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Amnesty and Amnesia

Adenauer's Germany and the

Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration

By Norbert Frei

Translated by Joel Golb

(Columbia University Press, 365 pp., $35)In this grim account of the formative years of West German democracy, the German historian Norbert Frei examines legislation affecting the amnesty and the integration of Germans suspected of, accused of, and in many cases indicted for crimes committed during the Nazi era. In so doing, he fills a gap in the existing scholarship and offers much evidence with which to think about how this democracy faced--or rather avoided facing--the criminal past. What was the connection between amnesty and integration, on the one hand, and the legitimation and installation of West German democracy, on the other? Was a different path to democratization--one filled with extensive trials and purges and revelations of the extent of Nazi criminality, conducted by German prosecutors and judges in the 1950s, when memories were "only" a decade old-- not only conceivable but practicable? Frei's purpose is not to raise such questions, but rather to demonstrate the extent to which a political consensus in favor of amnesty and integration accompanied the early years of democracy in West Germany from 1949 to 1954.

His important book presents a detailed examination of the broad consensus within the postwar West German establishment in favor of amnesty and integration. In place of cynical cold warriors in Washington and London who were encouraging the impulse to forget the past, Frei underscores the persistent pressure that West German leaders, including prominent figures of the Protestant and Catholic churches, exerted (especially on American officials) to bring the process of denazification to an end and to grant amnesty to those already convicted. Since the publication in 1991 of Thomas Schwartz's excellent America's Germany: John J. McCloy and the Federal Republic of Germany, a part of the story of West German pressures on American officials in the early 1950s, seeking amnesty for convicted criminals and an end to further prosecutions, has been known to historians. With a minimum of theoretical fanfare, Frei fills in a more detailed picture of West German pressure in this direction.

The judicial reckoning of the Allies after the war was harsher and more extensive than is often assumed. Frei's contribution is to show that from 1949 to 1954, when democratically elected German politicians first had a chance to act, they passed "a series of parliamentary initiatives, legislative acts, and administrative decisions aimed at its vitiation." This Vergangenheitspolitik, or "politics for the past," lasted half a decade; and it rested on "a high degree of societal acceptance--indeed of collective expectation." At stake was "both an annulment of punishments and integrative measures on behalf of an army of millions of Nazi Party members," Frei writes. "Virtually without exception, these people regained their social, professional, and civic, but not their political status," which they had lost in the course of denazification and internment after the war. These millions of hopefully disillusioned but hardly guiltless Nazis were granted the opportunity offered by amnesty and integration, while an increasingly small group of ideologically committed Nazis and individuals whose deeds were especially monstrous and widely known were declared beyond the pale. Amnesty and integration for most, demarcation for the unreconstructed few: this was the formula that linked anti-Nazism and amnesia in the crucial early years.

Frei documents the spirit of the time in many debates in the West German parliament. There the word "victim" often referred not to people who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, but to people who were considered to be "victims" of Nazism's overcoming--that is, previously dismissed officials and fellow travelers. The West Germans invented a new word for such people: Entnazifizierungsgeschdigten, "those damaged by denazification." The term included tens of thousands of persons formerly interned in American, British, and French prisons between 1945 and 1949, when the West German state was founded. Most of them were war criminals indicted and convicted by the Western Allies, along with Nazi criminals condemned in German courts. Judged by their reaction to these measures, other West Germans felt a general burden of wartime guilt lifted, and so, writes Frei, "those who had never personally been held accountable could consider themselves symbolically exonerated." For such persons, breaking with the past meant breaking not with Nazism but with denazification, and fostering "a historical myopia unintentionally aggravated by the war crimes trials." The result was "a triumph of silence," which was broken in waves from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Frei skillfully details the actions, public and private, of an amnesty lobby composed of leading religious figures, a network of attorneys (many of whom served as lawyers for defendants at Nuremberg and other occupation-era trials), and former soldiers and officials of the Nazi regime, as well as the response of political parties, government officials, and the media. The result is a moderate revision of some widespread notions about the relationships between the Allies and the West Germans in the years after the war. One of the romantic notions of the New Left in West Germany was its belief that the United States and its anti-Soviet policy bore primary responsibility for preventing a timely anti-Nazi reckoning. Frei acknowledges that the Western Allies gave the West Germans permission to proceed with amnesty and integration; but in many cases "the Allies rejected past political measures desired by the Germans as exceeding the reasonable or acceptable," in particular concerning demands to pardon convicted war criminals. So while Frei takes into full consideration the leniency that characterized the reversal of international fronts from World War II to the Cold War, he gives even more attention to the continuing pressure on the Allies that was exerted by a depressingly broad spectrum of opinion in Adenauer's Germany--including the leading officials of the Protestant and Catholic churches--to reverse or to ameliorate the results of the Nuremberg- trials period.

As of January 31, 1951, the amnesty legislation had benefited 792,176 people. They included people with six-month sentences, but also about 35,000 people with sentences of up to one year who were released on parole. Frei specifies that these figures include a bit more than 3,000 functionaries of the SA, the SS, and the Nazi Party who participated in dragging victims to jails and camps; 20,000 other Nazi perpetrators sentenced for "deeds against life" (presumably murder); 30,000 sentenced for causing bodily injury, and about 5,200 charged with "crimes and misdemeanors in office."

Support for these measures extended across the political spectrum. It included left-of-center Social Democrats who supported legislation for amnesty and integration to restore social peace. Frei writes that in these early years "not a single politician spoke up" to oppose amnesty as an infringement of the legal structures that the Allies created after the war in the wake of Nazi lawlessness. He argues that the legislation symbolized for the new democracy "a progressive delegitimation of prosecution of Nazi crimes" that encouraged yet more appeals for a "general amnesty" covering the worst sorts of crimes. Frei remarks upon "an almost universally shared conviction that the political purge imposed on the Germans by the occupation authorities had failed monstrously, was unjust in every respect, and needed to be ended as quickly as possible."

His case is impressive, but phrases such as "almost universally shared conviction" unfairly scant the minority of dissenters. Some of the Social Democratic politicians who supported the integration measures, such as Adolf Arndt and Carlo Schmid, soon emerged as persistent critics of the mentality of forgiving and forgetting, and as advocates of re-invigorated prosecutions. Theodor Heuss did indeed urge the American High Commissioner John J. McCloy to release Ernst von Weizscker, formerly the leading official of the Nazi Foreign Ministry. Yet Heuss also repeatedly took the unpopular stance in the early 1950s of speaking bluntly about the mass murder of the Jews, and the need for West Germans never to forget Nazi criminality and always to honor the leaders of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany.

Frei's study underscores the power of small parties to "place the big parties in a no-win situation" regarding the politics about the past. On the one side stood a large group of moderates in the conservative Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party joined by the Center Party. They confronted "a phalanx of radicals" in the German Party and in the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The Free Democrats, associated in the public mind with liberals such as Heuss and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, suffered a very dark chapter of their history in these years. Former civil servants from the Nazi era and even unreconstructed former high-ranking Nazis were able for a while to make it the leading respectable force supporting the amnesty program. As the large parties needed the FDP as a coalition partner, and as Adenauer sought to dry up electoral support for a nationalist party to the right of the Christian Democratic Union, the advocates of amnesty and integration found themselves in a potent bargaining position. They made the most of it.

The amnesty advocates from the German Party (a party that was dissolved by the mid-1950s) expressed uninhibited nationalist sentiments. One Hans-Joachim von Merkatz, a delegate of the German Party, argued in a parliamentary meeting that denazification had "sources in foreign law" and that perhaps those touched by it should be entitled to financial compensation. August Martin Euler, a member of the FDP, said in 1950 that it was time to move away from measures taken "under the influence of the Morgenthau plan" and to "let the past be buried" so that the Germans could "face the danger from the East." Faced with the prospect of losing elections or of coalitions collapsing, the large parties appeased the small ones.

One of the most effective and deceptive tactics of the amnesty lobby was to claim that the Allied occupation trials amounted to an accusation of collective guilt. The amnesty lobby enjoyed a disturbing degree of success in obscuring distinctions among those accused of crimes during the Nazi era. By spreading the presumed guilt so broadly, those calling for amnesty managed to reduce the number of those "really guilty" to an absolute minimum in the public mind. Chancellor Adenauer, they charged, would not defend those "who were really guilty." Yet in February 1951 Adenauer asserted--as he had been asserting since the first year after the war--that "so long after the collapse of the National Socialist regime, the distinction between politically exonerated and nonincriminated persons should be ended." In a debate in the Bundestag in April 1951, he said that the percentage of the guilty was "so extraordinarily minimal and so extraordinarily small" that "there has been no breach in the honor of the former German Wehrmacht.... No one may reproach the career soldiers on account of their earlier activities and, so long as they are to be employed in public service, place them behind other applicants if they have the same personal and professional qualities. The chapter of collective guilt for militarists alongside activists and beneficiaries of the National Socialist regime must be ended, once and for all."

When Adenauer sent such signals, he was seeking to discourage a right-wing revolt; but Frei demonstrates that the result was to appease these same radicals and to give them hope that with acceptance of democratic norms almost all would be forgotten. Whether Adenauer failed to understand this or was cynically preaching to the converted, the fact was that the Allied prosecutions had not rested on accusations of collective guilt. They had focused, rather, on restoring individual responsibility. In making such assertions, Adenauer obscured the extent to which large numbers of individuals at various levels of the German military supported and enthusiastically implemented Nazi criminal policies.

The numbers of former Nazi officials able to return to government positions in West Germany as a result of the amnesty were daunting. By the summer of 1950, more than one-fourth of the section managers of new federal ministries were former Nazi Party members. By 1953, 30 percent of the positions in the national government, amounting to 15,000 jobs, were filled by persons who benefited from Article 131, which gave pension rights to officials who had served in the Nazi regime. Specifically, 40 percent of the Foreign Ministry, 42 percent of the Interior (i.e., Justice) Ministry, and 75 percent of the ministry dealing with Germans who had fled from Eastern Europe during or after the war were former officials of the Nazi government. Faced with Social Democratic anger and parliamentary investigations of the prevalence of former Nazi officials in the Foreign Ministry, Adenauer argued that their expertise made them essential. "I think we now need to finish with this sniffing out of Nazis," he said.

In such an atmosphere, not surprisingly, the number of prosecutions of Nazi- era crimes declined. The Bundestag passed a second amnesty law in 1954, which benefited those whose possible prison sentence would have been three years or less. The passage of the law strained the limits of consensus among the major parties to the breaking point. By 1955, the SPD parliamentarian Walter Menzel regretfully noted that "through this amnesty, all those who had so murderously and bestially assaulted helpless and defenseless people before 1945 were pardoned, so long as no more than three years in prison were to be expected. This is what most deeply wounds our sense of justice: that individuals were treated so differently and unequally before the courts."

But no collection of contemporary statements is quite as revolting as the sanctimonious cynicism that passed for religious leadership in those years. In May 1948, Protestant leaders wrote to General Lucius Clay, the commander of American forces in Europe, to say that the occupation-era trials of Nazi war crimes eroded trust in law and justice. "The love of Christ" urged them to call for an end to prosecutions and for amnesty for those convicted. Charles Lafollette, director of the American military government in Baden-Wurtenberg, rejected their request, observing that "we cannot forget that the Protestant Church of Germany was always the State Church of Prussia"; he boldly drew connections between these past links and "this sudden rushing of the Church to the defense of those with whom it had such close ties in the past." Clay responded that "it is difficult to understand how any review of the evidence of those yet to be sentenced could provide a basis for sentimental sympathy for those who brought suffering and anguish to untold millions." When church leaders protested against the Allied executions of men guilty of mass murder, one Social Democratic politician asked why the churches, which said nothing while the murders were taking place, now sought to protect "those who committed murder and other crimes."

Veterans organizations made thinly veiled threats that, in the absence of amnesty, the Federal Republic would find it hard to field an army loyal to the new state. In 1950, one of the editorialists of the center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung considered it "natural" that professional soldiers never inwardly accepted the Allies' war-criminal trial judgments. The political establishment rallied around the idea of the "honor" of the German soldier, which was said to have survived the Nazi era intact. One result, which was not to be undone until the historical scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s, was the persistence of the myth that the German military was not deeply implicated in the regime's crimes, or that it was an unwilling tool of a small number of Nazi decision-makers. As a result of the pressures for amnesty, the French and the British had emptied their prisons of Germans convicted of war crimes, and the United States did the same in 1958. Those released included doctors who were involved in experimentation on human beings and members of the SS who were active in mobile killing units.

By the middle of the 1950s, the combined impact of the Cold War, West German re-armament, and the integration of the FRG into the Western Alliance with "endogenous processes," together with "determined German resistance to the legal efforts nigh from the beginning," brought the era of denazification to an end. Frei, drawing on a consensus of historians of the occupation era, agrees that denazification was not, as was often bitterly assumed, a complete failure. Many thousands of Nazi officials had been in prison for a decade. The trials of the occupation era and the first years of the Federal Republic made an indispensable contribution to the public confrontation with the truth about Nazi criminality, and also offered voluminous material for subsequent historical scholarship. Indeed, the fact that the trials brought terrible deeds to public attention "also comprised the deeper ground for the massive collective resistance that faced the Allies." In light of the breadth of opposition to the trials, Frei writes that the "Volksgemeinschaft thus received a second confirmation," and "open, self-critical debate" about the Nazi past "basically evaporated over a long period."

The support for amnesty and integration in the West German establishment went so far that it failed to recognize and to act against the danger of a Nazi revival. In January 1953, British security officials arrested Werner Naumann, formerly a key aide to Joseph Goebbels in the Ministry of Propaganda, and five other former members of the Nazi Party on charges that they were aiming at a Nazi "recapture of power in Germany" by means of infiltration and then domination of the FDP. Even though Thomas Dehler, an FDP member, was the minister of justice, the West German government had failed to grasp the full dimensions of the threat that Naumann and his collaborators posed. It was left to the responsible British official, Ivone Kirkpatrick, to arrest Naumann and his associates and to put an end to Nazi intrigue in West German politics. In recalling this episode in detail, Frei underscores one of his central themes: that from Clay to McCloy and then Kirkpatrick, American and British officials, faced with continued West German reluctance to push ahead with denazification, played a crucial role in preserving the increasingly unpopular accomplishments of the war crimes trials and in preventing a political comeback of Nazism and right-wing radicalism. In Frei's words, "Without the permanent intervention of the Allies the risk of an organizational merging of nationalist and Nazi political currents would have been far greater."

One might think that after accumulating such an indictment of the consensus of the West German establishment in the formative years, Frei would take issue with those who argue that it all turned out for the best because the repressed eventually returned and West Germany gradually faced its demons from the 1960s on. Surprisingly, he concludes instead with the irony that "the emergence in West German society of a serious and open confrontation with the Nazi past was made possible only by a very different preceding period--a period of utmost individual leniency, reflecting a policy for the past whose failing would stamp the new state's spirit over many decades." In coming to this conclusion, Frei goes beyond the weight of his evidence. Yes, democracy came to West Germany in a wave of convenient amnesia and premature amnesty. But this does not mean that democratization had to arrive in precisely this way. Nor does it mean that early silence was necessary for eventual memory and renewed judicial reckoning. The Allies could have decided to give the West Germans less sovereignty over these issues. An early and full disclosure of the depths of involvement in the crimes of the Third Reich might have placed a new democracy on even firmer grounds, and trials with witnesses whose memories were fresh would surely have brought a far greater number of perpetrators to justice. The temporal correlation of amnesty and integration with democratization does not establish a causal connection.

As Frei acknowledges, the price of justice delayed was high, for the moral and political legitimacy of the Federal Republic and for the prospects for a successful judicial reckoning. Frei has done a great service in documenting the depth and the breadth of indigenous West German opposition to bringing the criminals of the Nazi era to justice and to forcing compromised elites out of positions of responsibility in the crucial early years. A majority in favor of avoidance trumped a minority seeking truth and justice. Still, a different path to democracy in West Germany, and a better path, was conceivable. Politicians found it easy to rationalize the path of least resistance and to appease minorities who succeeded in convincing a majority that their own guilt was in fact collectively shared and thus collectively relieved by premature amnesty. While the United States and Britain put a brake on the drive to amnesty, the Cold War and West Germany's enlistment in it shifted American priorities in ways that gave more opportunities for the forgetting of the past. As this bold and uncompromising study demonstrates, the early expression of popular will did indeed frustrate efforts at memory and justice in the early years. But surely democracy and sovereignty and peace, in West Germany and elsewhere, need not be enemies of an honest reckoning with the crimes of the past.