josh rosner

Posts Tagged ‘Hitler’

CASTING OFF THE BURDEN OF GUILT

In Book Review on May 30, 2011 at 8:01 am

I recently reviewed Frederick Taylor’s latest book, Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, for the Canberra Times. The books not perfect and in part it rehashes old ground, but Taylor is an expert on modern German history (his books on Dresden and The Berlin Wall were exemplary) and any flaws within can be forgiven, because this is an insightful, well-argued and well-articulated analysis of Germany’s post-war socio-political and economic development. This is an excellent addition to the burgeoning canon of books on German history.

Exorcising Hitler. The Occupation and Denazification of Germany. By Frederick Taylor. Bloomsbury. 428pp. $35.99

Germany, so it seems from the comparable prosperity and stability of the twenty-first century, lurched from one socio-political challenge to the next during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One could even argue Germany’s problems began much earlier than that. I believe there is an argument to be made that Germany’s political woes began with Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church in 1517, and only ended with the unification of West and East Germany in 1990.

The end of the Second World War brought two humiliating military defeats for Germany, less than 30 years apart. Germany’s defeat in May 1945 may have been seen as a relief by many Germans, but it quickly became apparent that after 12 years of National Socialism, during which Hitler promised to rejuvenate the nation after its defeat in the First World War, the path to peace was not likely to be an easy one.

The four Allied powers – America, Great Britain, France and Russia – each carved out and occupied a section of Germany. The prospect of an occupied Germany cast a shadow over the ambitions for normalcy of ordinary Germans after six years of war-hell.

British historian Frederick Taylor (Dresden, The Berlin Wall) has written an intriguing, detailed and insightful story of the messy transformation of Germany’s mindset after the fall of the Third Reich.

Taylor argues that although the west and its values won the day, there was nonetheless a huge price to pay. Millions of East Germans would endure 40 years of life under one of the most oppressive police states ever seen in Europe. Across the border, West Germans were taught to forget about the past.

Exorcising Hitler begins with the riveting re-telling of the American GIs first crossing into Germany in September 1944. Given the subtitle of Taylor’s book – The Occupation and Denazification of Germany – I initially wondered why he didn’t simple begin at D-day, yet Taylor’s account of the last days of the war highlight his significant narrative gifts.

Taylor offers a clear and engaging account of Allied rule in the immediate post-war years, never shying away from the difficulties inherent in such a situation. The occupying forces sought firstly to punish the Nazis and then later to ‘re-educate’ the German people who, they believed, had been brainwashed by Hitler.

As details of the horrific crimes committed by the Nazis came to light, occupying troops were clear in their belief that punishment of the perpetrators held greater value and purpose than their rehabilitation. Obviously the highest ranking Nazis were easy to identify, but what, Taylor asks, of the millions of ordinary Germans? Were they, too, culpable and if so, how to assess and quantify their culpability?

In his controversial 1996 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen argued that ordinary Germans not only had knowledge of the Holocaust, but also supported it because of a unique “eliminationist anti-Semitism”, as he puts it, in the German identity.

Taylor argues that the task of identifying supporters of National Socialism was hindered by the destruction of any evidence by ordinary Germans that may have highlighted their support for Nazism. But in any case, the Allied policy of blanket dismissal of lawyers and teachers and other occupations in high demand that had supported the Nazis was eventually reversed once chronic shortages arose. So, Taylor argues, Germans who held skills that were of value to the occupiers, such as doctors and dentists, were not vetted as rigorously as those German’s who had much less with which to barter.

Taylor’s thesis is that the denazification process was problematic; executed in a piecemeal and inconsistent fashion. Former Nazis, many horrible war criminals, easily merged into the post-war establishment. Taylor cites one statistic suggesting 60 percent of Bavaria’s public servants in 1952 were former Nazis.

But I wonder if Taylor hasn’t over-emphasised the failure of denazification? The attempts by neo-Nazis to destabilise Konrad Adenauer’s post-war democratic government failed. Germans chose not so much to exorcise Hitler, as to completely forget him.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the children of the Nazi Generation began asking their parents what they did during the Third Reich that German sensitivities and notions of collect guilt really began to emerge. And yet today, nearly 70 years after the destruction of Nazism, young people have again begun to talk about their history and the evil of Nazism, and to reflect on the eternal shadow Hitler cast over Germany. But as the third and fourth generations removed from Nazism, they feel empowered to openly discuss Hitler and his impact on their nation’s history. And they do so without the feelings of guilt or shame that their parents and grandparents were never quite able to avoid.

Taylor has written an excellent popular history book which paints a vivid portrait of life in Germany near the end of the war and in the immediate years afterwards, deftly analysing the challenges faced by the Allies as well as going a long way to explaining the ongoing process of historical reconciliation undertaken by ordinary Germans.

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