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Winning the Peace

The British in Occupied Germany, 1945-1948


Christopher Knowles


London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017

Hardcover. x+278 p. ISBN 978-1474267434. £85


Reviewed by Christoph Strupp

Forschungsstelle für Zeitgeschichte in Hamburg




How did it happen that after the military defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 the country re-emerged as a stable democracy and political partner of the West within just a few years? How did the Allied victors in the Western zones, the later Federal Republic, foster physically rebuilding the country, re-establishing political and social institutions under democratic guidelines and, on a personal level, did they manage to turn former enemies into friends in many cases? How much of what actually happened in the occupation years was the result of meticulous advance planning and how much was based on improvisation and on-the-spot decision-making? Since the 21st-century wars in Afghanistan und Iraq have demonstrated that it is still a major challenge to transfer military power and a victory on the battlefield into stable political conditions in a defeated country, these questions are more than just academic in nature.

The dissertation by the British historian Christopher Knowles sheds light on “winning the peace” – a quote from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery on May 8, 1945 – by examining developments in the British occupation zone from 1945 to 1948. The British zone was comprised of the later West German states (Länder) of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and the city-state of Hamburg, Germany’s largest seaport. The occupation years at the juncture of the first and second half of the twentieth century link British and German history in a unique way. Various aspects of the occupation policies of the British have been treated before, for Hamburg in particular, for example, in the works of Alan Kramer and more recently in a dissertation by Michael Ahrens,(1) but Knowles offers a novel approach by examining the biographies of twelve British individuals who together represented an important part of the “governing elite” in Germany. The author sketches their social, political, religious and professional backgrounds and discusses motivations, aims and intentions which guided their activities in Germany.

By focusing on individual agency instead of anonymous administrative structures and by highlighting a variety of subjective factors, Knowles seeks to offer a better explanation than the existing literature of how the British occupation policy gradually changed from the four “D’s” of de-militarisation, de-nazification, de-industrialisation, democratisation to the three “R’s” of reconstruction, renewal, and reconciliation. The book is organised into three main parts along the lines of the three “R’s”, each of which contains three subchapters on one or two of the featured individuals, ranging from Field Marshal Montgomery, the first Military Governor, Commander-in-chief of the British armed forces in Germany and head of the Control Commission, to Michael Howard, a young Intelligence Officer involved in the confiscation of German scientific and technological research laboratories and their personnel. The structure of the book appears a bit rigid at times, but it clearly helped to stay focused on the main argument. The chapters are based on a variety of sources – official files as well as personal papers, diaries, and interviews.

When in May 1945 the German army finally capitulated and the “Third Reich” ceased to exist, the victors from the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union were confronted with a physically, economically, and – after the crimes of the Nazis – morally ruined country. Millions of people were on the move, refugees from the East, former forced labourers and survivors of the concentration camps, German victims of the air war, and others. There was a shortage of food, fuel and housing and a fear of epidemics. Transportation and communication lines had been disrupted. In the first part of the book, Knowles discusses four top commanders – Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Air Force Marshal Sholto Douglas, General Brian Robertson, and General Alec Bishop, all without experience in civilian administration – and their attempts to create order out of chaos. Especially Montgomery and his successor Robertson later looked back with satisfaction upon their work. With little directive from London in the first year of the occupation, the British attitude on the ground changed early on from policies of restrictions and control to physical and economic reconstruction and a renewal of social and political life. Knowles discusses echoes of “imperial trusteeship” but rejects the idea that the British occupation directly copied models of colonial rule. It was, however, influenced by post-World War I experiences which had demonstrated that political and social stability had to go together with economic welfare.

The second part focuses on political renewal and features four civilian diplomats and administrators: Harold Ingrams, a former colonial official, who served as head of the local government branch in the British zone and tried to implement British models of local government and election laws based on the single majority system but in the end German traditions of elected mayors and proportional representation prevailed. Austen Albu and Allan Flanders, both socialists with a decided political agenda in favour of socialist reforms, left Germany disappointed at the end of 1947. According to Knowles, they did influence Military Government Ordinance no. 57 which on December 1, 1946 devolved power to the newly created governments of the German states. A chapter on the businessman Vaughan Berry, the civilian British regional Commissioner for Hamburg between September 1946 and May 1949, sheds light on political cooperation, conflicts and the role of informal Anglo-German circles in the biggest city in the British zone. Knowles summarises Berry’s tenure in Hamburg as a “reasonable model for the benevolent occupation of a defeated enemy” [124] but agrees with recent corrections of the self-congratulatory image of Berry in the early post-war period.

In the third part of the book on “personal reconciliation” Knowles examines a group of four younger officers at the beginning of their working lives and the way they implemented British policies: the Press Officer John Chaloner, who was instrumental for the start of the German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1946, the Intelligence Officer Michael Howard, the Signals Officer Jan Thexton, who got married to a German woman after the war, and the Occupation Army Officer Michael Palliser. Thexton and Palliser were both interviewed by Knowles himself for the book. All four are characterised as “generally practical, realistic and conscientious” [130].

Knowles’ dissertation is an informative and well-written account of the transition from war to peace and the British occupation policies in Germany which sheds light on agency and the motives and attitudes of key individuals. It remains an open question though whether different people in key positions would have led to different political results. By highlighting the diversity of the personnel and their latitude in implementing the three “R’s”, Knowles interprets the occupation period as a complex and multifaceted process and adds valuable aspects to existing explanations. His approach can also serve as a basis for comparative studies on the other Allied zones and post-war occupation policies in general. The book is rounded off with a select bibliography and an index. The only drawback is the high price which most likely will confine it to academic libraries.


(1) Alan Kramer, Die britische Demontagepolitik am Beispiel Hamburgs 1945-1950. Hamburg: Verein für Hamburgische Geschichte, 1991; Michael Ahrens, Die Briten in Hamburg : Besatzerleben 1945-1958. Munich: Dölling und Galitz Verlag, 2011.


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