More Reconciliation than Truth

David Blackbourn

  • Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration by Norbert Frei, translated by Joel Golb
    Columbia, 479 pp, £24.50, September 2002, ISBN 0 231 11882 1

Over the long term, Germans have made a good job of confronting the criminal, genocidal character of the Third Reich. Historical writing, schoolbooks, literary works, public and political debate all point to an engagement with the years 1933-45 that came earlier and was more intense than anything we find in Japan, or in Austria, self-styled ‘first victim’ of National Socialism. Earlier – but still delayed. In 1967, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich published a famous book, The Inability to Mourn, on the collective German repression of painful memories after 1945. Norbert Frei pursues the same theme by examining political debates in the early years of the Federal Republic. His book originally appeared in 1996 with the title Vergangenheitspolitik (the ‘politics of the past’, or ‘policy for the past’), a term that has since entered general use in Germany. Others had written on the subject before Frei, notably Jörg Friedrich and Ulrich Brochhagen; more have done so since. But no one has written better. This is an important work: very well researched, reflective, sharp in judgment yet alive to complexity.

Frei’s book is in three parts, each a cross-section of the years from the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 to the mid-1950s. The first looks at a series of legislative initiatives designed to draw a line under the past. One of the first measures passed in the Bundestag was the Amnesty Law of 1949, which covered many convicted or awaiting trial for offences committed during the last year of the Nazi regime, together with a larger number of people found guilty of postwar black market crimes. Conflating the two categories indicates how, by 1949, German legislators echoed public opinion in shifting attention to their own tribulations after total defeat and ruin. The Justice Minister, Thomas Dehler, introducing the Bill, managed not to name the Nazi period, referring instead to ‘the confusion behind us’ and the ‘years of transition and . . . economic convulsion’. A second Amnesty Law in 1954 also bundled together those guilty of crimes committed during the last violent spasm of the Third Reich and later offenders of a quite different kind. Dehler’s successor called the law a means of ‘making a break with crimes directly or indirectly connected with circumstances prevailing in a chaotic period’, some of the most weaselly words in a book that quotes many. The obfuscation at work in both laws makes it hard to determine how many Nazi criminals escaped punishment, but Frei estimates there were tens of thousands, including some who had committed manslaughter or murder.

More widespread in its effects was the 1951 law on the Civil Service, which reinstated and restored the pensions of more than 400,000 civil servants and career soldiers. People with bloody or dirty hands were once again rehabilitated under the cover of a more general measure. For the law included expellees from Eastern areas and officials whose departments had ceased to exist with the ‘collapse of the state’ (both groups in fact included many highly compromised individuals), as well as others who had been subject to earlier denazification. The 1951 law did explicitly exclude former members of the Gestapo – but excepted those who had been transferred to it ‘ex officio’, which opened the back door wide. Frei’s careful research warrants his strong conclusion that the measure rested on ‘a kind of collective self-deception’. There were especially serious effects as former Nazi judges slipped back into their posts. Combined with the growing critique of denazification more generally (a ‘modern witch-hunt’, one German politician called it), this explains why just 183 people were prosecuted for Nazi-era crimes in 1954, a number that had fallen steadily since 1950.

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[*] California, 344 pp., £29.95, 6 March 2001, 0 520 22326 8.