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The British Army of the Rhine

Turning Nazi Enemies into Cold War Partners


Peter Speiser


Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016

Hardcover. xiv+203 p. ISBN 978-0252040160. $39.95


Reviewed by Christopher Knowles

Kings College London



After a continuous presence in the country of over seventy years, the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR – renamed in 1994 British Forces Germany, BFG) will soon be leaving Germany.(1) Peter Speiser’s study is therefore very welcome, as a review is long overdue of the role, the achievements, and above all the relationship between the BAOR and the local civilian population.

The book is not a history of the BAOR. In the Preface [ix], Speiser describes his ‘original contribution to knowledge’ as an ‘evaluation of the efforts made by both the British and German administrations to transform the BAOR from an occupation army to a protecting force and utilize its presence to strengthen German integration into the Western defence against communism’. The time period covered is from 1948 to 1957 and his main focus is to establish if the BAOR ‘provided an effective tool for the improvement of Anglo-German relations in a crucial period of the Cold War’ [2]. Whereas earlier literature has covered the military and strategic role of the BAOR, Speiser discusses the army’s political role and the social impact of, at its peak in 1956, nearly eighty thousand British troops stationed in Germany.

At first sight the conclusions he reaches appear weak: despite attempts by the British administration to improve relations with the German civilian population, ‘the BAOR was not an effective tool to strengthen the Anglo-German partnership’ [x]. Despite some local successes, its main achievement, in his view, lay in preventing a ‘deterioration of relations between British servicemen and German civilians in a crucial period of German integration into the Western defense against communism’ [x]. A counterfactual claim such as this cannot, of course, be proved one way or the other, and leaves many interesting questions unanswered.

The strength of the book lies in its description and analysis of the relations between the BAOR and the local German civilian population, and some of the factors that influenced Anglo-German interactions: public opinion and press comment at home in Britain, individual memories and experiences of the Second World War, personal encounters when British soldiers and German civilians met and interacted with each other other face to face, the inevitable conflicts as training exercises and manoeuvres conducted by the army and Royal Air Force inconvenienced the local population, how these conflicts were managed, and the instructions and advice given to local military commanders by the civilian Control Commission in Germany, the Foreign Office, and government ministers in London. Speiser draws on sources from British and German archives to provide a balanced perspective, giving due weight to both sides.

Speiser concludes [66-67] that anti-German comment in much of the British press in the late 1940s and early 1950s was counter-balanced by other, more positive experiences and attitudes, and British servicemen would have had a more complex view of Germany and the Germans than may have been expected following two world wars, the possible loss of family members and friends, and stereotypical images presented in popular British culture at the time. Similarly, his descriptions of day-to-day relations between British servicemen and the local German civilian population illustrate a complex and diverse pattern of cooperation and conflict. Requisitioning of accommodation, at a time of severe housing shortages, was a major cause of resentment among the local population, as was damage to agricultural crops and land caused by military exercises. On the other hand, there were examples of positive encounters, such as Christmas parties arranged for local children, joint sporting activities, and German language classes for servicemen and their wives reported in the Royal Engineers’ regimental magazine, The Sapper.

The complex relationship between occupiers and occupied is well illustrated by the specific example of foxhunting [82-84 & 114]. This may appear a minor issue but more recent conflicts and impassioned debates, leading to the Hunting Act in 2004, which banned hunting wild mammals with dogs in Britain, show that it can be highly emotive. Hunting with dogs had been outlawed in Germany as cruel to animals by the Reichsjagdgesetz (hunting law) of 1934. After the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949, the ban was extended to apply to Allied troops based in Germany. Some British officers took exception to the ban and demanded an exemption, attempting to put pressure on a local German official, claiming that if he did not grant them permission, severe damage would be done to Anglo-British relations. The matter was escalated to the German regional government in Lower Saxony and taken up by the local press. The two officers received no support from the British authorities and had to back down. Official British policy at the time was that hunting by troops, with dogs, was permitted, but only with the consent of the local German landowners, which had not been obtained in this case. A few years later, however, joint Anglo-German drag hunts, in which the dogs followed a trail, rather than a live animal, were reported favourably in the local German press as an example of excellent relations between the British and Germans.

As this example shows, apparently minor disputes could act as proxies for broader issues that both sides were reluctant to address directly, such as sovereignty, the rule of law, the legitimate exercise of power, attempts to gain the moral high ground, and the appropriate form of relations between occupiers and occupied in what was intended to be a ‘benign’ rather than an ‘oppressive’ occupation.

The greatest weakness of the book is the lack of a strong analytical framework, within which the detailed description of attitudes, relationships and encounters between British servicemen and German civilians can be placed. The five chapters cover official British policy towards Germany and the perceived role of the BAOR before and after the formation of the Federal Republic in 1949, the influence of public opinion in Britain on servicemen stationed in Germany, the response of the local German population to the presence of British troops, attempts by the BAOR to improve Anglo-German relations, and the view of the Foreign Office and civilian British High Commission in Germany in the 1950s of the role and function of the BAOR, as a tool to promote British values and integrate the Federal Republic within the Western Alliance. While commendable in providing a British and a German perspective on the presence of foreign troops, this pattern does not allow for a full discussion of the structural tensions in British policy: between the centre, in London, and the periphery, in Germany; between the civilian and military arms of the British administration; or through maintaining an army of occupation in a country now considered to be an ally rather than an enemy.     

As Speiser correctly notes [5 & 18], an improvement in Anglo-German relations, and any contribution the BAOR might make towards this, was the means to the end, rather than the end in itself. British post-war policy towards Germany was designed to achieve broader goals, such as demonstrating military and political support for other countries in Europe, containment of the Soviet sphere of influence, and maintenance of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States. Within Germany, the primary role of the BAOR was to bolster support for Adenauer and his pro-western diplomatic and economically liberal economic policies, and act as a garrison and protect British interests in case there should be a revival of nationalist sentiment and of far-right neo-Nazi or extreme left-wing socialist or communist parties. The greatest fear of the British was not that the Soviet Union might initiate an aggressive military attack, (which was seen as unlikely), but that it could extend its political influence within the Federal Republic, so that the western European border with a block of communist-controlled countries would lie not at the Elbe, or even the Rhine, but at the English Channel, the Baltic and the Pyrenees, given the strength of communist parties in France and Italy.(2) The role and function of the BAOR was as much political as military.

Other frameworks may be more effective in revealing these primary British goals and discussing how improved Anglo-German relations may have contributed to achieving them. One option would be to explore the BAOR as part of a strategy to exercise ‘soft power’ rather than the direct application of military power. An alternative and complementary approach would be to examine the BAOR as a case study in ‘benign’ military occupation, which would require highlighting the themes of legitimacy, strategies of rule, conflict and cooperation, everyday life and personal relationships between occupiers and occupied. If the primary aims of the British in Germany are understood as to maintain a stable, economically liberal and democratic government in power and guard against the re-emergence of strong nationalist or communist political parties, while simultaneously maintaining Britain’s prestige and status in Europe and reinforcing the relationship with the United States, it may be possible to reach a more favourable conclusion regarding the achievements of the BAOR than Speiser does in this book.

Furthermore, if the BAOR is considered as an example of military occupation as a more general phenomenon, the issues he addresses can be seen to have a greater significance than when applied to the particular circumstances of western Germany in the early 1950s. Themes such as the constraints under which military forces have to act, the influence on servicemen of press comment and attitudes among people at home, everyday relations with the local civilian population, maintaining discipline to ensure reasonable behaviour, and achieving a balance between military requirements and the adverse impact on the local environment during training exercises and manoeuvres, are as relevant today as they were in 1950s Germany.


(1) BAOR was disbanded in 1994. British army and RAF forces remaining in Germany were renamed British Forces Germany (BFG). Permanent deployment of British troops in Germany is scheduled to end by 2020.

(2) See, for example, Spencer Mawby, ‘Revisiting Rapallo: Britain, Germany and the Cold War, 1945-1955’, in Michael F. Hopkins, Michael D. Kandiah & Gillian Staerck (eds), Cold War Britain, 1945–1964 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).



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