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

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