International Cultural Exchange in Occupied West Germany

A key aspect we address in our tripartite project, which focuses on cultural exchange through translation between French-, German- and English-language journals, is how cultures reconnect with each other after periods of conflict. At the end of the Second World War, Western Germany was occupied by the French, British and Americans, who belonged to the coalition of Allied Forces that had opposed the Nazi dictatorship. Responsible for different regions, these forces determined which cultural artefacts (e.g. newspapers, books and magazines) appeared in the regions under their control, and what kinds of content and message was conveyed by them. In our project we have been looking, for instance, at Die Umschau [The Survey] which was published in Mainz, a region under French military control and ran from 1946 to 1948. This magazine explicitly drew on French journals such as La Revue Internationale [The International Review], Les Nouvelles Littéraires [Literary News], Les Temps Modernes [Modern Times] and the Revue de Paris [The Parisian Review] for the material it subsequently published in German translation, although material by Anglophone writers could also be found in the pages of Die Umschau. Issues of the magazine included articles on the current political climate and on developments in the arts. Above all it addressed the sense of uprootedness many intellectuals felt, but stressed the responsibility they carried to remain politically, socially, and culturally engaged in the wake of war.

What was life like in occupied Germany under the French military government? This is the focus of the current exhibition at the Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer [Historical Museum of the Palatinate, Speyer], with the title Rendezvous. Frankreichs Militär in der Pfalz, 1945-1999Rendezvous. France’s Military in the Palatinate, 1945-1999. The area known as the Pfalz, or “Palatinate”, which borders on the French region of Alsace, had already been occupied by the French following the First World War. Conversely, parts of France were occupied by German forces from June 1940 until shortly before the end of the Second World War. By May 1945 French troops, supported by the US military, had entered the southern Palatinate with the aim of reaching the Rhine. This river was strategically important, as crossing it would accelerate Allied troop movements into southern Germany. A pontoon bridge constructed to span the Rhine at the town of Germersheim was inspected personally by General Charles de Gaulle on 7th April 1945.

While the Allied victory at the end of the Second World War freed Germans from living under national socialism, for many this felt more like a defeat than a liberation. Initially, the French military government was particularly distrustful of Germany. This, coupled with the dire economic situation evident in the poor housing conditions and food shortages of the immediate post-war period, made the early phase of the occupation a source of tension. Distinctions between the occupiers and the occupied were clear in everyday life. As contemporary photographs in the exhibition show, even into the late 1960s French soldiers were only allowed out into the towns and villages surrounding their bases in the Palatinate, if they were dressed in military uniform. Increasingly, though, cross-border initiatives such as sporting events and Franco-German twin-town associations saw the development of cordial exchanges between the regions. The last French troops withdrew from the Palatinate in 1999.

Some of the themes reflected in the Rendezvous exhibition in Speyer resonate through Die Umschau: the startlingly different backgrounds of those forced together by war, the significance of film, theatre, and popular music as a means of escape from hardship, and above all the importance of hope as the nations of Europe tried to chart a course towards reconstruction. In one of its 1947 issues, Die Umschau carried an article by the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht on the democratisation of opera to reflect the needs of the greater public, and an extract (in translation) from the American playwright Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which relates the story of a fictional small town through the everyday lives of its citizens. From reading Die Umschau, it becomes clear that war had brought about a global sense of disorientation. The questions it raised were intended to make readers think about their role in the construction of the cultural and political life of a post-war Europe.

The gradual return to the everyday, the need to involve German citizens in the processes that were slowly beginning to shape the culture of a new Europe: these are some of the themes that we will also be examining in a bilingual Anglo-German exhibition run as part of our own research project. This exhibition which will be held from 6th May to 19th June 2022 at the Tourismus-, Kultur- und Besucherzentrum Weißenburger Tor, in Germersheim. The exhibition is free and open to the public from 10 am each day, and has disabled access.

Alison E. Martin

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