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Episode 101

The Governors

In the weeks following V-E Day, the Allied powers were faced with the daunting task of governing Germany and all formerly Nazi-controlled territories. Hitler was dead, the Third Reich had fallen, and it was now up to the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France to rebuild the continent following the devastation of the war in Europe – all while the war in the Pacific continued to rage on.

Archival Audio: Throughout the world, throngs of people hailed the end of the war in Europe. It is five years and more since Hitler marched into Poland. Years of suffering and death and sacrifice. Now the war against Germany is won. A grateful nation gives thanks for victory. Hundreds of thousands crowd into American churches to give thanks to God. President Truman announced the official surrender.

“This is a solemn but glorious hour. I wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to see this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly all over Europe. For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity and into light.”

Rebecca Naomi Jones: On May 8, 1945, after nearly six years of total war, and twelve years after Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler ascended to power, the Allied forces accepted Germany’s total, unconditional surrender. More than three years of unrelenting Allied bombing left Germany decimated, and as many as 11 million people in Germany alone had been displaced from their homes.

The Allied powers faced the daunting task of governing Germany and all formerly Nazi-controlled territories. Hitler was dead, the Third Reich had fallen, and it was now up to the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France to rebuild the continent following the devastation of the war in Europe – all while the war in the Pacific continued to rage on. With Europe in ruins, the Allied nations began the work to restore systems of law, rebuild the economy, and lead the re-education of the German people.

From the American Jewish Historical Society, this is The Wreckage: Year Zero. I’m your host, Rebecca Naomi Jones. This week’s episode, The Governors, begins in the early days of the Allied occupation of Germany.

Archival Audio: After the last war, German industry was unimpaired. Today, much of it lies in ruins, and such undamaged industrial plants as are permitted to operate, will operate under Allied control. After the last war, the same state officials remained in office. Today, any Nazi is forever barred from having authority.

After the last war, the Kaiser found refuge in Holland, and anyone else who thought they were in any danger ran away. Today, proven war criminals must answer for their crimes.

After the last war, German education was untouched. Today, all Nazi doctrine has been destroyed. New textbooks prepared for German youth. Under our direction, not the German. After the last war, this small area of Germany was occupied. Today, every square inch is under the authority of Allied troops. At the end of the last war, this was the government of Germany.

Today, this is the government. We have come to Germany not as liberators, but as conquerors. And this time we shall remain, for ten years, for twenty, if necessary forever.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Joining us is Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld, professor of history at Fairfield University, president of the Center for Jewish History, and author of The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: The Allies, especially the United States military government, they face a very bleak situation in the spring and early summer of 1945. Germany is absolutely devastated. Keep in mind, 35 million people have been killed all across Europe, 6 million people in Germany, including a ton of civilians have been killed.

There are probably 12 million expellees that have been removed from Czechoslovakia, Poland. They’re flooding throughout Western and Eastern Germany. German cities are devastated to a tune of 50%, 75%, ruined, uninhabitable in many respects. Needless to say, the economy is absolutely shot. And one of the main things that was a concern for Dwight Eisenhower and American military forces from the outset was the possibility that the war, even though it was ended on May 8th, 1945, it was going to continue in the form of insurgency attacks by werewolf troops and other former unrepentant Nazi officers, SS men, and the like.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Adding to fears of an insurgency was the reality that millions of former Nazi party members remained in Germany, and occupying Allied forces and Holocaust survivors would be forced to live and work alongside some of the very same perpetrators who had aided in the murder of 6 million Jews and more than 5 million others.

Combined, the four Allied nations had three and a half million occupying soldiers in German territory: a ratio of roughly one soldier for every 40 German civilians.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: And to put that in perspective, when you think about the war in Iraq back in 2003 when the United States military only had about 150,000 troops with other coalition forces in a country that was, at that point in time, 25 million, that’s a ratio of about one soldier for two hundred inhabitants. So one of the things that never actually happened, which is fascinating, is that there was no insurgency of any magnitude; whereas, as we know, in Iraq, it was months and months, if not years, of IED attacks, sniper attacks, and so forth. And that made the occupation of Iraq a very, very different story from the occupation of early postwar Germany.

Archival Audio: Until such time as Germany could reshape her own destiny, she would be divided into separate zones of occupation, each controlled by an allied power, American, British, French, Russian. Economically, she would be treated as a whole. This the victors had agreed when they had met to decide the future of Germany.

Even then, some had reservations about mutual trust. But a world war just over, they had to trust one another. Or else begin another war. For Berlin, it was to be each power with its sector. But a city open to all the powers, until Berlin would again assume her role as the capital of a new German state.

Berlin lay a hundred miles deep in the Soviet occupation zone, but was not part of it. Access to the city for the other powers was agreed over certain roads, railways, and three air corridors. Makeshift, perhaps. But then it was never meant to be permanent.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: So, already, in February of 1945, at the Yalta Conference, the four Allied powers decided that they would occupy Germany once the war was over in four occupation zones: French, British, American, and Soviet. Those were later confirmed at the Potsdam Conference in August of ’45.

One of the ironies, of course, is that the reason why Roosevelt, in February, wanted to create those occupation zones is there was a fear that the Soviet Red Army might actually take a huge chunk of Germany, if not its entirety, and that—to make sure that Western forces had a say in postwar Germany’s occupation and reconstruction—that the zones should be identified in advance. One of the problems, of course, is that American forces actually pushed much further east, actually into Czechoslovakia, and they had to withdraw at the end of the war to make room for Soviet occupying forces in what’s today the Czech Republic, which shouldn’t have had to happen if things had been not set in advance, and Roosevelt was later criticized for that in the early years of the Cold War.

But for the next four years, Germany is going to be non-existent as a country. It’ll essentially be four independent occupation zones that were supposed to decide everything in collaborative fashion. The problem, though, is that all the four powers—each of them are going to begin looking after their own interests pretty soon after the war is over. And before long, this will be one of the main reasons why the Cold War breaks out.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: As plans to deal with a postwar Germany began in 1944, Henry Morgenthau Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury under President Roosevelt, and the first Jew in U.S. history to be in the line of succession to the presidency, took on an increasingly important role in American foreign policy. Morgenthau, who was best known for designing and working to finance FDR’s New Deal, had a personal interest in the plight of Jewish refugees: his parents were German immigrants who came to the United States as children, and his father was one of the first public figures to denounce what would later become known as the Armenian Genocide.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: Henry Morgenthau came from a very illustrious New York family descended from German Jews. His father, Henry Morgenthau Sr., had been the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under the administration of Woodrow Wilson. And so he grew up—Henry Morgenthau Jr. did—in a family of considerable means, and was friends with FDR from early on. And in 1934, he was appointed Secretary of the Treasury, a post that he held until 1945. And, he being of German-Jewish descent, once he got further knowledge of the events that today we call the Holocaust—once he became more aware of that and was increasingly involved in planning for Germany’s postwar occupation, he shared the view of the Society for the Prevention of World War III and other scholars at the time – that there was a very straight line from Luther to Hitler, and you couldn’t eradicate the authoritarian tendencies of the German people.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Established in 1944, the Society for the Prevention of World War III counted writers Rex Stout, Booth Tarkington, and William Shire among its original members. The Society was born out of the Writers’ War Board, a domestic propaganda organization that Stout had established at the request of Morgenthau’s Treasury department.

The Treasury Department, which was one of the largest wings of the federal government, was home to a host of, quote “Morgenthau Boys,” unquote, many of whom were Jewish and left-leaning. Men like Bernard Bernstein, a colonel and financial advisor to Eisenhower during World War II, held a particular interest in decartelization, which would see Germany transition from an economy controlled by a monopoly of large businesses to a free market economy.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: So in 1944, he hatched a plan, later known as the Morgenthau Plan, to really prevent Germany from ever waging war again. And it was an entirely punitive plan that essentially wanted to rewind the hands of time and turn Germany back from being Europe’s leading industrial, technologically advanced power to being an agrarian society. So deindustrialization was one of the planks of the Morgenthau Plan. Denazification, partition—Germany was supposed to be subdivided again into a northern and southern German state. Germany was basically to be turned back, not exactly to the Stone Age, but to a pre-modern state. And this would be the way for the industrial complex that gave rise to German militarism back in the 18th and 19th centuries—here we’re talking about the coal mines and steel mills of the Ruhr—those were all to be laid silent, and Germany was never going to be able to threaten world peace ever again.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: There were a number of high ranking officials in the State Department and beyond who were concerned that a left-leaning economic plan would play right into the hands of the Soviets, leaving Germany vulnerable to full Communist takeover.

But the Society advocated for harsh treatment of postwar Germany, believing that this would be necessary to remove any future threats that Germany would ever again become a militaristic dictatorship.In addition to writers like Stout and Shire, the Society for the Prevention of World War III found support from figures like scientist Albert Einstein, financier James Warburg, and later, former first lady and United Nations delegate Eleanor Roosevelt.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: They were very much convinced of a certain line of argumentation about German history, which was that it was in the German people’s national character to be authoritarian, uh, and that the only way that Germany, uh, and the world at large would have any hope in the future of peace was to make sure that Germany was punished once and for all, unlike as from, as they believe, from their perspective, uh, unlike what happened after World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles let the Germans off with a slap on a wrist, and set the stage for World War II, after 1945, the thought was, uh, we have to make sure the Germans learn their lesson.

They can’t be trusted, they have been authoritarians ever since Martin Luther, if not even further back into antiquity, uh, and therefore, a very hard Peace has to be embraced. The Society for the Prevention of World War Three viewed their perspective as a virtuous one, to preserve peace at least in the western world going forward.

And they lobbied FDR. They had support in the Treasury Department, led by Henry Morgenthau. And there is some evidence that in fact they were effective at swaying Roosevelt’s views because at the same time the State Department was pushing for a soft piece for their own reasons. And Roosevelt who had spent time earlier in his life, living in Germany and himself, was not very fond of the German people and had very little trust in their Democratic bonafides.

He was sympathetic to this line of argumentation.
Rebecca Naomi Jones: Swayed by their close relationship, President Roosevelt approved Morgenthau’s plan and convinced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to do the same, much to the frustration of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who was one of the most vocal government officials to oppose the plan.

After President Roosevelt’s shocking death in April 1945, President Truman sided with Stimson, believing that Morgenthau’s plan was motivated by vengeance, and would only serve to perpetuate the widespread starvation of the German people. Infighting and accusations that Morgenthau was seeking to enact revenge on behalf of the Jewish people plagued the administration.

Ultimately, a new document was drafted, and on July 21, 1945, at the request of Truman, Henry Morgenthau Jr. resigned after more than eleven years as Secretary of the Treasury.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: Very famously, in 1945, there was a decree, a directive called JCS 1067, which was the Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067, that basically was a watered-down version of the Morgenthau Plan. Once again, it was meant to very much punish Germany’s civilian population for the crimes of the Nazis. So denazification, deindustrialization, demilitarization, decartelization—all these things were aspects of JCS 1067, but they didn’t go so far as to actually turn the clock of time back and turn Germany into an agrarian, early modern or medieval state.

That said, it became pretty clear early on that JCS 1067 was a dead end insofar as it gave the German population very little hope in the future. Keep in mind that in the year 1945, to the winter of ’46, into early ‘46-’47, Germany’s economy remained devastated. The winter of ‘46-’47 was the coldest in a hundred years. You’ve got five hundred thousand Germans starving to death in the winter of ‘46 into early ‘47, and you have riots over food shortages. The average calorie intake for Germans is set at 1200 calories, but in certain cases, in certain places, it was between 750 and 1000. And a lot of American officials under the military governor Lucius Clay started to realize that this could be a recipe for political instability and maybe even support among the German civilian population for Soviet Communism.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Concerns over Communist influence in Germany continued to increase, and after nearly two years under JCS 1067, Europe still struggled with economic instability and turmoil. In 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall appealed to President Truman to appeal JCS 1067, in favor of a new plan that finally eliminated nearly all aspects of the Morgenthau Plan.

In response, the remaining Morgenthau Boys all resigned.

Dr. Gavriel Rosenfeld: Already in 1946, you have the Secretary of State, James Byrnes, who starts to move towards a more reconstructionist occupation policy that, in ’47, was sort of solidified with a new Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1779 that officially puts the Germans in control of their own future. It gives them a lifeline, if you will.

And this is all done against the backdrop of the intensifying Cold War. There’s a lot of reasons why the Cold War began already in 1946, but certainly, both parties—the United States and the Western allies to be or in the making—had their own agenda. The Soviet Union certainly had theirs as well. But both sides fell out over their unwillingness to actually hold to the terms of the Potsdam Accords of August 1945.

To give you a couple of examples, already in 1945-’46, the Soviets were extracting far more reparations from the East German zone than they were entitled to. They were literally dismantling hundreds of factories, transporting them back to the Soviet Union, and reassembling them there in excess of what they were supposed to be able to carry back. So that was already a sign of bad faith from the Western perspective. From the Soviet perspective, it was a bad sign that American and British forces were already starting to collaborate with one another in treating their two zones—the British and American zones—as a unified zone in contravention of what the Potsdam Accords had said, which is that all four Allied powers had to always agree on any changes that occupied Germany was to be subjected to. So on January 1, 1947, a new zone was established called Bizonia, which was a fusion of the British and American zones. There are all kinds of economic reasons for that, but that raised hackles among Soviet leaders.

And so both sides start drifting apart from each other. And there’s an argument that it was probably inevitable because without a common enemy of Nazi Germany uniting them any longer, both sides—the Soviets and the Americans—were going to pursue their own spheres of interest in occupied Europe.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: On April 3, 1948, President Truman signed the Economic Recovery Act, better known as the Marshall Plan. This new plan, which was in place through 1951, was designed to provide aid to Western Europe in hopes that economic recovery and American influence would prevent the spread of Soviet influence in Europe.

The Soviet Union in turn developed its own recovery act, the Molotov Plan, and Cold War tensions continued to escalate. While West Germany’s economy would largely recover by 1955 and its Allied occupation ended, it wasn’t until October 1990 that the Soviet Union would relinquish control of East Germany, reuniting the nation for the first time since the end of World War II.

As for Morgenthau, he continued to be an advocate for Jewish refugees in the years following the war, and became chairman of the philanthropic organization United Jewish Appeal in the late 1940s. He passed away in 1967, at the age of 75.

Archival Audio: These are some of the reasons why the German farmer and the German mailman and the German cop can’t be quite like the people back home. That’s why we’ve got to look a little deeper into the German character. The character of a people who plunged the world into two wars in one generation. And each time claimed that they were victims of attack.

That’s the puzzle we’ve got to solve if we’re to save our children from a third war. The puzzle of that clean, industrious people. Fond of kids. Fond of music. Fond of tyranny. Fond of aggression. Fond of gas chambers.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: From the American Jewish Historical Society, I’m Rebecca Naomi Jones. This episode was written by executive director Gemma R. Birnbaum. Recording, sound design, and mixing were done at Sound Lounge. Archival material is courtesy of the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society, the U.S. National Archives, and Pond5.

For episode transcripts, additional resources, and links to the collections featured in this episode, visit ajhs.org/podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others discover our series.

About this Episode

In the weeks following V-E Day, the Allied powers were faced with the daunting task of governing Germany and all formerly Nazi-controlled territories. Hitler was dead, the Third Reich had fallen, and it was now up to the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and France to rebuild the continent following the devastation of the war in Europe – all while the war in the Pacific continued to rage on. With Europe in ruins, the Allied nations began the work to restore systems of law, rebuild the economy, and lead the re-education of the German people.

This week’s episode, narrated by our incredible host Rebecca Naomi Jones and featuring historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, serves as the launch of The Wreckage, a long history of the Cold War told through the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society and the individuals contained within our archives. This season, subtitled Year Zero, explores the ways that Jewish Americans mobilized in the aftermath of World War II, and how the relationship between the once reluctant Allies – the United States and the Soviet Union – quickly turned contentious.

Contained within our archives are stories about heroes, and it is through this podcast that we’ll explore the Jewish American aid workers, politicians, rabbis, scientists, soldiers, and activists who worked to repair a war-torn world in the face of extraordinary loss.The Wreckage is not merely about the damage done, but about the resilience of the human spirit.

Topics Covered in this Episode

V-E Day: May 8, 1945 Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and the Morgenthau Plan The Marshall Plan The Society for the Prevention of World War III Allied occupation of Germany The early beginnings of the Cold War

Featured Historian

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is President of the Center for Jewish History in New York City and Professor of History at Fairfield University. His areas of specialization include the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, memory studies, and counterfactual history. He is the author of numerous books, including the new co-edited volume (with Janet Ward), Fascism in America: Past and Present (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2023), The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), Building after Auschwitz: Jewish Architecture and the Memory of the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), and Munich and Memory: Architecture, Monuments and the Legacy of the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). He is the editor of What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the co-editor of Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). He is an editor at the Journal of Holocaust Research and edits the blog, The Counterfactual History Review. 

Related AJHS Collections

United Jewish Appeal (UJA Federation of NY)
Dr. Deborah Dash Moore “GI Jews” Research Papers
National Jewish Welfare Board, Army-Navy Division Records
Morgenthau Family Genealogy

Episode Acknowledgments

Sincere thanks to Rebecca Naomi Jones, Gavriel Rosenfeld, Nina Schreiber, Daniel Jason Ain, Schuyler Roos, Marshall Grupp, Rob Sayers, Matt Smith, Jennean Farmer, Melanie Meyers, Rebeca Miller, Megan Scauri, and Tamar Zeffren.

Written By: Gemma R. Birnbaum, AJHS Executive Director
Sound Design and Mixing: Sound Lounge, NYC
Graphics: Nick Pomeroy, Background
Website: Eric Holter, Cuberis

Top Image: Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) collection I-363