Germany Is No Model for Iraq

The authors are professors of European history; Atina Grossmann at Cooper Union, Mary Nolan at New York University.

As the United States plans its postwar occupation of Iraq, it ransacks history for successful precedents. The occupation of Germany is often cited for promoting demilitarization, denazification, democratization and capitalist development while garnering widespread support within Germany and outside. But the lessons of that earlier occupation are complex and ambiguous. Facile historical comparisons distort the postwar situation and blind Americans to the challenges ahead in Iraq.

The American occupation of Germany succeeded because it took place in the wake of a widely supported defensive war and operated in a context of internationalism and multilateralism. There was also optimistic commitment to international institutions, above all the United Nations, and to international law.

Britain, France and the Soviet Union joined the U.S. in occupying Germany, and the United Nations took over responsibility for refugees and humanitarian aid from an ill-suited military.


The U.S. committed 400,000 troops in its zone alone, rather than the 100,000 envisioned for Iraq, and it never disguised the fact of occupation by labeling it “liberation.”

The Americans gave priority to stability and reconstruction rather than justice and vengeance. Despite initially ambitious plans, there was no extensive denazification. Many Germans were questioned or jailed and a few hundred top war criminals were tried by Allied and U.S. tribunals. By 1946, however, much of the responsibility for denazification was handed over to German tribunals, which quickly dismissed hundreds of thousands of cases without hearings and sentenced only 1% to prison.

The U.S. did not impose a government in exile, encouraging instead the gradual buildup of political institutions largely by those who had spent the Third Reich in Germany, often supporting or tolerating Nazi institutions and policies. Experienced civil servants, though tainted by Nazism, continued to work or soon resumed their positions. Although the vast majority of schoolteachers had Nazi affiliations and some were fired, many were soon rehired. Even with such cautious behavior, Germans greeted the American reform efforts with sullen acquiescence.

Occupation policies, inspired by New Deal visions of economic reform and big government that the Bush administration rejects, promoted economic recovery. The United States did not expropriate German firms or demand reparations. Moreover, between 1948 and 1952 the U.S. gave billions in Marshall Plan aid, 1% to 2% of U.S. national income, directly to Germany and 15 other countries.

Building on its remarkably intact economic infrastructure and educated labor force, Germany became a major producer of industrial goods and consumer of American products. Democracy gained legitimacy and popularity only gradually and only because it came to be associated with this economic prosperity.

This is a far cry from what is being envisioned for Iraq.

The U.S. alone plans to supervise humanitarian aid and reconstruction, giving the U.N. and other nations at most subordinate roles. American firms are already being awarded lucrative contracts, which are to be paid for, like the occupation, with Iraqi oil revenues. Iraq’s imagined place in the global order is as an oil exporter, subordinate to the U.S. -- not as a developed modern economy, which was the U.S. vision for a reconstructed Germany.


In 1945, the U.S. occupied a society that was ethnically, racially and religiously homogenous. Iraq is deeply riven by religious and ethnic conflict and devastated by war and sanctions. Prolonged war left Germans exhausted and obedient. Iraqis are desperate and volatile.

The U.S. occupation relied on long-standing American ties to and knowledge about Germany and help from very recent refugees, who worked as translators, interrogators and civil affairs and cultural officers. The pervasive fraternization between GIs and German women, who were sexual partners, translators and secretaries, mediated occupation policies. American expertise about Iraq is extremely limited, cultural ties are few and the prospects of easy social relations bleak.

Germans did not welcome the Americans as liberators, but they did not see them as enemies and did not openly resist the occupation. Iraqi responses are more mixed, with many expressing relief, many others suspicion and some open resistance.

If the U.S. proceeds with its current plans for postwar Iraq, it will be ignoring the lessons of the occupation of Germany and further destroying the international order it helped build.