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.

The second part of this book, the longest and most rewarding (but also most depressing), examines the mounting West German obsession – Frei’s term – with the release of those held by the Allies as war criminals. Among them were the men convicted at Nuremberg. A larger number were soldiers who had contravened the rules of war by executing POWs or hostages. Most were SS men, party, police and other officials or concentration camp personnel who had been found guilty at hundreds of separate trials of crimes that included torture and murder. The clamour to release the war criminals (the phrase was soon put in quotation-marks, or prefixed with a ‘so-called’) began before the Federal Republic was founded. Initially led by senior members of the Protestant and Catholic Churches such as Bishop Wurm and Cardinal Frings, acting in close co-operation with defence counsel who had a clearly political agenda, the campaign gained strong support among press, public and politicians in the new state. Beyond the familiar cry of ‘victors’ justice’ there were claims that defendants had been tortured in custody or railroaded in court. Suffragan Bishop Neuhäusler of Munich was pleased to inform the American authorities that in the Dachau trial ‘many of the witnesses, perhaps 90 per cent, were paid professional witnesses with criminal records ranging from robbery to homosexuality.’ He had already complained about testimony from homosexuals, child molesters, pimps, Communists and criminals in the trial of Flossenbürg camp personnel. There was an undertow of anti-semitism at work in the pointed comments made by some about the number of recently naturalised citizens – i.e. Jews – among American prosecutors.

There is plenty of barely contained anger in Frei’s account, which finds release in some darkly satirical formulations. A German Foreign Office memorandum helpfully provided ‘suggestions for a final solution to the so-called war criminal problem’; Johann Schuster informed the Bundestag that the incarceration of soldiers was a ‘crime against humanity’; and a Tübingen theologian, Helmut Thielicke, described the death sentences (all eventually commuted) passed on members of the First SS Tank Division for murdering 72 disarmed Americans at Malmédy as a ‘legal depravity’. The singling out of soldiers for special sympathy was characteristic. Those calling for a general amnesty liked to give the impression that most of the ‘so-called war criminals’ were former members of the Wehrmacht, even though only 88 of the 603 prisoners who were still being held by the Western Allies by the spring of 1952 were soldiers (most were former camp personnel, Gestapo and police, or participants in the ‘euthanasia’ programme). No wonder John McCloy, the generally patient American High Commissioner, complained about the ‘abysmal ignorance’ displayed by many who wrote to him.

Frei brings out very well the pathos that attached to incarcerated former members of the Wehrmacht, and the psychological importance of insisting that their honour remained untainted. His book can be read in conjunction with Robert Moeller’s War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, which explores these themes with imagination.[*] The myth of the Wehrmacht’s ‘clean hands’ took hold in these years, and – witness the heated debates over the Wehrmacht exhibition that was relaunched in Germany earlier this year – it has outlasted most of the other myths. As Frei shows, what also took hold in this period was the conviction that, where regrettable incidents had occurred, the soldiers in question had been subject to binding orders. This is the double line of defence deployed so artlessly by Billy Bunter: I didn’t eat the cakes; and anyway they tasted rotten. They didn’t help the Einsatzgruppen or shoot POWs; and anyway they were following orders.

Facing unrelenting pressure and a changing political situation, the Allies released almost three-quarters of those still held as war criminals between 1950 and the spring of 1952. There would be no general amnesty, but the remaining prisoners were released incrementally, as a result of legal reviews, clemency boards and Christmas goodwill gestures. The prisoners held in the USSR ‘came home’ in 1955. By the summer of 1957 the British and French had closed down their prisons in Werl and Wittlich; the Americans released the last of their war criminals from Landsberg in May 1958. Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and Baldur von Schirach remained in Spandau, under joint four-power auspices, and a few individuals continued to be imprisoned by other nations. Herbert Kappler, the former police chief of Rome, briefly made headlines when he escaped from an Italian prison in 1978; two German war criminals in Dutch custody were freed from Breda prison only at the beginning of 1989. But the release of war criminals held on German soil by the Western Allies was essentially concluded by the mid-1950s, during the same years that the amnesty and Civil Service laws were passed.

Setting off these two developments was a third, dealt with in the final part of the book: the formal exclusion from West German politics of the Far Right, those who rejected the new democratic order and explicitly sought to justify Nazi crimes or attacked the authors of the July 1944 plot against Hitler as ‘traitors’. In a moral balancing act, Stauffenberg and his colleagues became the unofficial founding fathers of the Federal Republic and unrepentant Nazis were shown the door, even as the amnesties signalled a collective silence about criminal misdeeds in the Nazi past.

Frei uses three short case studies to illustrate how the incorrigible ‘men of yesterday’ were politically marginalised – normative demarcation, as he calls it. Wolfgang Hedler, a Bundestag member of the right-wing German Party, lost his Parliamentary immunity and was eventually convicted of defaming members of the Resistance. His original acquittal also prompted new legislation aimed at those who threatened the political order. As Frei notes, this owed a disturbing amount to an authoritarian tradition of ‘state protection’, and was ultimately used more extensively against the Left than the Right. In the short term, however, it was the neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party that was banned in 1952, following the conviction of its incendiary leader, Otto Remer, in another defamation trial. A year later it was the turn of Werner Naumann, a former State Secretary in Goebbels’s propaganda ministry, who was arrested by the British occupying forces and tried before a German court for conspiring to bring about the return of National Socialism. The Hedler, Remer and Naumann cases were as richly symbolic of the way the early Federal Republic drew a line under the past as the politics of amnesty that was being pursued simultaneously.

The ‘politics of the past’ was shaped by the complex interplay between three groups. On one side stood advocates of the ‘so-called war criminals’ – family members, the Heidelberg Circle of lawyers, leading churchmen, journalists on such papers as the Frankfurter Allgemeine and Süddeutsche Zeitung, politicians on the Right. Frei does a good job of showing how they nurtured resentments and mobilised opinion, and how this group stretched over to a radical fringe of far-right true believers such as Hedler, Remer, the Nuremberg defence lawyer Ernst Achenbach and the Princess Isenburg. On the opposite side stood the Western Allies, represented by their High Commissions, who continued to set the ground rules of politics. Besieged by the amnesty campaigners (McCloy and his family received death threats), torn between conciliatory instincts and anger at apparent German moral obtuseness, caught up in the swirl of their own public opinions, they were also operating in a political landscape reshaped by the Cold War, Korea and West German rearmament.

In the middle was the political class of the new Republic. Some of them were the same people who were most strongly in favour of letting bygones be bygones. That was especially true of the small parties in the Government coalition, the German Party and the liberal FDP, who played to resentment about the occupying powers out of conviction and the pursuit of votes. They set the tone, and the large parties – Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – met them more than halfway. If the Social Democrats expressed greater misgivings, it was not by much. Again, genuine sympathy (especially for incarcerated soldiers) mingled with electoral calculation and a belief that accommodation would halt the rise of ultra-nationalism. At the centre of the decision-making that Frei unpicks so well was the foxy, secretive Konrad Adenauer, who navigated between the domestic Right and the Allies with enormous skill. The Allies, whose co-operation was necessary at every stage, gave him a reason for not accepting the maximum demands of the Right – although it is also true that the Christian Democrats’ public statements raised expectations. Nationalist resentments could be used, in turn, as a weapon in negotiations with the Allies. The changing geopolitical situation of the Cold War offered additional room for manoeuvre. What came out of the mix was an extensive amnesty programme, coupled with the marginalisation of neo-Nazism on the one hand and vigorous anti-Communism on the other. The 1953 election, a triumph for Adenauer and his Party, sealed the success of this policy.

Frei’s conclusions are alert to the moral and political complexity of the times. He notes that war criminals were in fact punished. The number would have been fewer but for the occupying powers; it would have been fewer still if the apologists had got their way. As Adenauer’s State Secretary, Otto Lenz, complained to foreign correspondents, the nationalists acted ‘as if Nazi crimes did not exist’. Adenauer himself, privately more critical than he usually allowed himself to be in public, came to embody a comforting national consensus that separated those who were amnestied from the ‘true criminals’ (presumed to be a tiny number), this fostering a widespread amnesia about the nature of National Socialism. The Federal Republic reintegrated civil servants and purchased political stability, but at the cost of moral credibility. Some sort of process of amnesty and integration was unavoidable, Frei argues; but opportunities were missed to make it clear that amnesties were the voluntary gift of the new democratic state, not something granted as of right to people who had been unjustly treated. There was more reconciliation than there was truth. And this postponed the reckoning.

In the original Frei’s book was dense and elliptical, not an easy text to translate; but that hardly excuses this wooden effort. The ghost of the original German haunts many formulations – ‘overtrumped’, ‘take distance’, ‘My Ladies and Gentlemen’, ‘ultimative demands’, ‘war prisoners’, ‘verbal chastity’ (isn’t that what Jimmy Carter failed to practise?). Joel Golb mangles church and state even-handedly. He gives us ‘bishoply words’, ‘churchly shepherds’ and ‘shepherding clerics’, not to forget the ‘Holy Sea’; he also has his politicians making public ‘pro-nunciations’, and turns the Bundesregierung into the Bundesliga by filling it with ‘referees’ (Referenten: ‘experts’ or ‘advisers’). Few pages are without something off-key. Sometimes the original meaning is overturned. It makes a difference whether the German churches were ‘supposedly’ innocent of complicity (Frei), or ‘presumably’ innocent (Golb). When Adenauer raised the case of Field-Marshal von Manstein with the British, they showed ‘reserve’ or ‘coolness’ (Zurückhaltung), not ‘restraint’. And the Social Democrat Otto Bauer surely meant to say that the Third Reich was a ‘terrible era’ when he used the adjective unheimlich, not an ‘uncanny era’. (Freudians may possibly disagree.)

This major work deserved better, but the intellectual power and conceptual subtlety still shine through. Frei is morally engaged but not moralistic: his conclusions persuade because they are argued from the evidence. The large issues he raises have not lost their bite, but this book is a reminder of how much the politics of the past have changed in Germany over the last fifty years.

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