How Guilty Were Ordinary Citizens in Germany?

"Don't let's be beastly to the Germans. Their Bach is really far worse than their bite," sang Noel Coward in his song written in war-torn Britain in 1943. His parody, a personal favorite of Winston Churchill, was directed against those who took what he thought was a too tolerant view of Britain's "enemies."  The complex problem of Germany is illustrated by the fact that the song, after being initially played on the BBC, was quickly withdrawn.

In his speech on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1986, Elie Wiesel commented, "We must always take sides.  Silence encourages the tormentor, not the tormented."  Germany has been haunted by both the actions and the silence of citizens in its 20th-century history.  Is Germany to be seen as cruel and barbaric, typified by the Nazi regime and the brutalities of the communist Stasi tyranny in East Germany, or as the land of civility, creativity, philosophy, and music?

The controversial issues remain: what did Germans know of the terror, the discrimination, and the Holocaust by Nazi Germany?  Did they approve, oppose, or remain silent?

For 70 years, a variety of answers have been given by analysts, politicians , and others on these issues.  On January 25, 2005, Gerhard Schroder, then-German chancellor, expressed his shame that ordinary Germans were responsible for the Holocaust.  The Nazi ideology was carried out by people.  The memory of Nazi genocide is part of German national identity, and Germans have a moral obligation to remember the crimes and to remain vigilant so that the horrors of Auschwitz are never repeated.  Three years later, in January 2006, the Deutsche Bahn, Germany's state rail company, admitted its central role in the Holocaust by transporting millions to their death in extermination camps, even charging adults and children over four a fee to do so.

The predicament of an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances is exemplified in Germany in an influential 1993 book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution by Christopher Browning, with its account of average, middle-aged policemen, not committed Nazis or fanatics, who became cold-blooded killers of 38,000 Jews in Poland.  The members had a choice of whether to carry out orders to massacre the Jews and participate in the Holocaust.  Only 15 of the 500 in the battalion refused to do so.

Twenty-five years later, the issue of individual decisions and the disruptions of the lives of citizens in Germany is the subject of Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century (Princeton University Press, 2018) by Konrad H. Jarausch, a German-born professor at the University of North Carolina.  Not a history from above, his work is based on autobiographies and memoirs of a cohort of people born in the 1920s who became adults during the Nazi regime and lived to see the reunification of the country and the political and economic recovery in present-day democratic Germany.  "The ordinary people" include people from all social classes, from various geographical regions, and from different religious perspectives, struggling to lead normal lives in a setting of forces threatening death and destruction.

The autobiographies blend experiences and memories, selective, biased, and incomplete, yet engrossing in showing how earlier experiences are remembered and reflecting the human drama of the German 20th century.  Jarausch weaves in his comments on these stories and his own lucid and objective analysis of historical events, from Imperial Germany through Weimar, the Nazi regime, and the communist German Democratic Republic, and on the present Federal Republic of Germany.

As the title of the book suggests, Germans overwhelmingly experienced broken lives, a mixture of suffering and happiness, in the 20th century.  In their narratives, the central vortex is the Nazi dictatorship, World War II, and the Holocaust.  All disclaim any personal responsibility.  They tell of terror at home and at the military front, life in bomb shelters, mass rape, flight and expulsion due to German aggression.  They express a variety of points of view: some were apolitical; some knew nothing of the atrocities or of the number and purpose of concentration camps; some were " intellectual resisters"; some spoke warmly of fun and games in the Hitler Jugend but also of misplaced idealism.  Many were patriotic and took pride in the initial German military victories, but as the war dragged on, especially after Stalingrad, they began to question the purpose of "Hitler's war."  Those who lived in the communist GDR defended socialism as an ideal while critical of the practices of the regime.

Yet the crux of these versions of "communicative memory," trying to make sense of personal fate, is largely apologetic.  There are tales of common suffering and of both physical and psychological difficulties.  They focus mainly on German victimhood but fail to fully describe Nazi crimes.  The world has heard that song before; it's from an old familiar score.

The stories tend to resort to standard excuses or explanations of Nazi behavior: the unfair treatment of Germany by the Allies after World War I, the "shameful" Versailles Treaty, the humiliation of the country, the considerable unemployment, the loss of territory in and beyond Europe, the ineffective and changing governments in Weimar, and the "stab in the back" that was responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I.  Above all, the stories make a distinction between Nazi leaders who were the perpetrators and those who followed orders and did not act out of personal motivation.

In the range of stated reactions to the Nazi regime and the issue of nationhood, some narratives express contrition for the tellers' behavior, but the one most difficult to find is that of any expressed dedication or fanatical support for the Nazis.  Some accepted the Goebbels propaganda that the concentration camps were corrective institutions or for self-defense.  Others confessed ignorance because of the supposed secrecy surrounding the atrocities.

This memory culture of victimization persisted for some time in the postwar period.  It lessened for a number of reasons.  This was partly due to the anti-Nazi record and stance of postwar politicians, starting with federal chancellor Konrad Adenauer and President Theodor Heuss.  It was partly the result of revelations of the Holocaust in court cases – in Ulm in 1959, when ten members of the Gestapo were convicted of the murders of 5,000 Jews in West Lithuania, and in the series of trials in Frankfurt, 1963-65, of 22 S.S. charged with their role in crimes in Auschwitz-Birkenau and sub-camps.  The change was partly influenced by critical media, TV series, and literature, like that of Peter Weiss and Gunter Grass.

It remains true that Nazi crimes were rarely mentioned in the 1950s.  Only 789 of the 6,500 who were S.S. officials at Auschwitz were ever brought to trial, and those who were convicted usually got light sentences or were not sentenced.  The German judiciary was slow to punish those directly involved in the Holocaust.  One legal problem is that the offenders had to be linked to specific murders.

Jarausch concludes that from the perspective of ordinary people, German history in the 20th century reveals a shift from catastrophe to civility.  If Germans are still troubled by memories or allegations of individual and collective responsibility, today they are chastened.  One hopes this optimistic picture is and will remain correct, but the increase in anti-Semitism in recent years in the country suggests caution, since detours may lie ahead.

Image: Heinz Bunse via Flickr.

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