched by greatness – something the British state finally acknowledged with a knighthood in 1965, a year or so before his death at the age of 73.

One of the many, often upsetting, photographs in the book is taken in a hospital. It is a high-key print lit by a window that is just out of shot to the right; soft light catches the white blanket and sheets on the iron bed, on which there is a young boy. The caption reads: “Child of 10 dying from TB in the Town Hospital, Düsseldorf.” Above the bed stands a balding man with a moustache, round dark-rimmed glasses and a professorial air; he is dressed in a dark winter coat and scarf. It is hard to read his expression, but his distress seems real.  One wonders who his successors are today, and where one would find public intellectuals in British life who have made so clear a decision to serve good over evil.

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), or to the author.