The Struggles of Denazification and Coming to terms with the Past

Lucas Lang

This week’s readings were about struggle. In the aftermath of the second world war, the fall of Nazi Germany resulted in struggles both with those within and affected by the party and its actions. For Jewish communities, it became a struggle to rebuild. Regrouping with family and loved ones and grieving the dead was only part of their difficulties. Returning to their homes was often problematic as their neighbors, often struggling themselves, sought to ignore or forget the Jews suffering. It would take years for some communities to recognize the losses endured by the Jewish communities, and early on, only if matched with their own losses. The German people also struggled in the aftermath of the war. They had to come to terms with their own dead and losses as well as their own participation in events. Perhaps one way to explain the German struggle to accept their parts in the murder of Jews and other groups, they first had to resolve their own suffering. It is hard to comprehend other’s suffering when suffering ourselves. The Allies had their own struggles, though of a different nature, as they tried to determine who the guilty, innocent, and the victims were and how to punish the collaborators. There is much debate over how effective their efforts were and whether they ought to have persecuted more of the Nazi’s. Whether that would have solved modern issues or only provoked the German people can only be speculated. Many of their same struggles to determine who is the victim, who is guilty, and how to prosecute them reflect current events and remains modern issues.

Re-imagining life in the wake of Nazism

Michaela Bax-Leaney

Holocaust studies as we know and engage it with today, as Michael Rothberg points out, is rooted in a relatively recent set of ideas – as early as the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet what is even more recent, in my mind at least, are meaningful discussions about the nuances and practicalities of daily life in post-war Germany. What does one do in the wake of the Holocaust? How do people, and how do nations, come to terms with those events?

Werner Sollors documents one way in which the American military and bureaucratic machine attempted to deal with what they dubbed the task of ‘denazification’ – through the use of the fragebogen. But as Sollors notes, these widely distributed surveys were woefully unfit for the task at hand.

This is perhaps not surprising given that, as Mary Fulbrook argues, even those who were implicated in war crimes were often not charged, or were charged very leniently. Fulbrook raises an interesting standard around the notion of culpability, noting that there simply is no one size fits all way to address the task of denazification. The legal system as it existed well into the 1970s and 80s, and the American fragebogen, are both stark examples of the failures of the Allies in the post-war period.

I think Helmut Walser Smith touches on a nuance in which the aforementioned authors were lacking – the hard and yet often most meaningful instances of this labour of forgiveness and reconciliation were done by local actors in their own communities. The Nazi Party rose from the wounded Germany pride (to be sure, this was coupled with virulent antisemitism and xenophobia, which is not to be minimized), a pride that had been wounded by the actions of outsiders. It makes sense that in order to rebuild those human connections, that difficult and extraordinarily necessary work was best done in communities, for the same reasons Rothberg gives for those initial conversations about the legacy of the Holocaust were had internally. However, Rothberg also makes the important point that, particularly as the political compass of the Western voter shift right, that there is also a way to engage in those conversations cross-border.

Reflection is a Two-Fold Process

Jake Rooke

It is intricately difficult to come to terms with one’s own past faults and mistakes. This process of reflection must have been enormous for those involved in the Nazi’s Third Reich, for those that implicitly supported it, for those that turned a blind eye, and finally, for those that were victims of Nazism. Reflecting on trauma is a two-fold process for either a victim of Nazism or a perpetrator. First, there is a need for personal self-reflection for individuals explicitly, implicitly or tacitly involved. These individuals must reflect on their past, however their accounts of events are through the eyes of a perpetrator, and will be largely misdirected and/or downplayed. Thus, there is a need for a second process. The second processs is based on the input of reflections from those that were victims of Nazism. These victim statements and the accounts they give are valued detail to what victims experienced at the hands of those that explicitly, implicitly or tacitly supported Nazism. These victim statements and reflections also hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and their own self-reflections. Moreover, these reflections give critical credibility to the process of historiography, and how we remember the events surrounding Nazism, its perpetrator’s actions, and it’s victims torment.

 In Helmut Walser Smith’s article (2021) it took victims of Nazism, and in particular Jewish individuals that returned to Germany, to create the environment for a genuine level of reflection. This can be compared to the Fragebogen questionnaires (Sollars 2018), that was imposed by Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces German Country Unit (GCU) to tackle the ‘denazification problem’. Although this questionnaire had many tangible benefits tackling issues surrounding denazification in the short-term, it was a largely American bureaucratic process. This is demonstrated by Military Governor Lucius D. Clays, that states ‘perhaps never before in world history has such a mass undertaking to purge society been undertaken’ (Sollars 2018: 140), other observers state that this was ‘revolution by decree’.

The Fragebogen can be compared to the efforts of Holocaust survivor, Hugo Spiegel, and many like him. Spiegel returned to Germany after the war and fought for recognition of crimes against Jews, however, it took until 1970 to build a memorial to both the Jews who lay in the Warendorf cemetery and those ‘who died in the years 1933 to 1945’ (Smith 2021). As Jews began returning in the 1970s, they complained that their local cemetery had no plaque or sign about Kristallnacht. “This was often the moment that the work of commemoration began” (Smith 2021). This created a two-fold process of reflection, for the general German public, but also from the Jewish victims of Nazism. In turn, the German people began a national conservation of reflection, creating national memorials and institutions to fight anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. It is clear that it took more than self-reflection for the German people was needed in order to understand what had happened during Third Reich’s reign. As Smith (2021) concludes, “the work of memory was not a German effort alone” but needed victim statements as well.

Nazism’s Lessons and Legacies

By: Andreea Gustin

Following a period in history as cruel and as heinous as the holocaust, it is impossible to move forward without acknowledging the past. This week’s sources centered on the lessons and the legacies of Nazism. I think often times, when taught about the holocaust or the events of WWII, the question of what happened next is often left unanswered. As a history student, once this period in history has been covered, we close the book and we move on to the next. However, this week shows the reality of the impacts of these events. For many, the pain does not stop just because the holocaust did. They are not able to close the book on this chapter because for them, it is a pain and a trauma that will follow them for the rest of their story. Smith’s essay, “It Takes A Village to Create a Nation’s Memory”, gave us a glimpse into how it felt for Jews to face the difficult past upon returning back to Germany as we saw with Hugo Spiegel. Personally, this was the source that stood out for me this week. I wish that we got to learn more about how Germany moved forward as a nation however, I think through the individual story of Hugo Spiegel, we got to see how ordinary citizens coped and came to terms with the horrors that occurred in order to move forward with their lives while still fighting for the remembrance and the acknowledgment of the terrors committed. Ultimately, this source demonstrated how Germany could not face it’s past alone. The Jews returning home was critical to Germans confronting the wrong-doings and working alongside the Jews in their community to commemorate the past. 

Memory and the Importance of Collaboration

Written by Emma Bronsema

Overtime, memory culture changes, as does the way we look at and understand certain historical events. Discussions and research surrounding the holocaust were based on the political and intellectual context of the time. Memories and stories were not immediately following, and in the same way, right after the war, in comparison to decades following. Some reasons are due to the desire to maintain hidden following the war. Other reasons include interests and focus being placed on different aspects of the war. In relation to the commemoration of the jewish experience and the use of plaques and monuments, they were not popular until the 1980s.

Stories are told, memories shared, and memorials are created successfully through collaboration between the two groups and a receptive audience. A minority group may rally for something, but until their voice is heard by the majority and people are genuinely willing to work together, whatever it is they are asking for will not be given.

This is especially prevalent in regards to the holocaust memorials in small German towns. While members of the returning Jewish community were pushing for a monument or plaque to commemorate the Jewish lives lost and their experience during the Second World War, it was not until they gathered together and got their voices heard by the rest of the community. They had to get their community interested and invested in order to get their wishes granted. At the same time, without the return of the Jewish communities, their voices would have been lost and experiences unheard by the residents still there.

By working together, not only are their memories able to be kept alive, but the collective population is able to learn about other people’s experiences. Furthermore, they, and historians and researchers, can attempt to understand how people can become marginalized, as well as become involved in a system of collective violence. This includes figuring out how to deal with it, and grapple with the limits of our collective and individual knowledge and understanding.

References used:

Helmut Walser Smith, “It Takes a Village to Create a Nation’s Memory” Zocalo Public Sphere 

Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice podcast 

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

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

Transforming Memories

by Sydney Linholm

The article by Helmut Walser Smith discusses Hugo Spiegel and his efforts to reunify German and Jewish communities while simultaneously honouring the memory of Jews in small-town cemeteries that were destroyed by the Nazi regime. The article focuses on communities that were affected by Kristallnacht and Nazism, and how Germans and Jews have come together to help German communities face their unsavoury pasts and focus on a future that moves away from the throes of the Second World War while commemorating those who lost their lives.

This article presents a really intriguing perspective on rebuilding small German communities following the Second World War. More often than not, this is overlooked in favour of larger-scale issues, such as the prosecution of Nazis. Helmut Walser Smith’s article highlights the importance of community in the commemoration of the Jewish graves that were destroyed during Kristallnacht and the bonding between small-town Germans and Jews who have returned to their hometowns after the war. This enforces that it is vitally important that Germans must work together with Jews in order to present an honest, critical reflection on German history and that this comes in the form of local German and Jewish actors repairing cemeteries and synagogues, putting up plaques, and other commemorative actions.

While the author points out that Germany’s past was hardly its own, the repairing of divides is still crucial to the honest and critical retelling of German history. The hometowns that once egged on Nazis while they destroyed Jewish graves and synagogues have, and must continue, making strides to repair the relationship with Jewish citizens that they had once wronged. In accepting and bringing their separate accounts of history together, they commemorate those whose lives were lost under the Nazi regime and move forward in transforming Germany’s nefarious past.

The Changing of Memory

By: Willem Nesbitt

Over the course of thirty years, Hugo Spiegel fought for his hometown of Warendorf to erect a monument to commemorate the Holocaust. Having survived the horrors of Dachau and Auschwitz, the last of which took his young daughter’s life, Hugo exemplified the gradual shift in Germany memory of the Holocaust during the latter half of the twentieth century. With surviving Jews emigrating to Israel and America en masse, author Helmut Walser Smith describes how the act of commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust gradually came into form over the years, with, as outlined by Michael Rothberg, eventually culminating in the “Historikerstreit” in the 1980s. While both authors do attempt to address why it took so long for Germany to reconcile its past, Smith placing emphasis on the idea of German-Jewish co-operation and Rothberg highlighting larger, public commemorations such as Schindler’s List and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, both articles gloss over German society itself. While I understand it may be difficult to accurately look into the feelings and actions of an entire population, the articles leave me wondering why it was that the Holocaust fell by the wayside for so long in public consciousness. Was it shame, or perhaps embarrassment? Was it because those who lived through the war themselves did not want to speak of it, and it was only the younger generations who finally picked up the torch?

America might be “uncancelled,” but the Republican Party of old can’t say the same

Michaela Bax-Leaney

The 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo via the New York Times/Erin Schaff.

Liz Cheney and the nine other house representatives who voted in favour of impeaching Trump highlighted a stark divide in the Republican party, but it is a divide that has been forming for years. It is a complicated, multi-faceted divide, resulting from fractures on dozens of issues, but the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, entitled “America Uncancelled” highlighted those differences in perhaps the clearest terms yet. If not gone then quickly fading are the libertarian roots of the GOP – the Liz Cheney brand of Republicanism, as it were – advocacy for less spending and smaller government.

Instead, in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the GOP is leaning into its new identity, cemented in anti-immigrant, nativist grievances focussed on wielding a culture war rather than one rooted in policy. But what is perhaps most interesting is the wholehearted embrace of the European model of far-right populism, including forging ties with other foreign populists. While this might seem like a contradiction from a party that has made a point of reinventing itself to convey “America First” messaging, this international populist allegiance makes more sense than one might imagine.

In fact, David Motadel, a historian at the London School of Economics, made the case in 2019 that the far-right is far more internationally minded than their rhetoric would initially lead us to believe. Motadel wrote of the alliance between members of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party from France, Matteo Salvini’s Italian Northern League, to members of Nigel Farage’s Reform Party (known at the time as the Brexit Party). This alliance was formed of members of Europe’s leading far-right nationalist groups, and yet it spanned international borders.

And it would appear that this brand of internationally minded nationalism has found its way into the GOP, where it has been warmly received. Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, was a featured guest at last year’s CPAC and gave a video message to attendees this year, alongside far-right Spanish and Croatian politicians. A former right-wing South Korean politician told the crowd that he had also lost his election due to voter fraud from the left.

The Trump brand of conservatism saw close ties forged with Jair Bolsonaro, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Polish president Andrzej Duda, all of whom have embraced far-right populism in their own countries. 

But nationalists have always found one another, and there are clear examples of the forging of these bonds throughout history, particularly throughout the interwar and post-war years in Europe. In 1934, Benito Mussolini’s Comitati d’Azione per l’Universalità di Roma convened the 1934 Conference of Fascist Parties in Montreux, Switzerland. The goal was to form strong transnational bonds in order to resist socialism and liberal democracy. At the Nuremberg Party Rally in 1931, the Nazis hosted fascist youth from Spain, Italy, Romania, Japan, Siam, Bolivia, and Iraq.

There was the World Nationalist Congress in the 1970s, formed by neo-fascist Americans, and which hosted peers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, and others, lobbying for the release of Nazi war criminals, and proclaiming support for “all White Nationalists throughout the world,” writes Motadel. The policy of the British National Party in the 1960s was that it was “as much concerned with the fate of our people in Melbourne as those in Manchester, or those in Stockholm and those in Sheffield” declaring that this international cooperation was integral to the formation of a united nationalist world movement.

Historian Florian Bieber argues that as long as the worldview of the far-right is dominated by real and perceived external threats, those within will always seek to form ties with their fellow resisters – in this case, those resisting the “threat” of the liberal brand of internationalism, and its corrupting influence on the white, so called Judeo-Christian identity of which many within the Western far-right see themselves as not only members, but defenders. 

And while these alliances certainly seem paradoxical, there is a near inevitability to their formation. They will certain not be without their own internal friction, but it is clear that far-right lawmakers and their supporters in the U.S. see the future of conservatism in expanding the role of government to combat the threat of liberal ideology, and to do so they are embracing the ties that bind – even if those ties span the very borders they so virulently seek to defend.

The paths that memories make

Some memories can be too painful to deal with and people will choose to bury them in the back of their mind, letting it collect dust then face up to it head-on and deal with lasting consequences. They can either leave scars that retain bitter reminders of a dark time but they can also serve as a way to redemption and reconciliation but only if the memory is brought out from the darkness and brought to light. Like Hugo Spiegel who returned to his hometown to rebuild his life after the war, he also sought to rebuild and remind those of the tragedy that not only he endured but Jews everywhere. People did not want to be reminded, or think about that dark time but just because something is hard to deal with doesn’t mean you can push it down and block it out. Remembrance is an essential part of the healing process, confronting what happened in all forms from Spiegel’s attempt at erecting a simple memorial plaque is a very simple reminder of the essence of Holocaust remembrance. It is what gave us culturally significant moments such as “Schindler’s List; the Stockholm Declaration of 2000 making commemoration of the Nazi genocide central to European identity; and the 2005 dedication, after years of debate and controversy, of the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in the center of Berlin.” (Walser Smith, 2021)

While rekindling a memory can help heal, it can also cause blowback. The holocaust was a tragedy of epic proportions but the changed meaning of Holocaust memory has become distorted as we get further and further away from the end of WWII. Comparisons have been utilized by conservative thinkers that have used the juxtaposition of Nazism with Stalinism and liberal thinkers who focus more on colonial violence, slavery, and, more broadly, coming to terms with anti-Black racism. Was the gulag system similar to concentration camps? Was the forced migration of Africans comparable to the forced deportation of Jews? It doesn’t matter if one group suffered more than the other as it dilutes and lessens the necessity for responsibility. More so, it is important that the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor can come to terms with the past through mediums such as “community work, the necessity of reaching across divides, and the crucial role that local school teachers, archivists, retirees, hobby historians, and preservationists may well play in the great transformations of a nation’s memory.” (Walser Smith, 2021)


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

Helmut Walser Smith, “It Takes a Village to Create a Nation’s Memory” Zocalo Public