How the Allies created a democratic and prosperous Germany after World War II

September 4th, 2007

Did the United States Create Democracy in Germany?

… Many writers continue to speak of nation building as if it involved a settled technology, like that of building interstate highways. They seem to believe that nation-building experts can go to any country and, regardless of its culture and traditions, successfully impose a democracy. What accounts for this confidence in the efficacy of nation-building expertise?

One important source appears to be the U.S. experience after World War II. Those who today advocate assertive policies of nation building repeatedly cite this era as a golden age of nation building. The United States should invade dictatorships and failed states, they say, and turn them into democracies. How do we know this task is feasible? They answer, Look at what we did in Germany and Japan.

Don’t Shake Hands!

In Germany, the Allied effort had two aspects. One was the impact of the war. … The Allied effort’s second aspect was the military occupation, which extended from victory in 1945 to (for most practical purposes) 1952. As the previous quotations indicate, modern writers assume that skilled and purposeful U.S. officials applied sophisticated nation-building techniques during this period and thereby imposed democracy where it otherwise would not have come into existence. This hypothesis is extremely doubtful. The occupation’s actual policies and activities from 1945 to 1952 did little to further democracy, and many of them caused positive harm.

Modern writers’ first mistake is to assume that the goal of the American occupation in Germany was to make the country a democracy—that it constituted, as Dobbins puts it, a comprehensive effort that aimed to engineer major social, political, and economic reconstruction This view is wildly at variance with the facts. Building democracy was not the aim of occupation policy. Instead, policymakers aimed to punish Germany and to deny it any war-making potential. Some American leaders advocated a back to the Stone Age policy for Germany. One such plan, drawn up by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and his assistant Harry Dexter White, called for Germany to be dismembered and turned into an agrarian society in which the inhabitants would live by subsistence farming. Other leaders did not go so far, but they all agreed on severe punishment. If I had my way, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commented, I would keep Germany on a breadline for the next 25 years (qtd. in Davidson 1959, 7). From this angry mood came JCS 1067, the Joint Chiefs of Staff directive on U.S. objectives and basic policies that formed the orders of the military government from May 1945 to July 1947. It emphasized not reconstruction or democracy, but harsh treatment of the Germans.

One directive of JCS 1067 that the U.S. military authority attempted to implement was a policy of nonfraternization. Americans were not to engage in any kind of friendly, normal intercourse with Germans. They were not supposed to shake hands with them, to visit them in their homes, to play games with them, or to converse or argue with them. If they went to a German church, they had to sit in separate, Americans-only pews. The army newspaper Stars and Stripes ran many antifraternization slogans and statements such as Don’t fraternize. If in a German town you bow to a pretty girl or pat a blond child … you bow to Hitler and his reign of blood (qtd. in Davidson 1959, 54). Military police arrested more than a thousand Americans in an effort to sustain the policy of nonfraternization (Davidson 1959, 55). In practice, many Americans ignored the policy and braved punishment to do the sensible, human thing in interacting with the Germans. The nonfraternization policy was gradually relaxed and eventually abandoned. Nevertheless, the policy started the occupation out on the wrong foot if its presumed aim was to win hearts and minds and to teach the German people about democracy.

Other policies exacerbated this wrong-footedness. For example, the United States sought to keep its military and civilian personnel isolated from the Germans in compounds and colonies (often surrounded by barbed wire) known as Little Americas. At a time when great numbers of Germans were living in rubble, tents, and railway stations, the Americans had a comfortable lifestyle—and it was created at the Germans’ expense. U.S. troops seized the best homes and hotels as their living quarters and pushed the German occupants onto the street. For each American family housed in a requisitioned dwelling, eight Germans were made homeless; in Frankfurt alone, Americans requisitioned 10,800 apartments and single-family dwellings (Davidson 1959, 156, 276).

Deliberately Wrecking the German Economy

Further setting the stage for resentment were the U.S. economic policies. Although little is known about the requirements for democracy, one important factor suggested by research and common sense is prosperity: destitute people are ready to listen to demagogues who promise bread at the expense of freedom. Therefore, anyone seeking to establish a democracy in a defeated country should make a maximum effort to ensure the local inhabitants’ prosperity and well-being. Many Americans today suppose that we put Germany on its feet after the war, but the truth is more nearly the opposite. U.S. policy was intended to inflict economic privation. As part of the JCS 1067 punishment philosophy, U.S. forces were not supposed to provide ordinary relief. Troops were specifically ordered not to let American food supplies go to hungry Germans. American households were instructed not to let their German maids have leftovers; excess food was to be destroyed or rendered inedible (Davidson 1959, 85). A German university professor pointed out that U.S. soldiers create unnecessary ill will to pour twenty litres of left-over cocoa in the gutter when it is badly needed in our clinics. It makes it hard for me to defend American democracy among my countrymen (qtd. in Davidson 1959, 86).

JCS 1067 forbade the occupation authority from taking any steps looking toward the economic rehabilitation of Germany (JCS 1067 qtd. in Zink 1957, 253). The Allies placed limits on German industries, freezing the production of steel, machine tools, and chemicals at less than half the prewar rate. Even the production of textiles and shoes was limited to depressed levels. The Allies also pursued a policy of dismantling factories, deliberately destroying hundreds of plants and throwing several hundred thousand employees out of work in the western zone (Davidson 1959, 255). German workers threatened strikes against this practice; even the archbishop of Cologne and his parishioners prayed against this senseless economic destruction (Davidson 1959, 255). Nevertheless, it continued out of sheer bureaucratic inertia until 1950.

The German economy was further burdened by having to pay for the occupation itself, both through arbitrary requisitions of properties, finished goods, and raw materials and through direct payments from German governmental units. One calculation estimated that occupation costs consumed 46 percent of local tax receipts in 1948 (Davidson 1959, 261). German newspapers began to release details of what troops were buying with German taxpayers’ money: one ton of water bugs to feed a U.S. general’s pet fish, a bedspread of Korean goatskin, thirty thousand bras (**the Americans banned the newspaper for publishing this last item—a nice democratic touch on the part of the would-be teachers of democracy).

Another economic factor that kept the country in poverty was the failure to issue currency. This lapse had many reasons, including complications with the Russians and U.S. officials’ economic ignorance, but the fact was that for three years, from 1945 to 1948, the Germans had no sound currency, only Hitler’s debased old currency and an untrustworthy occupation script. In desperation, locals turned to cigarettes—which consequently became much too valuable as a medium of exchange to smoke. Imagine trying to carry out a high-value sale or to make a future-oriented contact in cigarettes! When a new currency was finally issued in June 1948, economic life began to revive immediately.

… The Germans were desperately poor in 1945–48 not because of war damage. Studies showed that German industries and facilities were largely intact and that production could have been restored quickly had the Allies been willing to allow it (Zink 1957, 253). But U.S. policy, some of it deliberate, some simply the usual muddle in a government-directed economy, promoted destitution and despair—and thereby earned the resentment of much of the local population.

James L. Payne, The Independent Review (Fall 2006): Did the United States Create Democracy in Germany?, pp. 209–214.

In Heavenly Peace: The Christmas Truce, 1914

December 25th, 2006

I first read this review essay a year ago, when Kevin Carson posted it at Mutualist Blog.

The Soldiers’ Truce

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages, $39.95 (hb)

It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in no-man’s land but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.

Soon, however, few would care about higher authority as an unauthorised and illegal truce bubbled up from the ranks.

The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing Merry Christmas were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of you no shoot, we no shoot.

The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.

The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.

Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.

Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in no-man’s land with stretchers as goalposts. Bicycle races were held on bikes with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. You would have thought you were dreaming, wrote captain F. D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.

The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.

Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky. By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had struck, like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.

Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens the will to kill, destroys the offensive spirit, saps ideological fervour and undermines the sacrificial spirit necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — A bas la guerre! (Down with the war!) from a French soldier was returned with Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! (No more war! It’s what God wants!) from his Bavarian counterpart.

After mucking-in with British soldiers, a German private wrote that never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.

Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings. Now, we gathered, as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!.

If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand.

The high command on both sides were desperate to restart the war that had strangely vanished. Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of we can’t — they are good fellows, the officers replied Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!.

To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in no-man’s land with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.

Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.

Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers’ organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.

On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany’s war effort.

Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a two-day wonder, the Christmas truce evokes a stubborn humanity within us. As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

reviewed by Phil Shannon (2002)
for Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002