Robert Reid was a BBC correspondent embedded with General George Patton’s Third Army as it raced across Germany in the final months of the war. As they encountered the horror of Nazi atrocities, they felt nothing but fury at every German—soldiers and civilians alike. To dispel the notion that the average German was but a victim in his own country, he told the following story:
At the war’s end, the Allies attempted to restore normalcy in devastated German cities and often appointed new leaders from among the general population. Reid once listened in as one new mayor talked to an American officer. When they were finished, the German absentmindedly concluded with a “Heil Hitler.”
Every GI in Europe was issued a US Army guide, which made this point abundantly clear. Fraternization with civilians was strictly forbidden, enforced by stiff fines. Soldiers were told to keep the guide inside the liner of their steel helmets so that it wouldn’t get lost. Stars and Stripes, the GI newspaper, wrote bluntly, “Don’t get chummy with Jerry.” Exposing how much the perspective has changed, the paper went on to state that “in heart, in body and spirit, every German is a Hitler.”
Not surprisingly, similar rhetoric came from the British leadership. The new prime minister, Clement Attlee, was a confirmed anti-German, and the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, had even stronger views.
It is no wonder, then, that nearly every German civilian attempted to distance himself from his country’s crimes.
Leonard Linton was an American officer stationed in Cologne, Germany. When he questioned civilians, two refrains kept resurfacing: “Ich war immer dagegen (I was always against the Nazis)” and “I had [or helped] a Jewish friend.” Linton wryly noted that if these kindly Germans were correct, the number of Jews they helped would have topped 50 million. When asked for details of these “friends,” the Germans would respond, “They disappeared without a trace.” Linton shot back, “No, they left in a cloud of smoke, perhaps at Auschwitz.”
To remind the civilians, and themselves, of the truth, Linton’s staff posted photos of Bergen-Belsen in the town office. In many towns near concentration camps, civilians were taken to see the atrocities firsthand and were sometimes forced to bury the dead. However, if Jewish survivors were present, they would refuse to let the Germans touch the bodies.
By 1946, the tension had diminished considerably. As the liberating troops were rotated out and new units that had not witnessed the German atrocities firsthand replaced them, the new GIs tended to sympathize with the “civilized” German populace as opposed to the downtrodden survivors who were desperately struggling to rebuild their lives. A poll conducted that year found that GIs had a favorable view of Germans.
You may be surprised to learn that the Russians had a very different perspective. German soldiers knew that capture by the Russians meant Siberian enslavement or death, so they fled their posts by the thousands and ran toward the advancing Americans.
But the Russians had no fraternization restrictions at all with civilians. Even before the war was over, Stalin declared, “It would be laughable to equate the Hitler clique with the German people, the German state. History teaches us that Hitlers come and go, but the German people, the German state, remains.”
Did the Russian attitude toward the average German perhaps reflect tolerance and a noble spirit of forgiveness? I think not. In fact, the opposite may be true.
The Americans were morally bound to treat German POWs with decency, but they could not overlook the role of German society in the Holocaust.
The Russians, on the other hand, viewed any soldier, sailor or airman as the enemy, and showed their prisoners no mercy. But they were never threatened by German civilians, and they were most practical in their approach to the opportunity to loot what remained of the country. Arriving in Berlin nine weeks before the Americans, the Russians wasted no time getting down to business, dismantling 80 percent of the surviving factories and shipping them back to the USSR. Using existing political structures, they quickly laid the foundation for a Communist state, all while the Americans were still struggling to establish an effective system of control.
Three-quarters of a century later, history has demonstrated that American idealism has prevailed. Germany has joined Europe as a democratic country, while Russia is clearly seen as an outside force to be regarded with suspicion. More importantly, Germany has taken concrete steps to ensure that the Holocaust retains a prominent, if not somber, place in its history. Certainly, there is always room for progress, but it is heartening to know that on the very soil of the former Third Reich, the Nazi salute is now a crime.