From Dictatorship to Democracy: The Role Ex-Nazis Played in Early West Germany

By , Georg Bönisch, Thomas Darnstaedt, , Michael Fröhlingsdorf and Klaus Wiegrefe

Part 5: Abandoning the Cleansing Plan

Photo Gallery: The Dark Early Days of Postwar Germany Photos
AP

Werner Villinger, a doctor who was involved in the mass murder of the disabled prior to 1945, served on the Reparations Committee of the Bundestag, a position in which he was partly responsible for a decision to deny compensation to roughly 400,000 people who had been forcibly sterilized in the Nazi period. One of his fellow committee members was Hans Nachtsheim, who should have been serving a prison sentence instead of in the parliament. According to the research of journalist Ernst Klee, Nachtsheim conducted medical experiments with epileptic children in 1943.

The murderers of yesterday were afforded public support. Even church leaders put in a good word for Nazis who had been convicted by the Allied courts as principal perpetrators. For example, Protestant Bishop Otto Dibelius and World Council of Churches President Martin Niemöller, a victim of Nazi persecution himself, asked the Allies for "mercy for those who, branded with the stigma of war crime, are being held in captivity."

The religious leaders interceded on behalf of men like Martin Sandberger, who was held at the Landsberg Prison in Bavaria until 1958. As the leader of Special Commando 1a, Sandberger had made Estonia "free of Jews" and had admitted to the killings of "about 350" communists. But even the prominent SPD politician Carlo Schmid spoke out on behalf of his former legal intern at the University of Tübingen: "Without the onset of National Socialism, Sandberger would have become a reputable, hard-working and ambitious public servant."

The distinction between perpetrators and victims disappeared in a haze of pity and sympathy.

When, in January 1951, there was a rumor in Bonn that the Americans were planning to execute Nazi mass murderers who were imprisoned in Landsberg and had already been sentenced to death, Landsberg Mayor Ludwig Thoma had no trouble convincing members of the Bundestag and the state parliament to attend a protest event "against barbarity."

Not Prepared to Accept a Fourth Reich

The historian Jens-Christian Wagner has reconstructed the event. A Landsberg electrical business provided a vehicle equipped with loudspeakers free of charge, and the local radio station called upon residents to participate in the protest event. One in three residents showed up. When several hundred Holocaust survivors tried to interrupt the rally, the mob shouted: "Jews out!"

But the Allies were not to be swayed, and a few months later the sentences against some of the prisoners were carried out. One of the men executed was Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D, which had murdered tens of thousands of children, women and men.

Until 1951, the Western Allies executed close to 500 Nazi war criminals, including politicians (like former Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop), military officers (like Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht) and SS officials (like police chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner). The fact that major figures from the Third Reich were hanged over a period of several years brought it home to the Germans that the Allies were not prepared to accept a Fourth Reich.

The Nazi Party was banned, other right-wing extremist parties were not allowed in the first place, and Nazis were denied the right to vote. "Just imagine that the occupying power were no longer here," Thomas Dehler, the then chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the Parliamentary Council, told his colleagues. "What would this democracy look like, and how wretched and weak would it be!"

When the British wiretapped a group of former Nazis surrounding Werner Naumann, the former deputy of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, they gained the impression that the ex-Nazis were infiltrating the FDP in North Rhine-Westphalia. On the night of Jan. 14, 1953, British military police officers surrounded the houses in the western and northern cities of Solingen, Düsseldorf and Hamburg where the Nazi conspirators were staying and arrested them. The next morning, the occupying power informed an astonished public that the Nazis had been pursuing "plans to regain power in West Germany."

'No Nazi Renaissance'

In retrospect, the threat was probably not as great as the British portrayed it, and the case against Naumann and his associates was dropped. But the episode illustrates how seriously the occupiers took the situation. And everyone understood the message, says Berlin historian Michael Wildt, namely that "there would no Nazi Renaissance."

But even the Allies were unable to thoroughly cleanse Nazi-contaminated Germany. The plan to "de-Nazify" the conquered country, the Allies' aim of "removing National Socialists from offices and positions of responsibility," failed as a result of delays stemming from the resistance of those affected by this policy. In the US zone alone, some 13.4 million people over the age of 18 had to complete a questionnaire with 131 questions, and a total of 3.7 million cases were reviewed in all of the Western zones combined. But the lion's share of the investigations ended without indictments. Only 25,000 Germans from an army of millions of yesterday's collaborators were sentenced by the so-called Spruchkammer (the civilian courts handling denazification). They were fined or banned from their professions, but they were rarely sent to prison.

In the end the Americans, as ardent as they had been as first, abandoned their ambitious cleansing plan. The Germans -- all Germans -- were needed as the Cold War intensified. "If the nominal party members had not been given back their civil rights and the possibility of leading a normal life," the US military governor Lucius D. Clay concluded at the time, "a serious source of political unrest would have developed sooner or later."

The victors' assumptions proved to be correct. "The almost complete social reintegration of the former leading National Socialists was morally questionable, and in some cases scandalous; from a functional standpoint, however, it proved to be highly effective," writes historian Edgar Wolfrum. "Integration into the new democratic nation, as well as personal successes and new careers, offered the guarantee that the democracy would not be immediately questioned or challenged."

Opposed to All Concepts of Morality

But what price did the nation of the constitution have to pay for this small compromise with the past? "The fact that, in light of the millions of victims of Nazi policy, the majority of perpetrators in West Germany were to get off virtually scot-free was a process so fundamentally opposed to all concepts of morality that it could not possibly have remained without consequences for this society," writes Freiburg historian Ulrich Herbert.

On Nov. 7, 1968, a woman climbed onto the podium at the CDU party convention in Berlin, pushed her way to Chairman and Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, slapped him and shouted "Nazi, Nazi." Beate Klarsfeld was sentenced to a one-year prison term that very same day -- proof of how quickly German judges could react when determined to bring about justice.

The anti-Fascist activist, honored in many places (just not in Germany) with medals and awards for her worldwide pursuit of Nazi criminals who had gone into hiding, made a splash with her highly telegenic slap. It went down in German history as an event just as momentous as the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949: a turning point in the way Germans dealt with the past. It was only the 1968 generation, the generation of Joschka Fischer, who would later become foreign minister, that revolted against the comforting sleep of the republic, the depraved system of chumminess, opportunism and cover-up.

It was a rebellion. The demand to know the whole truth went down in the history of the Federal Republic as a "moral act," says the constitutional lawyer and author Bernhard Schlink, whose novel "The Reader," about a young man born after the war falling in love with a former concentration camp guard, became a global success.

But the days of slaps and revelations are gone. Poet-lawyer Schlink believes that the hour of truth, which is now being celebrated with panels of historians and addresses by cabinet ministers, has the bitter aftertaste of self-righteousness. "This approach to dealing with the past no longer costs us anything," says Schlink. He calls it "part of a new culture of denunciation."

Historian Wildt is no less critical about the new rush to expose old Nazis. He sees the thirst for the truth about one's own history as a form of obsessive political self-purification: "They want to clean themselves. Then they'll have put it behind them."

A "relaxed civil society," says Wildt, would handle the past differently. It would not involve procurement offices and vetted panels with strictly limited access to records, but an opening of the files based on the model of the agency that manages the Stasi records. "All government agencies should place their old files into the archive, so that every citizen can see for himself."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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