The Lived Experience: Personal Memories of Occupation in the British Zone of Germany after the Second World War
Bettina Blum, Paderborn University
Military occupation can be considered as a distinctive system of rule, shaped by dynamic power relations between occupiers and occupied that operated on different levels: political, economic, cultural and social. In the case of the British occupation of Germany 1945-55, these power dynamics can be observed in daily interactions in the streets, the neighbourhoods or at the workplace, as well as in encounters at political and administrative levels.
Administrative documents allow us to understand the policies, practices and debates within the British military government and the nature of the relationship between British officers and German mayors, administrative staff or members of lobby groups. On the other hand, this top-down material does not offer much insight into the emotions, the hopes and fears of both occupiers and occupied.
Occupations are shaped by the policies and rules of the occupying power, but also by the way in which they are put into practice on a day-to-day basis, and by the way the people who are subject to these rules react to them. In their daily lives occupiers and occupied adhere to rules, question them, ignore them as far as possible or sometimes openly oppose them. People ‘do’ occupation on both sides of the power dynamic, albeit with different degrees of agency.
To try to better understand the ‘doing’ of occupation, personal memories are valuable sources – whether they are contemporary material like diaries, photo albums or letters, or material remembered and generated later, like written memoirs or oral history interviews. In written or oral narratives people share what they feel is important, what they like to remember or what is still troubling them. These perceptions may differ from those discussed in administrative material, and may also shed light on unknown or neglected aspects of the occupation.
When, in 2015, I started to work on the British occupation and stationing of troops (from 1945 up to the present day) for an exhibition in Paderborn, we had only few exhibits, documents and photos relating to the region. With the help of both German and British Forces media, we asked the public for assistance. Many people responded and supported the exhibition, as well as follow-up projects later. Over the last six years I have been in contact with around 350 Germans and Britons of different ages, gender, professions and ranks and with different experiences and perceptions, who shared their own or their families’ memories, photos, documents or memorabilia; around 50 of them had experienced the occupation period in Germany.
This public cooperation was immensely important for the project, as it revealed which aspects are still ‘alive’ in public memory and what people wanted to see and discuss in an exhibition. They explained what was important for them and why; they suggested material for the exhibition or introduced me to other people. Although it was not possible to include all the fascinating aspects and examples in the exhibition, all the various contributions and oral or written conversations helped me to better understand daily life under occupation from both sides of the power dynamic. Furthermore, this helped me to shape and structure further research: to ask new and more specific questions, ask for contrasting perspectives and look for more information.
I wish to give two examples: When I started the project, I was surprised that several German people called me and said: ‘I wish to tell you the history of my house’, and then explained that their house had been requisitioned for several years during the occupation period. They had to move out, as the British military government requisitioned private houses for the needs of military or occupation personnel and their families. As many towns were widely destroyed, many of those evicted had to live under difficult conditions, in some cases for years. This situation caused considerable resentment and social unrest, until new residential areas were built and most requisitioned properties could be released by the mid-1950s.
As this problem has not been academically widely discussed, I had not been fully aware of it before. So I started to ask more people about their experiences, and I was surprised to find out that many remembered not only their anger and fear of requisitioning, but also still knew which houses in their street were requisitioned for how long. In one case, I received copies of various newspaper articles and documents about a family who had organised public protests in order to re-occupy their house in the early 1950s. The family had kept the articles and letters about this conflict and, when they sold the house decades later, passed on a copy of the documents to the new owner and he in turn donated a copy to the exhibition project. These stories triggered my interest, prompting me to ask many new questions and undertake new research. Administrative records in German and British archives revealed how both the local German and the British military government tried to deal with requisitioning which I discovered was a major administrative and social problem in many towns. The records also showed which measures they adopted to try to alleviate the situation of the evicted while still meeting the needs of the occupation power. Other important sources were official pamphlets for British families coming over to Germany, explaining how and where they would live, and how they were required to handle requisitioned houses and furniture. Some British families also shared their memories of living (without choice) in requisitioned houses and explained how they experienced the situation and how they got on with their German neighbours which again was an important perspective. So working with personal memories helped me to identify important aspects and interesting examples for the exhibition, as well as get an idea how people – both occupiers and occupied – perceived the problem at the individual level and understand the strategies they applied to cope with an unknown and often challenging situation.
The second issue which struck me in personal memories was to find out how many contact zones existed early in the occupation period, where both Germans and Britons started to interact with each other on a personal level – as neighbours, as colleagues, as traders on the black market, as children playing with each other, as sportspeople playing football with or against each other, as friends or even, despite the non-fraternisation rules, as lovers. Many encounters took place at work, as the British employed thousands of Germans as drivers, cleaners, telephone operators, interpreters, cooks, or as servants working for British families. Thus, the history of the occupation can also be seen as a history of encounters. Although most were – at least initially – shaped by the asymmetrical power relations, for many families on both sides the occupation was the first time they were confronted on a personal level with a new country, language, customs and lifestyle. Their memories offer insights into the ways in which people reacted to this with curiosity, excitement, reluctance or hostility, and into the ways in which their perceptions of the ‘others’ or the ‘enemies’ changed.
Many more examples could be given where personal stories guided the way, helped to identify important aspects and led to further research. These issues were further discussed in the exhibition, as both German and British visitors responded to the exhibits and stories presented there, commented on them and sometimes shared their own family experiences. This again helped to identify new areas of research for follow-up projects.
Personal memories are important sources, as they focus on the agency of ‘ordinary people’ who were part of the occupation power, as well as the occupied population. Both occupiers and occupied deliberately or unwittingly played a part in shaping the character of the occupation, tried to implement changes, or just managed to continue to live their lives under new and changing conditions. Their memories also reveal what people considered significant in later life, worth remembering and passing on to future generations. They therefore constitute a legacy of the occupation. ‘Amazing to think I’m now part of history’ an exhibition visitor wrote in the visitors’ book. Asking for public cooperation and working with these memories and legacies may help us understand better how occupation works at different levels and so explore new ways of writing and exhibiting a more ‘inclusive’ history.
Cover picture: Wedding of a British soldier and a German woman, private collection.