- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

The complexity of the de-Nazification process in West Germany at the dawn of the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 has puzzled many observers. Among those puzzled were the modern historian Norbert Frei and the American occupiers who brought the guilty Nazi elite responsible for the unspeakable crimes and mass murders of Adolf Hitler's regime to justice at the Nuremberg trials (1947-1949) and attempted to de-Nazify the country by sorting out the guilty from the innocent in a general political purging campaign.
This affected millions of former Nazi Party members who expected and eventually received an annulment of punishments and full integration by Konrad Adenauer's coalition government. To be sure, the stringent de-Nazification methods of the British and American military governments, fortified by their emphasis on purification and re-education, soon came under heavy public criticism and were promptly stopped when the newly elected Bundestag came into power.
In "Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past," a painstakingly researched analysis of the early Adenauer era, Norbert Frei takes a hard look at the political, judicial and intellectual consequences of the emerging amnestysizing "policy of the past" and disapproves. Highly critical of the chancellor's policy of leniency and the reversal of de-Nazification policies of the Allies, Mr. Frei suggests a linkage between the pursuit of a general amnesty for Nazi officials and war criminals with current discussions about Hitler's Germany as a nation of accomplices. The revisionist implication relating amnesty to amnesia represents a provocative thesis.
Acknowledging that the implementation of major policies was never an altogether German undertaking but a matter of Allied consent and cooperation, Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, presided over the heated amnesty debate in favor of an end to the imposed de-Nazification with political cunning and diplomatic finesse.
As pointed out by the Allies, Mr. Adenauer was well-aware of the obligation of morally and legally confronting the Nazi past. However, when the conservative democrat also addressed the immediate need for flexibility, for the stabilization, reconstruction and integration of an unstable society traumatized by a cruel war and years of confusing occupation, the author questions his motives. Listening to demands for the release and integration of war criminals and former Nazi leaders condemned by the Allies, Mr. Frei asserts that Mr. Adenauer looked for viable political accommodations.
Consequently, Mr. Adenauer promised severe punishment for the "truly guilty" while evoking the specter of "misfortune and mischief" connected to de-Nazification. Above all, he let it be known that the division of Germans into two classes the "politically objectionable" and "politically unobjectionable" was unacceptable. At this point Mr. Frei suspects that Mr. Adenauer was less interested in the war-criminal issue than in Western integration and German rearmament for which no "past-political price demanded by right wing nationalist coalition partners and former Wehrmacht officers was too high to pay."
Mr. Frei seems to fail to appreciate the initiation of a subtle reconciliation process that brought together a shattered nation. But as he points out, the eradication of a huge number of sentences chaperoned by the Allies was not without negative aspects. How would the international community react to the new democracy that was so forgiving when it came to Nazi criminals, totalitarian bureaucrats and a professional brown elite that stayed in place after 1945, among them Mr. Adenauer's trusted State Secretary Hans Globke? The contentious issue was finally resolved by the General Treaty of 1952, when the occupation regime was terminated and the Federal Republic attained partial sovereignty.
In his reference to the "scandalously neglected" criminal-legal confrontation with Nazism, Mr. Frei equates amnesty with amnesia. The provocative conclusion of the scholarly book presents a challenge to the gentle reader. "It is a thought-provoking irony," Mr. Frei writes alluding to the more recent awareness of the mass crimes of the Third Reich, 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 failings would stamp the new state's spirit over many decades."

Viola Herms Drath, a member of the executive committee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, is the author of "Willy Brandt: Prisoner of his Past" and other books on German affairs.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide