U.S. troops arriving in Germany found starvation, looting, chaos, and utter devastation. So they threw out the rule book.

The Germans called it Stunde Null—zero hour. The Americans called it V-E Day. On May 8, 1945, more than two million GIs on German soil rejoiced that the fighting had ended.

Yet in official reports as well as unofficial letters and diaries, the end of the war in Germany was also called “chaos” and “utter destruction.” When the American soldiers awoke from their celebratory hangovers on May 9, they found a Germany in far worse condition than anyone had expected or planned for. In the first months of occupation, the U.S. Army faced the threat of mass starvation of German civilians, rampant criminality, a destroyed infrastructure, and millions of homeless refugees. By any standard, it was one of the most arduous challenges ever taken on by the United States Army.

For two and a half years, a special British and American staff under the Supreme Allied Headquarters had worked to develop a detailed plan on how to manage the victory when it finally came. By late 1944 the staff had prepared an occupation manual for commanders that covered everything from setting up new local governments to eradicating Nazi influence from the arts and overseeing youth activities. A large economic staff was being assembled to oversee the destruction of the German arms industry and return the country to a civilian economy.

In 1944 the Allies agreed to divide Germany into Soviet, British, and American occupation zones, with the Soviets controlling eastern Germany and the British and Americans the west. In western Germany the British would take over the north, excepting an American enclave around Bremen, and the United States would govern the south—the states of Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Hesse. A small sector in southwest Germany was carved out for the French. Berlin was divided into four zones, each run by one of the major occupying powers.

The American zone nominally had a population of nineteen million, but that number failed to account for the millions of slave laborers brought into Germany to serve the Nazi war machine, as well as the droves of German refugees who had fled from the advance of the Russian armies. In May 1945 the U.S. Army had to cope with not only millions of Wehrmacht prisoners but also three million hungry slave laborers in their zone. The existing plans and relief organizations were simply overwhelmed by the scale of this immediate crisis.

Detailed plans also went awry. Many of the specifics in the occupation manual had to be thrown out the window when a key assumption they depended on vanished into thin air. Planners had confidently predicted that the American forces would take over a zone that contained a functioning civil government and infrastructure. In fact, German local and state government had completely collapsed as the Allies advanced into the country. Lt. Gen. Lucius Clay, appointed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to head the military government of Germany, remarked, “The concept of finding and utilizing working ministries had ceased to have reality.” The 12,000 personnel of the military government would have to take complete charge of a zone with over twenty million people.

Furthermore, the state of German cities and larger towns was far worse than even the most pessimistic planner had imagined. The transportation network was completely broken, with more than 700 of western Germany’s major bridges destroyed. All major rail yards were in ruins, and essential services such as water and electricity were mostly shut down. The larger cities in the U.S. Zone were largely rubble. In Bremerhaven 30 percent of the housing was in ruins—and that was one of the more fortunate cities. In Frankfurt and Munich more than 60 percent of the housing had been destroyed or damaged. Within the U.S. Zone only Heidelberg was relatively untouched.

The first problem the U.S. Army faced, and one that was anticipated, was looting. After the Allied armies crossed the Rhine and the Nazi state collapsed, German civilians, having lived for years under strict rationing, raced to plunder unguarded stores and warehouses. One woman in a Rhineland town recalled joining a mob breaking into a warehouse and fighting with normally placid neighbors to get a share of the loot—which turned out to be a huge stock of doorknobs.

In other cities the looting turned to rioting as thousands of foreign slave laborers, freed after years of bondage, joined in. Eager for revenge, and fueled by alcohol ransacked from shops and bars, the laborers attacked Germans and set fires.

When American troops entered Salzwedel in April 1945, the situation was already out of hand. A mob of Serbian workers had found a railcar full of industrial methyl alcohol and ignored warnings that the liquid was poisonous. After drinking the tank car dry, the workers went on a rampage.

American troops entering the town had to use armored cars, shots in the air, and their rifle butts to force the Serbs back into their camp, where many died from poisoning that night. Similar scenes were reported all over Germany.

But this kind of initial disorder was quickly quelled by American forces. On entering towns, the U.S. Army imposed strict curfews, put up a maximum show of force, fired plenty of warning shots—as well as a few aimed shots—and swiftly cleared the streets. Small teams of the U.S. military government took control of the town or city after it was secured.

The longer-term challenge was what to do with the seven and a half million foreign slave laborers. In the U.S. Zone there were three million of these “displaced persons,” or DPs. The largest group were the Russians, but Allied forces also encountered large numbers of Frenchmen, Belgians, Italians, Yugoslavians, and others from virtually every country that Germany had occupied. The Nazis had housed them in thousands of camps and barracks hastily erected beside almost every major factory and fed and clothed them just enough to keep them working.

The U.S. Army provided these liberated Allied nationals with rations and American uniforms to replace their rags. But soon their looting and crime threatened to reemerge in a more stubborn and chronic form. In the cities and larger towns, the mostly Russian DPs were still partly held in check by the presence of American troops. Out in the villages and rural areas, where American soldiers were scarce, it was another story. Bands made up of as many as thirty DPs, armed with discarded Wehrmacht weapons, roamed the countryside ransacking farms and villages for food and valuables and sometimes murdering civilians. In the months after the end of the war, DP crime was endemic in the U.S. Zone, and the frightened rural Germans coined a new term for the crime wave: Der Russenplage, “the Russian plague”—not an unfair description, though there were plenty of Poles, Balts, and other Eastern Europeans who made up the criminal gangs too.

Small towns were unsafe even for U.S. Army troops in the summer of 1945. One American captain recalled later that because he often encountered wandering groups of DPs in the rural areas, he and his sergeant always were fully armed when in these parts. He had several confrontations with Russian gangs who were ready to steal his jeep—until the guns came out.

The army’s response was a massive effort to transport DPs to their home countries as quickly as possible. The first groups to be sent home were the French (600,000), Belgians (150,000), and Italians (340,000). By late May more than 10,000 DPs a day were being routed through the main transport center in Metz, France. Next to go were the Russians, most of whom were rounded up and sent to the Soviet Zone in eastern Germany. From there, many were immediately transported to serve a long term in the gulags in Siberia for the “crime” of having surrendered to the Germans. By the end of July 1945 over a million Russian nationals had been removed from the U.S. Zone.

Although most DPs had been sent home by August 1945, the U.S. Zone still contained 600,000 who had refused repatriation. These included Poles, citizens of the Baltic States annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, and thousands of Eastern European Jews liberated from the concentration camps who wanted to emigrate to Palestine. At least 40,000 Russians had evaded the efforts to repatriate them and remained at large. Eisenhower took the only practical course and employed whole U.S. Army divisions to round up thousands of DPs and put them back, under guard, into camps.

The symbolism of returning the Nazis’ victims to the very camps they had just been liberated from was too much for American public opinion to tolerate. In vain the army scrambled to point out that its engineers had greatly improved the camps, providing proper sanitation and heating; in vain it noted that the food rations allotted to each DP were double those provided each German civilian. The American press screamed with headlines about the U.S. Army operating new concentration camps in Germany. Much of the newspaper coverage was fueled by a report from Earl Harrison, the U.S. representative to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, who briefly visited Germany and then attacked army policies upon his return.

So the military government found it had no choice but to loosen its controls on DPs and allow them greater freedom to leave the camps. Once again crime spiked as DPs revived their looting expeditions. Some camps turned into wholesale black market centers.“They issued passes every afternoon for a group of DPs to visit the town,” said one exasperated American major at a camp in Aachen. “The DPs would leave camp with empty baskets and briefcases and return at night loaded down like camels with all manner of goods.”

In September 1945 an army report listed “depredations by displaced persons” as the greatest threat to order. In Bavaria more than a thousand criminal acts by DPs were reported in a single week in October 1945. Not just German civilians but the U.S. Army itself became a target. Theft of army supplies from depots and railcars became epidemic. More than 2 percent of the army’s entire supply inventory disappeared each month.

With Germany still not under effective control, the military government took a dramatic step. The German police, which had been completely disarmed in May 1945, were supplied with M1 carbines by the U.S. Army in August and authorized to use deadly force against Germans and DPs. Some of the Polish DPs were armed and organized into guard companies. New German guard units were formed from men who had just been discharged as Wehrmacht prisoners. These Polish and German guards were posted to secure the depots and transport lines. By the end of the year the American forces had begun organizing a new German border police force as well.

But the crime and disorder continued unchecked. So finally, in October 1945, Eisenhower ordered the creation of an elite U.S. Army paramilitary force to crack down on the chronic lawlessness. Heavily armed, highly mobile, 38,000 strong, the U.S. Constabulary was made up of handpicked men recruited from the army’s cavalry and armored units.

Known as the “Circle C Cowboys” for their shoulder patch with a large C, they at once showed they meant business. When deployed in mid-1946, the constabulary forces carried out a series of large paramilitary operations against crime and black marketing in the DP camps and banditry by DP packs in the countryside. By late 1946 the constabulary and the new German security units finally brought the crime problem under control.

The U.S. military government encountered other problems as serious as disorder and crime. With basic infrastructure destroyed, Germans faced disease and starvation unless quick action was taken. U.S. Army engineers set a head-spinning pace repairing the war damage. They built hundreds of temporary bridges, restored waterworks, and got power plants running. By September 1945, just four months after V-E Day, 96 percent of the rail lines were functioning again. Germany’s waterways, all of which had been shut in May by hundreds of sunken vessels, were cleared and opened for navigation by the fall.

Two events in the summer of 1945 had been crucial to this reconstruction surge. In July the Allied leaders met at Potsdam near Berlin. Arriving in the German capital, President Harry Truman had a brief glimpse of the suffering of the German civilians, and it moved him deeply. He later wrote, “A more depressing sight than that of the ruined buildings was the long, never-ending procession of old men, women and children, wandering aimlessly along the autobahn and the country roads carrying, pushing, or pulling what was left of their belongings. In that two hour period I saw evidence of a great world tragedy.”

At a time when the overwhelming opinion in the United States was to treat the Germans as ruthless enemies and enforce a Carthaginian peace, Truman saw the Germans as a beaten people in desperate need. After seeing the shocking reality of Europe, Truman was ready to accept the unpopular requests from Generals Eisenhower and Clay to provide more aid to the Germans. One can say the Marshall Plan was born at Potsdam.

The other event that helped Germany was the end of the war in the Pacific. The U.S. Army had originally planned to move its divisions in Europe to the Pacific Theater—along with all of their equipment—to join in the invasion of Japan. But with the invasion canceled and most divisions in Germany slated for rapid demobilization, the American priority was to use limited shipping space to get the troops home.

So divisions set to demobilize left behind vast quantities of surplus equipment and supplies, which were quickly turned over to the Germans. The German telephone system was largely rebuilt with leftover U.S. Army signal equipment. General Clay arranged for surplus office equipment, construction tools, and other supplies to handed over to the newly formed German state governments with a promise they would be paid for some time in the future. The transfer of thousands of army railcars and locomotives got the German rail system working again, and a grant of 12,500 surplus army trucks allowed German businesses to get back into operation.

With the demands for food stretched far beyond what could be supplied for very long with handouts of GI rations, the U.S. Army made an all-out effort to get in the harvest in 1945. In June over 400,000 Wehrmacht POWs were organized into work companies and deployed to harvest the crops as U.S. Army truck companies were mobilized to transport food from the countryside to the cities. Luckily the 1945 harvest was a good one, and by winter the German civilian’s normal ration was up to 1,550 calories a day. Consisting mostly of grain and potatoes, it still wasn’t a truly adequate diet, but it was enough to sustain the population until things got better.

Other humanitarian measures instituted by General Clay’s military government also played a vital part in securing the peace. The original policy directive establishing the American military government had been drafted late in the Roosevelt administration, and it laid out a harsh program of deindustrialization, reparations, and tight controls. It paid little attention to rebuilding the society and economy. Clay recognized that had it been implemented to the letter it would have left Germany permanently ruined and incapable ever of sustaining itself.

But Clay and some of his imaginative officers found an escape clause that allowed deviations from official policy in cases where “disease and unrest” threatened American forces. Washington’s plan, for example, called for shutting all German universities for two years after the war. But Edward Hartshorne, the army civil affairs officer who headed the military government’s education division, argued that Germany’s recovery couldn’t wait that long. Hartshorne was a distinguished scholar, a Ph.D. who spoke fluent German and was personally dedicated to restoring the brilliant German academic tradition that had been tarnished by the Nazis. Claiming that trained medical personnel were needed at once to prevent disease outbreaks, he used the loophole to reopen ten universities and technical schools by October 1945. Hartshorne, one of the many anonymous heroes of the occupation, worked himself to exhaustion in the summer of 1945 as he personally reviewed every faculty member of every university to weed out Nazis.

Meanwhile, the military government’s state education teams, run by professional educators in uniform, worked around the clock in the summer of 1945 to find non-Nazi teachers and school facilities and supplies. In a matter of weeks they arranged for millions of new, non-Nazi textbooks to be printed. In October the schools reopened. True, there was a shortage of teachers, and many of the schools were in temporary facilities. But German children were off the streets and back to a normal routine. The high rate of juvenile delinquency declined sharply.

Arguably the most effective work of the occupation planners was their compilation of the “white list,” a roster of five thousand distinguished German politicians, scholars, businessmen, and civic leaders known for their opposition to the Nazi regime. At the top of the list was a former lord mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, who had been deposed in 1933 for his opposition to the Nazis and had served time in a Gestapo jail cell. Adenauer and others on the list played leading roles in building a democratic German government between 1945 and 1949.

In states and cities across Germany the military government drew from the white list to appoint mayors, state governors, and local councilmen. The biggest challenge faced by these new German governments was yet another refugee crisis. Even as the DPs were being sent home, ten million German refugees who had fled the Soviet advance into eastern Germany or been driven out of their homes in Czechoslovakia and Poland came flooding in. By the end of 1945 more than four million German refugees threatened to inundate the U.S. Zone. Few refugees had more than a suitcase of clothes or family treasures. One typical refugee, a woman whose husband was either dead or in a Russian POW camp, appealed to the Bremerhaven city council in July 1945: “I am a woman with three children (6–11) and came here from eastern Germany in July after five months of hard travel. We are living in an attic with no electricity, no running water, no kitchen. Our furniture is one table, one chair, and four cots. Can you please find us something better?”

Despite extensive destruction of the cities, the new German local governments managed to find shelter for the refugees. Many were crowded into undamaged homes; others were housed in former Wehrmacht barracks or in the camps the Russian DPs had vacated. (Refugee camps remained a feature of German life into the 1950s.) The German authorities appealed to the more fortunate—basically those whose houses still stood—to donate furniture and clothing for the homeless. Despite shortages of almost everything, enough was collected to get the refugees through the first winter of occupation.

General Clay and the military government were the original cold warriors who understood that if Germany were not quickly rebuilt and civic life restored, the nation would likely fall under the Communist system being imposed in the eastern zone, or even revert to Nazi ideology. On its own initiative, the military government encouraged Germans to form political parties, but under careful supervision to prevent Nazi influence. In a memo, Clay argued that “if a genuine German democracy is to be developed, it must come from the German people themselves.” The military government licensed the first postwar German newspaper in July 1945, and it was soon followed by dozens more. Book publishing began and hundreds of cinemas and theaters were opened by the fall. Normal life slowly returned.

The first phase of the American occupation came to a close in January 1946 when elections for local councils were held throughout the U.S. Zone. These were the first elections held in postwar Germany, and despite all the negative predictions about the German character, the majority of Germans readily took to democracy, as evidenced by the impressive turnout. Local elections were quickly followed by city and state elections, and the political parties that would dominate German politics for the next five decades emerged with the Christian Democrats, led by Adenauer, becoming the largest party in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, and the Social Democrats becoming the top party in Hesse.

During the first months of the occupation of Germany, Eisenhower, Clay, and the military government were relentlessly lambasted by the American press for “incompetent occupation policies.” Colonel Hartshorne’s program to reopen the universities generated a storm of criticism in the American press, which reported a string of rumors and exaggerations depicting the universities being returned to the hands of former Nazis. Other articles criticized the army for “coddling” the Germans.

Yet General Clay and his small band of American civil affairs officers generally ignored the criticism, kept their heads down, and forged ahead. The unsung heroes of the military government carried it off through a combination of decisive action, some good planning (especially in creating the white list), idealistic and competent leadership–and a careful working around of some bad policies set in Washington.


Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here