Pride and prejudice: the French Occupation of Germany


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French Zone of Germany

Of the four powers that occupied a piece of Germany after World War 2, France was the smallest and poorest, especially compared to the United States. Information about the French occupation zone is a bit harder to come by (my french is rusty, but I’m working on it!), so I’m always happy to find interesting bits in English or German.

Here’s a chapter in English from a book on public health in the French Zone. Despite the title, this isn’t just about health issues. The chapter gives some good insights into the general attitude of the French towards Germany, and the Germans toward the French.

It wasn’t an easy relationship. The French were  not going to quickly forget being invaded by the Germans in 1940 — and 1914 — and 1870. Many French believed German nationalism was a unique curse over Europe. This was true at the time, though not unusual for other European countries in other eras. France had its own nationalist and expansionist past when Napolean invaded countries across Europe 145 years before.

Regardless, postwar France saw Germany as a country to be reformed root and branch, even if it meant permanently breaking up the country and shifting its center of power from military-dominated Prussia (Berlin) to Germany’s south-west (the future capital for decades would be Bonn, not coincidentally in western Germany and not so far from the French border).

The French flag flew from the Victory Column in postwar Berlin, a pretty obvious signal to the Germans. French pride made many French treat the Germans in their zone with the same disdain and outright racism as they did native populations in French colonies. Level heads in the French military and government were alarmed by this. They quickly saw how bad relations between occupier and occupied could destabilize a Europe that desperately needed to stay at peace. With the strong USSR as a threat, Germany needed to be rehabilitated. That wouldn’t happen unless relations were normalized. The Germans — also a proud people — had to be treated better or they would continue to be a long term problem. The fate of Germany was tied to the fate of Europe as a whole.

And so the fraternization rules were relaxed, allowing French and Germans to socialize and even live together under some conditions. Franco-German marriages increased. Since France couldn’t offer its zone material goods like the US could, it threw itself into showing the Germans how much it cared about culture, the arts and sciences — something the French and Germans had in common. As early as 1946, Bastille Day was a 3-day bash in Berlin complete with regattas and fireworks.

Here’s a very interesting look at the French Sector in Berlin. (in German)


*Image Wiki Commons 3.0

Gladow, boy gangster of postwar Berlin


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His name was Werner Gladow, and his hero was Al Capone.

He reflected just about the worst of postwar Germany. As became clear later when he was on trial for murder, he was only interested in getting rich, and it didn’t matter how he did it — or who he had to hurt. It could be argued any sense of morality had been kicked out of him by the war and Germany’s defeat; he was 14 when the Russians took Berlin. But it was just as likely he was a sociopath to begin with. His short and violent criminal career ended with him being one of the first people to be executed in the new East Germany.

Born in 1931, he bounced from one school to another (11 by the age of 15), and landed after the war in the criminal elements around Alexanderplatz and Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse, where he did what many teenagers did — tried to make a quick profit in the black market. During one of his first attempts at swindling customers, he landed in prison for a few months, where he recruited some of the first members of what would become the Gladow Gang. Between 1947 and 1949 he committed 375 robberies in banks, markets, shops and jewelry stores.

He was a smart kid and knew how to use the political situation in the divided Berlin to his advantage. His gang would commit robberies in West Berlin, then flee back into East Berlin (it was easy to go back and forth in the years before the Berlin Wall was built). The western police had no authority in the east, and couldn’t pursue them. The eastern police wouldn’t pick up the chase since the crime had been committed in the west. The next time, Gladow committed his robbery in the east and fled to the west. After awhile he got cocky, leaving visiting cards at the scene of robberies and playing up to the press.

He also got more violent. His gang acquired firearms any way they could, including mugging police. They killed the driver of a chic car and stole it, only to get it stuck in the sand near Müggelsee. They tortured a businessman and his wife for the key to their safe.

Betrayed by one of his gang, the police caught him in a gun battle worthy of a Chicago gangster. (Here’s a 1950 Spiegel report on Gladow’s arrest). He was lightly wounded on the chin, and at the sight of his own blood, he fainted. He was convicted of murder, attempted murder and assorted other crimes. When he was hanged, he was only 19.



Opinion polling in occupied Germany


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Polls are a snapshot of what people are thinking at any given time. We’ve drifted toward seeing polls as somehow predictive of how people will act, one reason polling in general has taken a hit since Brexit and Trump’s election.

But polling has been around a long time as a way to get inside the minds of groups of people. That info can be used to form policy or see the effects of policy. That’s why the US military government did a range of polling in the US zone after World War II. Batteries of questions asked Germans about their daily lives, family, work, their opinions about the allies and Germany’s occupation, and particular policies such as the dismantlement of German factories as war reparations.

If you want to read a full report of the polling, check out Public Opinion in Occupied Germany, The OMGUS Surveys from the University of Illinois Press, 1970.

One issue the Americans looked at was antisemitism.

In December 1946, the military government polled 3006 Germans in the US Zone of Germany and the US sector of Berlin. The questions floated around one main issue – What did the years of antisemitic Nazi propaganda leave in the minds of the Germans?

In general, the poll found that people with stronger antisemitic opinions tended to be less educated, from a lower socioeconomic class and less informed. They also tended to be more critical of the Allies, and thought National Socialism was basically a good idea.

The results were broken down into people with few prejudices (20%), Nationalists (19%), Racists (22%), Antisemites (21%), and strong antisemites (18%).

In other words, the numbers looked pretty awful.

To break it down, western Berlin had the lowest percentage of people classified as racists and antisemites – at 45%. Bavaria was the state with the lowest percentage – at 59%!

Women expressed stronger antisemitic opinions than men – 67% of the women versus 50% of the men.

An interesting question measured whether a person recognized that the Germans had tortured and murdered millions of innocent Europeans. 72% of people with few prejudices agreed with this, while only 41% of the racist/antisemitic people did.

Which goes to show you that there has always been a significant percentage of people who choose to believe what they want, against all evidence.

Checklist for authoritarian “change”


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After a lot of talking with friends and family about what’s going on in the USA, it’s pretty clear to me what I’m most concerned about. It’s the echoes of authoritarian regimes. Just echoes for now. But when power is concentrated into the hands of a single party, it’s up to people concerned with freedom to stand up and look at what the dangers are. Postwar Germany took a long, hard road analyzing its authoritarian past and trying to build safeguards so it never happens again. But first, it had to recognize the problem.

Last night, I did up a little graphic laying out some of the basic techniques of authoritarian regimes — right or left. This isn’t about one political ideology or another, it’s about concentrated power, how it’s taken and what is done with it. Nazi Germany did this right along with the Soviet Union. Modern Russia, Turkey and other countries did many of these things, or are in the process of doing them. I left a lot off the list for space reasons. What do you think should be added?

It’s up to us to recognize the similarities and be sure things don’t get out of hand.




That’s how it happens, folks


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I’ve kept this blog #USElection2016 -free, but today I have to say something.

Donald Trump is not Hitler, of course, and Hillary Clinton is no saint.


A lot of us Americans are asking ourselves what happened to our country. How could tens of millions of our people be galvanized by a man who claims he can fix the country for us? Who talks populism, protectionism, division, ridicule and hate? We can’t wrap our minds around the fact that so many of our neighbors and family members could see a leader in a man who spits venom.

Now imagine it’s 1945 or ’46. What were the Allies asking themselves in occupied Germany?

Wahlplakat der NSDAP zur ReichstagswahlHow could these people fall for that man? Was there something special about the Germans that made them blind to what he was? Did they see and not care? Were they concerned citizens voting according to their economic interests? Was it a vote against the Weimar establishment? Were they rebels? Were they sheep? Were they evil?

Those were real questions back then and all through the rest of the 20th century.

Now we know the answer to the biggest question.

It can happen anywhere. We saw it in Britain, we saw it last night in the USA. One of the first thing my international friends speculated about this morning was whether Germany would be next. There’s a national election here next year. Will lightening strike twice in this country where we’ve made our homes? If so, what do we tell our children about democracy and leadership and the rights of citizens? What do people who care about freedom do in an age when authoritarianism and the politics of division seem to be rising up all around us?

I don’t know. I’m too tired to think about it right now.

I do know that the Germans of the war generation were criticized for not resisting. For not seeing who and what was in front of them. Some were electrified by the new order. They were going to make Germany great again. Many people accepted the ugly side of the situation, or they succumbed to fear, they blended into the woodwork and got on with their lives, they became opportunists benefiting from the new laws, or they gave up on politics altogether. They let the wrong people trample over their country, its minorities and the weakest of its citizens. The ultimate result was total collapse.

We can tell ourselves that’ll never happen to us. Not in 21st century America. Except the people back then also thought they were making their country and the world better. Aside from being racist and antisemitic, the Nazis hated intellectuals, the media, artists, the disabled, gays, political “dissidents,” women in power, and anyone who ridiculed or criticized them. That looks a whole lot like what we’re seeing in the US and other democracies right now. How does that make the country and the world better?

It’s not the world I want my kids growing up in. But since it looks like they have to, all I can do is teach them a lot of critical thinking, a little history, and a skepticism of anyone who claims to be their leader. That’s not what democracy and freedom are all about.



Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-K0930-502 / CC-BY-SA 3.0