The Social Impacts of Nazism’s Legacies

By Christine Collins

Leading up to and during World War II, Germans faced an “us vs. them” mentality. We saw this in Hitler’s drive East in order to secure lebensraum the German people had a right to claim. Further, as discussed in previous weeks, there was strong characterization of the superiority of the Aryan, German race. This attitude was embodied by Rudolf Zimmerman, a Gestapo officer convicted of war crimes under an East German trail. A partially literate ethnic German from the farming community of Hohenbach, Fulbrook notes that Zimmerman likely enjoyed his newfound authority in the Nazi regime. Under non-war circumstances, the better educated Jews of Mielec were individuals he would have previously felt inferior to. Given the chance to gain relative power, Zimmerman took it. 

Why then, would an individual like Zimmerman feel such remorse during this war crimes trial? I believe we find the answer in comparing social factors leading up to and following the war. Prior to World War II, the German government worked hard to build up sentiments of superiority in the German people. We saw this demonstrated in Nazi leisure-time organization Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy). This program used travel to other, less prosperous countries to contrast low living standards elsewhere to the superiority of Germany’s way of life under Hitler. This is one of many ways that German’s supremacy was pushed on society. It was through social factors like this that individuals like Zimmerman were exposed to ideas of superiority that led them to embrace Nazism.

By contrast, post-war Germany was much more socially introspective. West Berlin’s Social Democratic Mayor, Willy Brandt, saw the broadcast of the of Adolf Eichmann’s trial (a high-ranking Nazi and SS official known as one of the “masterminds” behind the Holocaust) as an important lesson for Germans. Häberlan further describes the German student protests of the 1960s and 1970s as the “foundation for a democratic political culture ingrained in everyday life” and not an internal conflict to be hidden from the world. 

The film Judgement at Nuremburg further fictionalized monumental trials such as Eichmann’s for broader public consumption. While Moeller notes that reception from American and German critics varied, I think what is most striking is the fact that German audiences accepted a film written and directed by Americans. Speaking at the film premiere in Berlin, Mayor Brandy notes that while the world may judge Germany by its past actions “today it judged [them]…by their behaviour in the present.” Fulbrook further uses the example of Holocaust, a television show staring American actors, as an example where Western interpretations of the war were viewed and accepted by a German audience. 

Through these readings, we see that the legacies from World War II have dramatically transformed the values and outlooks of German people today. The retelling of German’s past has shifted from the post World War I rhetoric of “Deutschland über alles” to a more socially open society today. It is through this newfound openness that, according to Häberlan, Germany now presented as a defender of Western liberalism, a sentiment that certainly would be hard to believe some years ago.

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