Military occupation as a system of rule

by Christopher Knowles

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Germany under Allied occupation. IWM, War Office Second World War Official Collection via Wikimedia Commons

The defining feature of military occupation as a form of government is the combination of foreign rule with the dependence, in the last resort, on the use of force. Military occupations are often malign, oppressive and exploitative, though sometimes benevolent, as in the case of the ‘model’ occupations of Germany and Japan after the Second World War. Yet despite their differences, all occupations, like other systems of rule – such as liberal democracies, absolute monarchies, military dictatorships, or imperial colonies and protectorates – share certain characteristics.

Military occupation as a system of rule is often closely associated with the concepts of ‘regime change’ and ‘nation building’, although this is seldom explicitly acknowledged. The relationship between the military functions of enforcement, preserving order and countering resistance, and the largely civilian functions of public administration can be highly complex. An oppressive or hostile government can be removed by war, but the subsequent military occupation and its associated civilian administration are critical in determining the political, economic and social structures, and sometimes even religious and cultural attitudes and behaviour, that will take its place in the occupied territory when the military forces eventually leave.


What is military occupation?

Military occupation is very common. As defined in Section III of the Hague Regulations of 1907, it is what happens during a war, when the armed forces of one country invade and occupy territory that is, or was formerly, part of another country.  Military occupation can also continue for many years after the war is over, before the occupied territory is liberated, or formally annexed by the victor, or the opposing governments have signed a treaty that restores full sovereignty to a civilian government.

Military occupations that have taken place over the past 100 years include the occupation of the German Rhineland by the United States, Britain, France and Belgium after the First World War; the occupations of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and much of Eastern Europe by Nazi Germany during the Second World War; the occupations of Austria, Germany and Japan by the victorious Allies after the war; the territories occupied by Israel after the Six Day War; and the more recent military interventions and occupations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States and its European allies, including Britain and Germany.

Most rulers, such as elected presidents, prime ministers, constitutional monarchs and even domestic military dictators, can draw on various forms of legitimacy derived from their previous position in society or relationship with the local population. Military occupation, on the other hand, is normally established through the use of force, and therefore has no intrinsic legitimacy, although the extent to which this affects the occupiers’ ability to rule always depends on the historical context; on whether the aims of the occupation are endorsed by an internationally recognised organisation such as the United Nations, and whether the occupation is perceived by the local population as liberation from oppression, as conquest or subjugation following defeat in war by a foreign enemy, or as an illegitimate form of more long-term foreign control.

Occupation is generally considered to be a short-term, temporary or provisional form of government, but can last for many years, occasionally indefinitely, with no end in sight. Power may be devolved to local administrations, to a greater or lesser degree, but full sovereignty is retained by the occupying authority, reinforced, if necessary, by the threat or use of force.

If the defeated government has collapsed or been removed from office – which may have been the victor’s aim in fighting the war in the first place – it can take a long time for a new government to be established with sufficient power, authority and legitimacy to take over all functions of government, or for the occupying power to have sufficient confidence in it to withdraw their occupying forces. In the case of post-war Germany, this did not happen until reunification in 1990 and the so-called Two Plus Four Agreement between the two German states created in 1949 and the four victorious Allied powers. British and American troops are still stationed in Germany, but this is now as part of a mutual agreement between fully sovereign states.


Understanding occupation

In a new book published in August, Transforming Occupation in the Western Zones of Germany, which I edited jointly with Camilo Erlichman, Assistant Professor in History at Maastricht University, 16 international scholars from Britain, the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and Australia discuss the unequal and ever-changing balance of power between the occupiers and occupied in post-war Germany, which affected all aspects of society.

The various chapters in the book demonstrate the complexity and diversity of occupation, providing examples of how the Western Allies planned for occupation, and how they attempted to manage the legacy of war and the crimes committed during the Third Reich. Some of the chapters explore everyday life under occupation, with case studies on strategies of rule, conflict and cooperation, social encounters and personal relationships.

When implemented in practice, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, war and military occupation have failed to bring about  the democratisation of society and future social and political stability that was intended.

My aim in writing this article is to suggest that our understanding of any one case of military occupation can be improved through comparing it with others and, furthermore, that more work needs to be done on developing a robust theoretical framework of military occupation as a political system of rule.

  • For example, questions that can and should be asked about all cases of military occupation include:
  • What were the origins of the occupation, how and why did it arise?
  • What were the aims of the occupation and how were these communicated to the local population?
  • How did the new rulers, the occupiers, manage the legacy of the previous regime that has now been superseded by the occupation?
  • How did the local population respond to the occupation; did they cooperate or resist, or both?
  • What strategies of rule were adopted by the occupiers in order to maintain their power and authority, and establish their legitimacy as rulers?
  • What legal framework did they adopt?
  • How did they justify the occupation to neighbouring countries and to the international community?
  • What was the experience of daily life under occupation, for both occupiers and occupied?
  • How did personal relationships between occupiers and occupied evolve at all levels of society?
  • How did the occupation evolve over time, and eventually end; how was power devolved or transferred from occupier to occupied?
  • Did some social and economic groups win or lose from the occupation?
  • What were the most significant legacies of occupation – social, political, cultural and economic – for the countries concerned?

As Camilo Erlichman and I write in our introductory chapter in the book, ‘Reframing Occupation as a System of Rule’, military intervention and occupation have now returned to the agenda in discussions among global strategists and policy makers, though under different names, such as ‘regime change’ or ‘nation building’, and are justified by reference to concepts such as an ‘ethical foreign policy’. Military intervention in another country has been presented and legitimised in public discourse as essential for maintaining national security, securing human rights, or protecting threatened minorities, religious, social or ethnic groups.

Historical research can provide an important corrective to simplistic understandings of what the experience of occupation may entail, for both occupiers and occupied.

Yet at the same time, when implemented in practice, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, war and military occupation have failed to bring about the type of change – the democratisation of society and future social and political stability – that was intended when military intervention was first advocated. In the UK, the Chilcot Enquiry, after years of collecting evidence, castigated the government for ‘wholly inadequate’ preparations for the aftermath of war and occupation in Iraq.

Historical research can provide an important corrective to simplistic understandings of what the experience of occupation may entail, for both occupiers and occupied. It can also demonstrate some of the paradoxes, intricacies and ambiguities that policies of stabilisation and top-down democratisation inevitably bring with them.

Revisiting what is often seen as the model, benevolent and successful occupation of Germany by the Western Allies is important in its own right, in helping us understand the transition from war to peace in Germany and in post-war Europe generally, over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. It can also contribute to the process of developing a robust political and theoretical understanding of occupation that takes full account of its diversity and complexities. This would help those directly concerned assess the implications of facilitating and supporting the establishment of a new or reformed government in one country that depends for its authority and ability to rule on the presence of armed forces from another country.

Studying the ‘benevolent’ occupations of Germany by the Western Allies suggests that we need to look beyond the military and economic dimensions of national and global security frameworks. Social, political, legal and cultural issues, together with personal encounters and relations between occupiers and occupied, were important factors then and in other previous occupations. They appear, however, to be neglected in present-day discussions on the advantages and disadvantages of military intervention as a means of achieving otherwise unimpeachable security, humanitarian or ethical objectives.

About the author

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Christopher Knowles was Archives By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, for  Easter Term 2018, and is now a visiting research fellow at Kings College London. He is the author of Winning the Peace: The British in Occupied Germany, 1945–1948 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) and joint editor with Camilo Erlichman of Transforming Occupation in the Western Zones of Germany: Politics, Everyday Life and Social Interactions, 1945–1955 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

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