Exorcising Hitler: The Occuption and Denazification of Germany Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury, pp.438, 25

On 20 September 1949, five days after his election as Chancellor of the newly created German Federal Republic, Konrad Adenauer addressed the Bundestag: ‘Much unhappiness and much damage’, he told the deputies, ‘has been caused by denazification .

On 20 September 1949, five days after his election as Chancellor of the newly created German Federal Republic, Konrad Adenauer addressed the Bundestag: ‘Much unhappiness and much damage’, he told the deputies, ‘has been caused by denazification . . . many have atoned for a guilt that was subjectively not heavy.’ The division of Germany’s population into ‘the politically flawless and the politically flawed’ had to disappear and ‘the government of the Federal Republic is determined . . . to put the past behind us.’

Adenauer spoke with the full backing of the US and British governments, and in accordance with the new imperatives of an emergent Cold War. Tribunals organised by the Allied occupying powers had established five categories for the German population ranging from the innocent to major offenders — the war criminals, and Nazi militants along with war profiteers. From 1949 onwards the fellow travellers or Mitlaufer, and the incriminated of a lesser degree (Minderbelastete), were rehabilitated.

Britain and the US needed a West Germany capable of playing its full role in opposing the Warsaw Pact, and building up the country’s democracy required a degree of forgetfulness about the recent past. The Federal Republic of the 1950s would be socially conservative, economically prosperous and morally amnesiac. German politics was shorn of militarism, but its other abiding feature — authoritarianism — remained in place and would only be challenged when, in the 1960s, a new generation subjected their fathers’ and grandfathers’ records to a scrupulous audit.

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The five years of occupation, bureaucratic confusion and economic hardship that preceded Adenauer’s speech are the subject matter of Frederick Taylor’s absorbing overview of how democracy was reintroduced to the defeated Germans. Interviews with those who lived through the last months of the war and the first years of peace lend a quality of lived experience to the administrative schemes presided over by the French, British and Americans in the zones into which the future West Germany was divided.

One particular merit of the book is its scrutiny of the eastern zone that became the GDR. The communist state prided itself on a purge that was more rigorous than West Germany’s, but its political order was surely an object lesson in how totalitarianism of the left and the right mirror each other.

Extirpation of the Nazi past involved attempts at changing civilian minds as well as punishing guilty soldiers. This was all the more necessary given the extent of the German population’s identification with the totalitarian cause. The nihilistic basis of National Socialism was revealed as the bombs rained down on German towns, but the Allied insistence on an unconditional surrender also contributed to a fatalistic national mood. Many Germans were rejecting Hitler’s cause by 1944-5, but all the indications are that this was a result of resentment that he had turned out to be a failure rather than a recognition that the Fuhrer’s cause was wrong. Even in 1949 official polling figures showed that 60 per cent of the West German population still thought that Nazism was a good idea which had somehow gone downhill. The majority of those questioned thought that security was more important than freedom of expression, and many were still expressing varying shades of anti-Semitism.

Denazification at its most rigorous was initially an American cause, and its utopian schemes convey more than a whiff of anticipatory neo-conservatism. In 1944 Henry Morgenthau, the Treasury Secretary, proposed a plan for the de-industrialisation of Germany. ‘A land primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character’ and lacking industrial plant would never be able to wage war again. French schemes to secure the same goal, taking their cue from de Gaulle and harking back to the Holy Roman Empire, envisaged the creation of numerous German statelets.

The more pragmatic British led the way in recognising that systematic pursuit of the complicit was too expensive a policy, since it would have taken millions of Germans out of the labour market. Britain, with its own economy now in a parlous state, was in no position to subsidise a pauperised German state. In both the UK and, eventually, the US, realism came to prevail.

It needed to since by 1945-6 Germany was overwhelmed with a new problem. The redrawing of boundaries meant that ten million German-speaking refugees were expelled from Poland and, along with the ones who had to flee Czechoslovakia, they poured into Germany. Taylor’s eloquent account of their suffering complements the better-known story of the 1.9 million German women raped by Russian soldiers. Denazification à l’outrance in these circumstances carried with it the danger of creating a sense of German victimhood. It remained for a later generation to investigate whether there was such a thing as a collective guilt when it came to the question of the German nation and the origins of National Socialism.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, Germany, History, Hitler, Nazi, World War 2