Prof Rempel lecture: Defeat, Chaos, Rebirth

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Germany: Defeat, Chaos, Rebirth

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.



I. Death and Destruction

Almost 40 million human beings from 21 different countries had lost their lives in the war that had just ended in Europe. Half of them were civilians. This was more than twice the total dead in the war against Japan and more than twice the total of dead on all fronts in World War I.


A. Casualties

The worst casualties had been incurred in Eastern Europe. Poland lost nearly 5.5 million of its people-more than one-sixth of the prewar population. The Soviet Union lost a horrendous 20 million people-more than a tenth of its population, including over 13 million civilians. Germany, too, paid a fearful price for Hitler's war. Six percent of the prewar population, totaling nearly 7 million, died as a consequence of the war:

3,250,000 military
3,640,000 civilians
2,000,000 post-hostilities expellees.

Of all Germans born in 1924, 25 percent were dead by the end of the war, and 31 percent wounded-a casualty rate of more than one in two. The worst casualty ratios were among ethnic groups, who fell victim to the Nazi racial extermination program. Nearly 6 million Jews perished out of the estimated 10 million living in Europe before the war-most of them from Poland and the Soviet Union. The Gypsies of Eastern Europe, totaling some half million, were virtually exterminated.

By comparison with this horrific tally of dead, the Western Allies suffered relatively light casualties in proportion to their populations:

France 520,000 (military and civilian dead),
Britain 390,000 (dead, including 60,000 civilians),
U.S.A. 170,000 (dead, all military),
Canada 40,000 (dead),Italy 400,000 (dead including 70,000 civilians = 1 percent of population).

These figures ignore the no less horrendous totals of wounded-2 million in Germany alone-and the tens of millions of people uprooted from their homes by the war and its aftermath: a displacement of peoples on a scale without precedent in the history of the human race. The sheer size of this disaster was due to a number of causes:

1. the immense geographical extent of the war front, involving almost every country in Europe;
2. sophisticated and lethal weaponry, especially in the air;
3. Nazi savagery, especially toward the Jews and the Slavs;
4. the concept of total war.

The concept of total war brought with it the moral acceptance of civilian casualties as a means of achieving a strategic military objective, as in the area-bombing of German cities. The idea of total war also involved the achievement of political goals, as in the Germans' use of terror against subject populations.



B. Material damage

The material damage caused by the war was as cataclysmic as the human slaughter. Air raids, artillery bombardment, street battles and scorched-earth tactics had partly destroyed cities as far apart as Coventry, Rotterdam, Lyons, Naples, Cracow, Leningrad and Kiev. These tactics severely damaged capitals like London, Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade. Warsaw and Berlin had been almost obliterated. Countless smaller towns and villages had been razed to the ground or turned into ghost towns. Wiener Neustadt in Austria emerged from the air raids and the street-fighting with only 18 houses intact and its population reduced from 45,000 to 860. In Russia 6 million houses had been destroyed, leaving 25 million people homeless. In Düsseldorf 93 percent of the houses were left uninhabitable.

The basic economic infrastructure of Europe had ceased to exist and industrial production had fallen by two-thirds or more. In Russia 3,000 oil wells and 1,000 coal pits had been destroyed and nearly 70 million head of livestock were taken by the Germans. Yugoslavia had lost two-thirds of its industrial resources, Poland and France a half. In the whole of the continent only two ports, Antwerp and Bordeaux, were working normally. The rest were blocked with dynamited jetties and sunken ships. More than half the railway stock of France and Germany had been destroyed. Half of Britain's mercantile fleet had been sent to the bottom. The financial system had been destroyed and international trade completely disrupted.

Some currencies collapsed completely and inflation got out of hand in many countries: in Hungary one American dollar was worth 11 sextillion pengoes. Britain was bankrupted by the cost of the war: her exports had declined by nearly 70 percent; her foreign debts had increased by 600 percent, largely on account of her borrowings from the USA. Only the United States came out of the war a good deal better off than she went into it. Its war production had grown to enormous size and its domestic economy had been maintained at a high level; its exports alone had risen by 300 percent during the course of the war.





II. Germany in Chaos

For the second time in the century Germany's expansionist dreams lay shattered in ruins. Once again, as in 1918, Germany was the passive object of policy by her conquerors. This time, however, the costs of the adventure were more gigantic and more terrifying than ever before in its history. Furthermore, unlike 1918, there was no political or revolutionary action this time against the former rulers.

One of the most fateful aspects of the whole story of this post-war period derives from the fact that the German people failed to do anything themselves to throw off the yoke of the Nazi dictatorship. Even under the hammering blows of Allied bombings and of Allied armies pushing deeper and deeper into the country, there was not a single instance of Germans rising up to overthrow even local Nazi authority.

In Fascist Italy, at least in the north, the coming of Allied soldiers was preceded by anti-fascist acts of liberation. Mussolini was ousted and finally done away with by Italian hands. But Germany experienced not a single revolutionary outbreak. The only signs on the walls which greeted the advancing Allied armies were Nazi slogans and calls for a fight to the death under the Führer.

Germany was freed from the shackles of totalitarianism by outsiders, by foreign armies and by foreign sacrifices. Nationalist sentiment, disciplined obedience, and dazed inertia and apathy combined to stay the hands of Germans from doing even as much as the Italians had done. Or was it also the fear of another "stab in the back" legend that paralyzed the anti-Nazis? Once again, democracy was initiated in Germany with the odds heavily pitted against it. Once again democracy came as the gift of the former enemy and the outside.

The condition of the country at the close of hostilities in May 1945 can be described by one word, chaos-chaos in its most literal and classical sense. Unlike World War I, which ended with German armies everywhere on enemy soil and which left German territory unscathed, World War II bequeathed to Germany, as it did to the rest of Europe, appalling physical destruction.



A. Allied bombers

Continuous battering by Allied bombers, despite Göring's proud boast that his Luftwaffe would never permit Allied planes to invade the German skies; violent house-to-house and street-to-street fighting by last-ditch fanatical Nazi formations, and willful destruction of bridges, public buildings, and roads by retreating Nazis, all brought physical decimation to a very substantial part of German territory. There was hardly an important city or town that did not present a spectacle of mounds and mounds of rubble and ruins, of half-destroyed buildings, shattered dwellings, battered railroad stations and disorganized public utilities.

Among the larger cities only Heidelberg, Celle, and Flensburg remained intact, with Lübeck and Bamberg not too badly hit. But Kassel, Nürnberg, Cologne, Mannheim, Darmstadt, Essen, Koblenz, and Würzburg seemed almost completely destroyed. Berlin, Dresden, Breslau, Munich, Hamburg, Mainz, and Frankfurt were almost as badly damaged. People lived huddled together in the ruins of houses, in cellars and in bunkers, and trudged in a dazed condition over what they once knew as streets but what were now only heaps of rubble. The stench of dead bodies buried underneath the rubble lingered on for many, many months.

The New York Herald Tribune correspondent, entering Berlin on May 3, 1945, wrote:

"Nothing is left in Berlin. There are no homes, no shops, no transportation, no government buildings. Only a few walls are the heritage bequeathed by the Nazis to the people of Berlin. Berlin can now be regarded only as a geographical location heaped with mountainous mounds of debris."

The Russian Pravda correspondent told of the terrified and starving housewives of Berlin plundering the shops, and described Berlin as a city of desolation and shattered dreams, inhabited by a half mad, half starving population, clawing its frenzied way into battered food shops, slinking for shelter into dark cellars, and currying favor with their conquerors as they emerged from the catacombs, raising their clenched fists and shouting "Rote Front."




B. Destruction of infrastructure

The breakdown of transportation and communication, the collapse of the banking system, and the resulting financial chaos added to the physical destruction to produce anarchy, especially in the urban centers. Even more important was the disintegration of all government. Nazi government officials, aware of their potential status as war criminals, committed suicide, fled, went into hiding, or were captured by Allied troops. The complete governmental structure of the country, not only at the top but even on the smallest municipal and village levels, collapsed in its entirely. The elite leadership which had held the country in its grip for the preceding decade disappeared abruptly from the scene. Nor was there a new leadership elite to take its place.

Anti-Nazi political figures had either been murdered, tortured, or forced into emigration. Some emerged haggard and physically debilitated from liberated concentration camps. A few came back later from exile. But the situation immediately following the cessation of hostilities found Germany completely devoid of any class of political leaders ready to take over the administrative machinery left vacant by the routed Nazis.

The German masses were psychologically unprepared for defeat and the loss of the war. True, there were many who had managed to listen to foreign broadcasts and who after Stalingrad had seen the handwriting on the wall for Germany. There were also many Germans, their numbers unknown, but their lot perhaps the most tragic of all, who with their own kin in the German fighting forces, yet with deep love of humanity, knelt in silent prayer, as Allied bombers came over to destroy their homes and cities to plead for Allied victory to destroy Nazism.

For most Germans, however, the glory of Hitler's triumphs was too recent in memory to allow for the complete reversal to defeat. The mass of people were mentally stunned by it all. Accustomed as they were to look to orders, direction, and force from above, they floundered about either in complete apathy or in a mad psychological scramble, when their superiors were gone.



C. Displaced persons

Germany at the close of the war became the center of one of the most gigantic population movements in modern history. To the approximately 66,000,000 Germans, were added close to 8,000,000 nationals of other countries, liberated from concentration camps and labor camps. These were later joined by thousands of infiltrees who came trekking into Germany-Jews from Poland and the USSR, and anti-Communists, taking advantage of disorganized conditions to flee from the Soviet dictatorship.

After 1947 came refugees from other Soviet-dominated countries who found Germany, by virtue of its geographical location and because of the absence of civil government, the most convenient place to find shelter. Added to these were some 8,000,000 soldiers of the invading armies of the major powers and the various missions of the smaller powers, making a grand total of over 15,000,000 non-Germans of varying degrees of political status and economic situation who constituted a completely foreign body in the demographic structure of the country.

To these must also be added close to 10,000,000 German refugees. These were, in the first place, ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Poland, in order to cleanse those countries from German minority problems. Secondly, there were Germans who fled or were expelled from the former German territories annexed by Poland and the Soviet Union in the east, namely, Silesia and East Prussia.

The great majority of these German refugees filtered into Western Germany. Homeless and without means, they came into the rubble-ridden, half starved and congested West German cities and created a heavy drain on the physical resources of the native population. The native Germans at first regarded them, for the most part, as aliens, and in general resented their coming and the political and cultural baggage which they brought with them.

This huge amorphous population of post-war Germany was further disorganized by the division of the country into four zones of occupation. In the beginning each of the zones was sealed off tightly from the others. The ruined economy, the disrupted transportation, and the divided families all found further difficulties and complications created by four zones, four occupying powers, four different political and administrative setups, four different mentalities, and four borders to cross.



D. Tension of occupation

The effects of the strain of war, the influence of twelve years of nihilistic National Socialist rule, the shock of defeat, and the tension of occupation combined to bring about a profound moral disintegration and loss of all sense of values. The primary preoccupation of most Germans was with the most elementary problems of food, shelter, and work.

There came the days of a wildly flourishing black market, of a tobacco-starved population that threw official currency to the winds and improvised a wildly fluctuating cigarette economy, in which goods and services were traded for cigarettes, often measured not by the carton or even by the pack, but by the single cigarette. There came the Stummel period when foreign soldiers and civilians found themselves followed by Germans waiting to pick up discarded cigarette butts. There followed the days of the Fräuleins, who, whether the official military orders were for or against fraternization, carried on with Allied soldiers in varying degrees of intimacy in return for chocolate bars, nylon stockings, or K rations, to supplement the family food rations.

All these manifestations, in part the concomitance of any military occupation, now assumed vaster dimensions than ever before in history. They continued on well into 1947, until by various actions of the Allied powers, they gradually disappeared. Among these Allied actions were the repatriation of displaced persons (DPs) and emigration of others; economic reforms; relief administration; and more rigid control of their own troops. The more shocking and glaring aspects of this occupation period were thus gradually eliminated. Deep scars of a moral and psychic nature remained. These scars added more complexity to the already difficult problems of the new German state.




III. A New Beginning

West Germany built in many styles on its ruins. In the first stage a roof was put over a ground floor, a theater, or a "hotel" was made of an air-raid shelter. Many of the later structures look like American apartment houses and office buildings. Others are solid mixtures of concrete and glass or cinderblock-functional, durable, and unimaginative. The cities are hybrid. The Hochhäuser-the semi-skyscrapers-are likely to stand in no sensible relationship to the architecture around them.

Where there were so many wide fields of blasted stone, new buildings sprouted one at a time, or rose in apartment blocks that imposed a sensible order on a small area. These structures often conflicted sharply with the architecture of the old city. In almost all the cities the rubble has left its marks. In West Berlin, for example, much of the rubble has been moved and planted to form artificial parks and hills.



A. Marshall Plan

It was a prosperous Germany that became sovereign in 1949. The United States had poured into it more than 4 billion dollars in aid, in the form of gifts and loans. The effects had been prodigious, equaled in no other European country, although Germany got a relatively small proportion of Marshall Plan aid. Europe received in all 20 billion dollars from the United States. In 1954 the figures per capita had amounted to

$29 for Germany
$33 for Italy
$72 for France
$77 for England
$104 for Austria.

But in Germany the aid came at precisely the right time, when the accumulated pressures for both physical and psychological reconstruction had reached a bursting point. The recovery had been intensified too by the continued immigration of the East Germans, who came to the West with the drive and urgency of the uprooted to find a new habitation, who had to make good or be nothing again, for whom work was a boon in which they could lose themselves, shutting out the past and keeping warm and nourished with the present.

The prosperity continued as the rate of improvement leveled off, but year after year there were more goods to consume and there was money with which to buy them. One test of the new German democracy would come if the boom collapsed or even receded sharply. The number of able-bodied workers had not risen a third as much as had those dependent on their efforts.


B. The surge of enterprise

The surge of enterprise which brought Germany its remarkable improvement in the standard of living made the way of a liberal, democratic economy an easy one for the working population to accept and cherish. West Germany lost through strikes from 1949 to 1954 an average of only 103 man hours per thousand employed. This compared with an average between 1952 and 1954 of 151 for the United Kingdom; 1,244 for France, and 1,515 for the United States. The German worker clung to his job. It was the only thing that was sure to make sense.

Such was the bounty of the recovery that from 1954 on some two million Germans a year could travel to Italy. There were also countless excursions of factory workers and other groups traveling through Germany and neighboring countries on trips that had once been possible only for the well-to-do. The Nazis started this movement in their "Strength Through Joy" campaigns, but it has continued in the republic on a much greater scale.

The philosophy of the free market was developed further by the CDU coalition than by the dominant political parties of any other country. Americans had long preached the crusade against monopoly and extolled the virtues of free enterprise, but the German economic leadership gave these economics a metaphysical form.



C. Franco-German cooperation

The efforts to reduce European tariffs, the Economic Payments Union, the development of the idea of the Common Market in the European Economic Community, the European Monetary Agreement, the French-German agreements to pool their resources in the development of European and African industry - these were the product of powerful forces in Germany and France and throughout Western Europe. People now recognized that new ways would have to be found, not only to deal with the Communist threat outside their borders, but also with the anarchy and disintegration within Europe itself.

These efforts were not confined to economic measures. Although the French had feared Germany's industrial competition almost as much as its rearmament, Schuman and others, who wanted German forces as part of a European army, thought it best that German industry should be revived in a European context. The settlement of the Saar dispute was an example of this kind of thinking. It came about as a result of profound political changes. Yet it was also a decision of reasonable men, determined to resolve controversies that were being blown up far beyond their worth to either country alone. The Saar has gone back to Germany, but both France and Germany share in the production of its industries. It has become a place where the two countries meet and collaborate, instead of a cause of endless friction.

More than ever before, the French and Germans attempted to develop means and methods of mutual comprehension. From the beginning of the occupation, the French, despite the arrogant airs of conquerors who had been placed in power by the arms of others, had developed the idea of meetings between small groups from the two countries. Every Frenchman believed that Germany had much to learn from France, and some thought both countries had a good deal to learn from each other. In the first three years of the occupation, there were gatherings of German and French youth.

While it was not until 1948, that the French permitted Germans to travel to France, there were many later meetings of people with special interests in common-teachers and religious groups, for example. French families, like the Americans, took German children into their homes for holidays and sent their children to Germany. French theatrical companies appeared before enthusiastic German audiences. As early as 1957 it was even possible to place French troops under the command of a German general.



D. A new concept of Europe

A new concept of Europe could grow out of this French-German collaboration. Every country has been made aware of what Western Europe, despite its profound historic differences, holds in common. Somewhat awkwardly expressed, a sign in German at the Strasbourg bridge connecting France and Germany read in the mid-1950s:

"You are leaving Europe-You remain in Europe."

The economic order was changing, blurring old linguistic and ethnic borders. Goods and people could move across them with greater freedom. As the curtain closed in the East there was all the more need for common markets, and the intricate measures of mutual defense. It became possible to foresee an end to the mutual destruction, the causes of which were part of the political thinking of other centuries. The murder of an archduke, a Hohenzollern on a foreign throne, one flag or another flying over a splinter of border territory, would not be the grave threat to national security in the later half of the 20th century.

A common danger made Europe aware of its common heritage. The industries of war and peace made their alliances over the ancient borders. General de Gaulle and Chancellor Adenauer met in the summer of 1958 only to reaffirm the policies of collaboration. There is no place under the long shadow of Russia, in the glare of mid-century science and technology, for any other long-range policy.

With one third of the population under twenty and 10 percent over sixty-five, the German army threatened to be a serious drain on the already limited supply of able-bodied and productive workers. But the Germans were more concerned with the kind of army they were going to have, than with its economic effects. The idea of an army of civilians, like the Swiss or American, was attractive to a population that would have preferred to be without armed forces of any kind. Plans for placing the army under the control of parliament and a civilian minister were approved unanimously in the press. But there were some who thought the amenities were going beyond nonmilitarist aims, when it was rumored, that the young soldiers were to serve a nine-hour day, and need not salute their officers, or wear uniforms when off duty.

The look of the old army would be missing: the militarist haircut was abolished. The uniform was slate gray, non-inflammable, proof against infrared rays, and resistant to radiation. Helmets resembled those of the Americans. Jackboots were replaced by rubber-soled shoes, such as the GI wore. Only the East Germans kept the helmet and the cut of the uniform of the Reich. In the West the recruits were to be served their meals by waitresses without having to wait in the line for their food, as they did in the democratic army of their American tutors.



E. A new German army

In the summer of 1955, the Bundestag passed the Law for the German Army. It was a different type of German army which this law created. The Minister of Defense, Theodor Blank, was an anti-Nazi trade-union official, a former carpenter, who during the war had been a lieutenant in an armored unit and had been captured by the Russians. Officers, the law stated, were to be chosen without regard to birth, religion, or social standing. An order was to be disobeyed if it would lead to the commission of a crime, but if the soldier obeyed without knowing his act was unlawful, he was to be adjudged innocent.

The army was to uphold the "free democratic order as laid down in the Basic Law." It was to be an army that would have the confidence of the entire people, recognizing the value of personal freedom, and unreservedly devoted to the democratic system.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Collapse of Weimar & Hitler's Rise   
  Hitler Home & Structure of the Hitler State
Background | Ideas | The Nazi State: Leadership & Party | Control,
Propaganda & Art |Economics
  Living in the Nazi State:
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Persecution (Antisocials, Jewish Attacks, 1933-39|Final solution)
  Women & Family in Nazi Germany
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  The End of the Reich

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