Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Purging Nazism from German Society

Mikkel Dack

For thousands of years, wars have generally ended in the same way: a military invasion is followed by a decisive victory or negotiated ceasefire. Treaties are signed, territories seized, and reparations procured — the invading army leaves. To avoid the same failures of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), the victorious Allied armies took additional measures after the Second World War. They would remain in Germany for an extended period of time and endeavour to change the very way the enemy thinks. To preserve peace in Europe, Nazism and militarism were to be isolated and purged from German society; wartime planners referred to this as an “ideological cleanse.”

The postwar denazification campaign (1945-49) may evoke images of high-profile war crimes trials and the physical destruction of Nazi symbols. However, these were relatively minor actions, and sometimes superficial ones, meant as public spectacles to show that postwar justice was being pursued. Instead, the major thrust of denazification was the investigation of millions of ordinary Germans, most of them middle-class educated men — teachers, doctors, civil servants, and managers. While the Nazi leadership faced an international tribunal at Nuremburg, the general German population was subject to political screening.

This massive vetting program relied on an unassuming six-page political questionnaire, or Fragebogen. Disseminated in millions of copies, the Fragebogen asked questions about education, employment, military service, and membership in Nazi organizations. Every adult who wished to work in a position of responsibility, including most civil servant jobs, was required to complete the survey. Referred to by Allied administrators as the “political litmus test,” the questionnaire quickly came to govern most denazification efforts, dwarfing all other activities in scale, scope, and expense. This peculiar social science instrument was drafted by a handful of idealistic academics in the United States and England, some of them German-Jewish refugee scholars.

While the Fragebogen was an important screening instrument for the Allied armies, it also acted as an emancipatory device that gave voice to Germans, inviting them to participate in the determination of their own fate. The self-administered form asked open-ended questions and allowed for the appending of supplementary materials, even though administrators did not have the intelligence needed to verify most responses. Germans enthusiastically embraced the opportunity and used the questionnaire to justify, diminish, and conceal their Nazi past and hence improve their chance of postwar recovery. This simple allowance led to the accumulation of a massive repository of emotion-driven and survival-motivated commentaries, a largely overlooked collection of autobiographical writings about the Third Reich.

My book, Everyday Denazification in Postwar Germany, is the first study of the political screening program and of denazification at its most rudimentary level. It moves the analytical gaze away from the dictates of Potsdam, the verdicts of Nuremberg, and the amnesty laws of Bonn to focus on how the eradication of Nazism was experienced by ordinary people. Existing scholarship on post-WWII memory argues that the ease with which Germans broke from their Nazi past can be attributed to lenient denazification commissions, a preoccupation with economic recovery, and the popular political agenda of the 1950s that promoted reintegration. I suggest the whitewashing process began earlier and that it was instigated, in part, by the Allied armies and their political screening program. More broadly, the book argues that the occupiers had an intimate and lasting influence on how Germans remembered, interpreted, and recorded their Nazi past.

The screening questionnaire turned denazification into an individual act of reflection. It forced Germans to critically evaluate their past affiliations, beliefs, and life decisions. Respondents spent millions of collective hours arguing that they had never been Nazi supporters and that they wished Adolf Hitler had not come to rule the country. Their answers may have been contrived and ideological conversation superficial, but Germans used the Fragebogen to build and rehearse non-Nazi narratives and to write Nazism out of their lives. It was hard work to prove one’s innocence, completing the form and appending documents was a meaningful psychological commitment. This shared rite of passage had the effect of discrediting the regime and its ideology and removing Nazism from all respectable political and social discourses.

Everyday Denazification in Postwar Germany by Mikkel Dack

About The Author

Mikkel Dack

Mikkel Dack is Assistant Professor of History at Rowan University and Director of Research at the Rowan Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights....

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