The Selective Amnesia of Postwar Europe

Thoughts on Tony Judt's Postwar
More
Klaus Barbie's 1948 mugshot (Gerda Henkel Foundation)

There's this idea among those of us who are disappointed with America's inability to deal with the repercussions of the Civil War that things were better during World War II. Perhaps they were. But the overwhelming sense one gets from Tony Judt's Postwar is that in the case of great atrocities, the pursuit of justice is often foreclosed by our want of stamina:

By the time the western Allies abandoned their denazification efforts with the coming of the Cold War, it was clear that these had had a decidedly limited impact. In Bavaria about half the secondary schoolteachers had been fired by 1946, only to be back in their jobs two years later. In 1949 the newly-established Federal Republic ended all investigations of the past behaviour of civil servants and army officers.

In Bavaria in 1951, 94 percent of judges and prosecutors, 77 percent of finance ministry employees and 60 percent of civil servants in the regional Agriculture Ministry were ex-Nazis. By 1952 one in three of Foreign Ministry officials in Bonn was a former member of the Nazi Party. Of the newly-constituted West German Diplomatic Corps, 43 percent were former SS men and another 17 percent had served in the SD or Gestapo. Hans Globke, Chancellor Adenauer’s chief aide throughout the 1950s, was the man who had been responsible for the official commentary on Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The chief of police in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Wilhelm Hauser, was the Obersturmführer responsible for wartime massacres in Byelorussia.

The same pattern held true outside the civil service. Universities and the legal profession were the least affected by denazification, despite their notorious sympathy for Hitler’s regime. Businessmen also got off lightly. Friedrich Flick, convicted as a war criminal in 1947, was released three years later by the Bonn authorities and restored to his former eminence as the leading shareholder in Daimler-Benz. Senior figures in the incriminated industrial combines of I.G. Farben and Krupp were all released early and re-entered public life little the worse for wear. By 1952 Fordwerke, the German branch of Ford Motor Company, had reassembled all its senior management from the Nazi years. Even the Nazi judges and concentration camp doctors convicted under American jurisdiction saw their sentences reduced or commuted (by the American administrator, John J McCloy).

Later, a myth would arise that the Nazis were, somehow, the kidnappers of the German nation, and that Hitler's atrocities said nothing about Germany itself. In Judt's postwar Europe, there's a constant fight for victim status. (Deeply  antisemitic Austria gets off lightly, for instance, by portraying itself as Hitler's "first victim.") But it's fairly clear that the hate that made the Shoah was neither an invention nor the magic of false-consciousness, but a reflection of the people themselves:

In the same poll of November 1946, one German in three agreed with the proposition that ‘Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race’. This is not especially surprising, given that respondents had just emerged from twelve years under an authoritarian government committed to this view. What does surprise is a poll taken six years later in which a slightly higher. percentage of West Germans—37 percent—affirmed that it was better for Germany to have no Jews on its territory. But then in that same year (1952) 25 percent of West Germans admitted to having a ‘good opinion’ of Hitler.

Attendant to all of this was something that any student of white supremacy in America will recognize—a strong propensity toward national amnesia:

 In Italy the daily newspaper of the new Christian Democrat Party put out a similar call to oblivion on the day of Hitler’s death: ‘We have the strength to forget!’, it proclaimed. ‘Forget as soon as possible!’ In the East the Communists’ strongest suit was their promise to make a revolutionary new beginning in countries where everyone had something to forget—things done to them or things they had done themselves. All over Europe there was a strong disposition to put the past away and start afresh, to follow Isocrates’ recommendation to the Athenians at the close of the Peloponnesian Wars: ‘Let us govern collectively as though nothing bad had taken place.’

It's worth taking a moment to think about this "strength to forget" notion. National forgetting is always a selective endeavor. Italy had no more intention of dismissing its Roman heritage as "the past," than Americans have of dismissing George Washington as "the past." "The past" is whatever contributes to a society's moral debts. "Heritage" is everything else. 

Judt is making a very disturbing argument—that postwar Europe was built on  a willingness to only push deNazification but so far. There is here something not wholly dissimilar to our own reunion accomplished on an agreement to "forget" what the War was over. So far does the myth advance that Judt finds president Eisenhower lauding the Wermacht—"The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland."

We are confronted with a series of awful questions: What are the actual limits of human justice? How much of human justice, ultimately, rests on the accumulation of guns? What is one to do when the people, themselves—not sinister hidden forces—are the engines of persecution? Of useful killing? Of genocide? 

I think of the villain Klaus Barbie who somehow seemed victorious even in capture:

Mr. Barbie remarked after his extradition that he had nothing to regret and that he remained proud of his service to Hitler's Third Reich.

Locked up in Montluc Prison, where the Gestapo had tortured its prey 40 years earlier, he promptly proved an embarrassment not only to the French, but to official Washington. It came to light that United States Army counterintelligence had used him as a paid informer after the war, shielding him from his French pursuers and then helping him escape to South America.

For the French, Mr. Barbie caused enduring agony. Back in their midst, behind bars at last, his presence weighed heavily on the national conscience. To contemplate Mr. Barbie was to face a chapter of history the French longed to forget: the Vichy France of Marshal Henri Philippe Petain.

Man. Such hate. What can men do against such reckless hate. Don't study history to boost your self-esteem. Study history to lose your religion. Or maybe in the end, to gain it. I am not religious at all. But seeing the limits of all of us, you start to understand why people might appeal to some higher, more certain, more fierce, invention.

More soon.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

From This Author

Just In