The Role Ex-Nazis Played in Early West Germany

The Role Ex-Nazis Played in Early West Germany

After World War II, West Germany rapidly made the transition from murderous dictatorship to model democracy. Or did it? New documents reveal just how many officials from the Nazi regime found new jobs in Bonn. A surprising number were chosen for senior government positions.

Ten days before Christmas, the German Interior Ministry acquitted itself of an embarrassing duty. It published a list of all former members of the German government with a Nazi past.

The Left Party's parliamentary group had forced the government to come clean about Germany's past by submitting a parliamentary inquiry. Bundestag document 17/8134 officially announced, for the first time, something which had been treated as a taboo in the halls of government for decades: A total of 25 cabinet ministers, one president and one chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany -- as postwar Germany is officially known -- had been members of Nazi organizations.

The document revealed that Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) who governed Germany from 1966 to 1969, had been a member of the Na

zi Party ever since Adolf Hitler seized power. According to the Interior Ministry list, German President Walter Scheel, a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) who was in office from 1974 to 1979, had been a Nazi Party member "from 1941 or 1942." The list names ministers of all political stripes and from a wide range of social backgrounds. Some, like leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD) mastermind Erhard Eppler (Minister of Economic Cooperation), did not become Nazi Party members until the end (at 17, in Eppler's case). Others, like conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) agitator Richard Jaeger (Minister of Justice), had been part of Hitler's paramilitary organization, the SA (since 1933, in Jaeger's case). Even FDP luminary Hans-Dietrich Genscher (first interior minister and later foreign minister), who denies to this day that he knowingly joined the Nazi Party, is listed as a Nazi Party member.

According to the government list, former SPD Finance Minister Karl Schiller was in the SA, while his fellow cabinet minister Horst Ehmke was a Nazi Party member, as were ("presumably," the list notes) former SPD Labor Minister Herbert Ehrenberg and Hans Leussink, a former education minister with no party affiliation. On the conservative side, the report names several former Nazi Party members, including former CDU Foreign Minister Gerhard Schröder and former CDU Minister for Displaced Persons Theodor Oberländer, as well as former CSU Post and Communication Minister Richard Stücklen and former CSU Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann.

Germany's Dark Past

None of this information is new. It isn't just since the 1968 student revolts that critical citizens, intellectuals and the media have broadcast new details on the contemporary relevance of Germany's dark past. For years, the notion that partisans of the Nazi regimes were able to manipulate their way into the top levels of government in the young federal republic, and that former Nazi Party members set the tone in a country governed by the postwar constitution in the 1950s and 60s has been a subject for historians.

But six decades after the Nuremberg Trials against the leaders of the Nazi regime, a new attempt -- the first official one, at that -- to come to terms with postwar Germany's Nazi past is now underway. Now everything has to come out. Throughout the former West Germany, investigations are digging deep, extending all the way down to the foundations, seeking to answer a fundamental question: Just how brown -- the color most associated with the Nazis -- were the first years of postwar West Germany?

The government's 85-page response to the Left Party's inquiry about old Nazis in the halls of power is nothing more than an interim summary of research being undertaken in the archives of many ministries and federal agencies. As part of the effort, historians are reviewing enormous stacks of personnel files on behalf of the government.

No one has ever dug this deeply. The highly controversial study on Nazi involvement at the Foreign Ministry, marketed last year as a bestseller, was only the beginning. Historians are now studying old files at the Finance Ministry, in the judiciary and the Economics Ministry and, in particular, in the police and intelligence services. How many Nazis took part in the rebuilding of the government after World War II? How much influence did the surviving supporters of the Nazi dictatorship have on the establishment and operation of Germany's first functioning democracy?

Officials at the Interior Ministry, the source of the most recent government document, have issued an EU-wide call for assistance in addressing Germany's Nazi past. Historians from the western city of Bochum are now poring over old files from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) which stretch for about 500 meters (1,640 feet) to determine how many of the Nazi dictatorship's helpers hid under the coattails of the domestic intelligence service in the early years of the Federal Republic -- and how this could have happened.

An Enormous Confession

Was the protection of the young, optimistic constitution in the hands of former National Socialists? It is as if the government were determined to finally shed all of its oppressive secrets.

It's an enormous confession. The discussion revolves around an entire generation of civil servants, all "public employees," according to the German government's most recent report to the Left Party, "who were at least 17 at the time of the collapse of the Nazi dictatorship, and no more than 70 at the time of constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany." The people in question would have been born between 1879 and 1928.

Whether it will ever be possible to separate the good from the bad seems questionable at the very least. About a million people from the generation in question worked for the government in the early years of the republic. But according to the report, only about 200,000 personnel files from this period still exist.

Nevertheless, Berlin historian Michael Wildt expects "substantial new information" to emerge from the file rooms of government agencies. Wildt is convinced that it will become clear that all government institutions, provided they existed at the time, were involved "in the mass crimes of the Nazis." And the institutions that were newly formed under the postwar constitution, namely the police and the intelligence services, were largely staffed with civil servants from the old, criminal organizations. Ministries and government agencies have "covered up, denied and repressed" their dark history, says Wildt.

Covered up, denied and repressed. It's a charge that doesn't just apply to politicians and public servants, at least not in the early years of the republic. Senior members of the media, including at SPIEGEL, proved to be unwilling or incapable of sounding the alarm. This isn't surprising, given the numbers of ex-Nazis who had forced their way into editorial offices.

Blood on Their Hands

The new wave of revelations from Germany's past doesn't just provide additional gruesome details about the generation of perpetrators. In the middle of the flourishing democracy of reunified Germany, people are turning their attention to the roles of those who actively helped the Nazis, or at least looked the other way, when politicians, civil servants and lawyers with blood on their hands claimed important positions once again.

The willingness to let bygones be bygones, either because of a guilty conscience or for the sake of a new beginning, was disastrous. It is this attitude that has prompted historians to accuse the founding generation of having jeopardized the new, hopeful Germany, where human dignity was treated as the most important constitutional value.

Germany in the 1950s was "a precarious nation," a country on the brink, says historian Wildt. Even though the 50s were seen as Germany's "golden years," the period was also haunted by the demons of the past, whose machinations, as we are learning today, could easily have brought Germany to what Wildt calls a tipping point. For many historians and constitutional experts, the fact that this did not happen -- once again -- was a stroke of luck, and a miracle of the Bonn republic.

Biologically speaking, Germany has largely lost its connection to the generation of perpetrators. Even those who sought to cover up the Nazi past are mostly retired nowadays. The opportunity is favorable. Now it is up to the grandchildren to address the miracle, which must seem like a timeless lesson to some, a lesson on the difficulties of building a democracy from the ruins of a brutal dictatorship.