Legacies of Nazism: Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Post-War Justification and Reconciliation Myth Versus Post-War Pragmatic Reality

Wesley M.

Coming to terms with past Nazism (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) within postwar Germany still is difficult: the wish of purging Germany of the surviving Nazis proved somewhat impractical due in part to the difficulty of determining responsibility (extent of involvement) for their crimes and also the reality of Cold War politics necessitating leniency (cases where ex-Nazis would be useful to the war effort against Communism).

Mary Fulbrook’s book discusses the strategies that former Nazi supporters (innocent civilians and fanatical Nazis) used in order to cope with their past actions, inactions or just implied knowledge of the horrors that ended up being perpetrated within the Nazi state after 1945, in order to be able to reconcile themselves to the world that they lived in currently. For ordinary civilians not directly involved, strategies include self-justification of being separate from events due to distance (and thus being able to claim ignorance), moral self-distancing allowing for the person to be able to diffuse responsibility for whatever their role was, for the section on high-ranking Nazis, the strategies include the just following orders defense, compartmentalization, denial.[1] This contrast between innocent civilians and the actual responsible Nazis becomes quite apparent: civilians dealt with guilt “whether about their own survival or their failure to help others— former perpetrators composed defense strategies downplaying their own agency and distancing themselves from what they had known and done.”[2] She also looks at the way in which the survivors of the Holocaust dealt with their past afterwards, by explaining how the survivors stories became more important because as generational shifts occurred, people were more willing to listen, and some of the victims felt less like they were going to be discriminated against if they told their stories.[3]

The fact that the criteria that actually established the level of a citizens Nazi association (and thereby their level of guilt) the Fragebogen, was commonly viewed as being inefficient to determine guilt by those German civilians that actually had to take it, while conveniently allowing for the Western public to believe in the myth of the questionnaire’s efficiency at removing the Nazis from positions of power within Germany and punishing them for their crimes.[4]

West Germans used the myth of Vergangenheitsbewältigung to show they had become democratic. This is inadvertently discussed in Robert Moeller’s article on Judgment at Nuremberg, where he critiques how despite the democratic progress West Germany had made, there was actually very little focus in public on the reintegration of various Nazi officials which is troubling.[5] Moeller’s view the film as used by Kramer to comment on McCarthyism and racism in America with the Nazis representing a “yardstick for measuring the forms of injustice”.[6] Moeller discusses how narratives of the past can be used to accomplish various goals in terms of viewing current society.[7] Through this viewpoint it becomes apparent how the reintegration of Nazis was possible, as long as some of them are punished, those needed could be released for pragmatic reasons after enough time had past without major public backlash.


[1] Mary Fulbrook. Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018. 404-423. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.library.carleton.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1878123&site=ehost-live.

[2] Fulbrook. Reckonings. 423.

[3] Fulbrook. Reckonings. 361-377.

[4] W. Sollors, “Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1111/glal.12188.

[5] Robert Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): 507-508.

[6] Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg”: 514.

[7] Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg”: 521-522.

Bibliography:

Fulbrook, Mary. Reckonings : Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018. https://search-ebscohost-      com.proxy.library.carleton.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1878123&site=ehost-live.

Moeller, Robert. “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History     Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): 497-522.

Sollors, W. “Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later’: The Denazification Questionnaire as Cultural Text.” German Life & Letters. Vol 71, Issue 2 (2018): 139-153. https://doi-            org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1111/glal.12188.

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