With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Gil Troy: Germany Wasn't Rebuilt in a Year, Nor Shall Iraq

Gil Troy, in the Montreal Gazette (April 04, 2004)

It is generally recognized that America's military triumph brought, as one observer noted,"absolute ruin ... old men, old women, young women, children from tots to teens carrying packs, pushing carts, pulling carts, evidently ejected by the conquerors and carrying what they could of their belongings to no where in particular."

The looting following the U.S. bombardment only intensified the misery. Contemplating the devastation in Germany , 1945 - not Iraq , 2003 - months after Berlin fell, President Harry Truman remarked,"What a pity that the human animal is not able to put his moral thinking into practice! I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries."

Ours is an age of instant history. The perpetual, 24/7 news cycle bombards us with dramatic pronouncements and quick verdicts - even before events have finished. Yet the more complicated a historical process might be, the more time it needs to gel. Most lasting historical changes take hold with slow-acting cement rather than with instant crazy glue. That is why, even after a year, the hasty announcements of both victory and defeat in Iraq are ill-advised and premature.

Reconstruction sounds benign and progressive but it is almost always messy and nasty.  The"occupiers" and the natives seeking to wrench Germany and Japan from their ugly pasts in the 1940s were lucky that there was no CNN to cover each misstep, every policy clash, all the chaos and the suffering - which lasted for years. Contrary to our nostalgia-tinged recollections of postwar Germany , Truman in 1945 noted that the Soviets had exacted"retribution to the nth degree."

There were purges throughout Europe as collaborators in hated regimes were removed, often forcibly. The much-vaunted"denazification" process in Germany petered out relatively quickly but the great German economic miracle - like the great Japanese recovery -- took years to nurture.

Historian David Reynolds reports that in Germany"the days of ruin, famine and barter" lasted at least until 1947, and in 1950 - five years after the war - unemployment was still in the double digits, while two-thirds of German households"had no living room and less than half had access to a bath."

In Japan , the situation was so unstable that amid a sustained campaign of strikes, protests and industrial sabotage - what we would call (low-level) terrorism - the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Truman that if Japan succumbed to Communism," Russia would gain, thereby, an additional war-making potential equal to 25 per cent of her capacity." The spectre of China - which had already fallen to the Communists - haunted America 's Asia experts.

Conflicts regarding how to proceed compounded the challenges of pacifying, purging, rebuilding, and re-educating. In 1947, American policy-planners were still weighing the risks of rebuilding Germany and Japan as either industrial or military powers. Former secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr,. wanted to see Germany deindustrialized; former president Herbert Hoover wrote a special report envisioning a rebuilt Germany as the economic engine of a prospering and free Europe .

The division of Germany into American, British, French and Russian occupation zones fed the chaos. Even the three non-Communist allies clashed. In 1949, as the U.S. State Department followed the Hoover recommendations unofficially, the Allies mollified the French by dismantling the Hermann Goerling steel works, eliminating 3,000 desperately-needed jobs.

With the policy-makers' penchant for fighting the last war, Americans and their allies debated how to avoid the mistakes of the First World War - the"war to end all wars" that led to a bigger war, partially because of the lingering resentments over the way the war ended.