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Germany 1945

When the Flames were Quenched

München, 05/08/2015

When the guns finally fell silent, the Second World War had claimed 60 million lives. Here, LMU historian Andreas Wirsching discusses the aftermath of the 8th of May 1945.

(Photo: Aachener Nachrichten)

How did the survivors react to Germany’s capitulation?
Wirsching: Germans experienced the 8th of May in very different ways and in markedly different situations. Many were in captivity, others were able to return home, others had been liberated from concentration camps. The vast majority was simply relieved that the war was over, and that the immediate danger to life and limb had passed. But all of them dreaded what was to come. Germany’s cities had been devastated by aerial bombing, much of the housing stock and urban infrastructure was in ruins. Food had become increasingly scarce during the last months of the war, and the situation continued to deteriorate.

How did Germans view the Allied forces – as occupiers or as peacemakers?
The Germans certainly did not see the occupying forces as liberators. The population was terrified of the Red Army in particular, ever since Soviet forces had breached the Eastern frontiers of the Reich in 1944. This fear was not unjustified, and thousands had to flee. But the Western Allies also explicitly defined occupied Germany as a “defeated enemy state”. Whether a city had been handed over without a fight, as happened in many places as the war drew to an end, or had fought to the last man as the Nazi leadership demanded, had a major impact on subsequent relations between the occupiers and the local population.

The image of the GI distributing chewing-gum to the children has become a topos.
Such rose-tinted memories have a real basis. That too is part of what happened. And in spite of failures like the notorious prisoner-of-war camps set up by the British and the Americans along the Rhine, all in all, the occupation was a humane process in accordance with international law on the treatment of civilians in occupied territories – and that certainly contributed to the subsequent change in German perceptions of the Americans.

And how did the Allies look on Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war?
At first, they regarded Germany simply as an objective. The Potsdam Conference defined their immediate goals: demilitarization, decentralization, deindustrialization, denazification and democratization. But the original idea of treating all of Germany as a single unit ruled by the Inter-Allied Control Commission soon proved to be unworkable. The division of Germany into occupied zones was codified at the London Conference of September 1944, but each of the four developed a life of its own – and they quickly diverged from each other. For instance, in the Soviet Zone, political parties were legalized early on, albeit under the more or less explicit domination of the Communist Party and later of the SED. In the Western Zones, political parties were approved a little later, as was a free press, which greatly facilitated the development of democratic structures in the period between1945 and 1947.

The war’s end not only marked the close of an immensely destructive conflict, it also brought Nazi Germany’s monstrous crimes into focus. How did their revelation percolate into the world’s consciousness?
The criminal nature of the Nazi regime was clear long before 1945, and was one of the reasons why the Casablanca Conference of 1943 defined the unconditional surrender of Germany as the Allies’ primary war aim. The world became aware of the Holocaust as an enormous crime against humanity only very slowly, as you say. The Nuremberg Trials against the major war criminals, subsequent proceedings in 1947 and 1948, but also less prominent cases between 1945 and 1949 all helped draw attention to the Holocaust. Murder cases could end with the death penalty. Later on, defendants were arraigned for lesser offenses, sentences were reduced on appeal or those found guilty were later amnestied. But the impact of the Nuremberg Trials on early postwar Germany was very limited. Most Germans were emotionally benumbed, and absorbed in their day-to-day struggles. And many saw the trials as “‘victors’ justice” and doubted their legality.

What became of the survivors of the concentration camps after they had been freed?
They constituted a significant fraction of what were called “displaced persons”, who were often housed in camps until they could emigrate to Palestine, or later to Israel, or re-establish themselves in Germany.

How did the Allies go about rebuilding a German state, of forming a functioning society from a traumatized population that included perpetrators of hideous crimes, their active and passive accomplices and their victims?
The Allies used different blueprints for this: In Soviet Zone it was clear from the start that “liberation from Fascism” was the aim, which meant that the Communist Party would control reconstruction and implement it in terms of class warfare. For the Western Allies, one of the first priorities was “denazification”. Questionnaires were issued to the whole population, and the responses were evaluated by tribunals, which assigned respondents to one of five categories: Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Fellow Travelers and Exonerated Persons – to identify groups who could help to build a new society. Individuals known to have held office under the Nazis were summarily arrested. Long before the war ended the Americans had begun to compile lists of people whose record was clean, and who could be entrusted with functions in journalism or in the higher ranks of the civil service. In other words, a serious attempt was made to restart public life without Nazis. But it soon lost impetus, and by around 1947 former Nazis had begun to reappear - in the legal system, the police, public administration, the press, less so in the upper levels of politics, but certainly in local associations and, to some extent, in journalism.

Denial and repression of guilt became a collective impulse. Can one speak here of ‘guilt of a second order’, as the journalist and author Ralph Giordano put it?
That is a quite a strong term, too strong perhaps. In the early Federal Republic, there was an, in many ways, understandable tendency to let sleeping dogs lie. And the vast majority of the lesser offenders and fellow travelers were successfully integrated into the new State without much fuss. Conversely, known war criminals in the full sense of the term had no chance of making a political comeback. Then there were further important court proceedings which publicized Nazi crimes, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961 and the first Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt between1963 and 1965. The Einsatzgruppen case in Ulm in 1958 saw members of the so-called Einsatzgruppen, which had carried out mass executions of Jews behind the lines from late 1941 on, in the dock for the first time. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, most Germans saw themselves in the role of history’s victims, as gullible innocents who had succumbed to the charisma of the fiendish Adolf Hitler. That meant that there was a huge lack of empathy for Nazi Germany’s true victims.

In the last months of the war, millions of Germans fled before the Soviet advance. At war’s end mass expulsions occurred in several waves. Many German prisoners of war returned home only in the middle 1950s. To what extent can it be said that Germans were victims of the vengeance of the victorious powers?
German civilians, who were in retreat, as it were, from territories in the East were often treated in a less than humane fashion. Massacres and mass rape were committed by the Red Army. Among Germans who were forced to flee the Sudetenland, Silesia, East Prussia and Pomerania, assault and violation are a general feature of recollections of their flight to the West. There was certainly an element of retribution involved, but I would not speak of a systematic campaign of revenge.

The historian Ulrich Herbert from the University of Freiburg views the 8th of May 1945 as the fulcrum between two periods of prosperity in Europe, one at each end of the 20th century. Is that an illuminating way of looking at it?
For a German historian, it is a natural perspective, because German history in the 20th century clearly falls into two halves. With its roots in the later 19th century, the period up until 1945 is one that ends in fiasco, the history of a flawed nation-state that ultimately mutates into an overtly criminal regime – certainly not a success story. What has happened in Germany since 1945, particularly in the Federal Republic – and including the events of 1989/90 – is a very different story. It is the tale of the phoenix emerging from its own ashes, the history of a reconstruction (integrated into the Western sphere) and of the – in my opinion, successful – democratization, pluralization and liberalization of a society.

Seventy years have gone by since the end of World War II and the collapse of the Nazi regime. The last witnesses to the period will soon have passed away. Will we then enter an era of historicization, a dispassionate consideration of the war years that lacks the immediacy of personal testimony?
I believe the idea that one cannot write vivid history without direct eye-witness testimony is false, for it implies that we could never discover anything about the more remote past. In that sense, living witnesses are not essential for historical insight. Understanding is based on review and critical analysis of documentary sources, in accordance with scholarly criteria. So I don’t think that lack of personal testimony imposes limits on our knowledge. But in terms of our awareness of the crimes of the Nazi regime, commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust, and the significance of the 8th of May, eye-witnesses do play an important role. It is their presence that lends authenticity to what otherwise may often come across as a ritualized culture of commemoration. When no contemporary witnesses remain, we must ensure that the gap between research findings and the historical awareness that underpins commemoration doesn’t become too wide.

Interviewer: Martin Thurau

Prof. Dr. Andreas Wirsching holds the Chair of Modern and Contemporary History at LMU and is the Director of the Institute for Contemporary History.