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Learning from Defeat. The French Occupation of Germany after two World Wars

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In 1945, at the end of more than thirty years of violent conflict and occupation in Western Europe, France and Germany were on the verge of a new occupation. This time, France returned to south-west Germany, but this would prove to be the last occupation between the two countries. In 1955, at the occupation’s end, the foundations were laid for a united Europe anchored in the economic collaboration of the member states of the European Coal and Steel Community, with France and West Germany at its heart.

Why did the long history of violent conflict between the two countries end with this last occupation? Historians searching for reasons to explain the end of this cycle of violence have pointed to the French policies in occupied Germany, to common institutions, and to the efforts of French intellectuals acting as mediators between France and Germany. Most of the studies on Europeanization or Western integration, with France and Germany at the center, begin in 1945 and tell a teleological story of reconciliation. The occupation is seen as a first step towards the institutionalized French and German state friendship, culminating in the Elysée Treaty.

My dissertation offers a new explanation for the end of the cycle of violence between France and Germany, arguing that the dual defeat of France and Germany in 1945 was necessary to end the long history of conflict. In other words, the rapprochement of the post-1945 era can only be explained by the entangled histories of French and German occupations since 1914. Only at the moment when France and Germany were vanquished did they begin to reflect on the causes of this catastrophic defeat.

The legacy of this dark pre-history hovered over the French occupation of Germany. The first chapter addresses the presence of former Vichy administrators in high positions of the French occupation administration. Morally tainted by their allegiance to Pétain’s state, they could not remain in their positions in France, but they had the experience to govern a country and they had already collaborated with the Germans. These administrators were thus dispatched to the French occupation zone to build up and control a freshly defeated Germany, working in an amalgam with seasoned resisters. The presence of tainted Vichy administrators in the French administration led to a more lenient denazification strategy in occupied Germany.

In the second chapter, I show how past experiences with violent conflict fed into expectations about continued violence during the upcoming occupation of Germany. The French army and administration expected a German resistance similar to their own resistance against the German occupation during World War II. This chapter illustrates that experiences with former occupations could be misleading – with serious consequences: harsh reprisals for incidents perceived as German resistance were reminiscent of a wartime, rather than a peacetime, occupation and thus prolonged the war well into the period after May 8, 1945. The French experience with resistance thus actually hindered a reconciliation between France and Germany. What would become the last occupation between the two countries was therefore not just the beginning of a peaceful period of reconciliation, but rather the last violent episode in a longer history of mutual wars and occupations since at least 1914. This chapter also demonstrates how members of the occupying forces used the expectation of German resistance for their own ends: to prolong their stay in a peaceful Germany.

Postwar Germans also viewed French rule after 1945 in the light of previous occupations, as the third chapter demonstrates. While there was no active resistance against the allied troops, three groups of Germans feared persecution due to their “collaboration” with the French occupying forces: German administrators helping to implement French orders, German women having relationships with French soldiers, and so-called “neo-separatists” trying to revive the separatist movement of the interwar period. The post-1945 occupation also aimed at correcting past mistakes. The French army and administration therefore sought to avoid a nationalist backlash against them, as had happened in the interwar period when the occupation army had supported the separatists. After 1945, the French army and administration were therefore reluctant to support those “neo-separatists” and tacitly accepted a revived German nationalism in opposition to the separatist movement.

Finally, the French army and administration tried to avoid the impression that they subjected postwar Germans to colonial rule. Chapter four argues that in 1945, the French army and administration did not revert to colonial ruling strategies or the employment of colonial troops precisely because of their experience in the 1920s. The French army thus purged their ranks of colonial soldiers twice, in 1944 of sub-Saharan troops and in 1946/47 of the remaining colonial soldiers from North Africa. The French administration also sought to eliminate “colonial” behavior by the members of the French occupying forces in Germany. Allies and Germans alike referenced alleged colonial rule within Europe in an attempt to criticize and delegitimize French rule in Germany. Instead of drawing references to the French colonial empire, the orientation of French rule in Germany after 1945 was exclusively European, and in particular Franco-German. The long history of mutual French and German conflicts thus remained the frame of reference for historical learning, not the colonial empire.

My dissertation contributes to the historiography of postwar Europe by studying transfers of experience from one occupation to the next. It puts the history of the emergence of European integration in a longue durée perspective and helps us to understand the importance of learning from the past for political decision making in the present.

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This item is under embargo until April 28, 2024.