The British post-war occupation of Germany and the relevance of the past to the present

13th July 2018 in Archives Centre

Archives By-Fellowship report by Dr Christopher Knowles

 

Christopher Knowles

Returning to Cambridge as Archives By-Fellow at Churchill for the Easter term, 2018, over forty years since I graduated in history, in 1974, at another, older college, was an extraordinary experience, far more challenging and rewarding than I had expected. Towards the end of a career in telecommunications, computing and Information Technology, I had returned to academic life and completed a PhD at Kings College London as a mature student in 2014. Since then I had published a book based on the PhD and a second book, a jointly edited collection written by scholars from around the world, was also complete and ready for publication in August 2018. I started my term as Archives By-Fellow unsure of what I wanted to do next, not knowing which of many possible avenues to pursue further and with no firm plan of work, apart from continuing to research personal papers from the unrivalled collection at the Churchill Archives Centre, and taking the opportunity to pursue my second academic interest: exploring the relevance of the past to the present.

When I was an undergraduate, Churchill was a new college, on the edge of the city. Forty years on the buildings are listed, and the whole site is characterised by the uncompromising, horizontal, flat-roofed, practical and eminently rational style of the 1960s, in the same way that the courtyards in some of the older colleges are characterised by their classical facades or exuberant, highly decorated, medieval or Victorian architecture. My wife and I were fortunate to be allocated a lovely two bedroomed first-floor apartment in the Sheppard Flats at Churchill, with doors from the living room opening out onto a large, private terrace with views across the grounds. All twenty flats in the block had been carefully designed by the architect, Richard Sheppard, so that none were overlooked by the others. This was my opportunity to re-experience life in the 1960s, I thought, back to the future and the white heat of technology.

I had committed to work on two projects as Archives By-Fellow. The first was fairly straightforward: to continue to study the papers of some of the most important and interesting people who played a significant role in my chosen area of research: the British occupation of Germany after the Second World War. I had researched some individuals earlier, during my PhD research. The papers of Harold Ingrams and Austen Albu, who both played a significant role in restoring democracy in post-war Germany, had provided a fascinating insight into their personal background, their motivation and how their thinking developed. I now had the opportunity to explore other significant individuals, who had been based in London rather than in Germany. No longer having to waste time travelling, I could take my seat in the archives reading room soon after 9am, and work systematically through the papers of John Burns Hynd, Minister for Germany from October 1945 to April 1947. I was gradually able to build a detailed, well-substantiated picture of a particular, international socialist strand of British attitudes towards Germany, represented by Hynd, that was surprisingly influential after the war and different from that of other, more prominent members of the Labour government, such as Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, or Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton. Most remarkably, I was able to meet and talk to Hynd’s daughter, Sheila Youngs, who had donated his papers to the archive. I concluded with an impression of a deeply humane man, who held firmly to his principles and worked throughout his career to foster international understanding and good relations between different countries.

Other surprises in the archives, which provided perhaps minor, but novel and revealing insights into the period, included the papers of Godfrey French, Chief of Staff to the British naval commander in occupied Germany, George Leggett who acted as interpreter for the Polish delegation at the Potsdam conference in July and August 1945, and Michael Zvegintzov, a remarkably well-connected White Russian émigré, who had escaped as a young man with his family after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, settled in Britain, obtained a scholarship to study chemistry at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1927, and in 1944 was appointed deputy director of the Chemicals Branch of the British Control Commission for Germany. Ernest Bevin’s papers, on the other hand, were remarkable for their almost complete omission of anything to do with British post-war policy in occupied Germany, apart from his public statements and official speeches in Parliament. This tended to confirm my suspicion that these were mostly written by his Foreign Office officials, rather than representing his own considered personal views.

My second project as Archives By-Fellow was to research and write three case studies, each providing a practical example of the contribution that historical evidence and a historical perspective can make to help resolve present-day policy dilemmas. These were intended to build on an earlier series of twelve case studies, published on the History & Policy web site, that I had researched and written in 2015-6. While the earlier series highlighted how historians who engaged with public policy-making were able to contribute to the process in different ways, I now wished to present the perspective of the policy maker, rather than that of the historian. I soon realised that my status as Archives By-Fellow at a Cambridge college allowed me to approach and secure interviews with people at a much higher level than I would have been able to achieve otherwise. Colleagues at the Churchill Archives Centre, and elsewhere in the university, notably at CSaP, the Centre for Science and Policy, were extraordinarily generous in making introductions to senior government officials, who were willing to speak openly about the contribution that they believed a greater understanding of history could make to public policy making. The interviews took me into new and often challenging areas, including the historical perceptions of global statesmen, the infrastructure required to support self-driving autonomous electric vehicles, Britain’s relationship with the European Union, the problems of welfare to work, and most challenging of all, the impact of IVF and new reproductive technologies on society, family and personal identities. In all cases, it was clear that understanding what happened in the past was essential to gain a full appreciation of the relevant factors and of the possible options to address contemporary issues. At the end of my by-fellowship I have now accumulated a substantial set of data, but it will take many weeks, if not months, to make sense of it all, follow-up as appropriate, and write up the case studies, which in due course will be published on the Churchill Archives Centre web site.

Having the opportunity to be Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge for one term, and take full part in college life, was a great privilege. I am left with a lasting impression of the high quality of research undertaken at the university and at Churchill in particular, the number of exceptionally talented individuals from across the world coming together to work in their specialist fields, the dedication of academics and staff at the Archives Centre, at the college and the university. Most stimulating of all was the openness and enthusiasm with which people were prepared to discuss their research and its wider implications. Having completed my term as By-Fellow, I now face the challenge of doing the same and of working out how best to communicate the results of my own work to a wider audience.

Dr Christopher Knowles completed his PhD as a mature student at Kings College London 2014. He is the author of Winning the Peace: The British in Occupied Germany, 1945-1948 (Bloomsbury, 2017) and a jointly edited collection Transforming Occupation in the Western Zones of Germany (Bloomsbury 2018).

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