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British servicement instructionsI found this little gem during my last trip to London. It’s a reproduction of the handbook published by the Foreign Office in 1944. The war was still on, and as British forces pushed into Germany, the Tommies needed a bit of guidance for how to deal with what was still an enemy people. Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany could be called a pre-occupation manual. It looked forward to the immediate postwar era, and has much in common with the similar American handbook I mentioned on the blog awhile back.

Maybe the biggest similarity is the booklet’s appeal for soldiers to rein in their natural tendency to feel compassion for people who look like (and are) suffering. That these are Germans, collectively held responsible for the war at that time, didn’t matter. The writers from the Political Warfare Executive recognized what might happen to young soldiers sweeping into an environment largely free of German men. Ruined cities and towns where women, old people and children welcomed western troops like liberators. The American and British booklets were clear. Western forces didn’t enter Germany to liberate it, they came to conquer.

That meant establishing a conqueror’s distance from the defeated. Fraternization was forbidden, and shortly before the end of the war, soldiers could be fined for doing it. The reality of life in occupied Germany soon put a stop to the stricter rules. In the forward of the Bodleian Library’s reissued Instructions, John Pinfold mentions a Daily Express cartoon from July 1945 that showed German women chasing British soldiers through a wood. The caption: “Rough on us chaps that don’t want to fraternise, isn’t it?”

The booklet has sections that made me laugh and cringe. A section titled “What the Germans are Like” was so good, I had to read it to my German husband. The list of negative traits and stereotypes was long, but I giggled at the sentence, “The Germans have, of course, many good qualities.” (My husband says the same thing about Americans, and with the same dry tone.) A British person reading the booklet now would probably be interested in the section “What the Germans Think of Us.” Generally positive, due to what the booklet called British “national virtues” like tolerance, fairness and decency.

And that’s the booklet’s true value. It helps us understand one view of how Britons saw Germans and themselves at a turning point in the Twentieth Century.

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