Nazis that got away

Sollors’ article on the Fragebogen brings attention to the process of denazification through the particular mean of answering a detailed questionnaire. This bureaucratic response to a phenomenon that penetrated all spheres of life just a few years before seems, in my opinion, a rather weak approach to the elimination of Nazism.

The first aspect which I found troubling is the honesty of the answers. The questions were, as mentioned, embarrassing for some, and could prevent people from getting jobs, so I can imagine that the temptation of lying, or at least concealing incriminating facts, would be present. They were also very specific (an example was to tell for which party one had voted in November 1932 and March 1933). False answers were apparently punished and could be verified with archived files of membership. The punishments were public in order to discourage others to lie. But there were limits to this system, as it is reported by the article that it was suspected that many still lied. Membership could easily be checked out with an access to SS files, for example. But in the instance of a vote that occurred years ago, how could it be confirmed? Someone could simply have forgotten, or could answer with a political party that would not undermine his future job. I don’t know how voting worked in Germany in the 1930s, but I doubt that records were kept on who voted for whom. But if so, that would be a very interesting aspect of democracy to study.

This specific process of denazification in the immediate post-war years tallies with one of the objectives of the Nuremberg trial of purging Germany from the remnants of the Third Reich. Apart from trying to ensure that workers have no history of association with the Nazi Party, bringing known criminals to justice was also a way of getting a clean slate. An eye-catching point in this article is the complaint that real Nazis got away. Some were tried, less of-interest had to file a questionnaire, but some were exonerated, and some, in the real sense of the word, got away. This particular point took me through an interesting search on Nazi hunters, people that dedicated their time to finding Nazis that had escaped and hid in South America. This documentary (in French… this youtuber is my go-to for videos about “fun” historical facts, but there are many others on the subject of Nazi hunting) retraces the story of Klaus Barbie, a former Gestapo chief in Lyon, France, who was able, with the help of the American government that needed information he possessed on French communist parties, to leave Germany and spend years in Bolivia. Nazi hunters were able to find him in the 1970s, and during an interview, a French journalist, asking a question in French that caught Barbie off guard, could identify him. What is frustrating is that it still took about 20 years before he was brought back to France to be tried, but in the end justice won… but there are more that escaped it, in South America, or just in Germany, with lies and loopholes.

At one point though, wherever former Nazi criminals are, they will all be dead. But just the fact that some didn’t get caught and were able to spend good years in another country, away from the suffering that their crime had caused, is probably not helping with the coping of the Holocaust that is questioned, challenged and put in perspective today, as shown by comparisons in Rothberg’s article.

Works cited:

W. Sollors,“Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153.

Michael Rothberg, “Comparing Comparison: From the “Historikerstreit to the Mbembe Affair” Geschichte der Gegenwart September 23, 2020

4 Replies to “Nazis that got away”

  1. Thank you so much for an insightful summery, it made for an interesting read. My question is as follows. As in the Mary Fulbrook podcast, she points out there was a number of different levels of involvement for German citizens to participate in. Because of this, there are grey areas on who was fully culpable of their actions in this regime. As a result, do you think it would have been fully possible to prosecute everyone who had held positions within the Nazi system? if so, what would have been the ‘cut off point’ to distinguish everyday citizens from hardened war criminals? and how would the justice system be able to handle the amount of people and individual cases brought about as a result?

    Thanks so much.

    1. Hi, thank you for your comment! The podcast was a very informative though emotional listening. To stay on the more “paperwork” side of it, I unfortunately don’t think that it would have been possible to try everyone involved, just because of the number and the fact that, as you mention, the line is extremely difficult to draw especially with the regular laws regarding murder, that were not adapted to the Holocaust and the different killing situations it encompasses. I think that one of the characteristics of the Holocaust is precisely the high number of people implicated, that simply outruns any legal system…

  2. Hi Morgane,

    I share similar thoughts about the weak bureaucratic response through the Fragebogen as a method of eliminating Nazism. As you said, and so to the article, many Nazis did escape and others were teared apart by questions that never accurately captured the German individual’s full story. I am curious about your opinion on reconciliation through memory, as Smith’s essay discusses a bit more explicitly. In the contemporary, as well, can we find a balance between bureaucratic responses by using local community reconciliation through stories? Thank you for the read.

    1. Hi, thank you for your comment! It is good that you bring the story told by Smith, as I actually think that, beyond the bureaucratic side, initiatives like this one are an important aspect of reconciliation, as well as bringing a sense of justice and honoring victims of the Holocaust. In fact, since remaining Nazis will soon all be dead, the bureaucratic response won’t really matter anymore, at least not in a reactive way, so I think it will eventually be outweighted.

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