David G. Williamson
Harlow, Longman, 2001, ISBN: 9780582292185; 200pp.; Price: £179.00
University of Sheffield
Date accessed: 15 August, 2020
D. G. Williamson's Germany from Defeat to Partition is one of the latest additions to the Seminar Studies in History series. Since its founding in 1966, the series has brought out an extensive range of short texts on numerous aspects of English, European and world history, and new titles keep appearing at a steady pace. The stated aim of the series, according to the general introductory statement included in Williamson's book, is to "bridge [the] gap" between "the specialist article or monograph" and the "general survey" , or -- in other words -- to make the latest research findings accessible to a broader (student) audience in concise and readable form.
Williamson provides a brief, narrative overview of German history from the late stages of the Second World War to the early 1960s, as the title suggests. The book is organised chronologically, primarily on the basis of political developments. Thus the background section, which covers the late stages of the Second World War, is followed by a segment on the occupation era of 1945-1949. There then follow sections on the Federal Republic between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, the GDR in the same period, and finally a conclusion, entitled "Assessment", which attempts to compare and contrast the early development of the two German states. In addition, the book contains several appendices: some forty pages of excerpts from relevant primary documents, a brief chronology of main (political) events, a short glossary of key terms relevant to the periods, a "who's who" section with biographical sketches of around 100 key players in early post-war Germany, and a bibliography with 131 suggested titles for those in search of further reading on particular issues.
In many ways Williamson's book is a useful introduction to the general literature on German history in the early post-World War II years. It is written in a lucid, fluent style, and it provides a clear overview of the main political developments in Germany between the Second World War and the early 1960s. Undergraduates in particular should be able to peruse the book with profit, and the appendices, especially the primary source excerpts, will undoubtedly prove to be a very handy resource.
But Williamson's study also has its problems. I was puzzled by the book's title and chronological focus. It is not immediately obvious why the years 1945-1963 form a distinct period in German history and how these years correspond to the title's keywords "from Defeat to Partition." Germany's division into two opposing states had been completed well before the early 1960s, and in many ways the early 1970s -- which witnessed the onset of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik and the resulting search for a modus vivendi between Bonn and East Berlin -- mark a much more significant turning point in post-war German history than the start of the 1960s. Presumably Williamson views the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 as the key event that sealed Germany's Cold War partition, but an explicit discussion of the rationale for the book's focus would have been welcome. Perhaps this could have been done in a brief, thematic introduction, which the book now lacks entirely.
More significantly, in some ways the book fails to live up to its announced overall objective of integrating the latest research findings into a general narrative. Although the basic political events so fluently described by Williamson are crucial for understanding post-war German history, they have not stood at the forefront of much of the most recent specialised scholarship. Many of the key publications of recent years have instead explored issues such as culture, mentalities and memory, often in a broader social and political context, but Williamson's study pays little attention to this material. To be fair, the book does include two brief chapters on social and cultural trends in the two Germanys, but these are short and rather superficial. The section on social and cultural developments in the Federal Republic, for example, takes up only four of the book's total 116 pages of text.
The author's failure to integrate some of the most recent literature is evident in his select bibliography. One searches in vain for such a standard work as Norbert Frei's Vergangenheitspolitik: Die Anfänge der Bundesrepublik und die NS-Vergangenheit (Munich: Beck, 1996), for example, despite its far-reaching impact in reshaping scholarly debates about West Germany's political and social development during the 1950s. And although the absence of a thick German-language study from a bibliography aimed primarily at English-speaking undergraduates could perhaps be excused on linguistic grounds, it is harder to understand why various key works in English are not included either. To take just two examples, neither Geoffrey Herf's influential Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) nor Robert G. Moeller, ed., West Germany under Construction: Politics, Society and Culture in the Adenauer Era (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997) can be found in the bibliography, although the latter does a particularly good job of making influential articles and essays accessible in a reasonably priced paperback volume.
These oversights are, in turn, reflected in the book's narrative. In his conclusion, Williamson acknowledges in passing that coming to "terms with their Nazi past" was a key challenge faced by both German states (p. 111). But he fails to pursue the matter systematically, despite the fact that much recent scholarship -- including the studies by Frei and Herf cited above -- has addressed these problems in detail and thereby cast a good deal of new light on Germany's post-war history more generally. Apart from a brief discussion of the initial de-Nazification policies of the early post-war years, Williamson has little to say about the way in which the two Germanys confronted their problematic recent past, which detracts significantly from the book's stated objective of introducing the results of the latest research to a broader audience.
The organisation of Williamson's book raises a broader, methodological point, which relates not only to his study but to surveys of post-World War II Germany in general. Williamson has chosen to analyse each of the two German states in turn, in separate chapters, and to limit direct comparisons to a handful of concluding remarks at the end of the study. This is in many ways understandable, given the book's introductory character and the word limit constraints under which the author undoubtedly had to labour. But a more extensive comparative section would nevertheless have been very useful, particularly as none of the existing surveys of post-World War II Germany approach the topic in an explicitly and consistently comparative fashion. To be sure, the shortage of comparative work is evident on the monographic level as well, which obviously limits the possibilities open to survey authors. But the situation is gradually changing. Several younger scholars in particular are currently working on ambitious comparative projects, which will in due course make a major impact on the field and ultimately find reflection in survey texts as well. One worthy example of this trend is Frank Biess's award-winning dissertation 'The Protracted War: Returning POWs and the Making of East and West German Citizens, 1945-1955', completed at Brown University in 2000 and currently being revised for publication in book form.
Although Williamson's book is generally well-presented and accurate, a few annoying errors have unfortunately managed to creep their way into the text. At one point, for example, Williamson claims that Ludwig Erhard, the so-called father of the West German economic miracle, became chairman of the Bavarian CSU in 1949 (p. 33), which must be news to the Christian Social Union, whose records show the actual party chairman at the time to have been the similarly named Hans Ehard. Another problem lies in repeated misspellings of German names and words, which are hardly reassuring in a book about German history. The Nazi hero Horst Wessel, for example, becomes "Horst Wesel" (p. 54), the leftist literary circle Gruppe 47 turns into the "Grüppe 1947" (p. 79) and the Trümmerfrau, the female pioneer of post-war reconstruction, loses her umlauts and thus transforms to "Trummerfrau" (p. 5). All of these are minor mistakes, of course, but cumulatively they make a negative impact, and they could have been avoided without much additional effort in proof-reading and fact-checking.
Despite its problems, Williamson's book is nevertheless a useful addition to the growing pile of survey texts on post-war German history. It provides a lucid and readable introduction to the main political events of the 1945-1963 period. For that purpose it can be recommended for undergraduate usage, even if it falls a bit short in its coverage of other aspects of the period and fails to integrate some of the recent key historiography.
It is not often that an author has the opportunity to reply to criticism. I would therefore like to thank Dr. Ahonen for his detailed and constructive review and Anne Shepherd for planning and putting on line the Reviews in History series, which make a positive debate between author and reviewer possible.
I have read Dr. Ahonen’s review with interest. Obviously his useful list of misspellings and misprints cannot be disputed and will be put right when the next impression of the book is printed. With many of the other more substantial points in his review, I would, however, like to take issue. He remarks that the book is organised primarily on the basis of political developments. Up to a point, I suppose, that is true, provided one sees this as an umbrella term which also covers economic and international developments. I am a little surprised that he has said nothing about Chapter 4, which deals with the pivotal role played by the two Germanys in the Cold War.
I note that Dr. Ahonen is ‘puzzled by the book’s title and chronological focus’. Of course the years 1972/73 are a turning point in German history, but there is an important change of focus and political mood in the FRG symbolised by the Spiegel Affair in the late autumn of 1962 and the resignation of Adenauer in 1963. The early 1960s were a watershed in West German politics and society. New issues emerged which were to dominate the later years of the decade In the GDR the construction of the Wall is surely an important turning point. It stabilised the GDR and gave the GDR a second chance to try to engineer its own economic miracle. The party faithful did after all regard 13th August 1961 as the ‘secret foundation day of the GDR’. In the Cold War, too, the Berlin Wall was a turning point, which ultimately made possible the policy of détente. By sealing off East Berlin it de facto completed partition and gave the GDR a new lease of life. On a purely practical point the publishers are planning to produce a second volume on the post war Germanys. In that context 1963 is an obvious place to stop.
Dr Ahonen is rightly critical that some important and recent studies on culture, mentalities and memory are not included in the biography. Certainly the three books he mentions will be included in the second impression, as indeed will references to his own work on expellees. On the other hand I have introduced readers to the important contributions by A. Sywottek, some of whose work is included the collection edited by Robert G. Moeller - one of the books recommended by Dr. Ahonen. Given that the Seminar Series is aimed at undergraduates and the brighter and more industrious 6th formers, I was particularly anxious to make sure that readers would become acquainted both with H-P Schwarz’s Adenauer biography and his monumental and indispensable two volumes on Die Ära Adenauer in Die Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland series. As the latter are huge and comprehensive tomes in German, students need to become familiar with them initially through such text books as mine. A more fundamental question raised by Dr. Ahonen is the significance of recent research on such issues as ‘culture, mentalities and memory’. Obviously the staple topics of an introductory book such as this must include relatively detailed studies of the occupation, the emergence of the two German states, the functioning of their political systems, economic developments and the role of both states in the cold war. Once these are grasped, students will be in a better position to read and understand the interesting and challenging aspects of recent research into the more complex areas of culture, mentalities and memory. That is the reason why I was only able to include two relatively short chapters on social cultural developments. Nevertheless I hope that these will interest students and inspire them to further reading. In my chapters on social and Cultural developments in the FRG and the GDR , I do introduce students to some key concepts, such as restoration (although this is also discussed earlier on pp. 31-2), modernisation, Americanisation, as well as such topics as the question of reconstructing a new Germanness, the integration of expellees in both states and what a workers and peasants state in the GDR actually meant in concrete terms for those involved: fascinating and important topics, which I hope they will follow up, but ones which can only be fully understood and explored once the basic economic and political developments have been understood.
Certainly coming to terms with their Nazi past was a key challenge to both German states. There were of course many different ways of coming to terms with so painful and immediate a past. Dr. Ahonen has criticised me for failing to pursue the matter methodologically. In one sense this theme permeates the whole book In the chapters on the GDR I have shown how the older elites, who were compromised by their associations with Nazism, with the partial exceptions of doctors and dons, were ruthlessly pushed aside. Again running through my book has been the theme that in West Germany the predominant mood among the political and administrative elite at least up to the late fifties and early sixties was the desire to overcome the past by creating a feeling of continuity and integrating all but the most brazen ex-Nazis into the new constitutional republic. The question of integrating the armed forces into the constitutional state ( pp. 61-62) does produce, however, a more fundamental debate on the role of the army into a democratic society, which was a major contribution to coming to terms not just with the Nazi past but also with the whole German/ Prussian military tradition.
An important aspect of coming to terms with the past was also to avoid its repetition by learning from it. This influenced, as I have stressed (pp. 31-33), the drafting of the new West German constitution by the founding fathers, who attempted with remarkable success to erect constitutional barriers against a repetition of the events of 1930-33. It also influenced Adenauer’s European policy of integration, which, by preventing the isolation into which the Weimar Republic had fallen, would, it was hoped, enable the FRG prosperously to coexist with its western neighbours, and so avoid creating the pre-conditions for a Nazi revival ( see Ch.4). Initially coming to terms with the Nazi past involved during the 1950s a policy of safety first and disaster avoidance. Another strand of coming to terms with the pain of the past was to devote one’s energies to reconstruction and to distance oneself from politics (the ohne mich attitude), which I explore, albeit briefly, in Chapter seven. It was the generation of 1968 that rejected the cautious ‘burnt children’ of the 1950s and ruthlessly interrogated their parents about their involvement in or toleration of the Nazi era. I mention the critics of Adenauer’s integrationist policies (p.79) by West German intellectuals and writers such as the Gruppe 47, but I do concede that their criticism of the Bundesrepublik, which anticipates some of what the New Left said in the 1960s, needs a more in-depth treatment, which I shall give it, if I am allowed more pages by my publisher when the time for a second edition comes.
Finally Dr. Ahonen regrets that the absence of a more extensive comparative section. Up to Chapter 4 I have followed a broadly comparative approach. Chapter 2 deals with the post war occupation thematically and makes constant comparisons between the four Allied zones. Chapter 3 follows the interactive impact of Allied decisions on the process that led to the emergence of the two Germanys (See for instance Bizonia and the Economic Commission) and Chapter 4 deals with both Germanys in the Cold War, 1949-63, in a linked and comparative way. I did consider whether I should carry on this approach when I came to analyse the domestic policies of the two states. In the end I came to the conclusion that my readers would be served by analyses that dealt with each state separately. I feared that a comparative approach to domestic policies, in a short book such as this, would be muddling, sometimes stating the obvious and repetitive, as well as threatening to obscure for readers, who had little prior knowledge of post war Germany, what the actual political, social and economic developments in each state were. I have, of course, made cross references where relevant, but have tried to avoid becoming repetitive and simplistic. I have attempted to show that the differences between the two states were a consequence of the way in which Germany was divided and became integrated in rival blocs. Each part followed in relation to the other its own Sonderweg. Still, had space allowed, a succinct comparative introduction to Part 5 (The GDR from its Foundation to the Berlin Wall) would have done no harm. Something to consider for the second edition!