Hamburg Letter

In Germany Baxter found a suffering Hans, and an obsequious Hans— but never a guilty Hans

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 15 1946

Hamburg Letter

In Germany Baxter found a suffering Hans, and an obsequious Hans— but never a guilty Hans

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 15 1946

Hamburg Letter

In Germany Baxter found a suffering Hans, and an obsequious Hans— but never a guilty Hans


AS THE airplane crossed the Netherlands coast there was the same thought, we discovered afterward, in each of our minds. This was the route of death and victory, the path taken by the young crusaders of the clouds in the battle that had robbed us of almost a generation.

We were a parliamentary delegation of eight— two Conservative and five Socialist M.P.’s, with one peer from the House of Lords who had once been a Liberal and a diplomat but who had become a Socialist. A brand-new Dakota had been placed at our disposal to carry us to Hamburg, where we could begin an eight days’ inspection of occupied Germany.

How dull and fiat are the margined fields of the Netherlands, how scarred the soil of Germany where tanks fought their ruthless way across the countryside. We reached journey’s end and came down at the airport some five miles out of Hamburg. Two German press photographers snapped us, a pretty

flaxen-haired girl reporter made notes, and officers of the British Army led us into the airdrome where a smiling German waitress served us refreshment.

I looked at the girl to see if there was hatred or sullenness behind her smile, but there was only amusement and eagerness, like a child playing a new game. Yet she was a daughter of Hamburg where in four successive raids in June, 1943, the RAF created such havoc as the world had never seen before. As we drove through the streets I felt a sense of awe and a sense of shame for civilization itself. The Germans had begun it and there could have been only one answer. It was our existence or theirs—and we had never willed this terrible thing.

Corpses of burned-out. motor cars still lay half buried in the rubble as they did on those nights when the raging fire sucked people into the flames, when hundreds died from lack of oxygen and men and women were drowned in the harbor as they flung themselves into the water to escape the inferno. They say that 60,000 people died during those four nights. Perhaps a great city died as well.

“We shall go first to the headquarters of the Military Government,” said the brigadier, “where you will meet the mayor, the leaders of the local political parties, the officials in charge of de-Nazification, and you will have your first glimpse of how we are trying to get this place started.” As an appropriate commentary on his remarks we reached

a section of the town which had partially escaped destruction, and a few moments later the German officials, appointed by the British, were led up to be introduced.

The Japanese have a saying: “If you bow, bow low.” These Germans bowed low to the curiouslooking people from the British Parliament as if we were representatives of the master race and they the slaves. Their eagerness to please was almost as childish as that of the waitress at the airdrome. “The Germans,” Churchill said in 1940, “are either at your throat or your feet.” They have no mercy in victory, no dignity in defeat.

It was our first introduction to one of the most complex tasks ever undertaken by any nation. Here we saw the British at their best, doing a work of “colonization” in the heart of Europe. Life in western Germany had come to a standstill when the victorious Allied Armies marched in. The Nazis, who had been everywhere in control, were in hiding or had run away. There were no public services, no food distribution centres, no transport, no police.

So a handful of British officers and civilian experts set out to organize the teeming thousands that were living in the cellars of Hamburg, to link the city up with the adjoining countryside, to open schools and hospitals, to train police to take the place of the others (who were, of course, all Nazis), to cope with the daily influx of 4,000 refugees expelled from East Prussia by the Poles, to get workers back into such portions of factories as could be used, to round up Nazi criminals and all members of Nazi organizations, to establish maternity centres, and, above all, to persuade antiNazis to take on the task of local government.

Selflessly, tirelessly, with firmness and with gentleness, the Englishman set out on the task for which he is best-fitted—the “colonization” of a downtrodden, backward people. The experiment may prove a failure, it

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may he that our consideration will some day he laughed at as weakness, or perhaps it will be shown that the Germans will better understand the Russian method of government, so similar to their own. All I know is that 1 saw men doing the work that Christianity commanded them to do.

Later in the day we separated into groups, and I was asked to receive the four senior governing officials of sections of the British zone, which would approximate to English counties. There was one woman among the four. They spoke respectfully, hut showed once more that the German is still the world’s worst psychologist. The burden of their argument was that the war was a mistake, it never should have been fought, and now what were we going to do for them? Whereupon I decided to ask some questions:

German Catechism

“Do you believe that it was Germany or Hitler who was responsible for the war?”

“It was Hitler.”

“But Germany fought the war?”

“Of course.”

“Was it Germany or the Kaiser who caused the war in 1914?”

“It was the Kaiser.”

“But Germany fought the war.”

“Of course.”

“So Germany never declares war but merely fights it?”

“That is so.”

“And Germany is never guilty?”

“If Germany loses, she loses and must suffer.”

“But only Hitler or someone else is guilty? Tell me. When will you reach a political development where the Government will be your servant and the whole nation will be responsible for its servant’s actions?”

They looked at me with a sort of puzzled distress. The strange visitor from London was talking about something they could not understand.

“One more question. Are the Germans a cruel race?”

“No, we are not cruel.”

“Then how can you account for your concentration camps and the murder of millions of helpless people?”

“They go a little mad, these Nazis. They go wrong in the head. But we are not a cruel race.”

The interview was at an end and they filed out after bowing low. I do not think that the man who can make Germany conscious of her crimes has yet been born. The only glimmer of hope I got was from the expression in the woman’s eyes. The men were automatons, but she was trying to think things out. It was not the last time in those eventful eight days that I had the feeling that if Germany is to be saved it will be by her women.

That night we dined at a beautiful house which had been taken over for the control officers’ mess. The meal was served quite perfectly by Germans who knew their jobs— and no wonder. They were stewards from the Bremen that so proudly sailed with her sister ship, the Europa, to capture the luxury traffic of the Atlantic. At another mess we were greeted by a handsome young German who took our hats as if they were coronets and served us cocktails as if they were nectar and we were gods.

A year ago he was an officer in the German Army. I wonder, if the Germans had won, if a British officer could have become a servant so swiftly, so willingly, so skilfully, so humbly. Truly the master race is something to ponder upon.

A deputation of Flamburg journalists invited us to visit them. There are no normal newspapers now in Germany, but each democratic party is allowed its own daily journal, which is staffed mostly by professionals of former years. They, too, told us that the war was mistake, and now what were we going to do for Hamburg? Here were men, above the average of intelligence, men who knew the outside world and spoke languages other than their own, yet even their understanding could get no further than the admission that the war was a mistake. Do they know that it was a crime? Yes. They lost the war, and it was a crime to do that.

in the midst of our talk 1 asked if they could tell me what happened to famous German journalist I knew before the war, Doctor Silex, the editor of the powerful Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung of Berlin. He was in London in 1938, and a number of us entertained him at dinner in the House of Commons to try and probe the secret of Germany’s intentions. At my question the Hamburg journalists looked embarrassed and seemed disinclined to talk about him. When the conference was over and I was getting into the car a young woman hurried out of the building, and said: “Dr. Silex is here. He

would be so grateful if you would give him a few moments.”

I went back and found the dapper Silex, journalist-cum-naval officer, in an empty room. At least it was a relief to meet a German who did not bow low, and who looked me in the eye without subservience. “I should not be here,” he said, “but when I learned you were in Hamburg I thought you might give me a few minutes.”

Then he told me his story. He was, of course, not a Nazi, and never had been. In fact only 40 of his 500 employees in Berlin had been Nazis. He had been forced to co-operate with Hitler’s Government hut had tried to the end to keep the candle of liberalism flickering. In 1943 he had rejoined the Navy, in which he had served in 1914. So far so good. Not knowing the German for “Oh yeah?” I let him go on.

He had come to Hamburg and had been invited to assume the editorship of one of the local political newspapers. In his own opinion it was premature, but the British authorities had vetted him, found his record satisfactory, and had asked him to take on the job. “Then, of course, the Left Wing got to work,” he said. “They made charges against me, all lies, and the British dismissed me. The power of the Communists is very great and they are extremely astute. They know that once charge is made the British authorities must accept it as true.”

I merely tell that story as an example of the human drama which is being enacted in Germany under the unco-ordinated rule of Russia, Britain, France and America. Whether Silex was lying or telling the truth I neither know nor care.

Death of a Port

The afternoon before we left for Hanover the authorities took us in a launch for a tour of the gigantic harbor Hamburg. Once again our eyes looked on things that men should never see. Bombed ships lay on their sides like funnelled corpses, grim, stupid, impotent things. The twisted girders of shipyards leaned drunkenly into the water. The heavily protected yards that had produced the bulk of Germany’s submarines were still there but were marked for official destruction.

neat ship sailed slowly by us, carrying Norwegian girls who had married German soldiers during the occupation.

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(What thoughts they must have had as they gazed on the chaos.)

And then we saw something which was gravely disturbing and which may he heard of 25 years from now. At the Potsdam Conference immediately after the war ended it was decreed that Germany would not be allowed to build ships larger than those needed for coastal traffic. This was to eliminate forever the threat of a powerful German Navy. Such a decision, in the hour of victory, was understandable, and if it had been carried out at once the beaten Germans would have made no protest.

But we did not carry it out. We left it for a year and then demolished one of the two yards capable of big ship construction. A great cry went up from the Hamburg people, and we, on this trip, were urged to spare the second yard. “It is a death sentence,” they said to us. “Without shipbuilding Hamburg must die. Why not control our harbor? Why not let us build ships as reparations? But do not take from us our only chance of survival as a city.”

I do not know the answer, nor do I suggest one. But this much I do know, that if there is to be punishment it should be carried out swiftly. To spend millions of pounds trying to bring a stricken city to life and then to let the inhabitants hear the explosion as we destroy their shipyards is to play into the hands of those who dream of a Nazi revival. By this time the second yard has been completely dismantled and the sentence has been carried out.

So, preceded by military police on motorcycles, we left in our cars for Hanover, through a countryside completely unravaged by war, with redroofed, green-shuttered cottages, with children playing outside them and men and women working in the fields. This is the Germany untouched by the war and unharassed by the peace, for farmers never starve. Their heritage is the good earth, and no one can take it from them.

Again we were greeted by the officials of the British Control and listened to their story of how the ancient city, historically connected with Britain, was being brought to some semblance of life. “These people would accept colonial status in the British Empire,” said a young major. “They would go mad with joy if the King of England would become King of Hanover as well.”

Every day trainloads of refugees arrive in the zone from East Prussia, consisting of women, children and old men. The Poles keep the young men

for work. These wretched migrants have no money, no goods, and it is our task to find homes for them in the villages and towns. The German Red Cross and the British-appointed German local officials co-operate well and even the villagers do not grumble unduly when they are forced to take the strangers into their houses. It may be docility, it may be a sodden willingness to obey orders. Heaven help us, it may be some glimmering sign of human decency.

Bedlam in a Boxcar

At breakfast next morning a redeyed British medical officer wearily sipped his coffee. “A trainload of 600 mental defectives came in at three o’clock this morning and we had no warning of their coming. They were herded into cattle trucks and boxcars.” That was all, but did Dante ever imagine a scene more dreadful than those gibbering, screaming, laughing lunatics, taken from their trucks in the rain and the dark? But now they were in hospitals and the Englishman could come back to rest for an hour.^

One last picture. I went to see the trial of four Germans for the murder of a New Zealand airman in 1945. The men in the dock were members of the home guards, and their faces were cruel, stupid, subnormal. Each was defended by a German lawyer, and presiding over the court was a lawyer colleague of ours, from the House of Commons, wearing his wig and gown as if he were in the chancery courts of London. In the witness box was a dull-looking German girl who was the chief witness for the prosecution.

Everything said was translated into English by a young interpreter, or translated from English into German. What an actor this interpreter would have made! He imitated the style and vocal inflection of each person, even their hesitations and their mutterings. It was so fascinating to watch him that he became to me the chief interest in the drama.

Two hours passed by, with the English president of the court insisting upon the laws of evidence so that the trial should be fair. The Germans in the dock looked stupidly at him from time to time. Perhaps they were wondering what kind of man it was who was giving them a chance instead of ordering them out to be shot. Perhaps they had a contempt for him and thought how much better the Naxis would have done it.

The next day we were to make the long drive through the Russian zone on our way to Berlin.