How Germany Rethought Nazism after World War II

How Germany Rethought Nazism after World War II

Denazification, democratisation, demilitarisation, decentralisation. No, this is not a draft of Vladimir Putin's speech. These are the policies that the victorious countries introduced towards Germany after the end of World War II.

Democratisation, demilitarisation and decentralisation are not special measures. There were already attempts to demilitarise Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Democratisation is an ongoing process that takes place simultaneously in many parts of the world. Ukraine has also heard about decentralisation, that is, the creation of territorial communities.

But who would have thought that after 80 years, the term "denazification" would be mentioned again? On February 24, Putin said that "demilitarisation" and "denazification" were the goals of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, strategically, Russia's full-scale invasion has failed. No matter how long the war lasts, Russia will not be able to impose a new status quo on the rest of the world. The Russian army has suffered losses that will take years to recover, says Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. Because of this, Russia will not be able to use its armed forces anywhere else but in Ukraine. In other words, the demilitarisation of Russian foreign policy has begun.

But what about denazification or, in the Russian case, de-imperialisation? How to convince Russians that they do not need to seize everything around them? The Allies faced similar questions on the eve of the end of World War II. So let's see what this policy was like and whether it has achieved its goals. 

Sources of denazification

World War II was a war that seemed to affect every aspect of life in most parts of the world. Nazi Germany sought to achieve complete hegemony in Europe. Although Germans supported this, resistance to Nazism was only sporadic.

It was impossible to sign a conventional peace treaty with Germany. "Total war changed the usual model of peacekeeping," wrote the German historian Hajo Holborn, who worked at the US Office of Strategic Studies during the war. Nevertheless, at the Yalta Conference, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin agreed on a common goal - to do everything to ensure that Germany would never violate the peace again. To do this, they had to bring to justice all war criminals, destroy all Nazi laws and institutions, and deprive the Nazis of influence on the cultural and economic life of the country. 

France joined the USA, Great Britain and the USSR. These four countries divided Germany and Austria into occupation zones, but none prepared to establish military administrations. The US President hoped to the last that the American military would not stay in Europe for a long time and immediately after the defeat of Germany would go to Asia. British policy towards Germany depended on the actions of America. France was not interested in Germany; its goal was to push the border to the east. The Soviet party leaders also could not agree on a policy because of ideological disputes.

So when Allied troops began to arrive in Germany in the fall of 1944, their actions were chaotic. In most cases, the military deprived Nazis of positions in local government, but the comprehensiveness of these measures was not homogeneous.

Postwar years

At the Potsdam Conference, the Allies agreed that each would independently determine how to apply denazification in their occupation zone. At the same time, it was decided that the main instrument of denazification was a questionnaire (Fragebogen) on activities during the Nazi era. Only then people received food stamps. 

The military administration had to study the answers of the respondent and assign him to one of five categories: 

_ Persons with tremendous guilt - were sentenced to death or imprisonment. 

Persons with moderate guilt - were sentenced to imprisonment and correctional labour.

Persons with minor guilt - were not arrested but given probation.

Followers - rights were restricted, or they were punished with a fine. 

_ Acquitted.

It happened in July, while the occupation began in spring. However, the main problem was not even the chaos of the first months of the occupation. Instead, each party had to choose what was more important: to take revenge on the Nazis or quickly rebuild Germany. 

The Americans were the most committed to denazification. They believed that absolutely all people over the age of 18 had to fill out a questionnaire. But, in the end, the Germans wanted to do it because they did not consider themselves guilty. Instead, they blamed Adolf Hitler and European states, which did not stop him. 

German journalist Curt Riess left the country in 1933 after Hitler was elected Chancellor. In 1945, he returned to Germany. After spending several weeks there and talking to the locals, he felt tired and highly irritated. "I began to feel the utmost respect for Hitler, who seemed to have ruled the country for 13 years against the furious opposition, or at least the silent dissent, of 70 million inhabitants," he wrote in the New York Times.

Riess concluded that the United States must win another victory - to re-educate all the people who refused to admit their involvement. To do this, the Americans used documentaries about Nazi concentration camps. The reaction of the Germans was adverse. After watching such a film, one 16-year-old girl said that its authors should have consulted with the head of Nazi propaganda Joseph Goebbels to make the film more convincing.

Despite the desire of the Americans to check all Germans for involvement in the Nazi regime, in practice, it was impossible. The number of unprocessed questionnaires was growing. In winter, mortality began to increase in the destroyed cities: in December 1945, one in four newborns in the British sector died. It was psychologically difficult to consider people living on the edge of survival guilty.

In 1946, the British and American military administrations handed the denazification process to the newly created German regional governments. They simplified the questionnaire to process responses more quickly. In practice, it was easier for the Nazis to avoid responsibility. Between 1946 and 1948, Germans in the American sector filled out almost 13 million questionnaires. About 10 million people were found to be followers or acquitted. Another three million were subject to trial, two of which were amnestied. Only 865 thousand cases went to trial. 

Soviet denazification

German communists in the Soviet occupation zone hoped that denazification would be the first step in their political struggle. They planned to use this policy to gain the support of the population. In addition, they wanted to exclude all former members of the Nazi party from political life. 

The German historian Timothy Vogt believes that Soviet denazification was just as unsuccessful as the Western one. At its initial stage, all former civil servants were sent to forced labour, and their property was confiscated. However, later the denazification commissions introduced a distinction between a real and a nominal member of the Nazi party. The commission members were quite lenient in their work: about 70% of former Nazis were recognised as nominal, so they avoided punishment. They were especially lenient towards young people who had previously been members of Nazi youth organisations. The same applied to medical workers because there was a shortage of them. Even when the case came to court, the Germans did not want to act as witnesses for the prosecution for the most part.

Eventually, in both East and West Germany, denazification policies were halted in 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War. The Western Allies and the USSR could no longer isolate hundreds of thousands of people involved in the Nazi regime from public life because these people were able to manage government organisations. Until 1973, most of the leading positions in the Ministry of Justice of Germany were occupied by former members of the Nazi Party. Every fifth was a member of the Nazi Stormtroopers.

After denazification

In other words, in the postwar period, Germans were apathetic about denazification, realising that responsibility is selective. They hoped to start living from "Zero Hour" (Stunde Null), forgetting about the past. 

State-centralised policies of processing the past have failed. Instead, Germans began to be genuinely interested in who their ancestors were in the late 60s. A new generation grew up, which launched a belated "denazification" from the bottom up. 

The situation that happened in Austria is illustrative. Denazification in the country was no less selective than in Germany. After the war, Taras Borodaikevich, a former Nazi intelligence agent, taught at the Vienna College of World Trade. In 1962, during his lecture, he spoke positively about Hitler. A 20-year-old student wrote it down and passed it to the press. As a result, it led to the first street clash between left and right political groups in the Second Austrian Republic. As a result, Borodaikevich was forced to resign.

For many Germans, their past is still a taboo topic. For example, in 2020, journalists Melanie Longerich and Brigitta Betz created a podcast to explore the lives of their grandfathers, about whom their parents told them almost nothing. Longerich's grandfather was a Nazi stormtrooper. The family had only one photo of him, and none of the relatives wanted to talk about him. It is easier to keep silent about the past than to think critically about it, even for historians. So they refused to comment when they heard about comparing the German denazification experience with Russia. 

De-imperialisation of Russians

Therefore, we should not hope that the Russians will be convinced of anything. Obviously, the occupation zones in Russia will not be discussed even in the most optimistic and fantastic scenarios of the Russian-Ukrainian war. In their absence, only the own desire of Russian politicians can become the engine of de-imperialization policy. The German example shows that the transfer of control over denazification to German administrations was the beginning of the end of this policy.

Russians, who on the level of statements do not support a full-scale invasion, often behave like the Germans in 1945. First, they pretend that the Russian-Ukrainian war began on February 24, 2022, and not in 2014. Otherwise, explaining why they tolerated Russia's crimes for eight years is difficult. For example, Russian opposition leader Maxim Katz said he "owed nothing" to Ukrainians. He is convinced that Russians fleeing from mobilisation will benefit other countries or rather bring them "culture". His colleague in the video production department, Ilya Varlamov, said that if Kyrgyz do not heed his criticism, it will lead to the degradation of their country. Katz and Varlamov reflect Russian colonialism, which is supposed to "civilise the outskirts of a great empire". They refuse to understand the historical context of their actions and do not want to reflect critically on the years of exploitation and terror. For them, the past is in the past, just as it was for the Germans who were de-nazified and decided to start life anew.