Memory & Action
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Memory & Action

Lessons from a Forced Reckoning with Hitler’s Germany

What can be learned from the reluctance of many Germans to grapple with their complicity in the Holocaust?

An American soldier replaces a street sign in Germany at the end of World War II. —Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland

Germany after Adolf Hitler can be considered an ideal case study for how countries attempt to reckon with their darkest moments. Many laws and policies put in place after the war, as well as the destruction of visible symbols and monuments to the Third Reich, aimed to prevent a resurgence in Nazi ideology. But much can also be learned from the persistent ambivalence and outright rejection by some Germans to this very reckoning. The rationale and the implications of this reluctance as well as how German society has and has not been able to address denazification is the subject of this conversation with Jürgen Matthäus, historian and director of applied research in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. I’d like to start with a very general question and then get more specific. What made Germany come to terms with the crimes of Nazism?

A. It was a process, and it’s ongoing. The most decisive factor was Germany’s unconditional surrender in May 1945. At the end of the war, the occupying powers—Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France—had control over all areas of policy until the founding of the two German states [East and West Germany] in 1949.

The Allies’ efforts to counteract the effects of Nazi propaganda, antidemocratic structures, and discriminatory policies ranged in scope from repair to revolution: repair of key functions that had collapsed, and revolution in terms of changing hearts and minds, particularly those that had been shaped during the Nazi era.

With regard to the latter, the Allies faced a number of significant challenges. Among them was the widespread perception among Germans that Nazism had been imposed on them by a small group of fanatics with Hitler at the top. Many believed his hubris was to blame for the unprecedented national disaster. Part of this mindset was distress over territorial losses, Soviet rule in the eastern occupation zone, and the feeling of being subjected to unwarranted victors’ justice.

It took decades and major structural changes for Germans to develop greater willingness to truly come to terms with the country’s violent past.

Q. For those who may not be as familiar, can you give a brief explanation behind the term “denazification”?

A. At its core, the term means purging German society of everything that created and upheld the Nazi regime: its leaders and main supporters, its institutions, but also the ideas, structures, and other forces that enabled Hitler’s power grab. Clearly, that meant that the Nazi party and its many subsidiary organizations — among them the Storm Troopers and the SS — had to be eradicated, as well as the regime’s laws, policies, rituals, and symbols.

Denazification required fathoming how deep Nazism had penetrated German society: what was the ratio of true believers among Nazi party members (7.7 million in total in 1943, roughly 11% of the German population); who among the German elites had supported the regime and to what degree; how had state bureaucracy, business leaders, and the military behaved; and who beside the top echelons were responsible for Nazi crimes before and during the war?

Tracking down Nazi criminals and identifying those who had volunteered to serve the regime became a major Allied effort. The Nuremberg trials [1945–46] attempted to bring the Third Reich’s most prominent functionaries to justice as part of a broader effort to educate the public in Germany and the world, and to prevent a relapse into the barbarism of war. Until the end of 1949, special courts handled more than 2.5 million denazification cases to determine where someone ranged on the spectrum between main culprit and submissive follower.

But it is important to note that denazification at the time did not just mean holding individuals or organizations accountable for crimes. It was no coincidence, then, that the foundational law enacted in the US occupation zone in Germany in March 1946 had the explicit purpose of liberating the land from Nazism and militarism and of fostering a process of reconciliation, in German Wiedergutmachung (literally: making good again).

But the process remained uneven, haphazard, and unfinished. As Allied interests shifted away from the vanquished Nazis to the daunting Atomic age conflict between East and West, the more ambitious goals of denazification were abandoned in favor of pragmatic measures aimed at winning German support during the Cold War.

A still image from the film “Here Is Germany” of American soldiers burning Nazi insignia as part of the denazification program. —Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland

Q. What was the response by most Germans to denazification?

A. Initially, against the background of shocking images of mass graves with piles of civilian corpses in liberated concentration camps, the Allies found broad support among Germans for their anti-Nazi efforts. Few expressed sympathy for prominent representatives of the Nazi regime responsible for massive crimes, such as Hitler-deputy Hermann Göring or SS-general Ernst Kaltenbrunner who both were sentenced to death at Nuremberg.

But Allied claims, substantiated by the Nuremberg court, that the Third Reich had implicated broad strata of German society in the perpetration of unprecedented crimes did not resonate beyond relatively small groups of Nazi opponents.

Empathy for Nazi victims, including Holocaust survivors, was limited not only due to the legacy of regime propaganda, but also as a result of indifference towards the suffering of others. In fact, Germans increasingly perceived themselves as victims, first of Hitler’s dictatorial rule, and after the war of foreign occupation.

To them, the basic premises of denazification seemed questionable: If the Third Reich was a mere accident in the country’s history as a Kulturnation, as most Germans insisted, why try to punish anyone but hardcore Nazis?

If those executing the “final solution of the Jewish question” and other mass crimes had no choice but to follow orders, as they claimed after the war, why not restrict court cases to those at the top of the command chain?

And if racist violence was a crime against humanity, as stipulated in the Nuremberg Charter, what about other countries’ colonial practices and discriminatory policies that had claimed the lives of millions and continued to exert their fatal legacy across the globe?

Q. What happened for Germany to turn the corner towards facing its Nazi past?

A. After 1949, internal transformations as well as changes in the context of the Cold War played a major role. To establish its international status, the West German government was eager to reconcile with neighboring countries, join major alliances, including NATO, and enter into agreements with the new state of Israel and with Jewish organizations on compensation payments for Jewish survivors.

At the same time, however, many beneficiaries of the Nazi regime unobtrusively managed to retain or gain key positions throughout society.

In the 1950s, with the Western allies having relinquished most of their authorities, the purging of former Nazis stopped, leaving many professions such as medicine and law virtually untouched by denazification.

In that period there was even a renazification of sorts. In some branches of West German bureaucracy the ratio of ex-members of the Nazi Party or the SS was higher than during the Third Reich. Moreover, many top policemen in the Federal Republic had not only served during the Nazi era, often in the ranks of the Gestapo or SS, but also had actively contributed to the implementation of the regime’s genocidal policies.

Unsurprisingly, none of these Nazi-era holdovers had any interest in digging up the past. As German society benefited from a massive economic boom, the rush to rebuild and grow left little room for historic reflection beyond vague rituals commemorating “the victims of Nazism,” Germans prominently included.

Beginning in the 1960s, outside impulses, such as the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, merged with inner-German dynamics to prompt greater questioning of convenient myths about Nazi legacies. The start of systematic investigations into World War II crimes in the Federal Republic in the late 1950s brought the scope of perpetration and the horrendous fate of victims into stark relief. Nevertheless court charges did not even remotely match the severity of the crimes, nor did many Germans question the smooth integration of mass murderers into postwar normalcy. Instead, it was generational change, reform activism from fringe groups, and a growing recognition in the West of the Holocaust as a watershed historical event that resulted in creating the memorial culture we see in Germany today. This process evolved in fits and starts and has had many successes. Yet it also fostered a countermovement of German nationalists and right-wing extremists eager to cultivate a whitewashed image of the country’s past.

Q. Can the process of denazification in Germany be considered a success?

A. German postwar history can be characterized as the constant struggle between those who insist the chapter of the Nazi past should be considered closed and others who argue for critically engaging this past and its ongoing legacies. And in light of the abundance of memorial sites, commemorative events, and publications devoted to Nazi crimes, it looks as if over time the latter group won.

But despite a well-established, internationally acclaimed German remembrance infrastructure with deep roots in public education, a lot remains to be done.

For underneath the official, widely held acceptance of ongoing German responsibility for the violent past festers a subculture of dogmatic denial and hate-filled fear-mongering. Fact-based education has not managed to undermine this impulse, which in recent years has grown in strength.

Old and new Nazis insist that German history has fallen victim to a merciless campaign of defamation, started by Allied indoctrination and perpetuated by unpatriotic, left-leaning, or outright communist activists.

It is small groups within German society that harbor those beliefs, but their appeal has increased. That is a result of populist mobilization and the proliferation of hate directed against those portrayed as unassimilable “others.” Nazi-analogous beliefs infuse the questioning of unquestionable historic facts, sometimes diffused in a mélange of ill-disguised nationalistic and racist propaganda as currently offered by the German party “Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland).”

And while many right-wing groups have modernized their propagandistic tool set to include rhetoric distancing from undeniably antisemitic slogans, displays of Nazi symbols such as the swastika flag, outlawed in Germany, have increased in frequency. Moreover, adherents of hate groups and conspiracy theories have committed and continue to commit crimes ranging in scope from verbal assaults on “foreigners” to acts of murder.

Q. How has the omnipresence of social media impacted current reckoning with the Nazi past?

A. Current events tempt many to look for easy answers, which they often find in authoritarian slogans. As a result, racist and other formerly unacceptable language and ideas have spread from the dark corners of the internet onto popular social media platforms. The symbols, slogans, mindsets, and measures that denazification tried to wipe out instead appear often unchecked on social media. This poses a threat not only for German democracy, but across Europe and other parts of the globe. Yet at the same time, the internet offers unique opportunities to teach what Nazism, its racist ideology, and its genocidal practice are really about to those who are willing to engage with historic facts and to redress systemic injustices.

Q. What lessons does denazification hold for the world today, and what risks do you believe a country and its citizenry face in failing to confront a history of human rights abuses?

A. Given the Third Reich’s specificity, its complete demise in 1945, and the patchiness of postwar remediation, there are limits to what the attempt to purge an entire country of aggressive, intolerant, and inhumane tendencies can tell us today. But even in its unique features and with its uneven implementation, denazification provides insights due to its original commitment to the goal of creating a more diverse, democratic, and equal society.

If postwar Germany can offer a lesson in this respect, it confirms that changing a nation’s perception of its historic responsibilities is slow, painful, messy, and open-ended.

Discussions about contentious aspects of a country’s past always create conflicting opinions and internal division, yet they can highlight convenient myths that stand in the way of confronting that past.

For this process to happen, collective amnesia and denial of historic facts has to be replaced by critical reflections about past injustices and their ongoing legacies, be they blatantly visible in media images or hidden from plain sight in the fabric of social structures.

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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org