Guard looks down from a wall

Episode 3 – Supreme Authority

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

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About the Episode

With the war in Europe over, the Allied powers had to turn to the difficult business of governing Germany and the other occupied territories. It was a huge task: to restart a functioning economy for an entire continent, to restore systems of law and government, to bind up the wounds of war. On June 5, 1945, the US, UK, USSR and France jointly assumed "supreme authority" over German territory. The Third Reich was now dead, and Germany officially passed under the control of the victorious Allies.

This week’s episode, narrated by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton and written by executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum, opens and closes with audio excerpts from Your Job in Germany, a short film made for the United States War Department that was created to be shown to US soldiers beginning occupation duty in Germany. It was directed by Frank Capra and written by Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The film denounced fraternizing with German civilians and warned of their trickery and manipulative nature. Citing a decades-long history of violence, Capra and Geisel pushed a narrative that genocide and bloodshed were inherent to being German and that if the Allies were not vigilant, Germany would rise again.

Your Job in Germany was characterized as bitter and angry by some, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Patton. The message resonated with many others, however, including Jack Warner of Warner Bros. Warner, who had produced more films about the war than any other studio head including 1942’s Casablanca, acquired the film and the studio edited it into a short documentary that was released commercially in late 1945 under the name Hitler Lives. In its new form, Hitler Lives went on to win the 1946 Academy Award for best Documentary Short Subject.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The Berlin Declaration and Postwar German Reconstruction
  • Your Job in Germany written by Theodor Geisel and directed by Frank Capra
  • Jack Warner and Warner Bros. Studio
  • Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and the Morgenthau Plan
  • Displaced Persons camps and the refugee crisis
  • The Iron Curtain and the Rumblings of the Cold War

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Featured Historian

Dr. Robert M. Citino

Dr. Rob Citino is Executive Director of The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy and the institution’s Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian. Citino is an award-winning military historian and scholar who has published 10 books including The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942, and The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich and numerous articles covering World War II and 20th century military history.

View More from Dr. Rob Citino

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"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.


Archival Audio - “Your Job in Germany” US War Department Short Film 

The problem now is future peace. That is your job in Germany. By your conduct and attitude while on guard inside Germany, you can lay the groundwork of a peace that could last forever...or just the opposite. You could lay the groundwork for a new war to come. And just as American soldiers had to do this job twenty-six years ago, so other American soldiers, your sons, might have to do it again, another twenty odd years from now. Germany today appears to be beaten.



Nazi propaganda...Off the air.

Concentration camps...Empty.

You'll see ruins. You'll see flowers. You'll see some mighty pretty scenery. Don't let it fool you. You are in enemy country. Be alert and suspicious of everyone. Take no chances. You are up against something more than tourist scenery. You are up against German isn't good. This book was written chapter by chapter, not by one man, not by one Führer. It was written by the German people.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In June of 1945, the war in Europe was over, but the work to rebuild a shattered continent had only just begun. Three years of heavy bombing had smashed Germany’s cities, and questions remained over how to handle German citizens who had helped the Nazis to carry out their genocidal crimes, some passively and some actively. The end of the war had also plunged Europe into a refugee crisis, as many of the persecuted no longer had a home to which they could return -- Allied-occupied Germany was home to 7 million such displaced persons, or “DPs,” made up of former POW’s, the enslaved, and both Jewish and non-Jewish concentration camp prisoners.

To jumpstart Germany’s reconstruction, the nation was divided into four occupation zones, one each under the control of the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. The zones in the west would be controlled by the US, Britain, and France, leaving the east to the Soviets. Though located within the Soviet occupation zone, the city of Berlin was also split into eastern and western sectors. As the efforts to rebuild Europe took shape, the Soviet Union and the United States solidified their roles as the world’s superpowers, and  tensions between their leaders continued to build.

Archival Audio

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and this is episode 3, “Supreme Authority.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton.

This week, we return to Germany in the weeks following VE-Day.

Archival Audio - Newsreel Reporting on V-E Day

Historic pictures of the last days of the war in Europe show American and Russian troops as they joined at Torgau on the river Elbe, splitting German armies in two. United States General Reinhardt meets Red Army General Rusakov, a meeting that spelled out certain German defeat.

(Triumphant Music)

At Allied Mediterranean headquarters in Italy, the Germans unconditionally give up all of Italy and Southern Austria. In civilian clothes, representatives of the German Army sign the surrender document. General W D Morgan, representing supreme Mediterranean commander Alexander signs for the Allies. Preceding the final capitulation at Reims, this surrender eliminated a million German troops. Inside Germany itself, the Allies seize the famous stadium of Nuremberg, scene of countless Nazi party rallies. With the capture of this famous southern German city, the American flag blocks out the swastika. In a symbolic gesture, American troops destroy the Nazi party emblem.

(Triumphant Music)

(Sound of Explosion)

Dr. Kristen Burton

Joining us again is Dr. Rob Citino, Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian and Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.

Dr. Rob Citino

The situation in postwar Germany was year zero. That is, one of the most advanced societies and most advanced economies in the world had simply been pulverized. It had been fought over, piece by piece on the ground. It had been bombed, and bombed, and bombed again until the bombs were simply churning up the rubble from the previous bombing raid of one notable city. Dresden was not bombed or pulverized so much as it was torched by incendiary bombing in early 1945. The government had now disappeared. Hitler had shot himself. There was really no government, save for your local Allied military commander. There’s a little bit of a shadow Nazi government still in the north at Flensburg under the second Führer, Admiral Karl Dönitz, but it will soon give itself up and actually be arrested, not so much defeated, but arrested.

There’s a story that George Patton, US general, of course, and a great armor commander, was passing through a German city that’s just been bombed into smithereens. As he’s passing through the town and he sees some little old ladies, and what are they doing? They’re stacking up the rubble into nice little piles. And Patton said that was a sign that the Germans would be back. Now whether that meant back up to their old militarist schemes, or that somehow they’re an industrious people who are going to rebuild themselves, you could kind of read that quote both ways. So there’s perhaps a little bit of activity, but, you know, already Germans are gathering in bombed out theaters and listening to symphonies being performed, and it’s an amazing story about a country bombed literally—the phrase we always use—back into the Stone Age. 

So it’s very difficult to put into words what happens when a modern society with all its complexities and all its necessary infrastructure—roads, and sewers, and electricity, and there’s so much, it just goes on and on and on, and Germany had none of these functioning by the end. So there was really the possibility of a social catastrophe on a large scale if large amounts of aid were not poured into Germany, and not just Germany. France is the same way; it had been under German occupation for the whole war and was still suffering. The lands of Eastern Europe were now under an uneasy Soviet occupation. Italy needed to be rebuilt. It’s just from

stem to stern, World War II destroyed Europe. Europe was still the power center of the globe in 1939, but it is no longer that, just six short years later. The new power centers of the globe, of course, are Moscow and Washington, DC.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Questions of how to best rebuild postwar German society were at the top of every Allied leader’s mind. Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr, best known for his contributions in designing and financing FDR’s New Deal and for being the first and only Jew in U.S. history to be first in the line of succession to the Presidency, had become a fixture in US foreign policy. In late 1944, he drafted a plan for postwar Germany. The Axis nation, he argued, “should not only be stripped of all presently existing industries, but so weakened and controlled that it can not in the foreseeable future become an industrial area." FDR approved the plan and persuaded a reluctant Winston Churchill to do the same, much to the frustration of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the plan’s most vocal opponent.

Dr. Rob Citino

The so-called Morgenthau Plan was a plan to deindustrialize Germany, to break up its factories, and to ship them abroad as reparations and to turn Germany back into the status of a kind of peaceful farming republic that could no longer bother the peace of its neighbors. I’m not sure it would have been entirely doable, without large-scale starvation of the German people, which I don’t think many people were interested in pursuing. But Truman breaks with Morgenthau on that and really wants very little to do with the Morgenthau Plan. I think he knows, for a healthy Europe, you have to have a healthy Germany, and that’s just what World War I did not create. So maybe this time we could get it right.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The relationship between Morgenthau and Truman and the rest of the administration was contentious, and accusations that he was looking to enact revenge upon the German people for their treatment of Jews ran rampant. The conflict came to a head when Truman learned that Morgenthau believed he should attend the Potsdam Conference later that month.

In response, Truman pulled aside Stimson and reportedly told him, “Don’t worry, neither Morgenthau, nor Baruch, nor any of the Jew boys will be going to Potsdam.” On July 21, 1945, Morgenthau would be forced to resign after more than 11 years as Secretary of the Treasury.

On the ground, American troops began the difficult work of repairing Germany.

Dr. Rob Citino

Now, the mood of ordinary German citizens in the immediate wake of the surrender is probably best described by the simple word shock. There was no food. There was no running water. There was no infrastructure of any kind, and these are in cities. The Germans were a highly urbanized people. We’re talking about Berlin, which was a city of three-and-a-half million people before the war broke out. But now it did not have even the most basic amenities. Besides what you might be able to scrounge, or what you’d perhaps hidden away at some point in the war, you really were responsible for food parcels given you by the occupying forces, and that would be the Soviets in the East, or the Anglo Americans in the West. It’s tough to say there were many thoughts of politics. Were they happy to see the Americans? Well, they were happy the war was over. Were they glad Hitler was gone? Yeah, they were now. A few weeks ago, they, you know, they’re still chanting his name in the streets. I mean, we have to be honest about the entire process. But I think it’s just a sense of shock.

It would be different in the occupied territories. When the Americans liberated Paris, you know, that’s an extreme. There’s expressions of joy. When the Americans liberated some of the West European territories, there’s expressions of joy. But as they drive deeper into Germany, I think the Germans are just glad that this ordeal is over, that the attacks have stopped on the ground, but perhaps most dramatically, that there’s no more bombing. I think bombing, by the end of the war, had contributed mightily toward cracking the morale of the German people. And so one night, even if your roof is gone, and you’re exposed to the elements, and it’s raining, at least you didn’t have to worry about 1,000 B-17s showing up overhead.

Dr. Kristen Burton

There was also the question of what to do with the bystanders -- the ordinary German citizens who stood by while the Nazis perpetrated one of the largest genocides in human history - and in some cases, the ordinary German citizens who actively participated in these crimes against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and other groups deemed “undesirable.” 

As Allied forces made their way through occupied Germany, they were at first struck by the noticeable absence of Nazis. The majority of people they did encounter appeared contrite, and many were scared. It soon became clear why there were so few Nazis remaining: some had fled, and many others had committed suicide. Entire families, including children, were found dead in their homes, churches, and government buildings.

Others still continued to insist that they’d had no idea about the existence of the concentration camps or the violence that took place, and expressed disbelief that the Hitler they knew would ever order such atrocious acts. In an effort to make the Germans understand the enormity of the crimes they had committed against humanity, the Americans forced them to tour the liberated camps, and in some instances, made them help clean up the bodies. The Americans were decried as cruel, inhumane, callous.

After many months, the re-education of the German people took a softer tone, but the underlying fear that this may happen again stuck with Truman and his administration.

Dr. Rob Citino

Oh, the fear is that there might be a third round with Germany at some point in the future. I guess it would be hard not to, at least, to worry about that. Truman had fought in World War I as an artillery commander, and, you know, he covered himself in some distinction there, as a matter of fact. No, I think Truman believes that if the gravity of their defeat, the reality of their defeat, has really been impressed upon the Germans, and if large aid flows into the country to get the economy somehow back on its feet, that mass social collapse, chaos, starvation could be avoided, and, thus, the growth of a kind of revisionist or revanchist movement, which would, you know, claim revenge for Germany for this defeat in the Second World War. I think he’s determined to get it right this time. I think that would describe his mindset more than saying he’s worried. He’s determined to get it right.

Dr. Kristen Burton

By the end of World War II, more than 11 million people in Europe were displaced from their homes, and roughly 7 million of them were in postwar Germany alone. While many of these refugees were eventually able to return to their previous cities and villages, thousands had no home to which they could return, and many others had no wish to return to places in which they had been persecuted.  To help deal with this refugee crisis, the Allies set up displaced persons camps across Europe, some of which were located on the sites of former POW and concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen, or more rarely, in vacant hotels. The camps were designed to be temporary facilities where the displaced could await permission to enter Palestine, the US, Canada, and a handful of other nations. The conditions were squalid, and in many cases, Holocaust survivors found themselves forced to live among Nazi collaborators who were also without a home.

Despite the challenging conditions, the DP camps came to be a place of rebirth and healing for many. Residents, most of whom were in their early 20s and 30s, met spouses and started families together. Still, the situation in Germany worsened, and the last DP camp would not close until 1957.

Dr. Rob Citino

I think every day Truman wakes up and realizes the situation in Europe is probably a little bit worse than it was the day before. You know, the first winter in Germany is going to be horrible. Germany surrenders in May, and then comes fall, and then comes winter, and the second winter in Germany and the third were not much better. So this was not some kind of instantaneous—the Phoenix rising from the ashes or a beautiful economy suddenly blooming out of the ground. It’s going to take money, hard work, and some time. But Truman’s first full day in the Oval Office, the Secretary of State—and that’s April 13—the Secretary of State Edward Stettinius comes into his office and gives him the daily briefing that he used to prepare for Franklin Roosevelt. And it’s already talking about the potential for mass starvations in the winter, post-surrender, chaos, and Truman knows what that means, and he says so repeatedly at the time, that that’s the best guarantee of bringing some kind of extremist movement back to power either in Germany or the formerly occupied territories. Now, that could be a kind of a revival of fascism at some point in the future. But the real worry for Truman is not a revival of fascism. It’s gains made by the Communists. 

Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Discusses Post-war Refugee Crisis

During the discussion on the refugee situation, Admiral Leahy leaned over to me and said, “If there are no refugees behind these lines, the Russians (or the 'Boshies,' he called them) have killed them all." Which I think would have been true, but the refugees were in a bad condition, physically. They were sick and tired and had a great many of them had fever, and had they been kept behind the Iron Curtain without anything to eat - I call it the Iron Curtain; wherever the Russians had a boundary it was an Iron Curtain- they would have all died.

And what we want to do is to save as many of them as we possibly could for they weren't to blame for the war.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Over the coming months, as the division between East and West Germany grew, so did tensions between Truman and Stalin. Much of this would come to a head in the coming months as the Allies continued to work towards German reconstruction, and Stalin became convinced that the US and Britain were conspiring against him. For now, there was peace in Europe, but how long would it last?

Dr. Rob Citino

And if you look at World War I, when Germany agreed to sign an armistice, German troops everywhere stood on foreign soil. They’d been fought out. There’s no doubt they were incapable of defending themselves much longer. But they literally had to be brought home, into Germany. Naturally, then, the troops come home, and then you’ve heard you’ve lost the war. It didn’t look like there had been any great defeat. Well, how different than 1945. And this is what Truman made the point, again, and again, and again, that the Germans couldn’t get away this time with what they got away with last time, of claiming some kind of betrayal. And all the Germans had to do was look around them and see the foolishness of the venture that they had carried out.

Truman was determined that the Germans must realize that this time they had lost the war, that there was no stab in the back, there was no betrayal, there was no question about what had happened. The Allies had won a contest of arms. They’d amassed more military power than any alliance in the history of the world, and they had done it primarily to lay Germany low. And that the Germans had to realize now that there was no more government, there was no more Führer, there was no more Nazi party. There was a supreme authority, and the supreme authority in Germany was not German. It was the Allies.

Archival Audio - “Your Job in Germany” US War Department Short Film 

Some day the German people might be cured of their disease. The "Super Race" disease, the "World Conquest" disease. But they must prove that they have been cured. Beyond the shadow of a doubt. Before they ever again are allowed to take their place among respectable nations. Until that day...We stand guard!

We are determined that their plan for world conquest shall stop, here and now. We are determined that they shall never again use peaceful industries for war-like purposes. We are determined that our children shall never face this German terror.

We are determined that the vicious German cycle of war/phony peace/war/phony peace/war/…


...phony peace, shall once...and for all time... (cymbals clang) come to an end.

That is your job in Germany.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “Charter Into Deeds,” we’ll meet Dr. Ed Lengel from the Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy as we travel to San Francisco, where 850 delegates from around the world gathered to establish the United Nations.

From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Kristen Burton. This episode was written by our executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the National Archives, NBCUniversal Archives, and the Screen Gems Collection at the Harry S. Truman Library.

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.