For decades after 1945, the victims of Nazism’s crimes had less of a voice in West German society than the perpetrators. Germany’s much-credited reckoning with the Nazi past was a long time coming — but most of the criminals were never brought to justice.

German chancellor Willy Brandt kneels in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in a gesture of humility toward the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, December 1970. (Ben Martin / Getty Images)

Germany is often credited for its success in reckoning with the Nazi era — with some observers even labeling the country “world champion in remembrance.” Scholars like Susan Neiman have intelligently drawn on the German example to reflect on how the United States could think about its own racial reckoning in the twenty-first century. In other former Axis powers like Italy — today a hotbed of historical revisionism — many anti-fascists bewail the absence of a moment like the Nuremberg Trials in which the regime could be brought before the court of history.

Yet claims about German society’s success dealing with the past also deserve scrutiny. In postwar decades, the Federal Republic was slow to purge Nazis from its ranks, and there was no quick or general recognition of the monstrous, genocidal crimes of the Shoah. Even in the 1980s, with countless criminals still walking free, the famous “Historians’ Dispute” among leading scholars tended to banalize the Nazis’ actions by equating them with their communist enemies. In both East and West Germany, the different groups targeted by Nazism often struggled to make themselves heard; in many formerly occupied countries, they never had any chance of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Tommaso Speccher is a researcher at Berlin historical institutions including the Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, and the Wannsee Conference House. His recent study La Germania sì che ha fatto i conti con il nazismo questions triumphalist accounts of postwar German memory culture. He explains the conflicts within Germans’ way of talking about the Nazi era — while also highlighting the initiatives by victims’ groups, political movements, and activist judges who did seek a reckoning with the past.

In an interview, Speccher spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about denazification, postwar efforts to bring Nazis to justice, and how the memory of World War II shapes German identity today.

David Broder

Many Italians bemoan the fact that their country had nothing like the denazification process that followed Germany’s military defeat in 1945. Your book questions the extent of this process in Germany itself. What kind of denazification happened — and was it just something the Allies imposed, or something done by the West German state, too?

Tommaso Speccher

This study is part of a book series called Fact Checking, which seeks to debunk historical myths. There’s this commonplace idea that after 1945 Germany really reckoned with the past. My argument is that it’s more complicated than that. The book seeks to put together the real history of political debates, criminal trials, and memory-policy choices in the postwar period that made it possible to work through the past.

At the beginning, the Allies had radical ideas of denazification. Even the Americans wanted to deindustrialize Germany, and Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had the “Outlaw Theory” of the criminal Nazi elite. This idea of eliminating between fifty thousand or one hundred thousand Nazis was not all that implausible. But then many other factors came into play — judicial ones, certainly, but also those regarding the future global political order.

In 1945–47, the Allies worked together on putting war criminals on trial, with the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg made up of the British, French, Americans, and Soviets. But then the Cold War began to develop, setting the two main allies at odds. As a result, Americans became concerned with building up a strong West German state, and this meant the Federal Republic also needed a political order with robust legitimacy.

At the beginning, the Allies had radical ideas of denazification. But then many other factors came into play — judicial ones, certainly, but also those regarding the Cold War political order.

The famous “article ten” of the charter behind the Nuremberg war crimes trials had set an extensive penal principle, holding that any member of a criminal organization would be liable for the crimes against humanity committed by anyone else within that same organization. In the last months of World War II there were 2.5 million SS and 7.5 million Nazi party members — meaning ten million potential criminals.

But right after the establishment of the new Federal Republic, this article was set aside. The second law of Konrad Adenauer’s first West German government — passed by parliament on December 31, 1949 — was to suspend it and reintroduce the classic penal code, according to which each citizen is responsible only for their own actions and cannot be charged with crimes committed by anyone else. The extensive principle of the Nuremburg Trials was thus dropped.

This change weighed on all subsequent trials, because it became difficult to establish direct responsibility for each of the millions of individual crimes that made up the Holocaust. Things would change only in 2009 with the trial in which former camp guard John Demjanjuk was tried for tens of thousands of counts of being an accessory to murder.

David Broder

How about the perpetrators outside the Nazi Party itself — for instance, with the role of private business in the Holocaust?

Tommaso Speccher

The Americans had established four “pillars” of denazification: the breakup of the Nazi Party, the breakup of the SS, the breakup of the Wehrmacht and — added to those — the overhaul of the big German private firms. When US treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau proposed the deindustrialization of the country, he wanted to strike at what had been one of the main engines of exploitation in the concentration camps, by dismantling companies such as Siemens, BMW, Kodak, and so on. But with the beginning of the Cold War during the Adenauer era, it was clear that turning West Germany into a postwar “economic miracle” wouldn’t be possible without them. So, putting their leaders on trial wasn’t an option anymore.

David Broder

I’m interested in this self-absolution by the Adenauer government. You may have read Daniel Marwecki’s work, which looks at the reparations that the West German state started paying to Israel in 1952. He suggests that while West Germany’s place in the Western side in the Cold War was already obvious by this point, these reparations were still important in rehabilitating it diplomatically. In what sense was this discussed in German public life as an act of contrition or moral reparation rather than of Realpolitik?

Tommaso Speccher

This move surely had a highly political value that went beyond any kind of moral or ethical consideration. If Germany wanted to reenter international politics, it had to do so by building a relationship with the United States and Israel, especially as this latter became an outpost of Western policy in the Middle East. Through the 1950s and 1960s, and even under Willy Brandt, there was always some outside German support for Israeli defense, though this could not yet be talked about publicly.

Last year marked seventy years of this reparations policy, which concerned not just Israel but twelve countries, all of them in the West. There were also protocols drawn up for West Germany’s responsibilities toward Greece, Norway, France, Italy, the Netherlands . . . in short, all the Western countries invaded during World War II. This was an instrument of international politics, but also a way of closing the book on the issue of compensation.

At the level of international macro-policy and at the level of individual restitution, the issue of reparations was first and foremost a political instrument.

Internationally, this was a matter of building relations — and internally, in West Germany, it also established a split between those who were due compensation and those who weren’t. For instance, think of all the difficulties that Communists and Social Democrats had in securing compensation, or of the fact that one prerequisite for eligibility was that you needed to have had resided in Germany for at least one year at the moment of application. Many victims had been extradited and lost their citizenship, then had to deal with a very long process of securing recognition for what had been done to them. Furthermore, as I say in the book, many of the civil servants running the compensation programs were the same bureaucrats who had played active roles in the Nazi administration.

So, both at the level of international macro-policy and at the level of individual restitution, the issue of reparations was first and foremost a political instrument. That is, it helped build West Germany’s international connections while also operating an internal selection among the victims, simply by categorizing who was a victim worthy of compensation and who was not. In the 1950s, anti-communism played a decisive role in this process, also because many Nazis had been reintegrated into the state administration, as they could be trusted to take staunchly anti-communist positions.

David Broder

In this sense, it seems that Germany’s coming to terms with the Holocaust was unique — but also hardly comparable to the way in which the Nazis’ crimes against humanity in other countries, for instance in Italy, were processed in the public mind.

Tommaso Speccher

From the outset, it is clear that there was a division between the genocide against the Jews and what were deemed crimes against “political” victims. The crimes against humanity in Italy were considered within a political framework, and this has also governed policies of compensation and restitution up to the present. When in 2009 some Italian trials were opened up again, this became apparent: the decisions issued by the Italian tribunals were not recognized by the German courts and so became moot (and this, despite the work of historians).

After the discovery of the “cabinet of shame” [nearly seven hundred files on Nazi war crimes in Italy, found in 1994], more than sixty trials were launched, but in the last fifteen years, the German prosecutors did not hand over any criminals to justice. So, why isn’t there any cooperation, why aren’t they handed over for a final ruling? Clearly, behind it there is this choice to define the Shoah as one thing and the other crimes as political matters internal to the war context. It needs to be said though, that Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were allied, and so the big picture is even more complicated.

In the 1950s, many Nazis were reintegrated into the state administration, as they could be trusted to take staunchly anti-communist positions.

David Broder

Recently, I went to the Risiera di San Sabba, the concentration camp in Trieste, northeastern Italy, where Yugoslav anti-fascists and Jews were murdered. In the exhibition, I was surprised to read that when a trial was organized against the camp’s leadership in Italy in 1976, the court could not consider the massacres of the “political” victims, and it was impossible to extradite the defendants due to a bilateral agreement between Rome and Berlin signed during the war.

Tommaso Speccher

The first phase of trials — supported by the Allies — against German war criminals in Italy ended in 1960 with twenty-five convictions. Many other investigations, almost seven hundred, ended up in the “cabinet of shame,” but also fell victim to the 1942 pact between Germany and Italy that rejected the extradition of Germans for crimes in Italy. It may seem surprising, but such a treaty applied also after the end of World War II.

David Broder

Your book cuts against the idea that there was a proper reckoning with Nazism immediately after 1945. For instance, it notes that when Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt famously fell to his knees in front of the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this was indeed a remarkable and new sign of atonement, a full quarter century after the war. In what sense did his government represent a turning point compared to Adenauer’s, also in terms of West Germany’s place in postwar Europe?

Tommaso Speccher

Certainly, Brandt represents a turning point, particularly in terms of the recognition of the loss of German territories in the East. I cite a speech he gave in parliament, arguing that “if West Germany wanted to be a European country at the heart of the continent, then it had to accept the results that had come out of World War II.” This is something Adenauer had failed to do, didn’t want to do, somehow remaining in a nostalgic vision imagining that the two Germanies would one day return to what they had once been, including territories that had since become part of Poland. At a certain point that debate was left behind. Today, not even right-wing extremist groups talk about that anymore. It is really Brandt who connects this border issue to accepting Germany’s historical responsibility and the idea of being a European state. He kneeled as a gesture of apology, which, it must be said, was an epochal shift.

Even so, there is a certain complexity to the issue insofar as even in his past phase at the Foreign Ministry, this remained one of the departments most contaminated by old Nazis, and Brandt failed to do anything about it. There’s some odd stories about him. The historian Götz Aly talks about how in 1963, at the United Nations in New York, Brandt had given a really profound speech on the Holocaust. Aly points out that this was a speech that Brandt could not have given in Germany because a certain antisemitic sentiment was still present in the country. As mayor of Berlin he secretly opposed, in 1966, the first memorial promoted by Joseph Wulf at the site of the Wannsee Conference. In 1971, when he decided to donate his Nobel Prize money to the restoration of the Scuola Grande Tedesca, one of the synagogues in Venice, he said that this decision should be communicated only after his death.

There was this complexity to the story, because the same apparat persisted, and antisemitism was no passing phenomenon but a structural one, at least before it was more openly confronted in the 1980s.

David Broder

Even given the presence of Nazis within the postwar state apparatus, I wonder what cultural shifts took place in society itself: What about the younger generations, born after the war? Could the diary of Anne Frank, or Hollywood movies and TV series, generate a wider discussion about what had happened?

Tommaso Speccher

In the first postwar decades, very little. Despite the work of victims’ associations like the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes, the voice of the victims was drowned out by the voice of the perpetrators. In the 1950s or 1960s, Nazism was not a subject dealt with in school curricula. For sure there was some discussion of it, but the criminality of Nazism was played down considerably. For instance, I have a history book from 1968, which does address Nazism but does not talk about the concentration camps — as if they did not exist.

Despite the work of victims’ associations like the Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes, in early postwar decades the voice of the victims was drowned out by the voice of the perpetrators.

That was the case at least up until the late 1970s and the TV series Holocaust. People born in the immediate aftermath of the war will all tell you that this was a crucial moment, and that thanks to the series, the Holocaust started to be discussed in families.

However, a turning point had already come earlier with the movements of 1968, even if it was not a real collective debate but rather the struggle of a small number against the entire German nation — “six against sixty million,” as it was dubbed. But it still represented a break. The creation of associations and grassroots movements slowly created a certain more widespread awareness.

David Broder

It seems that ’68 pointed the finger at a West German society that hadn’t changed — but didn’t itself drive a real collective reflection on fascism. You point to simplistic ’68er readings of history repeating itself, for instance Red Army Faction (RAF) slogans saying that the Americans in Vietnam were Nazis. Drawing such stark parallels clashes with the way that the German left today talks about the uniqueness of German historical guilt.

Tommaso Speccher

Often we have this outsized impression of the RAF as a moment of rupture in which a new generation opposed itself to, and sought to overcome, this Nazi past. The problem though, which I remark on the book — also picking up on Aly — is that those were the years when it would have been necessary to support those others who were already working on that, indeed the likes of the organizations of the victims, the likes of Joseph Wulf or the attorney general Fritz Bauer [key to the manhunt that captured Adolf Eichmann, and instigating the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in 1963–65]. With great difficulty, there was a movement to bring out the historical truth and even bring people to justice.

What’s missing is this connection between the West German student movement and these legal initiatives — for all the protests that they organized in those years, nobody was outside the courts protesting the old Nazis and supporting the prosecutors. If anything, in the mid-1960s there was a critique of the likes of Fritz Bauer as men who belonged to the old society — “they, too, contributed,” when in fact they were the first victims.

Aly says, and I think he’s right, that one generation wasn’t enough of a time span to process what had happened. The maximalism that characterized the RAF’s rhetoric lent itself to a certain oversimplification and to Manichaean claims to the absolute truth, leading to a simple rejection of civil society and its contradictions. In German it would be called Sturheit, stubbornness. But evidently, the RAF is the degeneration of ’68, albeit a symbolically important one, rather than the basis of a judgement on ’68 itself.

David Broder

I’d like to make a comparison with anti-fascism in Italy. There, the attempt to form a government even passively reliant on neofascist support, in 1960, was quickly confronted and defeated by popular mobilization, somehow kickstarting the social movements of the decade that followed. The Italian ’68 prominently included a certain criticism of the official, constitutional antifascism as stale, but also a call to complete the unfinished business of the Resistance. In what sense was there a critique of insufficient official anti-fascism, in German society?

Tommaso Speccher

After 1945 Italy was steeped in institutional anti-fascism, and in the postwar decades many of the state’s highest officials were former freedom fighters, whereas in West Germany anti-fascism had no official place in the constitution of 1948.

If we compare the two countries in the postwar period, we see them heading off in two opposite directions. To explain: in Italy, anti-fascist culture is written into the country’s constitution and imbued the republic up until the turn of the 1990s. Those years mark the watershed known as “the end of the First Republic,” followed by the advent of the Berlusconi era.

After 1945 Italy was steeped in institutional anti-fascism, and in the postwar decades many of the state’s highest officials were former freedom fighters, whereas in West Germany anti-fascism had no official place in the constitution of 1948.

In Germany institutional anti-fascism only started to emerge after a phase in the 1980s that Jürgen Habermas called “constitutional patriotism,” however only in the 1990s did anti-Nazism become a kind of cordon sanitaire of republican defense.

Nowadays anti-Nazism is taken for granted, but we cannot ignore signs of erosion. The ten-year-long existence of the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party is one of those signs. At the moment, AfD is still a political pariah, and none of the main parties has sought its support, though in 2020, when the Christian Democrats in Thuringia were about to form a regional government reliant on AfD’s external support, Angela Merkel warned them against it, and her advice was taken. However, while the inclusion of AfD in a governing coalition was averted, its popularity continues to grow nationwide.

David Broder

I’d like to look more at the theme of anti-communism. In the 1980s there was a famous dispute among German intellectuals about how to incorporate the Holocaust into German historiography. Thanks to historians like Ernst Nolte, this “Historikerstreit” eventually offered a form of self-absolution of German society, through the strong comparison it established between Nazism and communism.

Tommaso Speccher

Yes, we could also argue that the Historikerstreit offered an opportunity for relativizing Nazism. The dispute showcased a moment of crisis of the historical debate, as these gentlemen debated which crimes were “worse,” in the context of a society that remained full of old Nazis — many still in official posts – and with many war criminals still at large. These historians failed to focus on what was still happening: What about all the trials that hadn’t been held? What about the victims, the children and grandchildren of people sentenced to death?

The Nazi judge who sentenced to death Erika von Brockdorff, the mother of a dear friend of mine who was involved with a resistance group, lived in a mansion until his death in 1987 enjoying a judge’s state pension. That might sound like a trivial instance but it’s not — it’s an injustice perpetrated over time. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the legitimacy of the Federal Republic could not be untangled from the history of Nazism, which could not be confronted head-on because of the structural continuities from the one to the other. So, this historians’ dispute in the 1980s was absolutely sterile and trivial.

David Broder

Today it is often said that while the East German state boasted of its anti-fascist identity, its memory culture never talked about the Holocaust. The impression is rather that Jews were treated as no more than part of the wider millions of victims, or else the Nazi repression of political militants was foregrounded in a way that marginalized the genocide itself. Yet, one could counter that there were things like school-group visits to the death camps, so it is hardly as if the Holocaust was simply under a veil of silence. In what sense does it make sense to say that this history was overlooked in East Germany?

Tommaso Speccher

Let’s say that the anti-fascist ideology in the GDR had its own logic, which excluded all that made the Holocaust specific — in ethnic, gender, religious, racial terms — to bring it under a general interpretation in which Nazism is the ultimate end point of the history of capitalism.

The difference is that in the East the discussion was guided from above, whereas in the West it was able, with a great deal of delay, to develop within society. But when people talk about Germans being the “world champions of memory culture,” then the evidence for that doesn’t date back very far. The Wannsee Conference House was opened in 1992, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in 2005, and the Topography of Terror Museum in 2010.

For sure there were memorial sites like the Sachsenhausen concentration camp [from 1949 in the territory of East Germany]. But the exhibitions you find now are utterly different from the ones that were there in the 1970s and 1980s. They had focused on the socialist and communist resistance, and on the political persecution of the Left, while the Jews appeared as one among several victim groups.

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