Coming to terms with the past in postwar West Germany was impossible until at least the seventies because the past was not really past. In fact, the way in which perpetrators and survivors were treated did not shift in favor of the latter until it was not overly inconvenient for it to do so. In regards to perpetrators, especially those of the right class, the kid gloves of the legal establishment remained resolutely on. This was because, despite the mass application of the despised Fragebogen, the establishment after the war was much the same as before and during, and until it generationally changed, ranks would continue to be closed. For example, Mary Fulbrook describes how, years after the war’s end, judges “could still appear to have more sympathy with former Nazis than with their victims” (323). The extreme leniency of the West German system when dealing with mass murderers was especially apparent when compared to East Germany where legal proceedings were swift and even low ranking perpetrators who expressed remorse could expect life imprisonment or death. In contrast, under the West German legal system, only those who went beyond what was officially required of them under Nazi rule were judged murderous, and therefore the murderous system of rule was not itself explicitly judged. Unlike East Germany, West Germany was uncomfortable with systemic indictment because the system had not been entirely dismantled to the extent that former Nazis continued to occupy positions of power. In regards to victims, they only began to gain the attention of the culture after their need for concrete material assistance had passed. As Fulbrook explains, “their public image was transformed from the initial state of diminution – the wretched, disease ridden, and dependant creatures who were widely seen as unwelcome burdens immediately after the war – to the more heroic status of ‘survivors’” (369). Victims were only heroized after it was convenient to do so, after they had stopped being needy refugees. Robert Moeller’s article on “Judgement at Nuremberg” describes how the German past could be used to talk about the American present. The past can indeed be useful, but sometimes it needs to be strategically forgotten until it truly is no longer the present.
Coming to terms
By Jim Dagg
From “Discomfort Zone” we know that most Germans were insistent that they didn’t “really” know what was going on in the death camps. Marianne B’s memoir shows the conflict between pride at her achievements, and willful blindness to what was going on. People did this to save their own self-image and sanity for the rest of their lives.
In both “Hearing Voices” and “Judgment” we see that the West was keen to find and prosecute leading figures in the late forties. By the early 50s, West German were focusing more on their own suffering and re-building. In the late 50s, they developed a new desire to examine the guilt of the German people for the Nazi era. This was prompted partly by a high-profile trial of a “mobile killing squad”. Willie Brandt’s speeches emphasized that shame and guilt were appropriate.
The “Fragebogen” article shows how the 131-item questionnaire could never be up to the task. But was there an alternative? None comes to hand. Its use in literature helped show its weakness at subtlety. There was no “why” around choices that individuals made in the Nazi era. Filtering was necessary and this tool was chosen. The idea may have come from Germans (Marxists!) working in the Office of Strategic Services. Considering the level of intrusion and stress caused by the survey, how well were the results used? We know from “Judgment” that many Nazi judges sat on the courts.
“Not Narrating” argues that informal self-emancipation groups were experimenting, and not trying to drive democratic change. Such groups in fact produced their own internal tyranny. Rather than driving change, activist groups were interested only in the rush of the moment, which had to be genuine, and non-planned.
Post-war Germany was certainly a mess to say the least. It was a country that was torn apart by the great powers, with new governments established on both sides. The economy was in shambles, and reconciling with its past actions during the war would not prove to be an easy task. As mentioned by Fulbrook regarding the Zimmerman trial, Zimmerman was very upfront regarding his actions and tasks he was assigned pertaining to the liquidation of the Jews. He did not bear any concern with incriminating himself, and clearly wanted to no longer bear the weight of those actions. (Fulbrook, 316) What is interesting here is that we look at this situation and many of the other situations faced by other Germans involved in the killings, and see how complex these situations really are. While he was indeed directly involved in the carrying out of the killings, evidence points to him potentially enjoying the authority early on, but then slowly becoming uncomfortable with the more serious actions carried out later on. On top of this he made it clear that he did not drink alcohol to make the killings easier on him due to it being forbidden by superiors. The fear of being punished took precedence over the suffering of others. (Fulbrook, 317) Protecting ourselves from punishment is a natural human instinct, If we have to make others suffer in order to prevent ourselves from suffering, more often than not we will take that trade off. It’s sad to say but humans are a sad bunch. On a separate note, I would like to highlight a point made by Moeller regarding the film Judgement at Nuremburg. “When in the closing courtroom scene, Haywood reflects on the crimes the defendants have committed—‘The sterilization of men because of their political beliefs . . . A mockery made out of friendship and faith’—he is quick to admit ‘how easily it can happen’ and to add that ‘there are those in our own country today, too, who speak of the protection of country. Of survival’. But, he goes on, ‘Survival as what?’” (Moeller, 520) This quote causes me to beg the question, how can someone reconcile with the fact that they are “sterilizing” an entire religion, race, etc. What are the reasons for why anyone can believe in something like “its a matter of survival for the Arian race”?
Mary Fulbrook, “Discomfort Zones” and “Voices of the Victims” in Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 316.
Robert Moeller, “How to Judge Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg” German History Vol. 31, Issue 4 (December 2013): p. 520.
The denazification questionnaires from the Everybody Gets Fragebogened Sooner or Later article raise a question that I want to use the other articles from this week to explore: how do we qualify guilt? We already know that the American occupation authority used 131 questions to answer this, but of course this was not effective. Its true ineffectiveness becomes even more clear upon considering the Hearing the Voices of the Victims article, where it points out that non-Jewish Holocaust victims were often still stigmatized and oppressed long after the end of the war. Evidently, Nazi beliefs against these groups were not stamped out by denazification. The Discomfort Zones article further proves this observation, as it notes the flaws in Germans’ excuses for not knowing. In the case of Marianne B., the Holocaust was just down the road, but she -along with many other Germans- exercised willful ignorance despite incredibly obvious signs. She would not be criminally guilty, but she is morally guilty.
The article on Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg goes beyond German guilt, but then also returns to it. Moeller’s theory (which I agree with) is that Kramer was using the film as a way to hold up a mirror to America’s own sins by focusing on victims that could just as easily be victims of American McCarthyism or segregation. Kramer was using German guilt to illicit American guilt. However, this approach also contributed to reducing German feelings of guilt and emboldening the Nazi sympathizers that denazification had failed to get rid of. In that way, Kramer himself became a guilty part of German guilt. Not criminally guilty by any stretch, but, perhaps like Marianne B., morally guilty. In the end, I think the difference between moral guilt and criminal guilt is the best way to qualify and understand guilt.
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