Noël Annan

  • Blind Eye to Murder by Tom Bower
    Deutsch, 501 pp, £9.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 233 97292 7
  • The Road to Nuremberg by Bradley Smith
    Deutsch, 303 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 233 97410 5

Investigative journalism has many triumphs to its credit. It toppled a President of the United States. It has exposed, through the hard leg-work of tiny teams of sleuths, the evasions of corporations, ministries, crooks in local government, and the common shysters whose trickery Esther Rantzen mocks in tones of cloying surprise. The press are right to blow fanfares in their own praise because investigative journalism is precisely the sort of activity which those who sneer at the free press want to muzzle in the interest of ‘objectivity’ and ‘responsible’ journalism.

It is true that some individuals get hurt unjustly in the process – though they have their remedy in the courts. It is true that hubris can sometimes get the better of professional caution. The prestigious Washington Post and Bob Woodward himself failed, despite warnings, to check out the story on a five-year-old drug addict written by the wretched Janet Cooke, who won her Pulitzer Prize and subsequently had to return it when her report was proved to be a fabrication. It is also true that the techniques cannot be applied as fairly on television as in print simply because there is not the time on television to develop the case in detail – and detail, the piling up of damning fact upon damning fact, is at the heart of the technique. The least convincing programmes are those in which, instead of pursuing a specific abuse, the team decides to indict a whole industry or government. When they take some perennial social malaise, such as the inadequacy of the Health Service, of housing, or prisons or primary schools, and suggest that the whole society in which we live is rotten and culpable, they are really arguing that if only all were to change all would be well. That is a simplistic, and sometimes a sinister, conception of society.

Mr Bower is a Panorama journalist and certainly no charge of inadequate documentation could be levelled at him. He has ransacked the archives and interviewed over two hundred people in order to lay a ghost which has haunted him since his childhood. As a boy, he tells us, he grew up believing that the Second World War was ‘a just and moral crusade’ ending in a victory over tyranny. The British had fought in the expectation that ‘with victory would come justice: those who had done evil would be punished, and those who had died would be avenged.’ But as a man he came to realise Germany had not been systematically purged and that ‘the architects of the country were the same men who had held high positions in the regime which my boyhood heroes had fought to overthrow.’ Worse discoveries followed. Thousands of those who committed crimes, or knew about such crimes, had escaped trial. Others sentenced for vile offences were released and rehabilitated as if they had been guilty of nothing worse than dangerous driving. Others successfully resisted extradition or with disgusting arrogance displayed contempt for witnesses whom in former days they had tortured. Others managed to delay their trial and were in the end exempted by statutes of limitation. To this day, a farcical trial typical of the whole rotten business continues in Düsseldorf: a trial of men and women accused of murdering a quarter of a million people in a camp in Poland. The trial has dragged on since 1975 and still seems no nearer its end. It is a trial in which judges have died and been replaced, German lawyers have denied that there was a Final Solution and murderesses are acquitted because the eye-witnesses to their guilt have during the trial gone to their graves.

How has this happened and who was to blame? Mr Bower indicts the German people themselves, who have swept the past under the carpet. On the rare occasions when a German government tries to bring some of the most atrocious criminals to trial, the mud of law and procedure clogs the wheels. Too many know that if this person is convicted and sentenced, they themselves, or those nearest them, could be in danger, too. But who set the Germans this example? Tom Bower’s answer is unequivocal. British officials, and to a lesser extent American policies, permitted German concentration-camp gaolers, SS and Gestapo members, lawyers who had administered Nazi law, bureaucrats and industrialists who had supported Hitler and profited from slave labour, and bankers who had financed the plunder of Europe, to escape justice and emerge as the architects of the German economic miracle. He names the guilty British civil servants, and generals, and their accomplices in Military Government.

Why is this indictment, compiled with such unremitting labour, so grossly misleading? It is misleading because the author has started out with a simple and, indeed, irrefutable conclusion rooted in his mind. De-Nazification was a failure and war criminals escaped. There then follows a far from irrefutable inference. If this happened, those who let it happen must be guilty men. All the evidence is therefore interpreted to pin guilt upon somebody. This is, of course, how some Panorama or World in Action programmes are made. But Bower seems oblivious of the fact that he is not writing a television programme. He is writing history. Of critical examination of sources such as a historian should make there is hardly a trace. Of the social conditions prevailing in post-war Germany there is no analysis. Of the historiographical problems which beset the interpretation of diplomatic documents, there is no awareness. Of the place which de-Nazification took in the priorities of the Allies, there is no cogent discussion. Of that knowledge of life which should encompass how wars begin and end, of their aftermath, of the agonising judgments which afflicted every European country the Nazis occupied as their governments attempted to identify collaborators and assess their guilt, nothing shows. On Tom Bower’s television screen everything is in black and white. Protest is all the rage today and this is a work of protest. But as a contribution to history it is almost valueless.

In a far more sober study, The Road to Nuremberg, which is no less thoroughly documented, Bradley Smith describes how difficult it was for the Allies to agree on the policy to be followed towards members of the Nazi Party and to war criminals. Allied leaders and officials were genuinely puzzled, not shuffle-footed. Churchill’s instinct was to execute the leaders and criminals as speedily as possible as an act of summary justice. The Americans wanted a trial – a demonstration that the rule of law was to be upheld, whether or not the accused recognised it. They also wanted to inflict upon the German nation a punishment which they would never forget. The best-known exponent of this policy was Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, whose scheme to pastoralise Germany, stripping it of its industry and its power to create wealth, found some favour with Roosevelt. It found no favour at all with the British. Nor did it with the State Department. Stimson said that being tough or soft with the Germans was not the issue. The issue was ‘whether the course proposed will in fact attain our agreed objective, continued peace’.

The massacre of some American prisoners of war in the Ardennes offensive by an SS regiment, however, brought the various departments and agencies in Washington into some sort of agreement that the Nazi leaders should be brought to justice. Yalta – the most incompetently organised conference in recent history – seemed to confirm this. But when the British tried to discover what it was that the Americans wanted they came up against the usual confusion in Roosevelt’s Washington, where agencies and departments went their several ways, each hoping that in the end the boss would favour their own particular solution. Halifax compared American administration to ‘a disorderly day’s rabbit shooting. Nothing comes out where you expect – and then suddenly something emerges quite unexpectedly at the far end of the field.’ When Roosevelt died, the British Government was still not prepared to envisage a trial of the Nazi leaders because the Americans could not agree amongst themselves what to propose.

The British contrived to hold out even as late as 3 May 1945: then Eden accepted a typically diplomatic compromise, in that he agreed in principle to trials so long as the Americans could devise a workable procedure for them. The moderates among the American officials renewed their efforts. They won a substantial victory when, in July, Morgenthau, to whom Truman had taken a dislike, resigned, and Jackson, Stimson and McCloy won their battle to impose an American legal solution. To the Americans, this was a victory for justice. Now there would be no lynch law. Wily defendants like Papen or Schacht might wriggle free, but at least many innocent people would not be the victims of crude revenge. The Nuremberg Tribunal required that to be proved guilty an individual had to know that the organisation which he joined was engaged in criminal activities, and this admittedly meant that thousands of hard-core Nazis escaped being swept into forced-labour camps. But the Americans argued that trials would pin the responsibility for the war for ever upon Hitler and provide an unforgettable record of Nazi infamy; and that was the more important issue.

Why were the British so recalcitrant? It was certainly not out of pity for the Germans. The mood of the British in 1945 was bitter. They felt that no country had done more than Britain, indeed that Britain had done too much, in trying to meet Germany half-way towards its legitimate aspirations. Both the middle-aged and the young between the two wars had been pulled emotionally towards Germany. The veterans had formed lively ‘no more war’ associations with their old opponents in the Kaiser’s army; the unsophisticated young enjoyed Bavarian and Austrian heartiness; young intellectuals welcomed life in Berlin and Hamburg, UFA movies, Expressionist painting and the Bauhaus. And what had been the result? Hitler. When the British contemplated the ruined German cities they hardly felt a twinge – they remembered only too well the Nazi leaders and the Luftwaffe gloating over Coventry. The British entered Germany believing that the Germans had got what they deserved and that this time they should be made to feel the humiliation of military defeat. This time there should be no legend of a stab in the back like that put about by the Freikorps. The lesson of history told us that Prussian Junkertum was the seat of German militarism. It should be destroyed.

But there was another ‘lesson of history’ which the British were determined to observe. There was a book which those who had fought in the First World War, and remembered ‘Hang the Kaiser’ and ‘making Germany pay until the pips squeak’, had not forgotten. This book was equally the Bible of the young civil servants and diplomats whom Bower indicts. It was Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace. For them, the policy of Versailles, the continuation of the blockade of Germany after 1918, reparations, the occupation of the Ruhr, had not merely been wrong. It had been folly. Reparations had set in train that fatal sequence of events which led to the collapse of the monetary system of the Western world in 1931, and to the mass unemployment in which the Nazis sowed their dragon’s teeth. The author of that book was too preoccupied with Bretton Woods, and then, after the Americans cut off Lend-Lease directly the war ended, with raising a loan in Washington, to play any part in the affairs of Germany. But British officials regarded Morgenthau as a barbarian and believed that a policy of revenge would be self-defeating as well as nauseating. Even Americans such as Jackson – Bradley Smith notes – recognised that public opinion in a democracy can change with astonishing speed. The very people who demanded that the pips should squeak would be among the first to protest if there was mass starvation in Germany. The British did not fancy themselves driving five or six million Germans into camps from which they would be deported to Russia. Was it not already apparent that Stalin had decided to use German prisoners of war as forced labour to rebuild his shattered country? As rationing in Britain grew more severe with every year of peace, as America decided to humble Britain by forcing her with the threat of bankruptcy to dismantle her Empire, as the cost of occupying the German Zone mounted, it was elementary self-interest to restore the German economy to a state where it would be no longer a burden on Britain.

Nor was it only self-interest. British Military Government, though no one would gather this from Tom Bower’s account, contained numbers of idealists. Their ideal was not, as Bower thinks it should have been, first to punish and rout out anyone who at any time had held any post of importance in the whole of the German administration and economy. It was to re-educate the Germans and make them genuinely accept Western parliamentary democracy. There was a good deal of naivety, and, inevitably, some priggishness, in the way the British set about the task. The model was unquestionably colonial. Some of the senior civilian officers were former colonial servants and one of them, a redoubtable character called Ingrams who left his mark on German local government, was apt to treat the Germans as if they were a specially intelligent tribe of Bedouin. In the early days these British officers operated on what today seem grotesque assumptions: for instance, that Germany would be occupied for twenty years, by which time the Germans could at last be weaned onto solid democratic food. Had that ever become a reality, perhaps Tom Bower’s boyhood dream of justice smiting the Amalekites could have come to pass. There was never the faintest possibility of its becoming a reality.

It was an impossibility because politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Bower occasionally refers to the divisions which arose between the Allies and to the efforts in the West to get a parliamentary democracy established, but he brushes all this aside as a diversion which seduced the British and Americans from their main task of bringing the guilty to trial. He seems unwilling to understand that the beginning of the Cold War was not something that can be dismissed as a cynical return to power politics, but something which was inevitable, was bound to take top priority in everyone’s mind and affected every aspect of Allied policy in Germany, including de-Nazification. The Four Powers had agreed that there were to be free elections in Berlin by the autumn of 1946; and by the spring the Russians had made it clear how they intended that the Communist Party should win those elections. Knowing that the Communist Party would be overwhelmingly defeated by the ballot box, the Russians decided to destroy the SPD by forcing it to merge with the Communists. As for the CDU: ‘CDU ist guter Partei,’ one of my Russian counterparts on the Control Commission told me, ‘aber kleiner Partei.’ The experience of Stalinist policies in Poland had shown the West what would happen.

From that moment the die was cast. No Labour government would be prepared to see the SPD annihilated in Germany, and in the Western sectors of Berlin we encouraged their rank and file to resist the Gleichschaltung. This with considerable bravery they did. By July, the British created regional authorities in their zone and local government elections were scheduled for the autumn. That meant that if the British preached democracy, they would have to abide by the result of the elections. In the West there was no possibility of rigging them: plenty of high-minded journalists such as Mr Bower were around to see to that. The Western powers had to trust the German people to display some political sense and not vote for notorious Nazis or for parties which thinly disguised their sympathy for the past. It was not so much of a gamble as might appear. Perhaps more acutely than any other European country the people of Western Germany have shown their fear of a return to totalitarianism, whether of the right or of the kind that exists on their eastern border.

If the object of the occupation of Germany was to produce a country dedicated to Western democracy, then British and American policy after the war must be rated a success. It could not have succeeded if a purge of the magnitude envisaged by Tom Bower had taken place. For from the way he writes nothing but the perpetual exclusion from any kind of public activity of hundreds of thousands of Germans could have satisfied him: a policy which would in any case have been unenforceable once Western Germany became self-governing.

This was the main reason why de-Nazification and the bringing to justice of war criminals was always secondary. Just as in 1815 the return of France to the comity of nations was the aim of the Allies and of Talleyrand, so the return to the Western alliance was the aim of the British and then of the American Governments – and of Adenauer. To the British it was secondary for another reason. The Americans had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of lawyers, officers and civilians who were willing to serve in Germany and cope with the enormous amount of paperwork which investigations into the Nazi antecedents of those who were selected to occupy key positions in the German administration and economy involved. The British had very few. The British had fought a war for six years. Their officers wanted to get home. The Civil Service was stretched far beyond its powers; and among the fearful problems which, in 1945, faced a Britain deprived of American aid, Nazi war crimes came low in priority. When Morgenthau’s proposals for the future of the German economy reached Whitehall, the Foreign Office could not find anyone with the time to deal with them and it fell to a then comparatively junior Treasury official, Edward Playfair, to draft replies in the interstices of time between dealing with dozens of other topics. His reply was rightly uncompromising. The British were sceptical of Nuremberg and all the subsidiary trials for numbers of reasons, some good, some bad. Undoubtedly Tom Bower is right in detecting bloody-minded obstructionism by senior civil servants, such as Bovenschen, to whom any new idea – let alone one so fraught with uncertainty and untidiness as trials which had no parallel in Common Law – was anathema. But it was also true that some of the objections arose from the British sense of justice and adherence to the rule of law, and their knowledge that lacking the resources which the Americans had they could guarantee neither.

British officials knew only too well the pit falls of our adversary system of justice. It operated horrifyingly, as Tom Bower shows, in the trials of the concentration-camp commanders and guards. British officers or lawyers briefed for the defence cross-examined the wretched inmates of the camps and without too much difficulty threw doubt on their evidence, with the result that the butchers were far too often acquitted by inexperienced officers acting as judges. (A High Court judge would have brought these amateur barristers up short and stopped this travesty of justice.) But the British insistence in law that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty was to turn de-Nazification in the British Zone into a process which failed to achieve its object, lost us friends and credibility, and got us the worst of both worlds. Having incurred odium for dragging their feet over de-Nazification during the early months of the Occupation, British Military Government was compelled to turn what was a political problem into a formal judicial process. De-Nazification courts were set up and, above them, courts to which those convicted could appeal. Guide-lines were given to the courts: for instance, regarding the relative guilt of those who joined the NSDAP before or after 1937 – i.e. whether they were convinced Nazis or merely formal members of the Party by virtue of their jobs. The staff to run this vast inquiry was inadequate, as British civil servants had always forecast would be the case. Year after year this disruptive process dragged on. So far from praising the British sense of justice, the Germans became increasingly bitter about the endless anomalies and absurdities which the British procedures produced. Ernst von Salomon’s Der Fragebogen is an unsettling satire upon them. In the last despatch I wrote to the Foreign Office in 1946, I concluded that ‘from being the least unpopular of the Occupying Powers, the British are now beginning to be hated and despised.’

Each Occupying Power treated de-Nazification in its own way. The Russians regarded it as a straight political operation. German scientists and technical experts of all kinds were whisked to Moscow to work in relative luxury on rocketry and other matters. Other Nazis were liquidated or were taken as forced labour. Others after a token disgrace were reinstated – brown became red overnight. The Russians imposed upon their zone those German Communist émigrés, headed by the unlovely Ulbricht, who were left after Stalin’s purges. The Americans, rocked by General Patton’s gaffe to the effect that a Nazi was not much worse than a Democrat south of the Mason-Dixon line, conducted a mammoth purge. They were the only power which did not have to count the cost of their occupation. But in the end they, too, were defeated by the complexity of trials, evidence and penalties; and the purged crept back.

I have more sympathy than I may appear to display for Mr Bower’s disgust that so many members of the NSDAP remained in positions of influence in the British Zone. As an officer of the Political Division in charge of German political affairs, I often had to tell hard-working commanders of local government districts that their chosen senior German administrator would have to go. To them this meant losing an able man and accepting an unknown quantity. The Oberpraesident of Schleswig-Holstein was sacked. But we could also point to men who had for years been forbidden by the Nazis to hold office and who proved to be able administrators. The Oberpraesident of Niedersachsen turned out to be an admirable man who continued to be elected long after the Occupation was over. In the earliest days, Otto Springorum was appointed to the board to control the steel industry and we argued successfully that a man who had been so prominent in financing Hitler’s rise to power was not someone to inspire confidence. I knew from the telegrams that both Attlee and Bevin were disturbed by the endless complaints against Military Government for being soft on the Nazis, and the policy of the Political Division was unequivocal.

But I also knew that Bevin was all the more irritated because the sniping came from fellow-travellers, such as Konni Zilliacus or the New Statesman – at that time in full support of Elas and the Communists in Greece and of Communist-inspired movements elsewhere. This convinced Bevin that root-and-branch de-Nazification was yet another weapon in the Soviet arsenal to destroy the German economy, such as it was; to alienate the Germans and, if possible, persuade them that a better deal awaited them on the other side of the Elbe; and to exert Soviet influence in the Western Zones. This was not fair to the Russians. They had reason to fear what had, after all, been the policy of the Right in Europe: namely, to revive Germany as an anti-Soviet force under militarist and so-called neutral leadership, made semi-respectable by the coup of July 1944. But by their actions the Russians had shown that they would tolerate only the Soviet version of democracy. In the revival of German political life I never had any doubt about what came first. It was more important to see, as far as one could, that the parties and trade unions got into the hands of honourable men and did not splinter into factions and craft unions, as had been the case in Weimar days. In a ten-page memorandum which Kurt Schumacher, the SPD leader, wrote in May 1946 setting out what his party wanted the British to do, there was, except for one request to remove a particular police chief, no reference to de-Nazification – and, as the inmate of a concentration camp which crippled him, Schumacher was not one to want to protect the Nazis. Democracy in Germany could not be born unless it was delivered with the forceps of de-Nazification: but the more I study his book, the more I feel that if the forceps had been in Bower’s hands the foetus would have been macerated.

Tom Bower is frankness itself about his own policy. Right at the start of the book he cites the test case of Abs. Hermann Abs was never a Nazi: as a Catholic he refused to join the Party. He had been head of the Deutsche Bank, which took over the assets of Jewish banks and of the Creditanstalt. During the war it financed huge industrial concerns which operated with slave labour, and he saw to it that the bank’s assets and records ended up in the British and not the Russian Zone. Paul Chambers, the head of the British Finance Division, and various British bankers who knew Abs well, were determined to employ Abs to get the economy working again. The Americans were determined to oust him. In the end they succeeded, but the British would not hand him over to them to face charges. Abs remains to this day at the head of the Deutsche Bank. The logic is inescapable. If Abs was to be permanently disenfranchised – and Bower never explains how large numbers of able men, such as he, were to have been kept permanently out of any post of responsibility once the Allied occupation ceased – his immediate subordinates should also have been suspended and probably those in the level beneath that. As for the judiciary ... But Bower’s verdict is clear: ‘At the end it would seem as if the Allies had turned a callous and blind eye to the murder of 12 million Europeans.’

No reparation can ever be exacted for the murder of the millions. No eschatalogical torments beyond the powers of Tertullian’s devising could even the score for the horrors of the concentration camps and the extermination of the Jews. The reparations which Adenauer made to Israel or to individuals who had been plundered by the Nazis could never be more than a token. The kind of justice Tom Bower demands is not to be had in this world. Justice is not synonymous with right. Nor is it the same as fairness. Justice will not give each his due deserts. It is usually the best of a bad job, as Shakespeare knew when he pictured it somewhere in the jar of the door which separates right from wrong. In some perfect world the German people would hold each year a day of mourning for the wrongs inflicted under Hitler and would spend the rest of the year diligently bringing anyone over the age of fifty to account in order to discover whether he or she could have known what went on in the Third Reich. Something of this fervour for a perfect world seems to have seized Mr Neal Ascherson when he complained that after his release from Spandau Speer had made himself the scapegoat for his people. Speer used to say that a Bonze such as himself did not know of the crimes of the Nazis but could have known had he tried. By using this argument ordinary people could exculpate themselves – saying that, not only did they not know, but, unlike the Bonzen, they were not in a position to know. Of course, many could have known. But not all – nor merely those of the middle class, as Mr Ascherson asserts. Burke’s aphorism is still unassailable: ‘I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against an whole people.’ What do those who demand atonement expect? It is idle to hope that a nation will engage in continual acts of self-humiliation, whether it is Japan, or France after Algeria, or America after Vietnam, or any Communist power anywhere at any time. People cannot live with the sense of their guilt and will do anything they can to rid themelves of it. That was what Christianity was once concerned with.

There is a doctrine dear to the hearts of those who conduct social investigations whether they work in higher education or in the media. It is that if a work is ‘thoroughly researched’ its conclusions must be unassailable. If every reference and fact in this book were checked and found correct, it would still remain true that, before publishing it, the author should have read a great deal more history than he appears to have done – Macaulay’s second and third chapters for a start. He tells us that as a boy he saw the story of the war as a crusade: has he ever considered as a man what happened after the First Crusade? Has he read Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy? When any of us reflects upon the rise and fall of Hitler and the aftermath, hideous dilemmas and contradictions at once appear which have been the subject of books, wearisome with paradox, about Dresden and Nuremberg. If we think about the settlements of 1815 and 1919 and remember that in 1945 the defeated enemy had no government and was wholly at our mercy, we may conclude that it is always wise in politics to consider the future instead of trying to rectify the past.