The denazification of Nazi Germany was long and complicated: even 5 years after the fall of Hitler's regime, 10% of the population still supported it, and the proportion of Nazis in the Foreign Ministry was even higher than under Hitler. While regime collaborators were tried internationally, it did not bear fruit - repentance for the crimes of Nazism came only with domestic trials of Nazi criminals, German historian and researcher of the Third Reich era Oleg Plenkov explains; as time went by the neo-Nazis with their regime restoration ideas lost their appeal, and Germany, slowly and gradually, came to democracy.
In 1945, almost all Germans were connected in one way or another to the collapsing regime, and the task was to create a working democracy, but it was impossible against the wishes of the majority. Historian Eugen Kogon, author of the first work on the Nazi concentration camps, accurately summed up the problem of democracy-building with the participation of the former Nazis: «You either have to kill them all or get them on your side.» Chancellor Konrad Adenauer succeeded - even his critics recognized that the integration of the 8.5 million members of the NSDAP and its affiliated organizations was an essential prerequisite for the pacification of the country.
Therefore, in the first decades of its existence the FRG was not a community of remembrance, but a community of, as Hermann Lübbe put it, «communicative reticence.» A characteristic feature of German post-war history was not the exclusion of Nazism from individual consciousness, but the exclusion of the individual and political past from public communication. In other words, the Nazi regime was not consigned to oblivion, but was viewed as politically irrelevant. Thus, further debate was simply considered superfluous, and this continued for quite some time.
In its early decades, the FRG was a community of «communicative reticence»
Understandably, this situation was only possible if all the institutions of the state were dismantled. The government of Karl Denitz, whom Hitler appointed his successor, was arrested and the occupying authorities of the victorious powers took over. The main Nazi criminals were tried at Nuremberg, the Nazi Party (and its affiliated organizations) was banned, and all SS units, including front-line ones, were declared criminal.
The American authorities held 12 Nuremberg military tribunals in the cases of doctors, lawyers, diplomats, operative groups of the security police and the SD, the UCW case, and the case of the IG Farben chemical concern. The USSR's demand that the Wehrmacht be recognized as a criminal organization was rejected - otherwise virtually the entire adult population of Germany would have become criminals.
The USSR's demand that the Wehrmacht be recognized as a criminal organization was rejected — otherwise virtually the entire adult population of Germany would have become criminals
Nuremberg Trials, 1945
There is no subject in international law, so the Germans perceived those Allied trials not as justice but as revenge of the victors. The German Resistance leader Karl Herdeler, executed by the Nazis, warned in one of the movement's memoranda that condemnation of Nazi crimes had to come from and be done by the Germans themselves. A trial of Nazism by a third party or an international tribunal would have no effect - or if it did, the effect might be opposite of that intended. That is why the Germans remained loyal to Hitler even five years after the war: when asked about the greatest German statesman in 1950, 35% of respondents were for Bismarck, 10% for Hitler. In 1967, 60% were for Adenauer, 17% for Bismarck and 2% for Hitler. After the unification of the country, Hitler in both the old and the new states still received 1% of the vote.
The Germans perceived the Allied trial not as justice, but as revenge of the victors
In October 1945 the Americans polled Germans in their occupation zone about their attitude toward the Jews. At that time 20 percent of those polled agreed in principle with Hitler's policy toward the Jews, while another 19 percent acknowledged the excesses, but considered the policy fundamentally correct. This was the effect of propaganda in a country which prior to 1933 was almost devoid of anti-Semitism, at least in comparison with Tsarist Russia, Poland or France during the Dreyfus affair.
According to the U.S. military administration, in 1945-49, 15-18 percent of Germans remained convinced Nazis. On average in polls between November 1945 and December 1946, 47% of Germans believed that National Socialism contained generally good ideas that had been wrongly implemented.
In 1945-49, 15-18% of Germans remained convinced Nazis
Judges from outside
Another problem was that the jurists who came from the U.S. and headed the denazification tribunals had not been living under a totalitarian system, and yet they tried people who had been living under one. Moreover, the process itself was not organized in the best way. Thus, the denazification questionnaire began with information about the person and ended with a ridiculous 131st item about knowledge of foreign languages. There were questions about the presence of moles, hair and eye color. Especially absurd was the question about who the person being questioned had voted for back in 1933, which violated the democratic right of secrecy.
There were 545 judicial boards in the American zone, with 22,000 employees. Of the 13 million questionnaires handed out in the American zone of occupation, 3 million were processed. The German writer Ernst von Salomon published a voluminous novel in 1951 called The Questionnaire. It exposed the absurdity of American intentions to reveal the truth about the Germans' recent past in this way. The mere fact that Americans had no idea of the reality of totalitarianism made the idea absurd.
The Americans had no idea about the reality of totalitarianism, and that made their idea absurd
Despite this, it must still be admitted that the post-war denazification was not a complete failure. CEOs and government officials at the land level were often heavily distressed by their arrest and imprisonment seeing it as a severe social and political degradation. Most of them left their posts after that, and the Allies were fairly effective in neutralizing the top Nazi elite between 1945 and 1949.
But continuity certainly remained at the middle level. For example, in 1950, at least half of the employees of the Foreign Ministry were former Nazis, including 43 active SS members and 17 former Gestapo and SD members. Thus, the proportion of Nazis in the Foreign Ministry was even higher than under Hitler. The situation was the same with the judiciary. The same was equally true for the criminal police, established in 1953. And this despite the fact that Article 131 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany banned former Nazis from the civil service.
In 1950, the proportion of Nazis in the Foreign Ministry was even higher than under Hitler
Condemnation from within: did the Germans know about all the horrors of the Holocaust?
The movement toward genuine German condemnation of Nazism and repentance for its crimes began with the German trials of Nazi criminals. In 1958, the Ulm Trial of the members of the operative groups of the Security Police and the SD was held. Ten years after the first American trial, the German public was watching it with much more interest. The Ulm jury sentenced the Nazis to long prison terms for their involvement in the mass shootings of Jews on the German-Lithuanian border on the eve of the German attack on the USSR.
Ulm Einsatzkommando trial, 1958
Under the impression of this trial, the Conference of Ministers of Justice of the Länder decided on October 3, 1958 to establish from December 1 a Central Office in Ludwigsburg for the detection of Nazi crimes. The office was given the right to collect and present evidence of participation in such crimes on the territory of Europe and, from 1964, on the territory of Germany. It was responsible for collecting evidence and initiating some 900 proceedings against the Nazis. In this way the abyss of Nazi crimes truly gaped open in front of the German people.
Did the Germans know what was going on in their country under Hitler? Of course, it was easier for the victors to believe they knew, but that would be a distortion of history, since it was one of the most guarded secrets of the Third Reich. One blatant example of this distortion of history is the appearance of a completely speculative book by the American writer Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners. It came out three years after the premiere of Schindler's List. The author sought to demonstrate that the murder of Jews in the Third Reich was a national political goal of the Germans during the war. The book was met with great attention in the FRG. There was widespread public discussion of the subject, despite the utter absurdity of presenting the question in such a fashion. Even if one considers that nearly one million Germans took part in the Holocaust (which is an extreme exaggeration), that's still less than one percent of the population. Therefore, Goldhagen's accusation is blatant speculation. Moreover, he sought to show that long before Hitler, the German people had hatched plans to exterminate the Jews. This is utter nonsense. Goldhagen claimed in his book that most of the people who watched the burning synagogues approved of the pogroms, but he did not indicate how he knew this.
In fact, when it comes to the question of knowing or not knowing about the Holocaust, there is no reason not to believe the testimony of contemporaries. For example, two years before his execution, a member of the Resistance, Count von Moltke, wrote to a friend abroad that he was certain nine-tenths of the German population did not know the Nazis had murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews. They continued to believe that the Jews were simply resettled in Eastern Europe. Goldhagen's claim that everyone was well aware of the Nazis' intentions for the Jews is also a lie. Even most Jews did not believe their mass extermination was in principle possible. Nor did the Germans themselves believe it. Nor did they believe that deportations would be followed by killings. Nor did the deportees themselves believe it. Grand-Admiral Denitz gave his word as an officer after the war that he had not the slightest idea about the mass exterminations in the Third Reich. Given his reputation, it is completely improbable he was lying.
Even most Jews did not believe their mass extermination was in principle possible
When asked if he knew during the war what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said modern people had no idea what it was like to live under an informational dictatorship. In addition, there was a war, and during a war all kinds of things are possible, including in democracies. Harry Truman, for example, learned about the existence of the atomic bomb only when he became president. The scientists who prepared the first detonation of the atomic bomb were not sure the nuclear reaction would be limited to the contents of the charge and not spread to all the earth's matter. What about such a perspective and the responsibility of the scientists? In other words, moralizing in such matters is a very tough and sensitive conundrum.
In fact, it was not political games and punitive justice that were most important in the process of overcoming Nazism. The historian Ralf Dahrendorf noted in one of his interviews that much later (by the end of the century) it became clear to him that
«after 1945 something remarkable occurred: it seemed on the outside as if a 'restoration' was taking place, since many of the old figures remained in place and there did not seem to be any significant change. Meanwhile, underneath, there was an enormous amount of movement. I attribute those changes to the name of Ludwig Erhard, Minister of Economics, who was completely deaf to the arguments about the past and overcoming it. He went his own way and created new socio-economic structures in Germany. This brought about profound changes that simply ruled out any restorative schemes or paths. Over time, they became completely irrelevant.»
In essence, although consciousness was restorative, existence changed, and it changed everything. Neo-Nazis with their restorative ideas gradually turned into rubbish. Structural changes in society proved more effective than social awareness of, and overall political opposition to, the Nazi past.
The neo-Nazis and their restorative gradually turned into rubbish
Remorse and responsibility
Later, the 1968 student «revolution» in Germany played a key role in creating a safeguard against a repetition of the past. It was in these days that the responsibility of the older generation for the crimes of the war years came into focus in countries that had survived Nazism and Fascism (the FRG and Italy). The German students were especially insistent, they said: «Let's do what was not done in 1945, let's carry out a real denazification.» What followed was a list of targets to be kept in the crosshairs: Nazi-Richter, Nazi-Staatsanwälte, Nazi-Gesetzgeber aller Couleur, Nazi-Polizisten, Nazi-Beamte, Nazi-Verfassungsschutzer, Nazi-Lehrer, Nazi-Professoren, Nazi-Pfarrer, Nazi-Journalisten, Nazi-Propagandisten, Nazi-Bundeskanzler (Chancellor Kurt Kiesinger was a party member under Hitler), Nazi-Kriegsgewinnler, Nazi-Fabrikanten, Nazi-Finanziers. Then followed calls for organized defiance against the Nazi generation.
The march on Bonn. May 1968
Of course, this criticism was somewhat exaggerated and provocative, but it worked without fail, because the activists of this «revolution» were in power and did not betray their ideals. Moreover, since then, the German media have been dominated by left-liberal journalists and editors. The same is true for the politicians: Angela Merkel (CDU) and Olaf Scholz (SPD) are hard to tell apart by their political convictions. The intentions and goals of both parties after '68 have always included left-liberal views and positions. And the further away from '68, the more so - the right-wing political spectrum is being increasingly sidelined.
It was under the influence of the 1968 «revolution» that the official discourse on the Nazi past began to change. The authorities began teaching the history of Nazism in schools and developing a component of remorse in the national consciousness, a stark difference from the historical policy of the 1950s.
After 1968, the FRG authorities began teaching the history of Nazism in schools developing a component of remorse
The Brandt government did a lot in this respect from 1969: a new «Eastern policy» and the recognition of the loss of the German eastern territories as a fait accompli in foreign policy, and democratization in domestic policy. In historical policy - repentance for the crimes of the Nazis. The process was preceded by radical changes in West Germany: the Auschwitz trial (1963-65), the Eichmann trial (1961), some important literary events that stirred the public, such as Günter Grass's The Tin Drummer (1959), Rolf Hochhuth's play The Viceroy (1963), Fischer's book The Rush to World Domination (1961), which linked old German imperialism and Hitlerian expansion into a single whole.
The general awareness of the continuity of German history and the involvement of ordinary Germans in the crimes of the regime increased. In fact, between 1956 and 1965 a whole set of impulses for change made itself felt in the FRG. Bundeschancellor Ludwig Erhard proved to be a true visionary when, in a 1965 government statement, he formulated the idea that «the post-war era has come to an end.» It began after 14 years of Adenauer's chancellorship. The fifties were marked by a struggle for material prosperity, and the sixties by an ideological breakthrough. The fracture between the old conservative way of thinking and the urge towards renewal created a drama that made the 1960s the most dramatic and troubling decade in German postwar history.
Russia did not have a 1968 of its own, so the revision of its totalitarian past was incomplete, if happened at all. Also, in contrast to the Nazi regime, which was defeated in the war, the Soviet regime collapsed on its own under the weight of idiocy, and no one forced us to reconsider our own history as the Germans were forced to do. This is why we have not been able to create a lasting democratic political culture like the Germans, who stubbornly eradicated any signs of national, racial, imperial, social, cultural or other intolerance.
But for modern Germans there is yet another danger. An overly insistent moralization (especially with regard to the Holocaust) reigns unchallenged in today's discourse. In other words, political communication has turned into a posture. At the same time, of course, nationalism has not disappeared altogether in post-war Germany. Nationalism is simply being ignored, while the German left, which dominates public discourse, highlights the exemplary German Willkommenskultur <The term «hospitality culture» means a series of measures that people take based on a positive attitude toward migrants for them to feel comfortable in society and to be able to settle in more quickly - The Insider> and use it as an obligatory element of German identity. This is probably the main consequence of 1968 in Germany.