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From Nazism to Never Again

How Germany Came to Terms With Its Past

Stumbling across history: plaques memorializing Holocaust victims in Berlin, November 2013. TOBIAS SCHWARZ / REUTERS

Defeated regimes are not only swiftly removed from power but often immediately erased from memory as well. When Adolf Hitler’s “thousand-year German Reich” came crashing down in 1945 with the Allied victory in World War II, reminders of the 12 years of its actual existence were hastily scrubbed away as Germans scrambled to adjust to life after Nazism. Stone swastikas were chiseled off the façades of buildings, Nazi insignia were taken down from flagpoles, and, in towns and cities across Germany, streets and squares named after Hitler reverted to their previous designations. 

Meanwhile, millions of former Nazis hid or burned their uniforms, and in the final days of the war, the Gestapo set fire to incriminating records all over the country. Many of the most fanatical Nazis did not survive: they either perished in the final conflagration or killed themselves, along with Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and many others, in one of the greatest waves of mass suicide in history, unable to imagine anything beyond the all-encompassing world of the Third Reich, the only thing that gave their lives purpose and meaning. 

In stark contrast to the countries that the Nazis had conquered during the war, Germany saw no resistance to the Allied occupation. As wartime gravestones eloquently testified, many Germans had fought and died “for Führer and Fatherland.” But with the führer gone and the fatherland under enemy occupation, there seemed no point in fighting on. German cities had been reduced to rubble, and millions of Germans had died; as a result, everyone could see what Nazism had ultimately led to. The Allied occupation was vigilant and comprehensive, and it quickly suppressed even the slightest act of resistance. The Allies put in place an elaborate program of "denazification,” war crimes trials, and “reeducation” measures that targeted not only former Nazi activists and fellow travelers but also the militaristic beliefs and values that the Allies believed had allowed the Hitler regime to gain support and come to power in the first place. In 1947, to symbolize this forced reinvention of German political culture, the Allied Control Council, which governed Germany at the time, formally abolished the state of Prussia, which “from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany,” the council claimed. 

Germans by and large wanted to focus on the gigantic task of rebuilding and reconstruction and to forget the Nazi past and the crimes in which, to a greater or lesser extent, the vast majority of them had been involved. The year 1945, many of them declared, was “zero hour”—time for a fresh start. However, politicians and intellectuals also reached back to older values in their quest to construct a new Germany. 

In the throes of the Cold War, the country split into the capitalist Federal Republic in the West and the socialist Democratic Republic in the East. From 1952 onward, a fortified fence separated them; in 1961, the last remaining links were severed with the building of the Berlin Wall. On either side, rival visions of the new Germany emerged. Konrad Adenauer, the leading politician in West Germany, sought to rebuild the country on the basis of “Western,” Christian values, while Walter Ulbricht, the leading politician in the East, looked to the traditions of the German labor movement, formed in the mid-nineteenth century under the inspiration of Karl Marx. The democratic traditions of the United States—and, to a lesser extent, those of France and the United Kingdom—exerted a powerful influence on West Germany, whereas the Russian Revolution, Leninism and Stalinism, and the social and political precedent of the Soviet Union provided the model for the socialist state in East Germany.

Yet postwar German efforts to forge a new identity could not just leap across the Third Reich as if it had not existed. Germans ultimately had to confront what the Hitler regime had done in their name. The process of doing so was halting and hesitant at first, and complicated by the country’s division during the Cold War. In recent decades, however, Germany has accomplished an undeniably impressive feat: a collective acceptance of moral responsibility for the terrible crimes of its recent past. The country has given material expression to this acceptance by preserving physical traces of the Nazi era and building fresh memorials to its victims. These memorials serve more than just a symbolic function: in the face of increasingly influential far-right groups and parties that reject contemporary German norms of tolerance, seek an end to what they consider the “shaming” of Germans, and encourage pernicious forms of historical revisionism, these monuments to the past act as constant, unavoidable, and visceral reminders of the truth. 

AFTER HITLER

In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies moved swiftly to prevent any of the sites associated with Hitler and the Nazi leadership from becoming pilgrimage destinations for those who still adhered to Nazism. The Soviets blew up the remains of the bombed-out Reich Chancellery in Berlin. The underground bunker where Hitler spent his final weeks was progressively demolished or filled in. Deliberately anonymous and unremarkable new buildings were constructed around the site; today, if visitors manage to find the spot, all they will see is a children’s playground and a parking lot.

Yet even when the physical damage of the war had been repaired, by the 1960s, many reminders of the Nazi regime persisted in most German cities; quite a few of the physical remains of the Hitler regime proved simply too massive to dismantle easily. It was one thing to remove a concrete Nazi eagle and swastika from a public building, but quite another to demolish the huge stadium constructed for the track-and-field events of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, for example, or the grandiose and largely intact Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, originally designed by the Nazis as one of four terminals that would serve what they imagined would be the “World Capital of Germania” after their eventual victory. What is more, both of those structures were just too useful to eliminate. A postwar role was even found for the concentration camps, the sites of the regime’s worst crimes, as some of them were used to house Nazi prisoners awaiting trial or even to provide temporary shelter for German refugees and exiles from eastern Europe. 

There was a limit, as well, to what the Allies could achieve in encouraging or forcing the Germans to come to terms with what they had done. West Germans, the vast majority of the formerly united country’s population, seemed to suffer from a generalized historical and moral amnesia in the postwar years; on the rare occasions when they spoke about the Nazi dictatorship, it was usually to insist that they had known nothing of its crimes and to complain that they had been unfairly victimized and humiliated by the denazification programs and the “victors’ justice” of the war crimes trials. Many still seethed with anger at the Allies’ carpet-bombing of German towns and resented the expulsion of 11 million ethnic Germans by the postwar governments of Hungary, Poland, Romania, and other eastern European countries. An opinion poll carried out in West Germany in 1949 revealed that half the population considered Nazism to be “a good idea, badly carried out.” In the East, the country’s new Stalinist leaders wanted the public to identify with the memory of the communist resistance to Nazism, which had been real enough, but which the authorities massively exaggerated. As a result, East Germans were not really forced to face up to their involvement in the crimes of Nazism at all. 

In the 1960s, however, things began to change. The much-heralded “economic miracle” transformed West Germany into a prosperous and flourishing society. Germans reconciled themselves to democratic institutions because they were finally delivering economic success, as they had not managed to do under the ill-fated Weimar Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s. A new generation of young Germans, born during or after the war and brought up in a democratic society, began to demand the truth about the Nazi era from their parents and teachers. Historians, most notably at Munich’s Institute for Contemporary History, began to research the Nazi period seriously and critically, as the documents seized by the Allies for the Nuremberg prosecutions were returned to German archives. The West German authorities themselves launched numerous prosecutions for war crimes, culminating in the trials of Auschwitz camp personnel in 1963–65. Massive publicity was generated by the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal administrators of what the Nazis had euphemistically called “the final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe.” The German student rebellion of 1968 and the coming to power of a Social Democratic government led by Willy Brandt, who had spent the Nazi years in exile, further opened the way to a more honest confrontation with the Nazi past. The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party emerged in 1964 to challenge these developments and won a few seats in state parliaments but never managed to get the five percent of the vote necessary to secure representation in the national legislature. 

East Germans were not really forced to face up to their involvement in the crimes of Nazism.

These developments lent urgency to the question of what to do with the remaining relics of the Third Reich. In Nuremberg, for example, there was the roughly seven-square-mile site where the Nazi Party had held huge rallies, one of which was immortalized in Leni Riefenstahl’s chilling 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Municipal officials converted the Luitpold Arena back into a public park, as it had been before Nazi times, and blew up the massive grandstand known as the Tribune of Honor, where 500 Nazi dignitaries had seated themselves to watch the mass choreography of party rallies. 

By the end of the 1950s, however, some groups in the city began to argue in favor of preserving some of these buildings as sites of memory, rather than obliterating them—and with them, not unintentionally, the memory of Nuremberg’s role in the Nazi movement. Although some members of the city council were keen to dissociate the city from its Nazi links by appealing to a more distant, medieval past, others thought this smacked of dishonesty and deception. At the Zeppelin Field, another vast arena used for the Nuremberg rallies, the Allies had blown up the huge swastika that topped the main grandstand, which had been constructed by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. But the buildings encircling the field were preserved, and the arena itself was used for sports practice, camping, and other open-air activities. Parts of an unfinished great hall became the home of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra. In view of the harmless nature of these new functions, it seemed wasteful to demolish the structures that housed them. In 1994, the city council decided to put up a permanent exhibition about the Nuremberg rallies and the surviving buildings in the complex, housed in a wing of the great hall, placing the events in their historical context and explaining the function and impact of the rallies in winning over people to the Nazi movement. 

The concentration camps went through a similar series of phases after the war, reflecting changing German attitudes to the Nazi past. For example, in 1948, the British occupying forces returned the camp at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, back to the Germans, who immediately converted it into a state penitentiary, removing the wooden huts and replacing them with a large new prison complex. The authorities pledged that the facility would be run in accordance with standard legal norms and penal practices, unlike its predecessor. But the fact that it incorporated the old concentration camp implied that the latter, too, had housed a population of criminals rather than the innocent victims of a genocidal regime. Meanwhile, the canal that camp inmates had been forced to build was leased to a commercial enterprise, as was a wing of the former camp’s brick factory. 

The few memorial sites that appeared on the grounds of the old concentration camps in West Germany said little or nothing about the camps themselves, instead paying homage to the victims with Christian monuments organized according to religious denomination. Only after groups formed by ex-prisoners pressured state authorities did they agree to open exhibition centers at the camps: at Dachau in 1955, Bergen-Belsen in 1966, and Neuengamme in 1981. But these exhibitions framed their messages in Cold War terms, decrying totalitarianism yet making little mention of the fact that many of the prisoners were held there because they were communists. The opposite was the case in the concentration camp sites in East Germany, which focused on the (often overstated) resistance activities of communist inmates, with whom the visitors were urged to identify.

THE TRUTH WILL OUT

The landscape of memorialization had thus already changed considerably between the immediate postwar years and the 1980s. But a far more dramatic transformation took place following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany in 1989–90. This change was accentuated by a second generational shift, as the senior members of the German professions (medicine, law, education, and so on), who had started their careers during the Nazi period, reached retirement age and relinquished power to younger colleagues, who had not been implicated in the crimes of the Third Reich. The 1990s saw a far-reaching reckoning with the past, as new research, often accompanied by public controversy, exposed the role of doctors in the killing of mental patients; of academics in planning the extermination of the Jews, Slavic peoples, the Sinti, the Roma, and others regarded by the Nazis as inferior or dispensable; of civil servants in the implementation of the Holocaust; of judges and lawyers in the condemnation and execution of political offenders, “social deviants,” gay men and women, and many others who fell afoul of discriminatory Nazi laws. 

Such revelations were not uniformly accepted. There were public demonstrations against a touring exhibition that exposed the crimes of the German armed forces on the eastern front during World War II, which included the massacre of Jews, the killing of civilians, the wanton destruction of enemy property, and much more besides. Still, by the late 1990s, most people in Germany accepted the validity of these accounts, and a majority of Germans had come to believe that their country bore the major responsibility for the extermination of some six million European Jews by the Nazis. 

A wave of memorials accompanied and encouraged this collective embrace of the truth. In 1992, the artist Gunter Demnig launched the Stolpersteine (“stumbling blocks”) project, in which small brass plaques the size of cobblestones were laid into the sidewalks of German towns and cities outside the houses where the murdered victims of Nazism had lived until their arrest. The plaques carry the names of the victims and the dates and places of their birth and death. The project quickly became popular as a way of memorializing the dead. To date, more than 56,000 Stolpersteine have been placed in urban locations in some 22 countries, the vast majority in Germany itself. By placing them where people would walk over them, the artist intended to remind passersby of the complicity of ordinary Germans in the violence. Although some towns still resist their placement, the number of these small but powerfully evocative memorials continues to grow. 

By the late 1990s, a majority of Germans had come to believe that their country bore the major responsibility for the extermination of some six million European Jews by the Nazis.

Larger, more elaborate forms of memorialization took shape, as well. The sites of former concentration camps were turned into large-scale memorials to the victims, with elaborate exhibitions that now took a more comprehensive approach to their subject, replacing the partial view of the Cold War years. The modern Neuengamme prison was closed in 2006. A supermarket built on the grounds of the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp was never opened after widespread protests (although the building itself was not demolished). The camp at Sachsenhausen, to the north of Berlin, in the former East Germany, was cleared of rubble, and a new exhibition center was opened there in 2001. And in 2005, perhaps the highest-profile of these projects opened: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located in the center of Germany’s new capital, Berlin. 

VICTORS AND VICTIMS

A shared sense of responsibility for the crimes of Nazism arguably aided the process of reunification, as Germans had to find a new source of national identity beyond the liberal democratic values or communist visions that had shaped the respective political cultures on either side of the Berlin Wall. Of course, there are still some who insist that the Germans were themselves victimized, above all by the Allied strategic bombing campaign that killed over half a million German civilians during the war, or by the expulsion under brutal and often murderous conditions of some 11 million ethnic Germans from eastern Europe in 1944–46. But this remains a minority view, and significantly, it has not found expression in permanent memorials: indeed, a plan to create a museum in Berlin to commemorate the victims of the expulsion had to be abandoned after protests lodged by the Polish government, in particular.

At the same time, a number of memorials created during the Nazi period have not been removed and have aroused considerable controversy and debate. One example is the memorial to the soldiers of the 76th Infantry Regiment at the Dammtor train station, in Hamburg, a huge concrete block commemorating the men of the regiment who fell in World War I. German veterans managed to frustrate Allied plans to demolish it, and so it remains intact. There are many monuments to the World War I dead in Germany, most of them politically more or less neutral, but this one, erected under the Nazi regime in 1936, is openly militaristic in character, carrying the inscription, in Gothic lettering, “Germany must live, even if we must die.” 

For the Western powers in the Cold War, this sentiment was not wholly unwelcome. But the sight of such an unmistakably Nazi memorial, which depicts 88 steel-helmeted infantrymen in relief marching round the side of the block, brandishing their weapons, aroused growing protests from the 1970s onward. The response of the Hamburg authorities was to commission an “antimonument” by the Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka, which since the mid-1980s has stood next to the main block, commemorating the victims of war, and especially the 40,000 inhabitants of the city who lost their lives in the gigantic firestorm created by Allied bombing raids in 1943. Only partially completed (for financial reasons), it nonetheless poses an effective criticism of the original memorial: war, it reminds viewers, is generally not the glorious and heroic enterprise claimed by the monument to the 76th Regiment.

TESTING TOLERANCE

Not surprisingly, an understanding of war’s costs has deeply affected contemporary German political culture. Since 1945, no European country has been more pacifistic in sentiment or more opposed to military intervention outside its own borders. No country has placed more weight on stability and continuity, a preference expressed most succinctly by Adenauer’s famous electoral slogan of the 1950s: “No experiments!” And no European country has been more welcoming to immigrants and refugees, including Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish Gastarbeiter (“guest workers”) drawn by the economic boom of the 1960s and more than a million refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere looking for a safer and better life who have flooded Germany in recent years. 

Today, such values are being tested as never before. The refugee crisis has sparked an intense backlash against postwar norms of tolerance. Two organizations in particular have emerged to object to the government’s policies in this area. Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) formed in 2014 in Dresden and has since held a series of mass street demonstrations against immigration, calling for “the preservation of German culture” and decrying “religious fanaticism.” One Pegida speaker declared that Germany had become “a Muslim garbage dump.” Opinion surveys in 2014 showed that although somewhere between a third and half of all Germans sympathized with the movement’s complaints, the great majority declared themselves unwilling to join in the demonstrations, correctly considering Pegida’s fears of a supposed overwhelming of German and European culture by Muslim immigrants to be grossly exaggerated. 

In the past three years, Pegida has largely given way to another new political movement, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has emerged as a conventional political party and received the third most votes in national elections last fall, gaining 94 of the 598 seats in the national legislature. As well as being anti-Islam and anti-immigrant, the AfD denies human influence on climate change, wants to ban same-sex marriage, supports what it calls traditional family values, opposes European integration, and repudiates what it sees as a culture of shame and guilt over the Nazi past in favor of a new sense of national pride. In January 2017, the leader of the ultra-right faction of the party, Björn Höcke, demanded a “180-degree about-face in the politics of memory,” a statement that aroused controversy even within the AfD. And even the moderate faction’s leader, Frauke Petry, who has since left the party, showed no reluctance to use Nazi terms that have been more or less anathemas to German politicians since 1945, such as Volk, which means “folk,” “people,” or “nation” but now has strong racist overtones, owing to its usage by the Nazis.

The AfD enjoys its strongest support in the former East Germany. Around 20 percent or more of voters in the five states there cast their ballots for the party last fall, in contrast to between seven and 12 percent in the former West German states. This reflects the legacy of the communist regime’s failure to instill an adequate culture of remembrance in its citizens; former East Germans don’t seem to have the same allergy to right-wing extremism that former West Germans have. In a similar way, it’s in former East German cities, such as Dresden, that Pegida has staged its most successful demonstrations. As the brief rise of the National Democratic Party in the late 1960s showed, when a coalition government of the two main parties holds power, as they did then and as they did under Chancellor Angela Merkel until the 2017 elections, the lack of any adequate political opposition encourages the rise of right-wing protest movements in Germany. 

But neither Pegida nor the AfD has managed to disturb the German consensus about the Nazi past. All the other main political parties support Merkel’s refugee policy and are even more committed to the dominant German culture of memory. The threat of right-wing populism in Germany has proved to be far weaker than in a number of other European countries. The days when a genuinely neo-Nazi party could win significant numbers of votes are long over, and despite some flirtation with Nazi ideas and even acts of violence on its ultra-right fringes, right-wing populism in Germany no longer has the Nazi ties it used to have. Indeed, echoes of Nazism on the fringes of the AfD have on occasion plunged the party into crisis and have led to the resignation of some senior members. The party has said that it wants to end Germany’s sense of responsibility for the German past, but with so many solid and prominent memorials to the victims of Nazism scattered all across the land, from the Stolpersteine to the concentration camp memorials, it is difficult to see how that would happen. Such physical reminders of the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis confront Germans every day, and while a small minority may not like this, they have no choice but to put up with it. When it comes to accepting the sins of the past, there is, in the end, no alternative for Germany.

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