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Military Government and the Will of the Victors

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

In April, 1945, diplomats from every continent came by ship and train and air to San Francisco to bring about, if possible, an organized world. The conference beside the Golden Gate had color and a glamour born of the aspiration to bring into being nothing less than a true parliament of man. The presence of the foreign secretaries of all the great powers gave the meeting prestige and its deliberations significance. Never before in its history had the Republic seen such an assemblage, for San Francisco surpassed both in pageantry and in importance the Washington Conference of the early 1920’s. Americans fixed their minds on the Western gathering while in thousands of forums throughout the nation they discussed, as though the whole nation had become a vast town meeting, the plan of Dumbarton Oaks and its evolution at San Francisco.

Meantime, as American armies drove eastward into the heart of Germany, little groups of military government personnel detached themselves from the advancing columns and established headquarters in the rubble of one conquered city after another. They worked hard at unspectacular and often distasteful tasks. Only rarely did they steal a headline from the triumphant combat troops ahead and, when publicity came, it was usually associated with a horror story growing out of a prisoner-of-war or a concentration camp. To the problem and the significance of military government, Americans, absorbed in the news of the fighting and that of San Francisco, gave little thought. Yet in Germany these same military government officers were initiating an undertaking scarcely less fateful than San Francisco, the end of which no man can foresee. Through military government in Italy, Germany, and Japan as well as through Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco runs the trail to tomorrow’s world. Military government in Germany is not, like San Francisco, merely a plan for the future. It has been functioning since the fall of Aachen and has expanded as rapidly as the armies have advanced. Before German organized resistance ended, Allied military government was the foundation of military security behind the fighting front; when the fighting stopped, military government in Germany became a cornerstone of a world-wide security structure. No terminal date has been announced. The significance for the United States of the continued occupation of Germany can scarcely be overemphasized.

War, as Clausewitz remarked early in the last century, is an act of violence expressing a clash of wills. When it ends, the will of the victor prevails. The nineteenth-century wars of Europe customarily terminated in a peace treaty agreed to by the recognized governments of the contending parties, a formal document that embodied as much of the will of the victor as his diplomats were able to write into it. The practice of terminating war with a treaty of peace carried over into the twentieth century when it was applied at the close of World War I. On this occasion the victorious Allies used the device of occupation of a strategic portion of the territory of the former enemy for a period of years to enforce the terms of Versailles. In 1919 the Covenant of the League of Nations was written into the peace treaty and so was accepted by defeated Germany. San Francisco expressed only an agreement among the United Nations. It is part of no peace treaty, for, long before the German collapse of 1945, it had become clear that there would be no peace treaty in the traditional nineteenth-century sense at the close of World War II. The Allies planned and prepared to enforce their will on defeated Germany by occupation of the entire Reich. Military government, then, in the middle of the twentieth century became the very climax of war. It is the instrument through which the victors plan initially to make their policies operative in Germany today and in Japan tomorrow.

The change of practice from peace treaty to military government represents a revolution in thought with respect to the conduct of international affairs. Never before World War II has the attempt been made to occupy the entire domain of a major power. Like so many changes in the modern world this departure from old practice has ultimately a technological foundation. The technology which has made possible the raising, arming, moving, and supplying of the vast armed forces of the present conflict has also made possible the complete military control of the territory of the defeated nation. Total occupation of the defeated enemy country is the logical end of total war. No other fact of the present struggle proclaims so clearly the kind of world into which the generations that live in the middle of the twentieth century have come.

What is military government? The question can be given only a partial answer for no one can foresee the developments of the future. But the experience of the past (and the United States has had a long and varied experience with occupation and military government) gives some illumination. Military government in American practice has normally occupied a middle position between military and political strategy and has, when used, been an aspect of both. Consider first military strategy. When in the Allied advance into Germany a military government group was left behind to take charge of a conquered city, their primary mission was to facilitate the advance of the combat troops. The senior officer, referred to as the SMGO, saw to the posting of General Eisenhower’s proclamation which announced his assumption as conqueror of supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power for all areas taken by his armies. It should be pointed out that military government is an obligation under international law, for no oppression could be worse than to subject a-defeated people to continuous un-controlled chaos. The SMGO selected from among the Germans he found remaining in his area officials to take charge, under his command, of the necessary civic services and to assist him in maintaining order. Military security required that there be no civil disturbances along the supply lines leading from the bases to the front. The SMGO kept the highways clear for military traffic. He announced a curfew hour and whatever other restrictions on the movements of the civil population he found necessary. He proclaimed regulations forbidding under the severest penalties civilians to give aid of any kind to the enemy troops. He established provost courts and military commissions to try citizens of the Reich charged with violating the regulations of the military government. He watched the health conditions in the community under his control with an eye particularly to the prevention of epidemics that might spread to Allied troops. He gave particular attention to liberated persons from countries of the United Nations who had been held in slavery by the Germans. To train officers for duties so vital to the successful prosecution of the conflict, the War Department established the School of Military Government at Charlottesville, Virginia, in the spring of 1942 and later developed Civil Affairs Training Schools in selected universities. The Allied armies went into Germany well prepared to maintain behind their advancing fronts the military security which efficient military government gives.

But from the day the first Allied troops crossed the western border of the Reich their military-government officers had a political mission of equal importance to their obligation to further the advance of the combat troops. General Eisenhower’s proclamation announced that the Allied conquerors of Germany intended to obliterate Nazism and German militarism. Here was a policy that looked forward to the security of the postwar world. In the experience of the Allied Military Government in Italy, a similar policy directed against Fascism sometimes conflicted in a minor way with the requirements of military security, for in some communities it was found impossible at first to discover persons sufficiently trained to carry on civic services who did not have the taint of Fascism. In the end the problem was solved. In Germany the securing of adequate civilian personnel has also at times been difficult. In furthering the political objective, the SMGO, following his directive from General Eisenhower, annulled a great mass of Nazi legislation put into force since 1933. By such measures Allied Military Government prepared the way for the occupation which would follow the end of organized armed resistance. The German citizen who picked his way across the public square clogged with the wreckage of war to read General Eisenhower’s proclamation saw stretching indefinitely before him the road to his tomorrow. He understood that there would never be a peace treaty, of the kind familiar to former generations, to bring a turning in the trail. Its end was obscured for him, and for his conqueror as well, by the mists of the future.

The American citizen can see a little farther into the future than his German contemporary who has escaped from Nazi censorship too recently to be able to get an overall view of the public domain of world news. The American knows that the German Reich has been divided into three major and some minor occupation zones, each of which is to be occupied as a separate unit by a particular power under the general and somewhat loose supervision of a Control Commission established at Berlin. The American zone spreads over mountainous southern Germany with access to the sea made possible by American control in Bremen and of railroads connecting this port with the southern mountains. Some exiled German liberals in the middle of the nineteenth century played with the grandiose dream of founding a German State in the Mississippi valley which would one day take its place in the Union. The Western Republic in the middle of the twentieth century faces the grim reality of the responsibility for the government for an indefinite period of a community of perhaps 20,000,000 Germans situated in the very heart of Europe. From the ruined heights of Berchtes-gaden, once the center of the German Empire in Europe, an American doughboy can look out over a land whose destinies are controlled in Washington. Behind this American commitment is the desire to see justice done in a Europe despoiled by the Nazi warlords and in a land degraded by crimes past civilized comprehension. Behind the undertaking also is the hope that such control, when added to similar responsibilities of our Allies, will contribute to world security and to the abatement of the danger of war.

By whatever name American authority in the portion of the Reich it occupies is ultimately called, it will be in fact military government supported by the armed power of the United States. It is today and will continue to be at bottom a government imposed upon a conquered people without their consent. The German governing group who survive know well some possible techniques of such a government. In 1939, after overwhelming Poland’s armies, German military governors undertook to destroy Polish civilization and, after liquidating the leaders, to transform the Poles into a slave race and Poland into a German colony. In so doing they sought to establish a Nazi pattern of world security. The antithesis of Poland in World War II is Cuba after the American defeat of Spain in 1898, in which former Spanish colony the United States maintained military government for approximately four years. In that undertaking, General Leonard Wood, military governor, and his subordinates not only carried on the governmental functions of a people in transition from the status of colony to that of independent nation, but used administrative posts as a training school for the Cubans whom the Spaniards had kept politically illiterate. When the islanders had written a constitution and had chosen a government under it, American military government surrendered its authority in a ceremony marked by extraordinary manifestations of Cuban gratitude. American military government in southern Germany will occupy a middle position between the extremes of Poland and Cuba. General Wood ruled a liberated and friendly people; General Eisenhower, as he initiates the long post-war task of occupation, must dominate a hostile and fanatical people. In both Poland and Cuba, military government was used to bring about modifications in the culture of the people ruled. The Germans sought to destroy the political structure and all the finer aspects of Polish civilization; the Americans, after training the Cuban leaders in practical administration and giving the people of the island their first experience with free speech and a free press, let them create their own political forms. In defeated Germany all the major occupying powers will use military government as an instrument to bring about revolutionary changes in German culture.

American military government officers have gone in with orders to destroy Nazism, militarism, and the German war potential. Remaining coldly aloof from the conquered enemy, they have begun the task of bringing to the German mind an understanding of how the outside world feels toward the men who accepted the philosophies of Nazism and militarism. Since 1933 Nazism and militarism have become the very core of German civilization. It is true that there were Germans indifferent or hostile to the ruling ideas of the Hitler period, but they were for the most part politically and socially impotent. On the destruction of these ruling ideas the peace depends.

If American military government must destroy, it must also build. It must find from among the defeated people administrators who are not of the Nazi pattern to perform under military control the tasks of governing many millions of people. And government in totalitarian Germany has long been deeply involved in economics. The years ahead, running perhaps intp decades, will see American authority struggling with problems of both a political and an economic nature. At home the American mind is not yet made up as to all the principles, other than those negative in nature, which should govern their policy in Germany. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the policies of the other major occupying powers will differ, perhaps widely, from those of the United States.

Total war, leading to total occupation, has involved the American republic in a colossal effort to change the culture of a numerous and distant foreign people. Cultures tend to resist change: they have a toughness of fibre, as many a conqueror before now has discovered. It is possible that the disaster of defeat, discrediting Nazism, will bring about a transformation of German thinking. This is the one great hope. It is possible also that American government in its zone of occupation will face an underground which may well be recruited from those numerous German youth whose minds and characters were warped by training from childhood in that philosophy and worship of force that came to flower in such stockades as Buchenwald. We cannot yet know the ramifications of the task of carrying to conclusion that policy of the obliteration of Nazism and militarism which General Eisenhower announced in his first proclamation to the German people. We must wait upon events.

At this stage, however, two things are worth recalling. Powerful as it is, military government is not all powerful against a determined people. Ten years of military government in the defeated South from 1867 to 1877 did not achieve the political revolution it was intended to bring about. And values which make up the core of a culture usually change more slowly than almost any other of its aspects.

The regeneration of Germany, if it comes at all, miist come from within and must begin in the realm of values. There are Americans who have proposed a campaign of education of the Germans by foreigners to make them over into a people who can be trusted with an independent position in the society of nations. To discuss life values effectively with a defeated people is difficult for a lecturer who, when he puts his notes on the desk, lays down beside them an automatic pistol. The search for and the reprinting of pre-1933 German textbooks for use in the grades of the schools that have been reopened suggests that American military authorities are aware that a change of heart must come from influences inside, not outside, the culture of the Reich. The one force that from the beginning to the end provided a measure of opposition to Nazi philosophy has been the Christian faith. The record of the German churches has not always been consistent and their prestige has declined. They remain, however, lamps in which the flame of religious aspiration and idealism still burns. American authorities in their portion of occupied Germany will certainly follow traditional American policy in the conduct of military government and guarantee freedom of worship. They can do no more. The regeneration of German civilization, if it is to be regenerated, is in the hands of the Germans.

San Francisco has elaborated an organization for stabilizing the peace of the world and quite properly American attention has been focused on the conference beside the Golden Gate. But, meanwhile, the unspectacular remaking of the life of Central Europe in accordance with Allied will has already begun. The time has come for citizens of the Republic to direct their thought also to the implications of a commitment, indefinite in duration, to control the destinies of a vast community situated deep in the interior of au uneasy continent and to the problems involved in the transformation of an ancient and complex Germanic culture.


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