Herf deals with divergent memories of Nazism, especially the persecution of the Jews, among post-1945 Germans, discussing a major split between East and West Germany and secondary ones within each state. The leaders' views before the Nazis came to power shaped their later "restorations of past traditions." In East Germany, "Nazi persecution of the Jews" was viewed "as a functional tool for other political purposes," such as the destruction of the working class. The regime also sought to present itself as a true German nationalist state, as against the "cosmopolitanism" of the West (and the Jews), and embraced Soviet policies in the Middle East. The dissident communist leader Paul Merker's attempt to stress the centrality of the Holocaust led to his political demise and imprisonment.
For Konrad Adenauer in West Germany, "facing the Nazi past meant above all moral and strategic integration into the West." Herf contrasts Adenauer's lack of zeal for a thorough judicial pursuit of Nazis, his failure to question the Christian sources of anti-Semitism, and his reluctance to speak about Nazi Germany's war on the Eastern front, with his endorsement of restitution for the victims of the Holocaust. For Adenauer's Social Democratic opponent, Kurt Schumacher, anticommunism and "a continued desire for denazification" and for facing Nazi crimes in all their dimensions went together. Unlike Ernst Reuter, the Socialist mayor of Berlin, Adenauer shunned memorial ceremonies. But Herf pays tribute to West German President Theodor Heuss, who with Nahum Goldmann, head of the World Jewish Congress, gave deep and eloquent speeches about the Holocaust at Bergen-Belsen in 1952. The violently negative reaction of the Bundestag to the frank and courageous speech of its Christian Democratic President, Phillip Jenninger, in November 1988 shows how difficult it has remained for German politicians to face the past without flinching, but 1995 brought an unprecedented focus on Nazi crimes. In coming years, Herf should again apply his expertise, research skills, and good judgment to this difficult territory, moving from the views of leaders to those of the public, intellectuals, and the judiciary, and comparing German reactions to the dark years with those of Germany's neighbors.