Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 17 January 2022

Germany, Defeat And Denial

As a trained historian, I have always contended that Germany is an intrinscally dangerous nation whose political and business elites we must scrutinized and chastise intently and scrupulously. This extract in the WSJ discussing two recent books shows why:

"Meanwhile, the capital’s inhabitants had been doing whatever it took to survive. Observing one fight for supplies, a schoolchild wrote about how “people attacked one another and fought, tearing clothes from bodies and grasping whatever they could get their hands on.” The “‘ethnic community’ that Nazi propaganda had never tired of promoting but . . . was always more wishful thinking than reality” had, observes Mr. Ullrich, shattered. One of the few things that bound together its fragments was a sense of victimhood that overwhelmed guilt over the misery that Germany had brought to so many millions. Mr. Ullrich relates how, in a speech broadcast on May 2, Lutz von Krosigk, the longstanding finance minister who had added the role of foreign minister to his portfolio “sought to portray the Germans as the party that had actually suffered most from the war.” As is evident from an epilogue in which Mr. Ullrich not only records the ignominious end of the Dönitz government but also examines the psyche of a nation using denial, evasiveness and their miserable present to flee from a confrontation with its monstrous past, von Krosigk was less of an outlier than he should have been.

The national psyche is the principal protagonist in Harald Jähner’s subtle, perceptive and beautifully written “Aftermath.” Mr. Jähner, like Mr. Ullrich a German journalist and author, describes Germany’s first postwar decade, with more of an emphasis on its social and cultural landscape (particularly in its western segment) than the usual early Cold War tussles. “Aftermath” is a revelatory, remarkably wide-ranging book crammed with material, much of which will, I imagine, be new to an international audience. Among the topics Mr. Jähner discusses are the relations between the sexes, the black market, a Charlie Chaplin boom, furniture design, and the introduction of the Deutsche Mark.

The author essentially picks up the story where Mr. Ullrich leaves off (the two books are well worth reading in sequence). The struggle among Germans touched on by Mr. Ullrich did not end with the war. It was, maintains Mr. Jähner, a “time of wolves,” (his book’s German title is “Wolfszeit”), when people turned on each other, “caring only for themselves or their wolf-pack.” Yet “we can also hear laughter.” Some Germans sank into apathy, but others relished the chance of a fresh start, and the “young and spirited saw the chaos as a playground.” Carnival returned to Cologne, bars opened, a dance craze took off, cabarets opened, theaters boomed, models posed in front of ruins that had become an object of aesthetic fascination. If some of this was, in the words of one writer “a dance above the abyss,” the dancers tended to ignore what lurked in its depths. The evasions and denials recounted in “Eight Days” play a critical role in “Aftermath”— how could they not? “The Holocaust,” writes Mr. Jähner, “played a shockingly small part in the consciousness of most Germans.” Their reaction to the Nuremberg trials was “broadly one of indifference.”

Hitler committed suicide on April 30. A surrender was signed May 7. Then Germans quickly began to turn on one another.

In a 1948 poll taken in western Germany and the future West Berlin, 57% of the respondents agreed that National Socialism was a good idea, poorly executed. Old attitudes lingered on. Mr. Jähner mentions a couple of examples of obvious anti-Semitism in the German and Austrian press that, if they are in any way indicative (and likely they were), suggest that 6 million murders had changed far less than might have been hoped. Racialized invective was also directed against millions of ethnic Germans expelled from the Reich’s vanished east, “Polacks,” apparently, resented by those who now hosted them.

Mr. Jähner joins Mr. Ullrich in noting how Germans “saw themselves as . . . victims, and thus had the dubious good fortune of not having to think about the real ones.” Additionally, bat- tling “for survival under anarchic everyday conditions kept many” from reflecting on the past. And so did the “feverish, manic industriousness” that went into reconstruction and later came to characterize what became known (exaggeratedly, in Mr. Jähner’s somewhat harsh view) as West Germany’s economic “miracle.” Some of those who bothered to make excuses depicted Hitler as a sort of pied piper; this made it easier to renounce him, as did the savage methods that Nazi fanatics used to stop “ordinary” Germans from faltering in the last months of the war. Others attempted to deflect the blame away from Germany and onto the nature of war itself.

For many Germans, denying the past also meant discarding it and turning instead toward a democratic system. This often icily pragmatic switch was helped along by awareness of what was happening in the Soviet zone, as well as the inescapable realization that a supposedly thousand-year Reich had culminated in catastrophe, a lesson absorbed at some speed: Mr. Jähner highlights the unexpected and telling absence of any significant armed resistance after the capitulation.

After “Trizonia” (the entity formed by the effective merger of the parts of western Germany occupied by the Americans, British and French) evolved into the new federal republic, unnervingly broad amnesties followed. These were a product of a climate of denial, but they also were part of a wider effort to integrate those who had served, and indeed flourished under, the old regime into what had replaced it. This process may have reached an appalling peak (or nadir) when Konrad Adenauer, the Federal Republic’s first chancellor and, as Mr. Jähner rightly describes him, “a courageous opponent of the Nazis,” appointed one of the authors of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws as chief of staff of his chancellery. “One does not throw out dirty water while one does not have clean,” said Adenauer. On the other hand, there are degrees of dirt.

More generally, the architects of a democratic West Germany could not overcome (if they had even wanted to) what Mr. Jähner labels “the spirit of the age.” What mattered to many was said to be “not . . . where someone came from, but only where they wanted to go.” For democracy to take root in the nascent federal republic, or so the argument ran, the page would have to be turned on almost every aspect of the Nazi era. This “clean break” was inherently deceptive, in that it permitted the reintegration of so many senior Nazis into the apparatus of the state and elsewhere. But for those in charge in Bonn, it may well have offered the safest way forward, especially in an era when the Cold War left little room for error. This was a dark, and, in many instances, morally horrific bargain but, bolstered by economic success and, as Mr. Jähner acknowledges, “the help of the Allies who went from being victors . . . to kindred spirits,” it worked. In years to come, that bargain would, with good reason, be challenged by younger generations. But then they, in the words of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, had “the blessing of late birth.”

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