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Crossman and Germany

You can’t sympathise because you have no idea what it was like”: Crossman’s first visit to Germany

Richard Crossman’s initial experiences of Germany were varied and informed both by international events and his travels around the country. He visited Germany for the first time not long before beginning his Fellowship, in the period from 1930 to 1931, and his letters home provide the best way of reconstructing his early thoughts on German life, society and culture. On 14 May 1931, for example, he told his mother that he found Hamburg ‘rather a nice town’ with a lovely cathedral.1 In later letters, he expressed his opinion on topics as diverse as the German university system (‘it seems to me an excellent system, as it allows the student freedom of choice of subject’)2 and German views on English literature (‘they think English … stiff and unpoetical and wonder how or if any real beautiful poetry can be written by an Englishman’).3

In addition, these letters also contain several meditations by Crossman on German war-guilt and on the rise of Nazism. As someone too young to fight (he was only eleven by the time of the Armistice in 1918) Crossman feels sufficiently detached from the events to observe that, in Germany:

20 times greater sufferings [in comparison to England] have turned the people into either terrific fanatics, rabid idealists or into completely resigned cynics, and cynicism in Germany means in some cases brutality. It is this background of sheer suffering … which haunts as you talk. You can’t sympathise because you have no idea what it was like … I just don’t feel worthy to be so lucky, and God knows we are quite seared enough by War.4

That sense of detachment as a way of producing sympathy becomes important in his later relations with the country.

Returning to Germany in 1934, Crossman was able to witness the Nazi consolidation of power first hand (reporting on it through a series of BBC talks). The difference of time and events, while not exactly removing his original sympathy, had certainly succeeded in altering some of his earlier views. Although he is initially intrigued by the Nazi state and its various ‘intrigues’, he soon comes to express his contempt for the methods employed by the regime (even if he cannot quite divorce himself from his academic curiosity).

A lack of “common experience”: Crossman’s visit in 1945

When Crossman toured the defeated and ruined Germany with the Allied Psychological Warfare Division in 1945, he found himself in a country with which he had experienced a strange relationship: it was a place to which he, as a propagandist, had been broadcasting since 1941, but in which he had not set foot since 1934. In his official diary of the trip, a record of his thoughts on the effectiveness of the current psychological warfare policy and the role that it might play in rebuilding Germany, he argues that propaganda needed to remain objective and obey the same rules of ‘non-fraternisation, aloofness, correctness’ as the ground troops.

The sympathy which he had experienced before the war had not entirely disappeared, but was now subordinated to, and refracted through, this policy of non-fraternisation. ‘So far’ he writes on 8 May 1945 (the day the war in Europe formally ended and two days into his trip) ‘I have not spoken to a German.’5 Indeed, occasionally his emotional detachment might almost be said to verge on callousness; after a poetic description of the ruins of Darmstadt (‘exquisite pink against the blue sky, with long vistas not only along the streets but through the houses’) he compared the ruined city to Pompeii and commented drily that ‘if the Germans have any sense they will make Darmstadt a tourist centre and leave it untouched’.6 Likewise, Frankfurt, a city in which he had spent some time during his first visit to Germany in 1930, was ‘so destroyed that you don’t feel particularly upset because it isn’t the same place’.7 His reaction to Dachau concentration camp most clearly illustrates the way in which Crossman understood the semantic distinction between empathy and horror: ‘Looking at [the inmates] one realised how little horror has to do with sympathy. Sympathy demands some common experience’.8

Interestingly, there were two notably grey areas during this visit when Crossman felt obliged to drop his aloofness; both of which involved opponents of Nazism. The first is visit he paid to the house of ‘Mrs A’ – a ‘notorious anti-Nazi’ – who had harboured socialist refugees and circulated anti-Nazi propaganda,9 the other is a conversation he had with Karl Jaspers, professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg.10 Crossman deliberately sought out the latter in part to discuss how German ‘liberals’ could go about rebuilding Germany, but also to ask him why individuals like him had not engaged in more substantial forms of resistance against the Nazi government. Jaspers’ response was that such actions would be ‘tantamount to suicide’ and thus could not ‘be demanded of a man by his fellow men as a duty’.11 Crossman records his belief that Germany could only be re-built if intellectuals such as Jaspers were permitted the freedom to circulate pamphlets and discuss new ideas, while on the subject of ‘Mrs A’ argues that ‘it is difficult to say how we can do anything constructive in Germany if we are to apply non-fraternisation rigidly to them as we do to the Nazis’.12

The difference between these two is considerable: not only is one a university professor and the other a housewife but, whereas Mrs A feels a profound sense of war-guilt, Jaspers does not (even if he does begrudgingly argue that other Germans should be confronted with it). Crossman regards them both as central to building a new Germany, precisely because both are able – in his view – to turn their back on the past whilst learning lessons from it.

Yet these are isolated cases. In general, the closest Crossman comes to outright sympathy for Germany comes at the end of his trip when he sees an Allied solider ‘peddling captured German revolvers, cameras and other valuables’: ‘One doesn’t object to the spoils of war’ he writes ‘but a blackmarketeer in spoils of war on an aerodrome miles behind the front, seems wrong. But no one else seemed to mind.’13

At the end of his journal, he argues that Germany ‘is not a dying nation’. Instead, he feels that it is almost in a better position than Britain to rebuild; its rural population is well-fed and happy and it has the technological knowledge to reconstruct not only its cities but its economy. ‘This is a people’, he writes, ‘which, unless we physical destroy it by starving all Germany this winter and turning it into a national Dachau, has the vitality to recover within a decade’.14 (This latter point was particularly prescient given the so-called Wirtschaftswunder, or ‘economic miracle’, in which West Germany experienced an economic boom and high prosperity during the 1950s.) His response is to assert that ‘the only two alternatives which can prevent another war’ are the ‘destruction or complete reorientation’ of Germany, of which he regarded the creation of a social democratic and demilitarised state as a necessary prerequisite.15

However, his most blunt statement of the problem arguably came on the day of Germany’s surrender (8th May 1945). As may befit a philosopher, he posed it in the terms of a bleak ethical dilemma:

[The German people] are going to starve this winter. If these children are starved and die, then you can say that Germany has been totally defeated. But if we prevent that happening, then Germany, provided we don’t divide her up, will again become the most powerful nation in Europe.16

Post-war Germany: rearmament and keeping the peace

After his initial, intuitive response, Crossman increasingly tried to involve himself in the debate about what should be done about Germany, especially through parliamentary speeches and broadcasts. This debate was certainly one on which the Allied forces (who were largely seen as the occupiers, as opposed to the liberators, of Germany) had conflicting messages and were far from being united.

The key difficulty seems to be the inability of those living at the time to analyse the situation with hindsight. It could never have been predicted by Crossman or by his contemporaries that neither German militarism nor fascism was to re-merge (at least in a form that posed a significant threat to European stability) in the period after 1945; nor could it have been known that Germany was to take a central role in the political and economic integration of Europe after 1950. Indeed, Crossman’s original belief that the future of the children ‘who crowd every German village today’ could only be guaranteed by the ‘reconstruction of German social, political and economic life, designed to create an unarmed social service state, whose politics is based on an alliance of the social democrats with the Left-wing of the Catholics’ was only partially accurate17 – German rebuilding was, in fact, largely undertaken by a devout Catholic centrist, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, and his centre-right coalition.

Yet the divisions between the Allied forces went much deeper and were affected by the rising tensions of the period now referred to as the Cold War. If Germany was to be used as a defensive bulwark against the spread of Communism, then it would necessitate treating Germany as an equal ally and providing it with the means of defending itself. By contrast, if the objective were to isolate Germany in order to force it to engage in an act of penance, then that would effectively mean opening the doors to negotiation between Germany and the Soviet Union. This not only produced uncertainty and disunity (for Germans as much as for the citizens of the Allied states) but might culminate, as Crossman inaccurately feared, in a failure to adequately integrate and contain German rearmament, leaving Adenauer’s government free to ‘negotiate with the Russians, as Hitler did in 1939’.18

From a person who ‘formerly loved’ Germany, this may seem a startling thing to say, but he was merely echoing a paranoia and distrust which permeated public discourse (in Britain and elsewhere) during the period, and frequently expressed itself in anti-German sentiment. Ben Parkin, one of Crossman’s fellow Labour MPs, warned in a pamphlet published in March 1954 by the left-wing foreign policy pressure group ‘Union of Democratic Control’, that ‘unless the British and French governments now withhold their necessary assent to these measures [of rearmament], Western Germany will assume military sovereignty, and will openly complete a chain of clandestine preparations which had begun even before the surrender in 1945’.19

Such conspiracy theories were, of course, precisely that. One difference between Crossman and some of his contemporaries seems to be his understanding of the problems from the inside (which was undoubtedly the result of his role during the war). He deplored the disunity between the various nations who had some form of interest in Germany and feared that, as with psychological warfare, unity was necessary for survival.20

Crossman argued that the ultimate aim of a united Germany could only be achieved in a piecemeal fashion over the course of several decades and his approach at least seems to have been pragmatic, which might not be said so easily for his political peers. Labour was divided over the issue, as were many other social democratic political parties across Western Europe. In particular, the Party was unsure whether or not to support the European Defence Community (a short-lived proposal from 1952-1953 to create a European army).21 Once this became untenable, and any hope of salvaging the EDC became impossible, Crossman asserted that NATO needed to look again at Germany and consider how far it might be integrated within it as a vital element of Cold War tactics.22

This belief was stated most bluntly, and possibly with most alarm, in one of his Commons speeches from the late 1950s: unless the West was prepared to engage with Germany ‘the Russian psychological warfare in Western Germany will soon begin to achieve solid successes’.23 In the same speech he also echoed arguments which may have sprung from his experience in wartime propganda: ‘Western democracies have stored up for themselves a genuine fund of good will in the Federal Republic [West Germany]. But … that fund of good will is not inexhaustible.’24 This theme of Germany as a sort of ‘split-personality’ (simultaneously both an ally and an enemy) which needed to be brought in from the cold was also returned to repeatedly in his broadcasts throughout the 1950s.

Yet divisions within Labour remained – despite Crossman’s assertions, there was no really coherent ‘view on this side of the House’ 25 – especially as the divide over NATO and nuclear weapons intensified over the course of the decade. In a policy document drawn up for the Labour Party in May 1956, Crossman argued that ‘startling changes in the world situation since 1953 require a radical re-thinking of the Party’s present foreign policy’ most particularly in respect to Germany.26 He produced a draft declaration to be placed before the Party conference in the hope of ending the deadlock in which he tried to draw threads from each of the main factions and produce a compromise. Germany, he stated, needed to be a neutral buffer between East and West. He called for East Germany to leave the Warsaw Pact, accept re-unification, but for the new German state to remain outside of NATO. He similarly called for Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to be permitted withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, to further strengthen the ‘Central European’ buffer.27 Russia, he suggested, could be bribed into accepting German re-unification if they were offered the prospect of a delay in German re-armament.28

It was very likely the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 which convinced Crossman that the divide between East and West Germany was now effectively permanent and thus ended all his hopes of reunification. In a 1962 interview for the BBC shortly after returning from a visit to East Berlin, Crossman told his audience that he believed the wall ‘had saved the regime from total collapse’ by creating a prison state from which workers in skilled industries vital to the economy could not escape. ‘The Communists know that now they have put the wall up, they … have brought [insurrection] off’, he concluded pessimistically.29

It might be argued that as Germany increasingly became a pawn in a Cold War game, the country was also exerting an increasing influence over different aspects of Crossman’s thought (in particular, his opposition to Communism, his desire to create a strong Europe able to challenge the dominance of the USA and USSR, and his desire for British independence) whilst providing something around which they could all coalesce. Germany thus became as useful an outlet for Crossman's foreign policy ambitions as the Middle East.

Andrew Burchell, August 2012


1. MSS.154/3/FAM/97.

2. MSS.154/3/FAM/100.

3. MSS.154/3/FAM/59-60.

4. MSS.154/3/FAM/97-99.

5. MSS.154/3/AU/1/108.

6. MSS.154/3/AU/1/109.

7. MSS.154/3/AU/1/106.

8. MSS.154/3/AU/1/118.

9. MSS.154/3/AU/1/122.

10. MSS.154/3/AU/1/111-114.

11. MSS.154/3/AU/1/111-112.

12. MSS.154/3/AU/1/114, MSS.154/3/AU/1/122.

13. MSS.154/3/AU/1/122-123.

14. MSS.154/3/AU/1/124.

15. MSS.154/3/AU/1/124-125.

16. MSS.154/3/AU/1/110.

17. MSS.154/3/AU/1/126.

18. MSS.154/4/BR/6/68-71.

19. Ben Parkin, Our Nazi Ally? What German rearmament means (London, March 1954) p. 1.

20. MSS.154/4/BR/6/64-67.

21. MSS.154/4/BR/6/64-67.

22. MSS.154/4/BR/6/68-71.

23. MSS.154/3/POL/54.

24. MSS.154/3/POL/53.

25. MSS.154/3/POL/54.

26. MSS.154/3/POL/48-51.

27. MSS.154/3/POL/200-209.

28. MSS.154/3/AU/1/348.

29. MSS.154/4/BR/4/15-16.

Transcripts of Crossman's radio broadcasts on Germany are available to search.



Hamburg in 1946 [archives of Victor Gollancz, MSS.157/12/GE/2/153]

Tribune pamphlet, It need not happen: The alternative to German rearmament, 1954 [MSS.154/4/PAM/6]