Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Germany and Iraq, Part 2

[posted by Callimachus]

(continued from here)


Even when the civic structure of the country imploded, the Germans did not explode into chaos and anarchy. Why? The expectations of everyone from Eisenhower to the newspapermen -- that the Germans would vigorously resist the occupiers -- turned out to be wrong.

Some reasons are obvious. So obvious, apparently, that they tend to be overlooked. The German cities lay in ruins, and the countryside was starving. The few calories the Germans absorbed in a day were used up in the business of surviving until tomorrow. All war is cruel and always civilians suffer most, but the modern anti-war voices who decry the 2003 American invasion of Iraq as exceptionally harsh simply don't know much about history.

Would-be diehards from the Nazi regime certainly tried to stir things up. They could have found supporting civilian populations in remote rural areas. But they lacked the sort of sophisticated cellular and Internet communications now available to the most brutish terrorist in the Middle East. They also lacked a sympathetic domestic media, so essential to the struggle, and there was no flood of foreign cash to keep them supplied and fed.

The fear of the Soviets often is cited as a reason for the docility of the Germans in the West. True, Hitler's propaganda had been effective in terrifying the Germans about the hordes from the East. When the Russians reached the outskirts of Berlin, a wave of suicides swept the city in numbers that perhaps never will be told.

But in the crucial early stages of the occupation, after the initial orgy of rape and looting had ended, it was the French who imposed the most harsh terms on their subject regions. The Cold War did not open visibly for a year or two, and the Soviet zone actually got back on its feet more rapidly than the western zones, thanks in part to the experience of the Soviets in collective economics and mass control.

Rather, I think, a crucial overlooked element in the German experience was the hordes of "displaced persons" (DPs, in the language of the day) -- concentration camp survivors and former slave laborers for the Reich, liberated in 1945 and ravaging in packs, looting and exacting vengeance all the way and often with no more homes to return to. The Allied military government after the cessation of hostilities estimated the number of homeless foreigners in Germany at 5 million. The number employed by the Reich (mostly as slave labor) was twice that, so the number of DPs might have been higher.

The Australian journalist Osmer White portrays this as the second time authority collapsed in post-war Germany:

Military government units moved into populated areas as soon as the fighting ceased and they were able, despite the flight of the people who had exerted civil authority, to establish a semblance of order and begin to restore essential services. But when the slave labourers and POWs started to clog the roads in uncounted thousands, looting their way from town to town and village to village, the situation became impossible to control.

The DPs' habit of terrorizing the populace put the native Germans firmly on the side of order. And while the Allied infantrymen initially sympathized with the victims of Hitler, the average soldier eventually came to side with the German householder. Stephen Ambrose noted that of all the peoples the American G.I.s encountered during World War II, they identified most with the Germans, whom the American soldiers regarded as "clean, hard-working, disciplined, educated, middle-class in their tastes and life-styles ... just like us."

A report from Europe in the August 1947 issue of "Commentary" noted:

[F]or Americans especially, the individual German is an attractive person. These children were charming little people; they were pathetic in their need ... yet they did not whine or pester; they stood there quietly, with trust in their eyes. And the American heart went out to them. As for the adults, they strike most Americans in Germany as decent, pleasant, rather kindly people, who respect their parents, love children, and lavish affection on pets; they are admirably clean and orderly, and have all the solid qualities favored by Ben Franklin.

Yet perhaps there was more to it than circumstances. White, writing about Germany immediately after the conquest, keeps returning to the puzzle of the sudden "docility" of a people who had fought so hard and so long.

In general neither British, Americans nor Russians had much trouble in exacting obedience from German civilians. German civilians were only too anxious to obey. Theirs was a wordless docility of a people reduced to complete dependence. When proclamations were posted up, groups would gather about them, read slowly and carefully, disperse quickly. Then, when military government had been formally established, queues would form and wait patiently for hours for the most trivial permissions. Was it permitted to do this ... to do that? Was it permitted to work thus ... or so? Was it permitted to visit one's uncle in the country? To seek food from friends on a nearby farm? To cut wood for fuel? To drive a horse and cart, ride a bicycle, walk to the next town? To draw money from the bank if the bank opened? Send a letter by hand to a friend? Buy, sell things?

He gropes toward the core of it, but doesn't quite find it. With Saddam for comparison, perhaps the answer is more clear. Hitler destroyed his political and ethnic enemies. But he left the cultural and civic institutions of Germany largely intact. He meddled, and he "purified," according to his conceptions, but he did not destroy them. The universities, the churches, the industries, the social clubs -- all were to some extent corrupted, but not destroyed. That would have come later, and as fate had it, he never got the chance. In the meantime, Hitler ruled the Germans partly through their natural inclination to order and their fondness for systematic group work.

Which is the opposite of the personal tyranny and rule by terror as applied by Saddam. Working secular institutions that were able to resist Saddam in any degree were rare, and peripheral, such as the antiquities museum. Even the Shi'a religious hierarchies had to live in exile. They maintained their coherence there, however, and after Saddam fell, they were the only ones capable of quickly setting up a power and authority structure in liberated Iraq.

An incident White records from Mainz seems to me to summarize much. It was standard U.S. practice, when they met any level of resistance in a German town or district, to pull back and bring in the heavy guns to pound the place to rubble:

Sniping from an upper window was holding up clearance of a suburban block. Infantrymen were waiting round for the inevitable tank to come and do the job, when a massive woman, waving a white flag on a broomstick, emerged from the house opposite that from which the sniping was coming. She crossed the road and disappeared inside. In five minutes she emerged, leading the snipers by their ears. They were her sons, aged twelve and fourteen, who were obeying the orders of their Hitler Youth group leader to die like valiant young werewolves -- until mother asserted the more direct authority.

In the Middle East today, perhaps she would be proudly proclaiming her sons as martyrs and urging others to go and do likewise.

[to be continued]

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