New beginnings:
German history did not stop in 1945, of course, although the mass of history books ending with Germany’s total defeat in the Second World War might suggest this. Four years after the end of the war two separate German states came into being, one capitalist and democratic, one communist and authoritarian. Democratic West Germany recovered from the devastations of the war and, with American help, rebuilt its economy, its cities, and its infrastructure. After an “economic miracle” in the early 1950s West Germany became one of the leading economic powers of the world.

East Germany, under much stronger oppression through the Soviet Union, recovered more slowly but also managed to rebuild in the 1950s. The repressive communist rule, however, prepetuated undemocratic structures for the Germans in the east. By the mid-1950s both German states started to rearm, against resistance mostly by the SPD in the west. The cold war, which had split the anti-Hitler coalition almost immediately after the German defeat, mandated a German contribution to the defense of both power blocs that confronted each other in the middle of Germany. The exemplary site for the east-west conflict became Berlin, the former capital, which now was divided, as was the whole country. West Berlin was a democratic, capitalist exclave surrounded by East Germany.

Until the surprising and unexpected breakdown of the Soviet Union and its informal empire in Eastern Europe in 1989, the largest concentration of nuclear weapons was on German soil. West Berlin and the “inner-German border,” as it came to be called, were the most sensitive areas during the cold war; every difference in the climate between the superpowers could be felt there, particularly in the precarious connections between West Germany and West Berlin. But Germans had a long and difficult way to recovery after 1945. The first experiences on this path were nearly total destruction, a depressing uncertainty, and a nightmare of guilt for the crimes of the Nazi era.

Germany at the “Hour Zero”:
Unlike in 1914-1918, Germany in the last years of the Second World War became a war scenario – with disastrous consequences. Every major city was in ruins. Over one quarter of all houses were destroyed, in most cities over half of them. The centers of most towns were almost totally burnt. Millions of Germans had become refugees. Most people were hungry and inadequately dressed. Diseases and epidemics were rampant. Poverty was grim for several years (and much longer for Germans in the Soviet sector), and people started a desperate barter. For a few potatoes or cigarettes one could get a grand piano or whatever family treasure had survived the war. Observers found that dogs and cats had almost completely vanished from the ghost cities; either starving people had eaten them or there had been no food left to feed them.

The hardships of everyday life were compounded by insecurity over missing relatives or grief over their death. Germany had 6.5 million war casualties (including civilians). Millions of German soldiers remained in foreign prisoner of war camps, and many died in Siberia long after the war. The last survivors of Stalingrad returned only in 1955, ten years after the end of the war and twelve years after being sent to Siberia. The breakdown of communications in Germany in 1945 and the reluctance of the Russians to gather or hand out information about their prisoners created enormous insecurity. Women often waited for their missing husbands for many years, never knowing whether they had been widows all the time or whether the husband would show up one day.

Industrial production was down to one fifth of the prewar level. Germans were hated everywhere and treated as parias once knowledge of the atrocities finally became widespread in the spring of 1945. Citizens of towns near concentration camps were forced by the victor armies to visit the camps full of corpses. Many broke out in tears when they saw the traces of the atrocious crimes that had happened not far from their homes. (These were not the worst camps, of course; the annihilation camps had all been in Poland.) In one word, the future of Germans and Germany seemed totally uncertain.

In the east of Germany and the Sudetenland German citizens now experienced ethnic resettlement policies themselves, as they were expelled by the Poles, Russians, and by the Czechs, often with the use of revengeful violence. The northern half of East Prussia was annexed by the Soviet Union, whereas the southern part as well as all German areas east of the Oder andNeisse rivers (a line about 50 miles east of Berlin) became Polish. Ten to twelve million Germans were expelled from these territories.

The rest of the country (in the borders of 1937) was divided into four occupation zones, a French one in the southwest, a British one in the North, and an American one in the west and south. The Russians received the centerpiece of former Germany (Saxony, Thuringia, Mecklenburg, and the lands around Berlin). Berlin and Vienna were divided into four zones as well; the Soviets granted the western powers passage rights to Berlin (which they tried to revoke during the Blockade in 1948-49). Austria was divided as well, but the occupation was terminated in 1955 in exchange for a guarantee of Austrian neutrality.

Unlike in 1918, the German defeat in 1945 was total. There was no German state or government left. Only gradually did some local self-administration emerge. Total also was the defeat of National Socialism. Already in the last months of the war, popular belief in the ultimate victory and loyalty to the system had quickly and totally waned.

The aims of the victors:
The major victor powers were the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain. Apart from dividing Germany into zones of interest they did not have long-term plans for Germany and agreed only on a few things. The Russians envisioned some form of communist state and hoped to include all of Germany in it. The western allies soon felt threatened by the Soviet Union, which repressed all democratic movements and established loyal communist governments in all countries occupied by its troops. For Poland, whose eastern territories the Soviet Union annexed (giving Poland large German lands as a “reimbursement”), Soviet repression often followed right after German repression had ended. Given the aggressive Soviet moves, the western powers gradually reconciled themselves to building up a capitalist German state out of the three western zones, which conveniently included the Ruhr district, Germany’s former industrial powerhouse.

All victor powers agreed, however, that foreign occupation of Germany should be temporary. They also did not initially intend to split the country and tried to administer what was left of Germany together. They formed the Allied Control Council in June 1945 as the supreme political authority for all of Germany (except the parts of former Germany that were already annexed). But this Council did not make much headway, since every member had the veto right, of which the French and Russians made frequent use (of the western victors the French were by far the most resentful against Germans in the first postwar years).

In July 1945 the leaders of the victor powers met for the Potsdam Conference. They could not agree on final boundaries for Germany and decided that a peace treaty sometime in the future would have to resolve this issue. The victors decided to demilitarize Germany, to introduce democratic self-government, to decentralize the country (which did not mean to divide it, however), to punish former Nazis, and to dissolve the big industrial cartels. (These decisions were called the five Ds: demilitarization, democratization, decentralization, denazification, and decartelization). They also agreed that the Germans’ living standard should remain lower than that of their neighbors.

The victors further granted each other the right to take reparations in form of machines and industrial equipment, which the Russians took more seriously than the western powers. While the west — after an initial phase of demontage — tried to help its “own” part of Germany, the Russians seized almost all of the industry and railroads left in the eastern sector. East Germany had a much more painful and difficult start into the postwar period than did the west. This, along with the repression soon prevalent in the Soviet-occupied sector, explains the stream of refugees from the east to the west, which did not end before East Germany built a deadly wall around West Berlin and along its border with West Germany in 1961.

The planned peace conference of the victors never met (only the talks of the two German governments with the four victor powers in 1989-90 finally led to a definitive border agreement), as tensions became too strong right after Potsdam. The Russians soon restricted mobility between the two parts of Berlin and between East and West Germany (it remained possible to flee, however, until 1961) and made sure that communists got elected to the local self-administration offices. Electoral fraud and intimidation started immediately.

Denazification led to a famous trial of war criminals in Nürnberg in 1946, in the course of which Göring and a few other surviving Nazi leaders received death sentences. Hess, Hitler’s proxy until 1941, and Speer, the architect and armaments minister, received long prison sentences. (For documents relating to the trials, see Yale, Avalon Project: International Military Tribunal.) But the prosecution of other former Nazis in many cases did not make much headway. Some high-level SS criminals lived under their normal names until the West German government put them on trial in the 1960s or even later, when the evidence was very difficult to reconstruct. The failure of Allied and later German justice to punish many of the less famous war criminals (for example the Einsatzgruppen commanders, the lawyers who had sent many people to their death because of their listening to foreign radio stations or mentioning their doubts about final victory, the death camp soldiers, and many, many more) in my view is a scandal.

The problem was that in Germany whole professional groups that were needed after 1945 were infested with Nazi guilt, such as many lawyers, policemen, doctors, businessmen, and administrators. They just continued their former professions and had little interest in shaking up the depressing past. To challenge these people became the task of a new generation of Germans, of those who were born in the war or shortly thereafter. The student rebellions of the late 1960s in Germany often were a general reckoning up of the young generation with the crimes many members of the older generations had committed under the Third Reich. Denazification thus proved difficult and was done half-heartedly, if at all. This was also the responsibility of the western allies. The United States “exculpated” many high-ranking Nazi officials because they had knowledge about the Soviet Union or about Germany’s high-tech missile program. The Soviet Union may have applied the strictest regime against ex-Nazis, but it seems that some of them changed their identities and became eager communists.

For the first few years after 1945 the occupying powers often determined the policies in their own sectors without too much consideration for what the others did. France wanted Germany weakened as much as possible and hoped to separate the Ruhr and Saar districts from Germany. The French, as in 1919, received extra powers in the Saar district with its precious coal mines, but more expansive aims failed, partly because France, as a country liberated by the Western allies and not a “full” victor, had a weaker position now than in 1918.

The Soviet Union was frustrated by having received the predominantly agrarian parts of Germany in the east. The Soviets therefore wanted reparations drawn from all sectors (mostly from the still potentially powerful Ruhr district). When they got no reparations they took home almost all they could move in their own sector. Having received the less industrialized part of Germany, the Soviets were least interested in partition. They hoped to hold on to their areas and expand.

Britain and the United States faced a particular dilemma: their sectors were relatively industrialized but therefore heavily dependent upon food imports. As internal communications in Germany had broken down and as dramatic food shortages affected the whole country, the British and Americans concluded that they had to bring in as much food for the Germans under their occupation as they could. This helped relieve the famines, though by no means the shortages. British and American taxpayers, moreover, resented feeding the Germans for an extended period. The British and Americans therefore quickly abandoned their policy of demolishing the remainders of German factories and to destroy what they could not use.

Instead they decided to let German industry rebuild on the spot so that it could produce enough to fund the necessary food imports. This led them to coordinate their policies within their respective zones, and after a year the French decided to join this policy. The Marshal Plan, an American reconstruction program, helped to rebuild the economomies of Germany’s three western sectors and the other countries of Western Europe. After 1948 life got gradually better in Western Germany, which was constituted as a state in 1949 (the Russians immediately followed by proclaiming their own sector a new German state too). The economic miracle of the early 1950s created unprecedented wealth in the west, now under the direction of a democratic government in Bonn.

Coming to terms with the past:
The Germans’ attitude toward their past has been ambivalent, particularly during the first twenty years after the end of the Third Reich, when the sparkling facade of the economic miracle helped to cover the depressing past. On the one hand, there could be no doubt that Nazism was thoroughly defeated. Hardly anybody stood up for Nazi ideology or Hitler any more. Neonazis have existed all along since 1945, but never did they form more than a loud and violent minority at the lunatic fringe of West German politics (East Germany, being a more authoritarian state, could repress neonazism better than democratic West Germany).

On the other hand, the first generation of Germans often felt very defensive toward their role in the Nazi past. Not that most people would have defended Hitler and the party, no, but they generally tried to dissociate themselves from the regime and resented conjuring up a dark, guilt-ridden past. Almost everybody claimed either not to have played a significant role in the Third Reich or not to have had a choice. This gave rise to various seduction theories, which put most of the blame on the top representatives of the Nazi regime. The common (and often hollow) excuse for those who had been party members (or worse) was: “I had to follow orders.”

This does not mean, however, that Germans repressed their past. The first West German government under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (a former Center Party member and major of Cologne), acknowledged collective German responsibility for the racial crimes of the Third Reich. The West German government paid indemnifications to the survivors of the Holocaust (but almost exclusively to Jewish survivors; the Gypsies never got anything). An institute for contemporary history (Institut für Zeitgeschichte) was founded by the West German government in Munich, and access to documents from the recent past became almost free, which was a novelty, as most official documents become available only after thirty to fifty years.

The historical research conducted by the Munich institute and by German universities has produced much critical insight and debate, but for the population at large, the guilt feeling about the Third Reich in the 1950s often expressed itself in a denial of guilt (not usually in a denial of the basic facts, however: holocaust deniers have always been rather rare). Only a new generation, the young people of the 1960s, aggressively challenged the comfortable myths of many members of the older generation. A new, more public, critical, and thorough exploration of the past started in the late 1960s.

One reason the older generation may have been defensive about the past was that they felt punished. Unlike most of the young of the 1960s, they had experienced the war, the bombings, the crimes of the invading Russians, the misery of the postwar years, and — not least of all — the defeat of their country, which led to a loss of territory and status that dwarfs the Treaty of Versailles. With the American and British bombings on the one side and the horrors of the Russian invasion on the other, Germans in the end had become victims of the war they had unleashed. Many Germans of the generations who experienced the horrors of the last war years and the misery of the postwar period (which for most people did not end before 1949) felt that they had suffered retribution for many crimes committed in their name and by their people. Initially, the exigencies of the depressing postwar present became the highest priority. Few people wanted to “work through” the past as long as the present required all of their energy. Later, they felt pride in having rebuilt their country (or their countries, since this feeling was shared in the east and west) and preferred to look to the future rather than to the past.

Today, the condemnation of the Nazi period and the admission of collective responsibility (however defined) is widely accepted in Germany. The way Germans since 1945 have dealt with their past is by no means heroic, but we must consider that no people has ever found it easy to deal with massive guilt. There has never been an official apology of the Turkish government for the genocide against Armenians in the First World War. The Japanese government has adopted a denying or downplaying attitude if confronted with the evidence of the atrocious Japanese war crimes on the Asian continent. France has found it hard and painful to confront the widespread acceptance of the Vichy regime and French cooperation in rounding up Jews for deportation to Auschwitz. Croatia has recently named streets after members of its fascist military government that supported the Holocaust, while Serbia did little or nothing to stop the genocide against Muslim Bosnians carried out by Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s.

In this comparative light, German dealings with the guilt of the Third Reich (which I believe to surmount all other examples given above) are — however inadequate — not totally out of line. A break has been made with the times before 1945, and the hesitance of the older generation to confront the Nazi past has been overcome by their children. (This is shown by the fact that Goldhagen’s incriminating book, though almost unanimously rejected by historians, has received more enthusiastic endorsement in Germany than elsewhere.) Reunited Germany is continuing the tradition of the stable democracy that formerly ruled West Germany alone. The Russian, British, French, and American troops, ending almost fifty years of occupation, have left in peace and friendship.

Attacks by right-wing groups on foreigners, desecrations of Jewish cemeteries, and neonazi meetings are alarming phenomena (though not confined to Germany), but it would be wrong to conjure up the specter of the last Weimar years. Anti-democrats both on the left and right form small minorities, and the democratic government is securely entrenched in the consciousness of by far the largest part of Germans. High unemployment and social insecurity are serious problems today, but they hit a wealthy welfare state with an almost unparalleled social security net that has its origins in the agitation of the SPD and in Bismarck’s social security laws more than a hundred years ago. The generation of my grandparents, for instance, never lived as well as in retirement from the 1970s on (which gave them a welcome opportunity to spoil their grandchildren, since they did not need much for themselves, having learnt to live with limited means for most of their lives).

The state today has generous provisions for the poor, the elderly, and the sick. The only problem may be that the conditions of an increasingly competitive global economy will make such an elaborate social welfare state less and less profitable, particularly as a mass of educated and cheap labor has become available in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

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