Iraqi echoes of post-war Germany

The electricity is still out. People are "bitter, disillusioned and hopeless". They express fury at the Allies, especially the English, whom they believe to be "sabotaging renewal". Many argue that things are worse than under the old dictatorship. On the streets, foreign correspondents interview barefoot orphans, who clamour for an American visa. Above all, there looms the profound hypocrisy of the occupation itself, and its "attempt to eradicate militarism by means of a military regime".

These descriptions sound familiar. They come, however, not from liberated Iraq in the blistering summer of 2003 but from liberated Germany in the icy winter of 1946. Penned by the Swedish journalist Stig Dagerman, they and other reporting from the period are worth reviewing, if only as a reminder of how typical frustrations, uncertainties and defeats are to no-longer-new occupations.*

Dagerman travelled to Germany in the autumn of 1946 on behalf of Expressen, a Swedish newspaper. He knew that by now his readers were expecting to receive reports of recovery. After all, 18 months had passed since V-E day. That autumn, "the leaves were falling in Germany for the third time since Churchill's famous speech about the falling of the leaves". What he encountered instead was devastation, a people entering their fourth winter of bunker life, often without food or heat. He described a cellar dweller: "Someone wakens, if she has slept at all, freezing in a bed without blankets, and wades over the ankles in cold water to the stove and tries to coax some fire out of some sour branches from a bombed tree." Her frozen breakfast she cooks on a stove she herself has heaved from a crumbling ruin. Beneath it the body of the owner had lain for two years.

Children in this Germany were sent out each morning, not to school but to steal. The black market flourished. Citizens who, in the Weimar Republic and under Hitler, had followed every law now trafficked in Chesterfield cigarettes and frozen potatoes. Political hope likewise was fading. Local elections were pending, but the very notion seemed somehow suspect or ridiculous. After all, as Dagerman writes, "if you are living at the edge of starvation, then your first interest is in fighting not for democracy but to distance yourself from the edge."

Berlin held its first free elections on October 20, but that day, a Sunday, Dagerman recalled, "looked like all the other dead Sundays. There was not the slightest trace of enthusiasm or joy in the crowds of deathly voters." Nazi leaders were executed at Nuremberg the week before these elections, an event which was meant to impose a sort of reassuring finality to the dictatorship. But not all Germans were comforted; at a girls' high school in Wuppertal, pupils wore mourning; in Hamburg a sign was painted, "Shame Nuremberg". Anti-Americanism seemed to be growing. Ernie Pyle, the American war correspondent, noted a German tendency to destroy German tanks and guns rather than give them over to the occupiers.

As for the occupying powers, they moved from mistake to mistake. Dagerman reported "clumsy dismantling operations", after which "the confiscated material was left to lie to rust in the autumn rains". Arrogant allies made a "practice of making five German families homeless to make space for one Allied family". There were even times when Allied officers mistook resistance heroes for foes.

Roy Jenkins, the British politician and historian, later recalled the famous sacking by Sir John Barraclough, the British military governor, of Cologne's German mayor. Barraclough gave the mayor a dressing down for insubordination, as well as for having "failed in your duty to the people of Cologne". The mayor was Konrad Adenauer, who went on to become the Federal Republic's first chancellor.

Dagerman flew north from Hamburg convinced that Germany was heading nowhere; to him it seemed forever "autumnal and icebound". He was not alone in his analysis. Victor Gollancz, the English publisher, wrote of Germany that "the values of the west are in danger".

Iraq is not Germany. It is more violent. Saddam Hussein, its former leader, may still be alive. Gollancz's "values of the west" do not dominate Iraq. It is more like Hirohito's Japan. Still, a number of things in the German story are relevant to Iraq. The Adenauer infelicity, for example, recalls a US screw-up in May. US troops stormed the Baghdad Hunt Club only to discover that the 35 Iraqis they were handcuffing were the core of the US-funded Iraqi National Congress. The INC's leader, Ahmad Chalabi, was on the brink of being named to Iraq's interim governing council.

The media are another issue. Dagerman was one of the most talented journalists of his generation. He was a better writer than the reporters who slavishly reproduced the Allied armies' line. But he happened to be wrong. He and a number of others mistook transition for permanence. This is what the US administration is now saying of some of the journalism now coming from Iraq.

Finally, there is the matter of timing. The post-war history of Germany tells us that it is too soon to draw conclusions about Iraq. As in Germany, it will be the later postwar months and years - the period when a new republic is attempted - that prove dispositive.

* Stig Dagerman, German Autumn, Quartet Encounters London, 1988

© Copyright 2003 Financial Times

Available for order:

To book Amity Shlaes for a speaking engagement, contact Jamie Brickhouse at the Red Brick Agency, 646.281.9041.
Recent Articles
Free Markets Can Appeal to the Working Class
National Review
December 3, 2020
Biden's Dangerous Central-Planning Ambitions
National Review
November 24, 2020
Episode 41: Coolidge Not Silent Any More
National Review
October 28, 2020