ISH Home
Europe at War:
Postwar Europe:
1945 and after
Rebuilding Europe:
Unifying Europe:
European Union
Further reading

Post-war Europe:
Germany 1945-50

What was the impact of War on Germany?  


The total defeat of May 1945 has often been described as the “Stunde Null” (zero hour) of German history, a phrase which hints at both the psychological difficulty of confronting the moral bankruptcy of Hitler’s War, and at the need to look forward. Approximately 7 million Germans had been killed; millions more were injured and traumatised.

An estimated 11 million German soldiers were in captivity in May 1945, which, added to the shortage of men due to military casualties, led to a marked imbalance of the sexes. The traditional female roles espoused by Nazi propaganda were a fading memory as women worked to support fatherless families. Whole cities had been reduced to rubble, leaving their populations homeless. Normal economic relations had broken down; factories lacked fuel and raw materials, transport systems were wrecked, cigarettes replaced money as currency. Labour had first to be directed to clearing the rubble and providing temporary housing. Agricultural production also fell leading to widespread hunger and malnutrition. The resources of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Allied military were directed at ensuring bare survival.

The social dislocation was enormous. Amid the collapsed infrastructure millions tried to make their way home; refugees, foreign workers, and released prisoners all had to be provided for. Into this confusion poured Germans expelled from the East. 


The expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, 1945

Image AP - Washington Post

“The Three Governments (US, UK, Soviet Union), having considered the question in all its aspects, recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken. They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner’. Article 13, Potsdam Agreement

“Of the roughly 12 million Germans who in 1944 were living in territory that was soon to become part of Poland, an estimated six million fled or were evacuated before the advancing Red Army reached them. Of the remainder, up to 1.1 million died, 3.6 million were expelled by the Poles, a further million were designated as Poles, and 300,000 remained regardless. Thousands starved and froze to death while being expelled in slow and ill-equipped trainsS. Green et al, The Politics of the New Germany, Routledge, Abingdon, 2008, p.13

“We have decided that we have to liquidate the German problem in our Republic once and for all” Czechoslovak President Benes, speech, 12/05/45, Brno, quoted in After the Reich, G. MacDonough, Murray, London, 2007, p.128.

“Stragglers were beaten with truncheons and whips and those who failed to get up were shot and their bodies stripped and plundered.” Description of the forced expulsion of ethnic Germans from Brno, Czechoslovakia, 1945, MacDonough, After the Reich, p139.

Which, if any, of the following statements justify these acts of ‘ethnic cleansing’?

  • History showed it was necessary to create ethnically homogenous nation states.

  • The German minorities were potentially troublesome traitors.

  • Transferring German property to the people of Eastern Europe was compensation for their suffering.

  • The German minorities deserved to be punished for Nazi atrocities.

  • Spontaneous expulsions were happening already. Governments could only attempt to regulate this process.

  • Expulsions would prevent future ethnic conflict.

In October 2009 the Czech Republic was granted an opt out of the fundamental EU rights charter enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon. President Vaclav Klaus was attempting to shield the Czech Republic from property claims made by ethnic Germans expelled from the country after the second world war. The Guardian



 “In certain instances we have fallen below standard, but I should like to point out that a whole Army has been faced with the intricate problems of readjusting from combat to mass repatriation, and then to the present static phase with its unique welfare problems. Anticipating this phase, I have fostered since before D-day the development of UNRRA so that persons of professional competence in that organization might take over greater responsibilities, and release our combat men and officers from this most difficult work.”

US General Eisenhower, letter to President Truman in response to criticisms of the military’s handling of refugees and concentration camp survivors, 8th October, 1945. source:

  • General Eisenhower refers to ‘intricate problems’. List the problems faced by the authorities in Germany in 1945.
  • Which would you say were the priorities?

The Four Zones

As far as the Western Allies were concerned, the joke ran around that the Americans had been given the scenery, the French the vines, and the British the ruins.” G. MacDonough, p.1

(Left) Map of post War Germany showing the 4 zones of Allied occupation.

 The pale yellow areas show former German territories allocated to Poland and the Soviet Union. The Saar region in the South West was administered as a French Protectorate until 1957. Berlin, entirely within the Soviet zone was itself divided into 4 sectors.


How did Germany become divided into separate states?

When the Allies met again at Potsdam in July-August 1945 they set out their immediate objectives regarding Germany, including denazification, demilitarisation and democratisation. They also agreed that although political power in Germany would be decentralised, it would be treated as a single economic unit. However, in 1949, West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany – FRG) and East Germany (the German Democratic Republic – GDR) were established as separate states.

The process of denazification aimed to identify and punish Nazis, to re-educate German people, and by removing the ideology of Nazism, establish a basis for democracy. The most prominent aspect of this process were the Nuremberg Trials of those leading Nazis who had been captured at the end of the War. The Trials resulted in several death sentences; others received life imprisonment. The Trials produced a thorough documentation of Nazi crimes, they established a principle of individual responsibility even when the accused claimed to be following orders, and they set before the German people the nature of the crimes committed in their name. Even so, the Trials were criticised as an example of ‘victors’ justice’ carried out for the purpose of revenge. The presence among the prosecutors of officials from the Soviet Union, a country responsible for comparable crimes, further undermined the process.

The Allies each attempted to identify and punish Nazis in their zones. However, this process ran into practical difficulties largely due to the scale of the task. There were approximately 8 million Nazi Party members by the end of the War so it would not be possible to punish Germans simply for being Nazis. However, attempts to distinguish degrees of guilt among such a large group would be a difficult, time-consuming task.  As attention turned to the problems of reconstruction it became necessary to engage competent administrators among the population. After 12 years of Nazism it was inevitable that people with the required experience were often ex-Nazis and so zealous denazification was replaced by turning a pragmatic blind eye.

In the Soviet analysis, Nazism was a result of “capitalist self-interest in a moment of crisis. Accordingly, the Soviet authorities paid little attention to the distinctively racist side of Nazism, and its genocidal outcome, and instead focused their arrests...on businessmen, tainted officials, teachers and others responsible for advancing the interests of the social class purportedly standing behind Hitler.” (T. Judt, Post War, p.59) This dismantling of capitalism set the Soviet zone on a different path from the western zones where Britain, America and France would nurture the reconstruction of a market economy. 

The Allies originally planned to maintain a united Germany, but mutual suspicion, in particular Soviet anxiety at facing a permanent 3:1 majority of Western Powers, led to the decision to give supreme authority in each zone to its military commander rather than to any joint governmental organisation. France also opposed moves to re-establish a unified German state and so vetoed the creation of centralised German administrative departments. All the Allies were united in their determination to prevent a return to Nazism. Political organisation was decentralised in a Federal system that allocated greater power to the individual German states (Länder). However, political renewal in Germany was hampered by the Allies differing interpretations of ‘democracy’. To the British and Americans, it was preferable to offer Germans the prospect of improvement through their own democratic political engagement rather than risk alienating Germans by prolonging military rule. Non-Nazi parties were encouraged to re-form and participate in elections. In the East, the Soviet Union’s authority rested on the exercise of power and less on the development of consent. Emerging political parties were soon abolished and power consolidated in the hands of the Communists. Stalin’s heavy handed approach in the East had the beneficial effect for the Western Allies of undermining support for Communist politicians in the West.

The Allies had agreed to treat Germany as a single economic unit. However, each would be allowed to extract reparations from their zone. In recognition of the greater damage suffered by the Soviet Union, 10% of reparations from the western zones would be given to the Soviets. Despite the agreements, therefore, each zone was in fact being treated as a separate economic entity. The Soviets set about dismantling factories and removing machinery, initiating the enduring economic disparity between East and West Germany. For the Americans and British the issue of extracting reparations was of less concern than the economic burden of supporting their zones.  In 1946, food shortages were so acute in Britain that bread rationing was introduced, a measure that had not been necessary during the War itself. Meanwhile, the UK tax payer was subsidising food imports to the British Zone in Germany.  In these circumstances, British and American attention turned to plans for making their zones economically self-sufficient.


“One thousand two hundred enterprises were hastily dismantled in a fortnight, possibly out of fear that the Allies would call a halt in favour of a systematic policy. Electricity cables and toilets were ripped out of private homes on ‘orders’ from Moscow. For the United States, it was clear that the Russians had no intention of feeding the cow they wished to milk. This was not only morally indefensible, it was bad economics too.” L. Kettenacker, Germany Since 1945, OUP, 1997, p.13.

  • What does Kettenacker mean by ‘feeding the cow they wished to milk’?

  • What similarities and differences were there in Allied policy towards Germany?

In January 1947, the British and Americans united their areas of occupation into “Bizonia”. Over the following two years Bizonia accrued further symbols of statehood, such as a central bank, a supreme court, its own currency, and the French zone was also amalgamated. The replacement of the inflated old currency with the new Deutsche Mark and the lifting of price controls introduced incentives to the economy, encouraging greater production and halted the inefficiencies of what had become a barter system. The economic divergence of the two Germanys was accelerated by the provision of massive financial aid from the US for Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union, suspicious of American motives, rejected this aid and Stalin ordered his satellite states in Eastern Europe to do the same. As capitalism was eradicated in the East, economic recovery was boosted in a West Germany restored to the international economy.

 The Marshall Plan was a scheme to provide impoverished European countries with American economic aid in the form of food, fuel, raw materials, and equipment. The plan aimed to rebuild the European economy, to restore international trade, to re-establish markets for America goods and to strengthen Europe against communism.

  • To what extent was the Marshall Plan an example of ‘enlightened self-interest’?
The status of Berlin was a further cause of tension. In June 1948, Stalin blocked access by road and rail from the western zones to West Berlin in the hope that the Western Allies would be forced to either surrender their sections of the capital or abandon their plans for a separate West German state. Instead, the Western Allies sustained West Berlin through this blockade with a massive airlift of food and supplies reinforcing its position as a Western enclave and Germany’s division deepened.
The US had again demonstrated its commitment to the security of West Germany and Western Europe and its determination to adhere to the Truman Doctrine of the containment of communism. Stalin’s actions were hardly likely to win him the allegiance of ordinary Germans and his confrontational methods contributed to the division of Germany, an outcome he claimed to oppose. This hardening of Cold War front lines made the development of a neutral, unified Germany impossible.

The Truman Doctrine was a set of American foreign policy principles announced by President Harry Truman in March 1947. The US would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”. In other words the US would contain communism as demonstrated by American support for anti-communists in Greece and Turkey in 1947 and by the determined response to the Berlin Blockade in 1948-9.


German politicians shared a reluctance to participate in the division of their country. That an alternative settlement was possible is demonstrated by the example of Austria which developed as a unified and neutral state. However, Germany was much larger than Austria and much more important to the two superpowers making the first moves in their struggle for superiority. In these circumstances, German politicians had insufficient power to influence events to their satisfaction. Konrad Adenauer (see below) and his East German counterpart,

Walter Ulbricht publicly insisted on their desire for unity but only ever on their own terms, with their political system being imposed on the other. Furthermore, as a politician closely associated with his home region in the West of Germany, Adenauer’s chances of personal electoral success would not be enhanced by the addition of several million East German votes. Disappointing results for Communist candidates in elections in Berlin and elsewhere demonstrated to Ulbricht the limited prospects of genuine democratic success for his Party in Germany as a whole.


Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967)

Adenauer began his political career representing the Catholic Centre Party and was elected Mayor of Cologne from 1917 to 1933. He was dismissed from office and twice imprisoned by the Nazis. After the War, he established a new movement, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as a party that would appeal to Protestants as well as Catholics.  Adenauer steered the CDU to the centre-right of German politics in competition with the more radically left wing Socialist Party (SPD). He formed an alliance with the Christian Social Union (CSU), a centre right Bavarian party.He achieved further prominence as Chairman of the parliamentary council which drew up the Basic Law of the new state on 23rd May 1949 and thereby established the Federal Republic of Germany.  In September 1949, at the age of 73, Konrad Adenauer was elected as the first Chancellor of West Germany.

As the stand off in Berlin continued, plans for a West German state were drawn up. Representatives of each of the West German Länder produced the Basic Law of the new state on 23rd May 1949. The Basic Law aimed to prevent any return to Nazism; checks and balances ensured that power was shared between branches of government and between the federal Länder. It committed West Germany to the protection of human rights and the right to ban anti-democratic political parties.  It was envisaged as a provisional document in anticipation of the future reunification of Germany at which point a permanent constitution could be created. The provisional nature of the legal framework reflects the politicians’ reluctance to be seen as collaborators in their country’s permanent partition and was further symbolised by the unlikely choice of the relatively small city of Bonn as the capital.

The Soviet response was to proclaim the establishment of the German Democratic Republic in their zone on the 7th October 1949. Germany was now divided into two states each claiming to represent the entire German people. Hitler had often claimed that his Germany was defending Western civilization and fighting a ‘crusade against communism’. The West German state indeed became the West’s front line against communism, facing an East German neighbour integrated into the Soviet Empire. Hitler’s defeat had removed the common cause which bound the Allies together and the Cold War saw a return to older suspicions between two hostile ideologies. The disagreements over Germany underlined the incompatibility of these two systems and the impossibility of maintaining a unified state. Neither side could accept the other’s domination of Germany and so partition became the most acceptable option.

Activity - The division of Germany 

“The immediate cause of the division of Germany lies in Stalin’s own errors in these years. In central Europe, where he would have preferred a united Germany, weak and neutral, he squandered his advantage in 1945 and in subsequent years by uncompromising rigidity and confrontational tactics.”  T. Judt, Post War, p.127

“No serious politician or author can dispute that, as a consequence of the war, the German national state became divided. By the way, not by the Communists and anti-Fascists but rather by Konrad Adenauer, according to the motto, ‘Better half of Germany, than a complete communist Germany.’ GDR Government Minister Kurt Hager, interview with Stern Magazine, April, 1987, Translation by Evron M. Kirkpatrick; World Affairs, Vol. 152, 1990.

“Ultimately, both (Adenauer and Ulbricht) chose to settle for half a cake baked to their own preferred recipe. The respective recipes had been supplied by the occupying powers.”  P. O’Dochartaigh, Germany Since 1945, p.35

“In the final analysis it should not be forgotten that ultimately the division of Germany was the legacy of an occupation that was the culmination of a war ignited by German racism, German expansionism and German tanks and guns. The primary responsibility for the division of Germany lies not in the events of 1945-9, but in the behaviour of the German people after 1933.”  P. O’Dochartaigh, Germany Since 1945, p.36 

“German leaders had been tempted to hold out for a united Germany; but the Berlin blockade removed their hesitations” N. Davies, Europe, p. 1071

“The Federal Republic of Germany emerged as much as a result of the political calculations of the Western Allied powers – the USA, the UK and France – as because of the efforts of the founding fathers of the ‘Bonn Republic’ in Germany.” S. Green et al, The Politics of the New Germany, p.22

  • Who was responsible for the division of Germany?
  • Was the division of Germany inevitable?



Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic