Brown shadows

One of the things that’s generally known about Germany, but not often spoken about for various reasons(1), is how much continuity there was between the Third Reich and the early days of the Federal Republic. A certain degree of continuity is inevtiable any time a government changes; even the Bolsheviks brought back a lot of Tsarist officials simply because no one else knew how things worked. But the questions for West Germany after the war are how many, for how long and at what level?

Over time, and thanks in no small measure to confrontations in the late 1960s, more and more German institutions have taken an honest look at who did what to whom during the Nazi period, and where they ended up afterward. The answers to the three questions have often been quite a few, for their whole careers, and at leadership levels. Several forces have gotten companies and institutions to be more truthful about their activities from 1933 to 1945, and the continuity between that period and the postwar era. One such has been the simple passage of time. People who would have been expected to pay a price are now retired, or dead. No doubt, knowledge is coming at the cost of justice.

The latest institution to undertake such an examination is Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, or BKA). Credit to the BKA’s current president, Jörg Ziercke. He didn’t have to do it, and he didn’t have to let it be done so thoroughly. What has turned up in a study by historians is a remarkable number of SS men who went on to leadership positions in the BKA. Files used by the Gestapo to harass and persecute Roma and Sinti were taken over by the BKA, and harassment continued well into the postwar era, in some form at least into the 1980s. The views on “criminal biology” formed during the Third Reich were still influental at the BKA into the 1970s. The essential stories are here, here and here, from the newspaper whose web site still could be better organized. (I had hoped to translate these for this post, but real life kept getting in the way. The story hasn’t really made it into English-language media yet.) There was also a Sunday article, complete with charts of who from the SS rose to what position in the BKA, but I can’t find it online. The English-language Spiegel online has a summary here.

The questions resonate in the present, as post-Communist countries continue to wrestle with the legacies of their dictatorships. Who rose to power? Who did they step on to get there? What are the demands of justice in a new era? Other European countries have their own debates, and indeed their comforting myths, about collaboration, about wartime acts, about the fates of fellow citizens.

There aren’t any easy answers, especially more than half a century later. One good side effect is that the revelations may prompt Germany’s main intelligence service, the BND, and the constitutional protection office (Verfassungsschutz) to examine their pasts. With luck, they will be as honest as the BKA.

(1) Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe was a key reason at the time. As years passed, additional reasons came to include embarassment, fear of personal consequences, unwillingness to bother the old folks and now the passing of people with firsthand knowledge and consequent general ignorance. Another is that Germany has turned into a reasonably well functioning democracy despite the Nazi pasts of many people in its institutions.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Governments and parties, History, Life, Vampires by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

7 thoughts on “Brown shadows

  1. Far be it from me to offer advice to a people I have no understanding off, but as has been seen so many times, sometimes the constant rehashes and crusades for justice can be never ending and just serve to invite turmoil to stay.

  2. Having read the details, there were some genuinely shocking and repellent people there; the head of SS field police for Army Group Centre, no less, who can only have been a genocidaire..

  3. It wasn’t just the police: pretty much the entire judiciary had been members of the Nazi party, and after the war, occupying forces found it almost impossible to find “clean” legal officers.

  4. Even to this day, anständige Germans consider it gauche to mention that Hanns-Martin Schleyer, CDU bigwig murdered by the RAF, had been an SS officer in Prague during the nazi occupation of Czechoslovkia. But he was a genuinely charming man in so many other ways as well. If you bring up his SS past, you’re accused of making excuses for his killers.

    Utter nonsense, of course. The RAF’s murder of Schleyer is to be condemned, because murder is always bad and the state must have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Pretty much the only reasons to condemn it, though. The murders of two policemen and his driver, killed during his kidnapping, are much more to be regretted. What’s regrettable (as opposed to condemnable) about Schleyer’s death is that it wasn’t in a prison cell.

  5. Schleyer wasn’t a Nazi bigwig though, Mrs T. Why should he have died in jail?

    One of the best anecdotes about Schleyer was that he, an ex-SS man, sat in the front ranks of the employers’ association, while some of those on the unions’ side were ex-concentration camp inmates.

    But I’m sure it’s not the only place comparable or somewhat comparable things have happened, not by a long way.

  6. Suvi,

    my personal view is that the victorious occupiers and the postwar German government should have made voluntary membership in the SS per se punishable (I wouldn’t include conscripted members of the Waffen-SS here). Postwar Germany did rule both the SS and the NSDAP criminal organisations, but did not impose personal criminal liability for belonging to them. They should have done, and the consequences for voluntary SS membership (and for membership in the NSDAP as well) should have included an absolute exclusion from politics (no membership in political parties, no eligibility to public office, no right to vote) as well as forfeiture of all assets and exclusion from economic activities other than menial labour.

    But that’s just my own admittedly hard line. Nonetheless, Schleyer was an SS officer with a responsible position in the occupation administration of Prague. It’s not a huge stretch to think it likely he was complicit in war crimes, including murder. (And given his role in Prague — chief of staff to the president of the Central Industry Association of Bohemia and Moravia — it would seem well-nigh impossible he was not complicit in, at minimum, the nazi use of slave labour.) A priority of the new German state ought to have been to try him (and every single person like him) and, assuming a conviction, to have put them away for good. Instead, Schleyer was permitted to rise to the very top of the postwar establishment. That he and people like him prospered in postwar Germany is an indelible stain on the country’s history.

  7. The sum of a post-Nazi government was the inevitable guarantee of Nazi/SS-member participation following the country’s surrender. Stemming from just about every tyrannical government this is a fact of life, even up to the U.S. attempts to reform a new government, with concerns about hiring former Baath Party members. The unfortunate thing about the German postwar example is that in instances such as ‘Suvi’s’ example, these war criminals were allowed to succeed in ways that must have been beyond intolerable for former victims.

    For ‘Mrs. Tilton’, I believe the success of the Nazi community in incorporating a great percentage of the public into their activities made it extremely difficult postwar for the U.S. and Allied governments to functionally punish. Imagine the large memberships in youth organizations such as the Hitler Youth (HJ) or the BDM (Womens League). Should they have been punished too? What about all of the German police force (they were certainely involved with roundups, etc). Indeniably, the victors were fearful of throwing too many in jail, of removing too many elements that could contribute towards a new governmental structure.

    The German model of a contorted mix of acceptance and passive attempts to forget made the public at large too consenting (as they had been since the early ’30s to actively seek an improvement. The question is, where does the typical flow of natural transition between two governments end, and something more sinister begin?

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