Policy Papers

Germany 1945-1949: a case study in post-conflict reconstruction

Chris Knowles |

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Executive Summary

  • British and American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that ‘regime change’ and victory in war do not necessarily lead to the establishment of stable and prosperous democracies, as was the case in the Allied occupations of West Germany and Japan after the Second World War.
  • British experiences in post- war Germany, 1945-1949, highlight some general principles which are relevant today: what happens after the war is won can be more important than the war itself. As Field-Marshal Montgomery said in a message to his troops on Victory in Europe (VE) Day, 8 May 1945, ‘We have won the German war. Let us now win the peace.’
  • Restrictive measures to prevent future aggression need to be complemented by positive reconstructive measures so that the occupied can see their own efforts are rewarded. Giving the Germans ‘hope for the future’ was one of Montgomery’s favourite phrases.
  • There is a limit to how much preparation can be done in advance because it is impossible to predict actual circumstances on the ground. Therefore military commanders and civilian authorities need to respond flexibly in light of what they encounter.
  • Democracy cannot be imposed by force or by totalitarian means. Trying to make local people do everything the victor’s way can be counter-productive. If political structures are to last beyond the occupation, they have to be created by local political leaders and accepted by the population as a whole.
  • Personal relationships between occupier and occupied are important. Reconciliation does not happen automatically, but requires a conscious effort on both sides.


At the end of the Second World War, in accordance with agreements made between Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at Yalta in February 1945, Germany was divided by the victorious Allies - Britain, the US, the Soviet Union and France - into four zones of occupation. It was originally intended that the country would be governed as a single entity by central German administrations, in accordance with decisions made by the four Allies acting jointly through the Allied Control Council in Berlin, but in practice each of the Allies ran their zone more or less independently for the first two years of the occupation. In 1947 the British and US zones combined economically to form the ‘Bizone’ but remained separate political entities. It was not until 1949, four years after the end of the war, that the three western zones formally joined together to form the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, and the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

This policy paper examines the situation in the British zone, between 1945 and 1949. Many of the conclusions appear to be equally valid for the US and French zones, although the detailed situation, policies pursued and timescales varied in each zone. In the east, the German Democratic Republic was to prove a loyal ally of the Soviet Union for over 40 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and become, in the meantime, relatively affluent compared to other members of the Soviet bloc.

Politically and diplomatically, Germany was de-nazified, disarmed as an independent military force and the Western and Eastern parts firmly anchored within the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances. In the West, currency reform in 1948, free market policies and the generous terms of Marshall Aid provided the pre-conditions for the subsequent ‘economic miracle.’ This success story was reinforced by peaceful re-unification in 1990 replacing the inconclusive and potentially unstable situation created in 1949 of Germany divided into two separate states.

Success, however, was not a foregone conclusion. A superficial understanding of Allied policies and actions and the German response may create unjustified complacency that once victory is achieved and dictatorial regimes removed from power, sufficient financial investment and the adoption of free market economic policies will be enough to create stable and prosperous democracies. The difficult period of transition, between the end of the war in Europe in May 1945 and the creation of an independent Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, involved hard choices. Governing the British zone of occupied Germany offers relevant lessons for contemporary operations.

The situation in Germany in 1945

In May 1945 Germany was in chaos. Observers reported that the destruction in some of the larger cities had to be seen to be believed with, for example, 66% of the houses in Cologne destroyed, and in Düsseldorf 93% uninhabitable. The economy was at a standstill and no central government remained to implement instructions issued by the Allies. Millions of people were homeless, or attempting to return to homes that no longer existed. They included German civilians evacuated from the cities or trying to escape from the fighting on both Eastern and Western fronts, former forced labourers from across Europe (known as ‘Displaced Persons’ or ‘DPs') and ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia or from former German eastern territories now ceded to Poland. Ivone Kirkpatrick, later appointed head of the German Department and subsequently Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, described his first impressions of Germany in 1945: there were ‘hundreds of thousands of Germans on foot, trekking in all directions … as if a giant ant-heap had suddenly been disturbed.’

Although numerous plans for the occupation had been compiled during the war by officials based in London, and a set of directives issued by the War Office in October 1944, these seemed inappropriate for the conditions the soldiers found on the ground in Germany, once victory had been achieved. Field-Marshal Montgomery, appointed Commander-in-Chief and Military Governor of the British zone of occupation on 22 May 1945, later recalled the immediate problems they faced: what to do with 1.5 million German POWs, a further million wounded German soldiers, similar numbers of civilian German refugees and Displaced Persons of many different nationalities, no working transport or communication services, industry and agriculture at a standstill, a scarcity of food and the risk of starvation and epidemics of disease. He added that: ‘I was a soldier and I had not been trained to handle anything of this nature … However something had to be done, and done quickly.’

In his second ‘Note on the Present Situation’ in July 1945, Montgomery wrote that they had only recently become aware of ‘the full extent of the debacle’ and ‘the magnitude of the problem that confronts us in the rebuilding of Germany.’ Part of the problem, he continued, was ‘a tendency to adhere too rigidly’ to earlier instructions which were now out of date and a new general directive was required. A week later he added, ‘Our present attitude towards the German people is negative, it must be replaced by one that is positive and holds out hope for the future.’

Physical and economic reconstruction

Montgomery and his senior staff responsible for Military Government and the civil administration of the British zone assumed that their most urgent task was to create order out of chaos. Writing in January 1946, his deputy, General Brian Robertson, described the first phase of the occupation, immediately before and after the German unconditional surrender in May 1945:


The directives were not many, and much was left to the initiative of individuals … the detachments entered into a land of desolation and bewilderment. Government above the level of the parish council had ceased. Everything was in disorder; people were stunned and helpless … “First things first” was the motto when Military Government first raised its sign in Germany…


Montgomery had served as a young officer in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) after the First World War, during the occupation of the Rhineland, when British troops occupied Cologne and surrounding areas to try to ensure that the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were enforced. Robertson’s father, Field-Marshal Sir William Robertson, had commanded the BAOR for a time. Faced with problems which appeared alarmingly similar to those their predecessors had faced only 25 years earlier, Montgomery, Robertson and their colleagues tried to avoid the mistakes they believed had been made then. The lessons they drew from the failure to secure a lasting peace after the First World War, were not only that Germany should be completely demilitarised and its industries controlled to prevent future re-armament, but that law and order had to be restored, steps taken to prevent epidemics of disease, and economic activity re-started, to try to prevent the unemployment and social unrest which had, they believed, contributed to the rise of extreme political parties and the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

Montgomery decided to treat the task of governing their defeated enemy as if it were a military operation, referring to the need to fight the ‘Battle of the Winter’, to secure food, work and homes for the former enemies. The resources available under his direct command were the army and the civilian Control Commission, which had been established in the final year of the war and transferred to Germany in July and August 1945. As early as July 1945, less than three months after the end of the war, he issued a new draft directive to British army commanders and Control Commission heads of division, finalised on 10 September 1945. Unlike earlier wartime directives, the new directive identified steps to be taken to reconstruct German economic and political life, address shortages of food, fuel and housing, improve transport facilities, re-open schools, permit freedom of assembly, licence political parties and prepare for future elections. Con O’Neill, a senior Foreign Office official and leading authority on Germany, minuted that the new directive ‘gives me, in general, the impression that British Military Govt. has now embarked on a policy of Full Speed Ahead for German rehabilitation.’

The new policy of reconstruction had some limited success, but fell short of achieving sustained economic growth or more than a basic subsistence level of existence for the German civilian population. Over a million German soldiers, captured and detained at the end of the war and held in the British zone, were released between June and September 1945 to work on the land and bring in the harvest, in a project named ‘Operation Barleycorn’. A similar project, ‘Operation Coalscuttle’, was less successful, with around 30,000 former soldiers released to work in the coal mines, far fewer than were needed to restore output to pre-war production levels. British army engineers restored much of the transport infrastructure and the economy started to revive, but severe shortages of labour and raw materials meant that production remained at very low levels.

Despite widespread concern over incidents of TB, Hunger Oedema and other diseases, there were no serious epidemics in post-war Germany. The supply of food, however, was a constant problem. Rations in the British zone had to be reduced to a near starvation level of 1,000 calories a day in March 1946, which limited workers’ productive capacity, as they took time off from work to travel to the countryside for additional supplies. Rations did not exceed 1,500 calories a day until 1948-9, following a substantial increase in US financial aid and food exports to both the US and British zones (by comparison, food consumption in ‘austerity Britain’ during the immediate post-war years was significantly higher, averaging 2,800 calories a day). Due to the high cost of food imports and the lack of exports to pay for these due to low levels of production, shortages of labour and raw materials, the zone proved to be an economic liability instead of the expected asset. It cost the British taxpayer £80 million in 1946-7, despite containing much of West Germany’s industrial and manufacturing capacity.

The economic historian, Werner Abelshauser, and others have shown that the first stages of German post-war economic recovery, leading to the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s and 1960s, pre-dated the currency reform of 1948 and the economic and financial stimulus offered by the European Recovery Programme (Marshall Plan). What contribution to revival was made by British economic policies during the first four years of occupation? There were some notable achievements, such as restoration of transport infrastructure, and the preservation and effective management of some enterprises taken into Military Government ownership, such as Volkswagen. Yet the essential British contribution to future German economic revival lay in providing a period of stability after the war, restoring order and the rule of law, and securing the provision of basic services, even though in many areas, such as food and housing, this could only be done at a low level. In so doing, the British provided an environment which enabled Germans to succeed and create economic prosperity through their own efforts.

Political renewal

Responsibility for re-establishing democratic structures and processes of government in the British zone was devolved to the Administration and Local Government (ALG) branch of the Control Commission. The set of directives issued by the War Office in October 1944 contained no guidance on the issue, apart from instructions to remove all former Nazis from public office and positions of responsibility, and a general requirement to promote decentralisation and the development of local responsibility. None of the senior officials in the branch had previous experience of working in local government positions in Britain. Those who did have suitable qualifications generally preferred to stay in Britain, where there was great demand for skilled personnel in a labour market distorted by six years of war. Harold Ingrams, the head of branch, was a former colonial official. He reported to an army general. Soldiers and former colonial officials, with no personal experience of democratic processes, were therefore given the job of creating a democratic system, in a country that had been ruled by a fascist dictatorship for the past 12 years.

Ingrams believed that the purpose of their work was to prevent another war, writing that ‘We are trying to beat the swastika into the parish pump, and the parish council does not go to war.’ In his view, they had to do more than remove former Nazis from positions of responsibility, disarm what was left of the German army and destroy weapons factories. They had to create a new political system, in a foreign country, that would prevent another Hitler coming to power. This, he believed, could best be achieved by a policy of decentralisation, starting the process of political renewal at local level, giving people responsibility for their own communities.

Montgomery, as Military Governor, banned all political activity for the first four months of the occupation, while Army ‘Civil Affairs’ detachments took over direct control of civil administration of towns and districts and assumed responsibility for the immediate needs of the inhabitants. Ingrams and his colleagues in the ALG branch then built from the bottom up, creating nominated representative councils for towns, cities and rural districts. British local detachment commanders selected German council members to represent all the ‘party or sectional’ interests in the area, which were defined widely, to include religious groups, trade unions, political parties, farmers and industrialists, or geographically by residential areas.

During the first two years of the occupation, British policy in local government moved from direct to indirect rule. Political parties were licensed from late 1945, initially at local, then at regional and zonal level, and elections were held in October 1946 to select representatives for city, district and regional councils. Following the agreed principle of decentralisation, considerable power was devolved to the regions, the German Länder, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and the city of Hamburg. Only those functions of government which could not be performed regionally, such as central economic planning or managing the transport infrastructure, were retained at zonal level under Military Government control, pending agreement between the Allies on the future governmental structure for Germany as a whole.

Over time, British officials learnt that they could not impose democracy by force. At first, Ingrams tried to introduce a British model of democracy in Germany. He attempted to impose British practices, such as the ‘first past the post’ method of voting in elections, and the appointment of unpaid and non-executive chairmen of local city councils, to replace the German Bürgermeister or elected city mayors. These attempts were generally unsuccessful. Leading German members of the newly formed democratic political parties argued that there had been a strong tradition of local democracy in Germany before the Nazi seizure of power, and it was wrong to impose an ‘alien’ British system. They were supported by German exiles in London, and by John Hynd, the Minister for Germany, who had close links with some of the exiles.

When discussing future political structures, both sides agreed on many key principles – that individuals should be safeguarded against excessive demands from an authoritarian government, and that the electoral system should be designed to promote stable government with an effective but loyal opposition, and discourage extreme political parties. In many cases, the outcome was a compromise, containing elements of both the British and pre-Nazi German systems. The electoral system eventually adopted in Germany and still used today, for example, is an elaborate compromise between proportional representation – choosing multiple candidates from a party list – and the British ‘first past the post’ electoral system.

A policy of introducing democracy by persuasion, not by force or by unilateral decree, appears to have succeeded, despite well-publicised concerns (which emerged from the 1950s and continue to the present) that some former Nazis remained in positions of authority and influence. When elections were held in the Federal Republic of (West) Germany in August 1949, the great majority of people voted for the democratic parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Free Democrats (FDP).

Personal reconciliation

In the first two years after the war, instructions issued to British administrative staff and army personnel regarding personal relations with German civilians changed completely, from non-fraternisation and a ban on all contacts with Germans other than those necessary for their work, to official support for all forms of activity that promoted mutual understanding and personal reconciliation. The change in official policy appeared to reflect changes in attitudes among the troops on the ground, who came to see Germans as individuals and ‘people like us’ rather than the national stereotypes promoted in wartime, which had portrayed all Germans as aggressive, militaristic and not to be trusted.

British soldiers and administrators have recorded in diaries, memoirs and oral history interviews how they came to know Germans during the occupation through work, meeting socially as friends, as lovers, or eventually as husbands and wives. Around 10,000 British soldiers and officials married German women they met during the occupation. Official initiatives to promote mutual understanding and personal reconciliation included Anglo-German discussion groups, exchange visits, town twinning projects and a network of reading rooms and British information centres known as Die Brücke, ‘the Bridge’. Once power started to be devolved to local German administrations, British officials could no longer issue instructions to German subordinates. Many believed that their influence over the future development of the country was best maintained through personal relationships, especially with a German ‘elite’ in responsible positions in government, business, the media and education.

Relations between British and Germans were not harmonious throughout the occupation. There were some tense conflicts, hunger strikes and demonstrations. Requisitioning of accommodation for the occupying forces was especially unpopular among the Germans, at a time of massive housing shortages. Many Germans also objected to the privileges of the occupying forces, such as clubs and hotels exclusively for their use, and reserved compartments on some local trains in cities such as Hamburg.

But in general, reconciliation worked in post-war Germany, because personal initiatives, at many levels, received official support and encouragement and were combined with active collaboration between the British and local German administrations. Reconciliation required a conscious effort on both sides. It did not happen automatically.


The military occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War are probably the most prominent examples in modern times of the economic and political reconstruction of a defeated country. Historian John Dower, for example, has suggested that they were used by US policymakers in 2002 and 2003 as examples of successful military occupations. Despite the successful outcome, however, post-conflict reconstruction in occupied Germany should not be seen as a direct model for countries where specific circumstances may be very different.

If there had been armed resistance in occupied Germany, requiring British troops to fight back and possibly kill civilians, as has occurred in other post-conflict situations such as Iraq, the outcome might have been very different. There was no armed resistance because Germany had been completely defeated in war and the Nazi government utterly discredited. Acceptance by a majority of both occupiers and occupied that the previous regime had been illegitimate, together with the establishment of law and order, peace and internal security, adequate supplies of food and measures to prevent disease, were the crucial pre-conditions for the positive work of reconstruction.

The British experience, however, illustrates some general principles which are relevant today. Firstly, political solutions cannot be imposed from above by force or by decree. Secondly – and correspondingly – there is a need for flexibility. The occupying authority’s high command must respond to the changing conditions relayed by those on the ground, as happened in Germany. Thirdly, it is important to provide a period of stability after the end of a war and the removal of the previous government, to give local people the space to develop political, economic, social and cultural institutions and practices. Finally, after war a period of subsequent occupation is not, in itself, any effective guarantee of achieving ‘regime change’, however desirable that may seem; the outcome is always uncertain, contingent on the wishes of the occupied, and never a foregone conclusion.

This policy paper is based on an article first published in The RUSI Journal, December 2013, ‘The British occupation of Germany, 1945-49: A case study in post-conflict reconstruction’, The RUSI Journal, Vol. 158, No. 6 (Dec. 2013), pp. 78-85.

Further Reading

Richard Bessel, Germany 1945: from War to Peace (London, New York, Sydney, Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Peter Stirk, The Politics of Military Occupation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Alan Kramer, The West German Economy, 1945-1955 (Oxford: Berg Publishers Ltd, 1991)

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