At the time, influential voices on the Allied side urged that the remnants of the Third Reich should be run by the victors as an impoverished colony for at least 50 years. The thinking was that this would punish Germany and safeguard its neighbours against future German aggression.
There are few senior British politicians from that immediate post-war era still around to put Mr Major right, and fewer yet with hands-on knowledge of the passionate debates over policy towards Germany. There is one, however, and he played a central part in the volte-face that transformed Germany from the leper of Europe into its Mr Muscle. The seventh Earl of Longford - known to the public as 'Lord Porn' after his much-lampooned Seventies investigation into the sex industry, as Myra Hindley's Sir Galahad, or as the paterfamilias of a prolific literary dynasty - was the British minister who took an unpopular but ultimately vindicated stance against the prevailing mood of anti-German Luddism.
Between 1947 and 1948, Longford - or Frank Pakenham as he was then - was Minister for the British Zone of Occupied Germany which covered the industrial Ruhr and contained a population the size of the Netherlands. Lord Carrington, who shadowed Longford as Leader of the Lords in the first two Wilson governments, feels that it was his old rival's finest hour. 'When Germans were not the flavour of the month . . . Frank showed a remarkable farsightedness about Germany and Germany's position in the future.'
Michael Foot credits Longford with ensuring that the Germans did not starve in their millions during the winter of 1947 and recalls that 'Frank's outspoken stance prepared the way in some measure for the Marshall Plan'. Even Winston Churchill remarked that he was glad 'there is one . . . English mind suffering for the miseries of Germany'.
Longford's was not the only voice raised in defence of the Germans. Victor Gollancz, the publisher, Dick Stokes MP and Bishop Bell of Chichester were all active, but as a minister he was in a unique position within the government to affect policy.
On the other side of the North Sea, there were those in Germany who saw Longford as their only friend when the whole world was against them. Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of West Germany, counted among its founders this aristocratic socialist.
When he took charge of the 26,000 civil servants who ran the British Zone, Longford inherited a policy and a mind-set that had seen factories dismantled and shipped off as reparations, railway lines ripped up and Germans abandoned in bombed-out buildings living on 400 calories a day. 'The thinking in the Foreign Office, shaped by a lot of brigadier-generals, was that Britain would go on running Germany for many years,' says 88-year-old Longford today. 'I remember being shown the details of a pension scheme for my civil servants. When I pointed out that it envisaged them working in Germany for at least 25 years, the official replied, 'I'd be very sorry if I didn't think that was what was going to happen'.'
Although a socialist, Longford was no admirer of Communism, and his observations of Soviet territorial and political ambitions in eastern Germany convinced him that the Allied policy of working with the Russians to keep Germany down was mistaken. Under the guise of punishing the wartime aggressors, the Soviet Union was intent on spreading its influence. Longford was certainly not the only one alert to the Soviet menace - several senior American figures saw the same early warning lights - but he was in advance of his government colleagues and British public opinion, more concerned with extracting a pound of flesh from the Germans.
Longford began to argue passionately that it was only by building a strong and motivated country from the ashes of the Allied zones that the real enemy, the Soviet Union, could be held back.
There was, though, more than realpolitik in Longford's apostasy. In the pre-war period he had taught international relations at Oxford, and was well aware of the cost of previous attempts to extract reparations. And his own natural tendency to respond emotionally rather than pragmatically was only increased as he toured Germany and met the starving millions under his suzerainty.
When he arrived at Berlin's Gatow airport for the first time, he spoke of 'applying Christian principles, not forgetting the past but with my eyes mainly on the future'. The fact that he had blood trickling down his face gave his impromptu speech added impact. He had just attempted what the British press dubbed 'the Pakenham leap': he had not waited for the steps to be attached to the side of his plane and had tried to jump the gap. Steps and minister collided, leaving Longford kissing the airport tarmac like a pope.
The then foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, had little faith in the Germans' attachment to democratic principles, but Longford was sure that the rise of Hitler had been an aberration. 'I saw in Germany,' he recalls, 'a great idealism and industry, a passion for democracy which I was convinced was the real Germany and had been suppressed by the Nazis. It may not be a very fair analogy, but I think if you judged the English only on the basis of 15 years of Tory rule, you would get a very distorted picture.'
At grassroots level, he worked to reduce the powers of his own civil servants and restore local democracy. He also co-operated with like-minded Americans on the currency reform which later created a stable Deutschmark.
Among the people who most influenced the young minister was Adenauer. A Mayor of Cologne, he had been an implacable anti-Nazi and was imprisoned. Released in 1945 and restored to his post, he was soon afterwards sacked by the British authorities who found him insufficiently humble. Longford, however, had this decision reversed, and was then inspired by Adenauer to go over Bevin's head and fight Germany's corner with Clement Attlee.
Their shared Catholicism goes some way to explaining the bond between Longford and Adenauer, who came from opposite ends of the political spectrum. More significant for the minister, though, was the German's statesmanship. 'I was reminded of him recently when I saw Nelson Mandela installed as President of South Africa,' says Longford. 'Both had been treated appallingly by their opponents, locked up, utterly humiliated, but both came back when they were in their seventies and put the past behind them for the sake of their country.'
Though fond of Longford, Attlee was as suspicious of the Germans as Bevin. He backed his Foreign Minister in his unbending attitude to reparations and moved Longford to the less sensitive Ministry of Civil Aviation. It was not long, however, before the wisdom of the young minister's warnings was confirmed. Soviet intransigence precipitated the Berlin airlift and forced the West to work with Adenauer to build what became the Federal Republic.
Such belated vindication did not, however, improve Longford's reputation with the Cabinet on Germany. In 1950 Adenauer asked for his help in winning Attlee's backing for the Iron and Steel Pact, a scheme developed with Robert Schuman that was the first step on the road to what became the European Community. Longford was enthusiastic, but when he put it to his colleagues, 'they laughed and said that to be tied economically to Germany would be like being tied to a corpse'.
The author's biography of Lord Longford is published by Heinemann tomorrow, pounds 20.
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