Memories: Post-war Germany took a decade of occupation

Historian David Stafford conducts a lesson in today’s Washington Post on America’s last major post-war reconstruction effort in Germany. He compares the fitful progress in Iraq to that of Germany after World War II and reminds us that despite the stark differences between the two countries, we faced many of the same problems then that we do now. Stafford also points out that we didn’t end the explicit military occupation until a full decade had passed:

As for de-Nazification, it sounded good, and indeed was morally and politically necessary. But distinguishing between real and nominal Nazis often proved extremely difficult. Small officials who’d joined the party out of necessity were thrown out of office, while big businessmen who’d profited under Hitler were left alone. The policy generated growing hostility to the occupiers, and its implementation was soon handed over to the Germans themselves. This caused its own bitterness as the Germans were often seen as being too lenient.

Even so, despite this willingness to rethink and adjust, occupation policy floundered. Two years after Allied victory, Germany was in desperate straits, facing an economic crisis that threatened to nip democracy in the bud. Only the Marshall Plan, with its massive program of financial aid, saved the country from disaster. Self-government did not come until 1949, and Allied troops remained in West Germany as occupiers until 1955, a full decade after the defeat of the Third Reich. Unrepentant Nazis stayed active on the extreme fringes of West German politics for years, and a few ex-Nazis held high positions even in mainstream politics until the 1960s. The Christian Democratic politician Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was chancellor of the Federal Republic from 1966 to 1969.

Rebuilding a nation is possible. But even in the best of circumstances, it takes effort, time, patience and pragmatism. As 1945 confirms, liberation from a dictator in itself offers no easy path to peace or democracy. Battlefield victory is the easy bit. Building peace is a constant struggle — and it’s a matter of years, not weeks.

The same lessons could be gleaned from our occupation of Japan. It took seven years for Japan to emerge from occupation as an independent state once again, three years earlier than Germany. In both cases, the Cold War actually sped the end of occupation as both countries became bulwarks against the spread of communism. In both cases, starvation and forced repatriation of natives pushed the societal pressures of occupation to the breaking point. The economic collapse of both nations forced the US to heavily subsidize their reconstruction, which benefited the US as much as it did Japan and Germany.

We are at the five-year mark with Iraq, and many parallels can be seen. We implemented a native, representative government in Iraq far earlier than we did with Japan and Germany. Our initial de-Baathification efforts have had to be reformed by the Iraqis later than the Germans took over de-Nazification, but not much later. The complication of terrorism does not have a parallel, but armed insurgencies existed in Germany for several years; they never gained much traction with the general population, and the native insurgencies in Iraq have similarly failed to win political support.

Stafford points out that we should have learned lessons from the German occupation, such as using overwhelming force to bring law and order to Iraq in the early days. Politically, the Bush administration didn’t have the leverage nor the resources to keep 250,000 troops in Iraq, but it also didn’t try to find either in the event. Only after three years of light-footed futility did the US change direction and bolster its ground forces and its tactics, to dramatic effect.

At the same time as Stafford criticizes the Bush administration, he scolds its critics over their unreasonable and impatient expectations. It took time and effort to transform two fascist nations into functioning democracies. The beneficial results from both have lasted decades and continue to provide America with valuable alliances against extremism and tyranny. (image from Rush Limbaugh’s commentary on post-war defeatism in 1946)

Update: I had quite forgotten this, but Jessica’s Well first discovered the John Dos Passos commentaries in 1946 and blogged about it a few years ago in relation to Iraq. Please be sure to read that post in its entirety.

Also, Jessica’s Well’s Natalie sends this Tony Snow commentary, when Snow was still with Fox: