The Long Auf Wiedersehen: Review of The British in Westphalia (Exhibition in the Paderborn City Museum, Germany)
Good Morning Westphalia (bilingual DVD available from the LWL Medienzentrum für Westfalen) Briten in Westfalen: Beziehungen und Begegnungen 1945-2017 (accompanying essay collection, mostly in German; Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh 2017)
‘Uncomfortable’ does not adequately describe sitting in front of Humphrey Jennings’ 1946 documentary about the British-occupied zone of Germany A Defeated People, surrounded by a predominantly German audience, at the exhibition The British in Westphalia, which I visited in Paderborn in February of this year. At the beginning, a callous disembodied male voice argues for letting the local population starve (they were, in any case, subsisting on half the amount of British rations at the time). Those familiar with Jennings’ formidable and compassionate studies of the Home Front such as Fires Were Started will be quite surprised by this film’s overall very harsh commentary on the horrific conditions in postwar Germany and the need to reform and re-educate the population, though its director’s humanity is occasionally glimpsed, particularly on the subject of children. Towards the end of the film the narrator growlingly promises that the British will stay in Germany for however long it takes, regardless of how much they may hate it. The remark makes an amusing bookend to the British presence in Germany, to contrast with the regretful and affectionate messages left in the guestbook by the hordes of British and German visitors to this hugely popular exhibition, conceived in response to the imminent withdrawal of all British troops from Germany by 2020.
How did we get from the hostility of then to the congenial now? This is the overarching question which the exhibition answers comprehensively and brilliantly, charting a course from initial mutual suspicion and distrust to an ever-closer interweaving of the British forces with the local community, to the point where extracting them is clearly proving painful for both sides. The indefatigable curator, Dr. Bettina Blum, showed me around its various sections and explained that there were next to no archival sources available on the British presence in Westphalia during the Cold War era (though there are some from the immediate occupation period). Faced with this challenge, Blum, together with her energetic staff, pulled the exhibition together by issuing appeals for memorabilia, beginning with a press conference in 2015. The result is a masterclass on how to do collaborative public history in a small space. At first glance the exhibition appeared to be tiny, but it was in fact very deep: interactive film and listening stations were crammed with material, and pockets on the sides of the military moving crates which served as exhibition cases contained a wealth of interesting documentation.
While most of the exhibition is thematically conceived, it handles the immediate post-war era and its stresses at the very start. A map showing ‘Your Route to Germany’ from 1946 (on loan from the Imperial War Museum) shows the voyage that occupying soldiers took, embarking at Tilbury. The immediate post-war period was, unsurprisingly, characterised by bitterness and hatred, partly due to the requisitioning of local civilian homes for Army staff. British liaison officers played a key role in mediating between the troops and the local population from the beginning: the bowler hat belonging to one such officer was on prominent display in the exhibition. (The show, DVD and accompanying book foster a general impression that the eventual detente owed much to the style and diplomacy of this patrician cadre, who deployed them on a population already particularly susceptible to the charm of what is referred to in German as the “fine English manner.”) One of the interviewees on the accompanying bilingual DVD Good Morning Westphalia describes having to move into an outbuilding on his parents’ estate, from which he could view —and be impressed by— the social lives of the officers who inhabited the requisitioned big house, with their tea dances and card parties. (Glamour, at the time, was in short supply.)
The challenges at the beginning were great. Army housewives were terrified by the circulation of an anonymous pamphlet which observed menacingly in English that one’s home is one’s castle, while the dismantling of local industry did not make the invaders very popular either. British troops were also in an angry frame of mind. Some had been involved in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony, and others were feeling vengeful over the loss of family members in the Blitz, like one very young soldier who had signed up as a teenager and lied about his age in order to avenge the death of his little brother by ‘killing a German,’ although this murderous intention was soon defeated by a chance meeting with a local girl. (This particular bi-national family and the photographs of their children were especially popular with visitors to the exhibition). Nevertheless, there were some on whom the grim circumstances of the immediate post-war period seem to have left little impression. The diary of a huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ officer communicates a blessed unawareness: “An excellent day from every point of view in which we saw a large number of partridges.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the British military government in the immediate postwar era was the local population’s re-education in democratic values, and both the exhibition and one of the essays in the accompanying volume focus on British cultural and sport policy from 1945-1949 (football, notes the essay, was particularly important). A couple of school textbooks were on display. All the Nazi-influenced sections in one had been removed by an active pair of scissors, which left little material, while the other, published in the 1920s, contained a harassed note pasted in at the start: “Its issue does not imply that it is entirely suitable from an educational point of view…It is merely the best book which could be found in the circumstances.” The tirelessness with which the British set about democratisation and re-education in the face of truly appalling conditions was extraordinary. The establishment of the chain of cultural institutes Die Brücke, rather like the British Council but with a wider focus, was hugely successful in exposing the local population to foreign cultures, and these centres are still operating today, now run by the local authorities. Particularly intensive re-education efforts were directed at local children. According to Dr. Blum, many older visitors whose fathers were killed in the war or imprisoned in Russia reminisced about the Christmas parties for German children organised by the soldiers (the book contains an affecting picture of one of these), while the exhibition displays the facetious minutes of an officers’ discussion about having to sacrifice rations for the children’s feast.
While the number of troops stationed in Westphalia has steadily decreased since the end of the war, the experience of a German posting has been a very common one for Army personnel (and by extension for English working-class men in particular). One speaker on the DVD estimates that at least a hundred thousand people passed through Northern Germany in total. Many remained after demob and joined the civilian workforce, aided, no doubt, by the official booklet Employment in Germany. (Incidentally, the sheer range of informational booklets produced for the Forces is overwhelming.) The popular impression that the troops lived in an entirely insular manner turns out to have been wrong—it was merely that both sides were shy about officially advertising how well they were getting to know each other. In the early days, this reluctance may (on the British side) have been due to embarrassment about the total failure of the non-fraternisation order, which had to be lifted in 1945, with the first bi-national marriage taking place in 1947. In particular, no statistics on the legions of such marriages were kept, though there is a general impression that common soldiers were more likely than officers to marry Germans. In the immediate aftermath of the war, work on the bases was very attractive to local women, many of whom now had to support themselves given the dearth of men in post-war Germany. The working environment on the bases was generally felt to be pleasanter and more laid-back than that offered by local employers.
The paranoia and hothouse atmosphere of the Cold War fostered the rapid warming of Anglo-German relations —whatever British nervousness about German unpredictability might have lingered, as unforgettably captured by le Carré in his description of the British Embassy in Bonn in A Small Town in Germany: “With one….limb it holds down the past, with another it smoothes the present; while a third searches anxiously in the wet Rhenish earth to find what is buried for the future.” The friendlier attitudes expressed themselves, among other manifestations, in schoolchildren’s visits to one another’s countries: a photo album endearingly entitled Up to England chronicles a trip by German children in 1951, while there are also highly amusing host family reports on English schoolchildren’s visits to Germany (girls sweet, adorable and wonderful; boys utterly horrendous).
In addition, football, marksmanship practice, jazz clubs —featuring performances from the wonderfully-named New Orleans Bunglers—discos, pubs, and the Anglo-German Summer Festival at Bad Lippspringe with its Morris dancing demonstration, all seem to have gradually broken down the barriers. The importance of radio also cannot be underestimated. While BFBS radio (originally called BFN) was intended for the troops, it quickly acquired a large local audience determined to improve its English. The exhibition included the BFN Bulletin with the programme for Christmas 1957 — Journey Into Space, Hancock’s Half Hour, and, on Christmas Eve, Sprechen Sie Deutsch? German By Radio. Highlights from Forces radio and other recordings were featured on a nearby listening station. These included a group of Royal Engineers musically disgracing themselves in a Hameln pub, a rather startling local hit called Fraulein (about a “little Fraulein from Isar and Rhine”) by BFN broadcaster Chris Howland, and a recording of a council meeting commemorating the tenth anniversary of an Anglo-German town partnership, accompanied by an unexplained and very loud rattling of crockery which suggests that the Germans were serving tea.
The other major factor in the integration of Forces personnel into the local community was the significant historical links between Britain and Northern Germany, forged during the Seven Years’ War and the Hanoverian dynasty. (Indeed, in le Carré’s novel a bumptious German official relates the joke “What is the difference between an Englishman and a man from Hamburg? The man from Hamburg speaks German.”) Intriguingly, the exhibition noted that a chapel used for Anglo-German marriages after the Battle of Minden in 1759 found new use during the post-war era for at least one union. (The groom’s dress uniform and the bride’s gown were displayed.) This shared pre-war history may help to explain the enthusiasm of various towns in the region for official visits by members of the British royal family. Liaison officers were very aware of this, and insisted on town hall appearances whenever the royals came out to visit the troops: the associated pageantry did much to cement the relationship between the Army and the local population. The closeness of this connection was demonstrated with particular poignancy during the Afghanistan and Iraq deployments of troops from the bases in Germany, when locals’ alarm about the safety of ‘their’ boys was not at all contradicted by the generally critical German view of the wars, which they also shared. ‘Homecoming’ parades were extremely popular, and a mayor of Paderborn even flew to Afghanistan to check up on the soldiers from Sennelager. He was delighted to find that they had put up a PADERBORN town sign on their encampment.
It wasn’t all roses, of course. Noise pollution from vertical takeoffs at RAF Gütersloh annoyed the local population considerably, particularly when there were as many as 200 flyovers a day, while the inter-British punch-ups (predominantly English versus Scots) caused a certain amount of consternation. In 1962 a brawl between nineteen English and Scottish soldiers was reported by a newspaper on display in the exhibition with the screaming headline TOMMY ON THE LOOSE IN MINDEN. The home-made mutual alarm system between three pubs in Münster, whereby the staff would alert each other to come and help if soldiers started cutting up rough, and Out of Bounds pub signs were also featured in the exhibition. Dr. Blum observed to me that locals knew where pub-fights were likely to break out, and when I innocently remarked that they would thus be able to avoid them, she replied with a grin “—or go to them,” explaining in response to my look of astonishment that some viewed them as a source of entertainment in a place where leisure offerings were otherwise rather thin. On the whole, however, the fights were alarming to locals: Germans got caught up in pub fights, sometimes when trying to break them up, and on one particularly disgraceful occasion a local school class was attacked by squaddies.
The prodigious consumption of alcohol which led to the BAOR being nicknamed the Boozy Army on the Rhine is also evident in the larky Fines Book from an Officers’ Mess, with its fictitious misdemeanours (such as drawing a sword in the Mess with intent to kill) and alcoholic fines, usually in the form of a bottle of champagne to be shared with one’s brother officers. This aspect of Army life in the region was rather tactfully skated over by the exhibition—some analysis of why so much drinking went on (even compared with normal Army standards) would have been welcome. Another aspect that must have occasionally irritated locals was espionage, as British and Soviet military intelligence officers chased each other all over the region. This was facilitated by the British-Soviet agreement from 1946 to officially exchange liaison missions, which was originally meant to enable co-operation between occupying forces, but ended up providing excellent cover for spying in the context of the Cold War. Some of the information gathered by British military intelligence (through BRIXMIS, the British Commanders'-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany) was published in Threat: A Periodical Review of Developments in the Military Power of the Warsaw Pact, a copy of which was also on display at the exhibition.
Education and children’s experiences were a particularly strong focus of the exhibition. A film from 1965 aimed at British teachers considering the overseas teaching service is, in retrospect, hilarious, particularly when one very serious young woman asks whether she will need to take her kettle with her in order to make her morning cup of tea. The distinctive type of education that Army children receive was highlighted —with English literature, for example, focussed on Wilfred Owen and other war poets in preference to more traditional lyric poetry. The atmosphere of the schools was conveyed by some delightful school newspapers from the 1950s, one confiding that “at the moment we have one white rabbit but we hope to buy some hamsters to keep him company.”
It is rare that the visitors to an exhibition are as interesting as the show itself, but this was true here. The excited German crowds seemed chiefly animated by a spirit of affectionate curiosity (in fact, they mobbed the exhibits, making it occasionally difficult to get to them). It was certainly the noisiest exhibition that I have ever been to, and eavesdropping on a few discussions, I was startled by how many examples of “typical English humour” were detected throughout —often in contexts where the original intent was probably rather earnest. (Many Forces members would probably also be disconcerted to realise the irresistible sweetness of their dress uniforms.) The popularity of the exhibition amongst the locals can be explained not only in terms of the feared withdrawal, but also the mystery of the bases. After the requisitioned houses were restored to their owners, the new-built British settlements were closed to the public, which naturally made them highly intriguing, and there seemed to be a distinct sense that the visitors were getting a glimpse of a secret world. The pomp and circumstance aspects of the Officers’ Mess —the silver plate, the dress balls and the Coronation Menu from a commemorative banquet in 1953 (Scotch eggs and sardines on toast) were exotic and fascinating, as were the regalia of the Scouts, Brownies and St. John Ambulance. Materials on IRA terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s on British military targets in the region were pored over frowningly. Perhaps the most popular exhibit was the mockup of an officer’s living room, with standard issue Army furniture, assorted Christmas cards, and a tea service with the arrow mark. (As Dr. Blum evocatively described to me, when she started the project she did not know about the standard kit and furniture, the semi-nomadic existence, and the carpet that never fitted). The attitude of the numerous British visitors to the exhibition was mostly wistful, focussed more on the imminent loss of a familiar environment and way of life.
After viewing the exhibition, I went upstairs to partake of an excellent afternoon tea prepared by Sarah Korsikowsi, a member of the exhibition team. Cucumber sandwiches and strong PG Tips met with great enthusiasm from the mostly German attendees. While the little individual pots of clotted cream initially aroused suspicion—“this is nothing other than butter!” exclaimed one lady, peering into hers— the scones vanished rapidly once the concept had been explained, to the accompaniment of lively discussion about starting up a new Anglo-German friendship circle before it is too late.
The next day I explored the Sennelager base in the company of former liaison officer and current MoD BFG Legacy Project Co-ordinator Hugh Pierson. The enormous site was slumbering under a blanket of snow, one of those eerily placid outposts of British influence that one can meet (again) in le Carré. The only ripple on the tranquil surface was the slow trundling of a small tank down the street. The overall impression was of a place frozen in time —based on the furnishings of the Officers’ Messes and the vintage of the royal portraits on the walls, somewhere around 1977. In the NATO Mess, which had the shabby comfort of a still-inhabited country house, battered leather armchairs and a chess set awaited the return of officers from exercises, and the table was laid for a banquet. (In the ladies’ WC, a glamorous lighted makeup counter with upholstered seats is available for use during the balls that still take place.) The entrance to the NATO Mess is decorated with a strange assortment of pictures. Sennelager was originally a German military installation, and the photographs hung by German officers before the base’s capture by the British were never removed, perhaps out of neglect or humour—thus First World War spiked helmets and Nazi uniforms coexist oddly with the wooden formation signs of British units in 1945. In the smaller mess, even more bafflingly, Victorian fox-hunting prints can be admired, as if someone had attempted to endow Sennelager with the longer history of its more famous nineteenth-century counterparts in Britain. No explanation is available of these accretions, since the base has no archive of its own: the semi-nomadic existence of Army personnel means that a certain vagueness about the past hangs over the place like a gentle fog. People come, add things, and disappear again. A small Roman Catholic church has somehow acquired that authentic British ecclesiastical smell, and displays photographs of Forces personnel on pilgrimage to Lourdes. (The Anglican church is on a nearby base.) The cavernous NAAFI canteen serves Bakewell tarts while BFBS radio murmurs in the background. The overall effect of Sennelager on a weekday is strangely calm and domestic, as if, despite the military context, a more reserved and relaxed attitude takes over as soon as you walk through the gates, in contrast to the hubbub of the world outside. (My father, who worked on the base in a civilian role in the late 1960s, assures me that it was like that then too.)
After visiting the exhibition and the base, it struck me that the civilian population in Britain seems largely unaware of the seismic change facing the British Army, especially British Forces Germany, and the local population of Westphalia. ‘Traumatic’ is not too strong a word, particularly given that the withdrawal deadline —originally set for 2035— has been brought forward by fifteen years. The region is facing a significant loss of population, with emotional as well as economic fallout (some of the numerous Indian restaurants in Paderborn have already begun closing up), while the troops will be saying goodbye to a posting that has become familiar and often well-loved in military families. While writing this article, I tuned into BFBS to hear the new BFG commander announce that, contrary to hopeful rumours that have been going around the British military community, all major units, including Paderborn, Bielefeld, and Gütersloh, will be pulled out and rebased in the UK by 2020, but promises that everyone will manage to stay in touch with Germany and their German friends. The scale of the change will probably dawn on the British civilian population when the National Army Museum in London hosts its exhibition on the Cold War next year, which will also look at the end of BFG.
The original exhibition in Paderborn has now ended, but a pared-down version will tour numerous towns throughout the region up to the end of summer 2019. (The official departure will be commemorated by a public exhibition in the state parliament in Düsseldorf, to open in May 2019, which Dr. Blum is currently preparing.) Until then, visitors will be able to console themselves with Vera Lynn’s famous post-war hit Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart on the listening station, in which melancholy is swept aside by a robust choir of gloriously tuneless Tommies and the cheerful confidence of reunion.--Isabel Taylor
The author's sincere thanks are due to Dr. Bettina Blum, Mr. Hugh Pierson and Sarah Korsikowski.
Update: Following publication of this article, we heard that the MoD has reevaluated the defence situation in Europe, and that Sennelager will be staying open with 200 military personnel. About 600-700 British nationals will continue to live on the base. The decision was greeted with joy by the Paderborn local government.