Public health in post-war Germany

The Perils of Peace The Public Health Crisis in Occupied GermanyThis blog post was contributed by Dr Jessica Reinisch, Senior Lecturer in European History in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Her new book, The Perils of Peace: The public health Crisis in Germany under Allied Occupation is published today.

The Anglo-American occupation of Germany is today often held up as the example of how to occupy a defeated country and has featured in debates about the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time, however, the Allies’ attempts to run Germany hardly seemed to be a cause for celebration or self-congratulation. Much of the hygiene infrastructure had been destroyed and the population was in a state of disintegration, exhaustion and uncertainty. The country was divided into four occupation zones, one for each of the four powers of Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and France, who pursued different policies and different objectives – soon to be at odds with each other. It was at the centre of the new Cold War division.

During the war German public health was a secondary consideration, an unaffordable and undeserved luxury. Once fighting ceased and occupation duties began, however, panics about epidemics turned ‘public health’ into a principal concern. It was became an indispensable part of their attempts to create order and keep the population governable. Later on, public health work provided a means (sometimes intentional, sometimes not) to return former Nazis into positions of influence. Public health was the crucible for decisions on how the defeated population should be treated, whether and how Nazism could be eradicated, and who should, and who could be, sought out among the Germans as collaborators and helpers.

On World Refugee Day (launched by the UN in 2000 to raise awareness of refugees and their plight across the globe) I want to consider the place of refugees as an important sub-plot in the story of the Allied occupation: a persistent, unavoidable and weighty one. Why? By the time the occupiers moved into their zones of Germany, the continent was already in the grip of one of the biggest (in the aggregate) population movements of the century. By some estimates over 60 million Europeans were moved involuntarily from their homes during the war and its aftermath. They included many different types of ‘refugee’: former slave labourers, concentration camp survivors, survivors of pogroms, evacuees, deportees, prisoners of war, expellees, as well as growing numbers of people fleeing from territories under Red Army control.

Germany was geographically and politically central to this movement. To the occupiers refugees represented multiple threats:

  • As obstacles on the roads and transport arteries they threatened to impede the movement of troops, military supplies and, later, occupation forces going into and out of the battlefields.
  • As potential disease carriers they threatened to carry infectious diseases to every corner of the globe. Memories of the influenza, cholera and typhus epidemics after the First World War provoked a real panic. In hindsight this proved to be largely unfounded. But the mass of displaced and dislocated people did contribute to two other health concerns: malnutrition and starvation; and rocketing rates of venereal diseases.
  • Anxieties about the refugees’ threat of civil unrest were also partly born out. In Germany, liberated slave labourers (who soon received the label ‘DP’, for Displaced Person) were known to seek revenge on their former masters, or to try to get ‘compensation in kind’ by stealing livestock, food and belongings. The occupation armies increasingly saw the DPs as a menace and tended to side with the local German population. Around 8 million of these DPs had to be repatriated to their home countries, which brought its own problems, as a significant number refused to go home to countries now under Soviet control. Some were sent home against their will, while others benefitted from the new Cold War divisions and found refuge in Western European countries or the United States.

Perhaps an even bigger headache for the occupiers was presented by the roughly 15 million ethnic Germans, whose expulsion from their homes in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia was often accompanied by outbursts of revenge and violence; possibly as many as 2 million may have died en route to Germany. (These numbers are still fiercely contested). Many of the others arrived in poor physical states and with no means of support.

In 1945, the treatment of these different kinds of refugees was determined above all by whether they were Axis or Allied nationals, and in which post-war and (and, soon, Cold War) sphere of influence they resided. German and non-German refugees were entitled to different levels and kinds of international protection. Inside Germany each occupier also had differing resources, policies and methods of dealing with them.

Out of this chaos came the universalising ambition of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (passed in 1951 and coming into force in 1954). It set out who was a ‘refugee’ (and who could not be, such as war criminals), as well as their rights, and the responsibilities of signatory states concerning their protection. It enshrined the principle of ‘non-refoulement’, that is, it prescribed that no refugees should be returned to any country where they faced a real risk of persecution.

It was a document based primarily on the experiences of Europeans, just at a time when Europe no longer was the main source of refugees. In practice the Convention has been applied to the rest of the world, particularly once the addition of the 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions, attempting to make it truly universal. However, today – 68 years since the end of the last world war, and 62 years since the Refugee Convention – the premise of universalism is being eroded. Earlier this year, Australia, a founding signatory, removed itself from the migration zone to deter asylum seekers arriving by boat; other countries have faced significant internal political pressure to do so. At the very least this is a sad reminder that international mechanisms are only effective as long as its members choose to abide by them.

Dr Jessica Reinisch was a recipient of the Wellcome Trust’s New Investigator Awards. Her new project, entitled ‘Reluctant Internationalists: A History of Public Health and International Organisations, Movements and Experts in Twentieth Century Europe’, will begin in September 2013.

[Homepage slider image credit: Deutsche Fotothek. “Muttertagsfeier im Unrralager”]

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Günter Guillaume: East Germany’s most famous spy

This post was contributed by Dr Eckard Michels, from the Department of European Cultures and Languages.

The Guillaume affair is one of the most well-known political scandals and Günter Guillaume is certainly the most famous spy in German history. His arrest as an East German Stasi agent in April 1974, after having worked for more than 18 months as a close aide to the first Social Democratic Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt, resulted in the resignation of the latter two weeks later. Guillaume and his wife Christel, who was also a Stasi agent, had moved from East Berlin to West Germany in 1956 with a Stasi brief to infiltrate the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Guillaume made a career as a party functionary in Frankfurt. With Social Democratic take-over in 1969 in Bonn, Guillaume joined the ranks of the Bundeskanzleramt as a desk officer, initially responsible for contact with the trade unions. In 1972, he received a further promotion to become one of Willy Brandt’s three personal assistants.

In 1981, after seven years in West German prisons, the couple returned to the GDR in exchange for West Germans who had been held in GDR custody. After 25 years of absence, the two former spies adapted with difficulty to life in the country for which they had spied.

This astonishing story has already inspired the arts in Germany and Britain, not least with Michael Frayn’s highly successful 2003 theatre play Democracy.

However, historians so far have turned a blind eye to this case, not least due to the lack of available primary sources. But more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, enough material from the Stasi files has come up to write this story from the East German perspective, in particular Guillaume’s recruitment by the Stasi and his passing of secret information from West Germany to his spy masters in East Berlin. Additionally, the German Freedom of Information Act of 2006 now empowers historians to request the release of secret files from (West) German government institutions, i.e. material which, due to its secret character, has not yet been handed over to the archives. Thus, I was the first historian to have requested and been granted access to the secret files of the Bundeskanzleramt, the German Cabinet Office, for which Guillaume had worked from 1970 to 1974. This enabled me to thoroughly investigate the West German side of the story, in particular how Guillaume was able to join the ranks of the Bundeskanzleramt even though there had already been doubts about his reliability in 1969/70, his work for Willy Brandt and his access or non-access to sensible information about  the West German government.

Because this prominent case has generated so much material, archival sources, autobiographical accounts of the protagonists and very dense contemporary media coverage, it is perfectly suited to explore the personal dimension of Cold War espionage between the two Germanys.

In my forthcoming book, I have investigated patterns of recruitment for the Stasi and the original motivation of the Guillaume couple to work as spies for the Communist GDR. I have also assessed to what extent the environment in the West, changing personal circumstances and pure “Eigensinn” (Alf Luedkte) affected the intelligence performance of Günter and Christel Guillaume in the eyes of the East German spy masters. I question the alleged superiority of the Stasi and other Communist intelligence services in “human intelligence” over its Western adversaries, in particular the West German Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service). My biographical study, spanning from the early 1950s to the early 1990s, looks at how individuals experienced espionage and tried to make sense of their intelligence activities, be it as active Stasi spies, convicts in West German prisons, celebrated heroes in the GDR after their release or impoverished Stasi pensioners after German unification in 1990. Thus the book is at the same time an inter-German migration and mentality study at a micro level which reaches beyond the confines of mere intelligence history at “grass roots”.

Guillaume, der Spion: Eine deutsch-deutsche Karriere (Guillaume, the spy: A Career between the two Germanys), by Eckard Michels, will be published in February 2013 by the Christoph Links publishing house, Berlin.  There will be a book launch on 8 March 2013 from 6pm to 8 pm in the Keynes Library at 43 Gordon Square, London.

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