Following the Allied victory in World War II, Germany faced a long road to reconstruction. The war took the lives of about 7 million Germans and destroyed much of the country’s physical infrastructure. The Allies’ occupation of Germany also disrupted German life even further. Factories were destroyed, some civilians were enslaved, and other people were forced to migrate to new areas as reparations for the immense damage the German Nazis had caused during the war.
The four Allied Powers (the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union) split the country into areas that each one would occupy, though the ultimate goal remained for the country to be reunified eventually. However, the separate areas led to the division between East Germany and West Germany, which contributed to and lasted throughout the Cold War. Reunification ultimately did not take place until 1990.
The United States played a large role in the postwar occupation of Germany. During this period, tensions heightened between the United States and the Soviet Union as the camaraderie steadily faded following World War II. During his time in postwar Germany, Victor Skiles experienced firsthand much of the tension and destruction that occurred. However, Skiles felt that he was there to help rebuild Germany and to stop the destruction. He focused on agriculture and imports, trying to ensure that all Germans were able to eat sufficient rations even throughout the chaos and uncertainty of the occupation and reconstruction of Germany. This “Moment” in diplomatic history highlights Skiles’s experiences working in postwar Germany amid ongoing struggles and increasing tensions.
Victor Skiles’s interview was conducted by John Kean on December 4, 1995.
Read Victor Skiles’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Genevieve Husak
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“But in Germany they were pretty well wiped out by the end of the war. They had an awful lot of rebuilding to do, and in the meantime, a real task to keep people alive.”
Attitudes of Post-War Germans: Some things you could tell from the workforce, the people working directly for us. We relied primarily on German staff—local hire—including secretarial and I must admit there was some reluctance on the part of the local hires. Some were not willing to cooperate fully, were still feeling very much put out that they had been beat and felt, I think, uncomfortable with the fact that they were working with and cooperating with an occupying power. I don’t know how extensive that was, and I think it is fair to say that the vibes were somewhat different by the time we moved to Frankfurt. They became more like partners than collaborators. You will notice my reluctance to comment about the attitudes of the general population and that is because I don’t think I know any more about it than any other reasonably informed observer. My impression was that there was a much greater siege and “occupation force” mentality in Berlin than down in the zone, but this was to be expected. One of the strongest impressions I had personally was the necessity to “put myself in their shoes” to be able to understand their motives and reactions and particularly to take into account the effect of their education and experience in order to anticipate their reactions.
Food and Agriculture in Germany: We were importing primarily wheat, because that’s where the greatest need was and that’s where you get the most bang for the buck. But we also had a lot of other things which were available “on the cheap” from various other programs, including army surpluses. Most of what I’ve been talking about in terms of local production and wheat imports, you could put through the commercial channels, but what are you going to do with a half million cans of grapefruit juice and a population that doesn’t know what it is? There’s no market for grapefruit juice. So we had to devise ways to use available foods, nutritious foods, at least providing some elements of nutrition which were missing, but that were not common foods and were not really acceptable foods for the general population’s purchase and consumption. For those we had to have special distribution channels. The grapefruit, for example, we put primarily into school lunches. The kids didn’t go much for direct consumption of grapefruit juice, but we found you could mix some of it into the gruel, which was the main component of the school lunch, without changing the taste of the gruel so much that the kids would object to it. In this way we used lots of grapefruit juice, lots of candy bars that came from surplus army rations, this sort of thing were special items of supply and required special handling and distribution. But I must say that the main desire was to get the normal German machinery up and running. And in this sense, over the long term, the agricultural side of the function was far more important than food supply and feeding.
Rehabilitation Progress by 1948: It varied a great deal. My sense is that Stuttgart and Munich on one hand were cleaned up quite rapidly, but not reconstructed. Frankfurt, and a good part of the Ruhr were not even cleaned up to that extent. By 1948 there was still rubble at the railway site, which was across the street from the main hotel which the U.S. used during that period. More dramatically, in Berlin, the Western sectors were cleaned up in a hurry, and rehabilitation started quite quickly. In the Eastern sectors, I was back there as much as 10 years later, and they still hadn’t been cleaned up. To use your four year framework, a great deal of rehabilitation had been achieved, but there still was a lot to be done. We were in East Germany in 1991 and the contrast between it and the West still was striking.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in Political Science and Economics, University of Idaho at Moscow 1936–1940
Greece—Import Control Officer 1949–1950
Rome, Italy—Representative to International Food and Agriculture Programs 1973–1979