Monday, March 14, 2016

The Swan (Part 4 and three quarters): The Aftermath of War

IV and three quarters. The Aftermath of War

When I look back on my fortnight's stay in Hamburg in June, the first thing that comes to my mind is the incredible shabbiness of everything. When I left Hamburg in 1936 it was on the crest of the wave. It was a wealthy, beautiful, clean place and its inhabitants were confident, energetic, prosperous, elegant and full of plans for a brilliant future. All that has gone so completely as if it had never existed.

          I was prepared to find a great amount of destruction but I was not prepared to find the town look as if they had had a heavy air raid on the previous night. Apparently they have not made the slightest effort of cleaning up and carting the rubble away. Actually they have done a certain amount of clearing up, but there is still so much left.
Henry, in US Army uniform, with Hully
Hamburg, May 1946
Hully observing her ruined home, May 1946 
Family home, Hamburg, 1946
          I gradually realised that one cannot expect much when there is no paint to make things look a bit nicer, no soap to do any cleaning and not much strength to care about things in general, probably no transport to shift the rubble and no petrol to move what trucks they could muster. Unfortunately, this attitude of not-caring-very-much is universal.

          Germans are bad losers. Everyone I met complained endlessly, accused everybody else, blamed the British for all their shortcomings. I must admit that the food position, certainly at that time, was still very bad. Eight-hundred calories would tend in the long run to get everybody down. In a way it is astonishing that they keep on as they do.

          The occupied countries during the war had something to pray and to hope for. The germans do not seem to have any hopes left. This hopelessness, added to sheer physical exhaustion as the result of years of under-nourishment, seem to me most alarming. I took every opportunity of talking to people and trying to find out what they thought. I believe I was told a good deal of what was really in their minds because people who did not know me could not possibly realise I was not German as I speak German with a Hamburg accent. And old friends and acquaintances talked to me as such. I felt in some isolated instances they were conscious of the fact that I was British and tried "propaganda."

          The first thing that strikes one is the dislike of the British which in some cases was really hatred. When we first came to Hamburg at the end of the war there seems to have been a general feeling of relief and even joy. Hamburg has always been much nearer to the British kind of life than any other German town. The frontline troops which occupied Hamburg made a very good impression and there were hardly any complaints. When they made way for other troops, the disappointments began and when the civilian administration arrived, the tide turned against us. The no-fraternisation rule, although justified, has done us no end of harm. By the time it was lifted, there was a kind of unofficial no-fraternisation rule amongst the German population. "No decent German would like to be seen with English people" was an expression I heard repeatedly. There are, of course, exceptions.

          The next complaint was, queer enough, about the inefficiency and laziness of the Administration. Germans are probably the most industrious race on earth and they regard the British with contempt because their offices do not open until 10 o'clock and very often close again at 12. What they do not know about organising is not worth knowing and the present state of "improvising" arouses no respect.

          Requisitioning is another thing which has hit them hard. One can hardly blame the individual for feeling bitter, like, for instance, a school teacher who was told in the morning that she would have to leave her flat by the afternoon. It was during the very cold winter and she had nowhere to go. Finally she went to the attic of her school where she camped amongst packing crates. For some reason or other her flat was not occupied for some months but the doors were sealed and any effort to "loot" her own furniture and belongings was in vain. It is no good telling her that the Germans had an even less gentle way of commandeering houses in the occupied countries.

         On my wanderings through Hamburg I came to one large open space, surrounded by barbed wire and when I asked about the type of bomb which did this rather neat damage I was told there used to be houses on that spot after the war but the British decided to build a kind of compound for their administration and therefore turned the people out and blew the buildings up. Later on they decided against the plan. In view of the quite disastrous housing situation this has been a rather sad mistake.

          The overcrowding, although it is not our fault or at least very indirect, is almost worse than the lack of food. A house that would normally hold four to five people now has some 25 living crowded together in rooms. The present allowance is 4 sq. m. per person so that a medium sized room should hold some five people. This also means sharing kitchens, sinks and lavatories, with all the resulting quarrels, not to speak of infection.

          Gas is rationed, which is another source of irritation. One can hardly blame undernourished and tired people when they cheat and steal. Mothers are frantic to get all they can for their children by any means. Stealing of coal is regarded as a quite legitimate thing by people who would not have dreamed of taking a penny stamp before the war.

          People are quite surprisingly uninformed about the world in general and their country in particular. If we have tried any propaganda at all we seem to have failed amazingly. The absence of wireless sets and scarcity of German newspapers may account for some of it. I talked to highly education people who used to take a keen interest in world affairs. Their knowledge was slight, to say the least of it, and even this type of people seemed to rely on rumours. The quite universal belief is, for instance, that we carry their food to England, fruit is flown by planes and by night directed to Covent Gardens.

          Every single item which German factories produce goes straight on the English market. Every effort of building houses is made impossible because they have to apply for a licence first and fill in endless forms. Permission to use certain raw materials for manufacture is often withheld until the raw materials have deteriorated. This is all done quite deliberately. When I told them that we could not just build houses without any kind of permission and that things have deteriorated in our country because the relevant ministry could not make up their minds to give their permission, they would not believe it.

          When they complained that they could not buy cups and saucers I told them we couldn't either. The fact that our food and clothing was still rationed was only quite vaguely known. They thought it quite interesting to hear that we had electricity cuts. They had never heard of any world crisis. They were just deliberately starved to death as part of the general British plan. Is there nothing we can do to inform them a bit better?

          The last and probably most serious problem was brought to me by a young student who had been a pilot during the war. He said quite openly that he had been an ardent Nazi and that the bottom had dropped out of his universe when all was over. He ceased to believe anymore but he confessed there was nothing to take its place.

          "You see, national Socialism was not just politics to us young people, it was a religion and I can assure you it was a beautiful religion which demanded our fullest devotion and all our thoughts. It is horrible to feel this void but our Lutheran church cannot possibly replace our beliefs. We have a feeling it has failed us when we were willing to turn to it in despair. It has to be something much stronger. We Germans give our best when there are great demands made upon us. Democracy is not a religion and it does not suit the German character. Besides, see what a mess the British are in. There is no advertising value in democracy here."

          I asked whether the Church of England had done anything to help as I had heard of a discussion centre where young students and potential youth leaders were invited to attend lectures and discussion for a fortnight. He admitted they had done some good but it could not possibly influence them as a fortnight was much too short. Much more and more intensive work would be needed to have an effect, especially on cynical and highly critical young men, however ardently they might desire to find new gods to worship.

          When I said that Christianity had certainly gone through a much longer "approbation" period than National Socialism and had proved its worth in this world, he suddenly said: "There is one 'creed' that attracts a great number of us and that is communism."

          Against my usual arguments he put the really dangerous one that is bound to come up sooner or later: "We do not want the Russian Communism, we need a National German Communism."

           If the Church of England cannot convince these young people soon it will be too late. And the problem is that we probably cannot find the right people in time to tackle this formidable task because the best padre will make no impression unless he knows the psychology of young Germans very well indeed. He will have to fight with their own weapons and meet them on their own ground, he will probably have to adapt his idea of Christianity to the German mind, or in other words, we shall have to send out missionaries into a highly civilised country where only the very best minds are good enough. This young German ex-Nazi who is anxiously searching for something to replace his old beliefs, willing to drink from any cup that promises to slacken his spiritual thirst, looking from West to East, waiting for a new "leader" seems so typical of young German people and the idea that we shall fail them in all probability whilst there is still time, frightens and saddens me.
Lottie and Hully, Hamburg, 1946

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