Denazification: Victims of Circumstance or Mass Murderers?

Jackie Howell

While I studied at the University of Windsor, I participated in an elective course on German cinema. I am neither a film major nor a German history major, but films and the political aspects of their dissemination intrigued me. What struck me most was not the documentaries of the Holocaust but the films produced in the 1930s and 1940s and post-war. The films created during the Third Reich illustrated how German identity transformed post-WWI to adopt a prideful, nationalist sentiment with anti-Semitic undertones. The post-war films juxtaposed these films by addressing the collective guilt of the Germans. Mapping the transformation of the German identity is best illustrated in the cultural texts produced during this period. Sollors situates his argument through a cultural context and uses books and songs to depict the limits of the Fragebogen in assessing Nazism in Germany. Cultural texts can help unpack the shortcomings of the denazification process, particularly focusing on the extent of justice and guilt in Europe.

One of the dangers of remembering Nazi Germany is oversimplifying the Germans’ participation in the Third Reich. Fulbrook speaks to the myriad of participation in the podcast interview, examining how some Germans felt they were a “victim of circumstance” while others enjoyed their involvement. This begs the question: how do you bring a population to justice without considering the circumstances? Is each individual responsible for the actions of the Third Reich, or are some considered innocent bystanders? Fulbrook illustrates how participation is not simple to define, which the Fragebogen failed to consider. Sollors reaffirms the shortcomings of the Fragebogen by also addressing the oversimplification of “weeding out” Nazism through a questionnaire.  

However, it is also dangerous to underestimate the Germans’ accountability in the Third Reich. While they may not have pulled the trigger themselves, the Germans’ complicity deserves recognition and proper punishment. West Germany failed to properly punish all of those involved in the Third Reich’s atrocities, as the mismatch between the scale of horror and the number of those punished was massive. While East Germany did convict perpetrators with more severe sentences, one must question if the Soviets’ underlying hatred for the Germans fueled their higher conviction rate.

It is not sufficient to say “never again” to the atrocities. To right history, historians must examine how and why people become involved in a system of mass murder and how to deal with it afterward. Perhaps commemoration can be a start to remembering the atrocities and identities lost in collective violence. However, it is equally important to address how this act of collective violence occurred in the first place to prevent future atrocities.  


Fulbrook, M. (2019). Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi persecution and the quest for justice [podcast].

Smith, H. W. (2021, Jan. 11). It takes a village to create a nation’s memory. Zocalo Public Square.

Sollors, W. (2018). ‘Everybody gets Fragebogened sooner or later’: The denazification questionnaire as cultural text. German Life and Letters 71(2), 139-153.

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