Articles of Germany's Basic Law (Grundgesetz), including article 5, which guarantees freedom of expression, the arts, and the press, stand illuminated on a glass wall in Berlin.Sean Gallup / Getty

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the U.S. occupation authorities carried out a series of public-opinion surveys in the American occupation zone.

One question asked whether Nazism was “a bad idea, or a good idea badly carried out.” In his history of postwar Germany, Frederick Taylor writes: “The view that Nazism had been simply and unequivocally a ‘bad idea’ was never held by more than 40 percent of respondents, and by the end of the third post-war winter that number had declined to 30 percent with double that number—60 percent—now insisting that Nazism had been a ‘good idea’ gone wrong.”

Milton Mayer, a German-speaking American journalist, lived for the year 1952 in a small town in the state of Hesse. Mayer befriended and interviewed 10 men who had taken part in the burning of the town’s synagogue. With one sole exception, he found them not only unrepentant, but strongly convinced of their own victimhood. “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it.” And even that one exception only partially rejected Nazism. He “still believes, in part of its program and practice, ‘the democratic part.’”

This month, a united democratic Germany marks the 70th anniversary of its constitution: the Grundgesetz, or Basic Law. The lengthy document—one version of the English text runs 135 printed pages—was composed under Allied supervision in 1948 and 1949. The final text was completed May 8, 1949; approved by the British, French, and U.S. occupying authorities on May 12, 1949; and entered into effect May 23, 1949. Its first article begins, “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

In 1949, it must have seemed highly uncertain whether the new German state could possibly honor those words. Impoverished and dismembered, its cities crowded with refugees driven from their homes, its standing in the world disgraced by aggression and genocide—Germany’s most likely fate seemed rapid descent into state failure. Milton Mayer observed the unanimous conviction of his German interlocutors that never again in their lives would they live as securely and comfortably as they had under Nazi rule before the start of war in 1939.

And yet, the state flourished and the constitution endured. Over the next 70 years, Germany honored its pledge to human dignity. It atoned for its crimes, found peace with its neighbors, recovered the eastern states from communism, and consolidated an advanced liberal democracy. Germany is hardly problem-free on this milestone anniversary. Yet the once-rickety Bundesrepublik has met the test of time and success. The constitution—originally viewed as only a provisional document—has become the foundation of a united German state. How was this accomplished?

It would seem an important question. The success of the German democratic transition could offer insights to others overcoming dark chapters in their past. Yet the topic is strangely under-discussed.

Instead, scholars of Germany produce and consume a large and accumulating body of literature concerning fault and failure. The hypocrisies and limits of postwar de-Nazification are minutely examined. And it’s true: For decades after 1945, ex-Nazis held dominant roles in German medicine, law, and academia; the civil service; and even the military. (Erich von Manstein, who planned the attack through the Ardennes that smashed the French army in 1940, helped organize the new West German army after serving only four years of his 18-year sentence for war crimes in the Eastern Front.)

The culture and society of postwar Germany stand under perpetual accusation. Left-wing artists and intellectuals have arraigned the materialism, conservatism, and conformism of postwar Germany as a continuation of the kitschy culture of Nazism. Conservatives riposte by indicting the violence, anti-Semitism, and contempt for institutions of the German Far Left as a continuation of the anti-democratic ideology of Nazism. (German leftists marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1969 with an attempted bombing of the rebuilt Jewish Community Center in West Berlin. German left-wing terrorists were among the hijackers of the airliner rescued by Israeli special forces at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.)

Problems, always problems! Germany is like a patient who has recovered from a terrible disease, and ever after monitors himself for a recurrence of the symptoms. And indeed, the symptoms are there: neo-Nazi crimes against immigrants; immigrant crimes against German Jews; far-right parties gaining seats in state legislatures; the post-communists cannibalizing the democratic left—all there, all true.

But all this occurs against the background of the amazing success of German democracy since 1949, a story so big that it can be hard to see except at a distance.

The development of German constitutionalism seems especially glacial. Americans accustomed to looking to courts to propound grand declarations about law and rights will be disappointed by the caution of German jurists. In its first important case involving the rights of dissent, in 1957, the highest German court ruled for the government and against a person who had been denied a passport for political reasons. In the 1950s, the high court upheld the criminalization of homosexuality; in the 1970s, the high court prevented the decriminalization of abortion. There was no German Justice William O. Douglas ready to convert the grand language of article 1 of the German constitution into a wide charter of judicial power.

And yet the rights of political dissenters, homosexuals, and women were protected, and strongly too. German society led the courts rather than the other way around, as so often in the United States. The constitutional idea drew its power from the complex workings of the German federal system, from the give-and-take of German parliamentary life, from a media culture that did champion dissenters and minorities, and from a public opinion that since 1949 has grown ever more self-confident and tolerant.

It’s a sobering mirror image for Americans, who have arguably over-relied on judicial guardianship even as their local government has become less democratic, their political culture more polarized, their media system more reactionary and extreme, and their public opinion more authoritarian.  

Much of the success of Germany’s democratic development depended on unique circumstances of time and place. “Economic miracles” like that which buoyed German democracy from 1950 to 1970 don’t come along every day. (If they did, we wouldn’t call them miracles.) The Cold War incubated German democracy, too. Democracy gained West Germany entry into NATO in 1955; democracy drew a sharp distinction between the freedom of western Germany and the police state in the Soviet-controlled eastern zone.

Yet there are nonunique lessons too—lessons applicable to less-extreme democratic transitions.

In his superb history of the postwar aftermath in the two divided Germanies, Jeffrey Herf attributes this insight to Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor: You could have democracy in post-Nazi Germany or justice in post-Nazi Germany, but not both.

So many people were implicated in Nazi crimes that comprehensive justice could never command democratic assent. The price of democratic assent was to pretend that the crimes were the work of a tiny minority, of which the majority had no idea. “Democracy had to be built on a shaky foundation of justice delayed—hence denied …” The historian Joachim Fest quoted his own father’s answer to questions about Nazi crimes: “I did not want to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now.”

Yet it was not only guilt that was suppressed. It was equally impolitic to discuss German suffering during the war and aftermath. In a 1999 book, W. G. Sebald remarks upon the silence adopted by the postwar generation about the ruin of their country in 1945—not only the smashing of German cities by Allied bombing, but the expulsion of German populations from ancient homes, the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers: “There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described. The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret …”

This approach seemed a profoundly corrupt bargain to many who watched it in the making. In a famous essay from 1959, the philosopher Theodor Adorno bitterly complained, “The murdered are to be cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” In that same essay, Adorno wondered how committed, really, the Germans were to democracy.

Political democracy certainly is accepted in Germany in the form of what in America is called a working proposition, something that has functioned well up until now and has permitted and even promoted prosperity. But democracy has not become naturalized to the point where people truly experience it as their own and see themselves as subjects of the political process. Democracy is perceived as one system among others, as though one could choose from a menu between communism, democracy, fascism, and monarchy: but democracy is not identified with the people themselves as the expression of their political maturity. It is appraised according to its success or setbacks …

But the successes kept coming. In Exorcising Hitler, Frederick Taylor vividly describes the two decades after the war as a “sleep cure.” And when the sleeper at last awoke, jolted by the social and political convulsions of the middle 1960s, it turned out that German democracy had somehow steadied its foundations after all. After 20 years of conservative governments, the elections of 1969 at last alternated power, electing the first Social Democratic chancellor since the Weimar Republic. Justice was never fully done, but memory returned—and returned with ever more onrushing intensity.

There was no one moment of redemption, but a steady process of acknowledgment. At the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, West German President Richard von Weizsäcker spoke of “the attempt by too many people, including those of my generation, who were young and were not involved in planning the events and carrying them out, not to take note of what was happening. There were many ways of not burdening one’s conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything.”

Those powerful words emerged with special force because von Weizsäcker’s father had loyally served the Hitler regime as an important diplomat—and been convicted by a Nuremberg tribunal of war crimes. The future president of a united Germany, a six-year combat veteran of the Wehrmacht, served as part of his father’s legal defense team.

“All of us, whether guilty or not,” continued von Weizsäcker’s 40th-anniversary address, “whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it. The young and old generations must and can help each other to understand why it is vital to keep alive the memories.”

Four years later, the Berlin Wall cracked open. The East German state had systematically disclaimed responsibility for Nazi crimes. In 1964, a New York Times correspondent reported with amazement:

One of the remarkable discoveries on a journey through East Germany is that virtually no one holds himself accountable in any way for the Germany of the past—or even related to it … Everything that went wrong in prewar Germany is explained as the consequence of capitalism and thus as something that could never recur in this half of the country. The injustices of Stalinist times a decade ago and more recent totalitarian acts are depicted as wholly unrelated excesses peculiar to the early years of a Communist society.

Purified by communism, the East German authorities could, guilt-free, espouse paranoid anti-Semitism, spy on their citizens, even order their soldiers to goose-step on parade.

After the state was reunited in 1990, it committed itself even more aggressively than the old West Germany to building national identity upon memory. A monument to the murdered Jews of Europe occupies the center of rebuilt Berlin. Hobble stones force their attention on pedestrians at places of memory.

But eastern Germans do not always appreciate the history lessons, especially given that they have had to rethink their past without any rerun of the economic miracle in the west a generation before.

Quite the contrary: Unification brought the West German state its very own Rust Belt, and all the troubles that attend upon post-industrialization. To gain consent from its neighbors for unification, Germany pledged itself to even tighter European integration, including a single European currency—and all the troubles that followed from that for less-competitive regions in Europe, which include the German east as well as the Mediterranean south.

Political management has become only more challenging since Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to 1.2 million refugees from all over the world.

Problems—more problems!

Yet here it is, the 70th anniversary of the German state, and for all those problems, the promise of article 1 of the German constitution has indeed been honored. Adenauer’s gamble—democracy first, justice later—has been vindicated. And those of us in other democracies are maybe called upon to search our own consciences.

What is our plan to rehabilitate our societies from their recent turn to authoritarianism and kleptocracy? How do we memorialize the wrongs done by our societies? How much justice can our democracies withstand?

After 70 years of self-examination, modern Germany has some lessons to teach and some wisdom to impart from its own hard experience to those perhaps excessively proud of their own imperfect past and deteriorating present.

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