Postwar Germany: The Profits of Peace

Keith Lowe on the dilemmas faced by a victorious but financially ruined Britain in its dealings with postwar Germany.

Dismantling Krupps' factory at EssenIan Locke’s essay on the exploitation of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, published in History Today in 1997, describes a unique moment in British history. It depicts a time when the country was still (just) a superpower, albeit one hovering on the edge of bankruptcy, having emerged victorious from the most destructive conflict the world has seen. Plundering its defeated enemy offered Britain an opportunity to dig its way out of a financial hole and secure its future as a global economic power.

As Locke shows, however, it could not embark on such a course without first considering a whole host of economic and political concerns. If it were to strip Germany bare there was every possibility that she would find herself carrying its former enemy like a millstone for years to come. If Germans were to be left destitute, as some American planners suggested, there was a danger of re-igniting the same resentment and political extremism that had led to war in the first place.

The moral dilemmas were just as difficult to weigh up. Could it ever be right to profit from German industries implicated in the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs? And was the use of German prisoners of war as a source of labour really so different from the way that the Nazis had used slave labour during the conflict?

In many ways Locke’s essay was a reflection of the time in which it was written. In 1997 Britain was already enjoying the long economic boom that has only recently come to an end. Locke insisted that it had been a mistake to concentrate so heavily on acquiring German industry in the 1940s and 1950s at the expense of exploiting the country’s intellectual property and other elements of the ‘invisible’ economy. While this is undoubtedly true, it does reflect a time of Thatcherite and New Labour obsessions, when manufacturing was often considered outdated and the invisible economy could do no wrong. Nowadays, when it is generally agreed that Britain has neglected its industrial infrastructure to its cost, attitudes have begun to shift.

The moral questions Locke asks are also a product of the time. In 1997 many were still deeply concerned about the way in which Britons had conducted themselves during the war. In the preceding decades there had been a succession of scandals about British behaviour in 1945, ranging from the way officials had looted German artworks, to the army’s underhand forced repatriation of Croat and Cossack soldiers. Even Britain’s conduct during the war itself was still highly controversial. In the year before Locke’s article was published crowds of demonstrators had gathered in London’s Strand to protest at the unveiling of a statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of Bomber Command, claiming that he was a war criminal. Ironically German historians seemed more conscious to remind us that the Nazis had brought the evils of bombing upon themselves.

Times have changed. Germans no longer feel obliged to apologise for the war and are much more likely to declare themselves as victims as well as perpetrators – Jörg Friedrich’s immensely popular history of the German experience of bombing, Der Brand (2002), being just one example. The British are also far less likely to beat themselves up about the way they treated Germany after the war. The opening of the Russian archives, which was still relatively recent in 1997, has since shown us how far the Soviet exploitation of Germany dwarfed British efforts. The burgeoning, increasingly available literature from the former Eastern bloc has also put Britain’s role into a wider perspective. Europe after the war was a landscape of chaos, where almost any crime could be committed with impunity. For all their sins and occasional incompetence, the behaviour of the British was almost saintly compared to that of some of its allies.

Read Ian Locke's essay in full

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