The picture above was taken on April 5, 1935, exactly 83 years ago today. One look at this picture and one can already surmise the difficulties Germany may have had after the fall of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler — just because the military and political infrastructure were defeated did not mean that all was suddenly well. In fact, many, many innocent people would still die after the end of the war. The difficulties were practical ones, sure, but they were also ideological. How do you change the entire ethical code that a child has grown up under? How do you begin to reform those within Germany that either supported the Nazi party or were radicalized by them? The Nuremberg Trials come to mind, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“Denazification” was a push from Allied forces to wipe out all remnants of Nazism from any active facet of German culture (not to be confused with wiping it from the history books). This meant altering the existing class structure, educational systems, news and media outlets, literature, architecture — it was no small task. Many were willing and ready to rid themselves of all traces of the Nazi party, but it was still quite integrated into the fabric of German society for a while.
At the time, the French, British, Soviets and Americans were all occupying Germany in a body known as the Allied Control Council, and they each went about denazification in their own way. The incredibly complex dance of politics, attempts at rebuilding, rivalries and other contributing factors all led to what would become East and West Germany.
The British were fairly concerned with rebuilding their own country at the time, so they put a limited amount of resources into managing Germany and its denazification. They realized that, at certain levels, former Nazi sympathizers were so integrated into society that it wasn’t realistic to suddenly remove them all, provided they had not committed any war crimes themselves. They began to install trade unions and tried to let businesses thrive as long as they weren’t run by hard-core Nazis.
The French were wary about German leadership, and actively tried to keep the German people from taking hold of their own government again. They did not seem to see the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler as the root of the problem — instead, they placed blame on the German people as a whole. They were a leading force that sought to demilitarize the Germans as a whole, for fear that they would once again rise up and threaten the world at large.
The Americans decided to take on the enormous, bureaucratic task of categorizing and registering every German in their zone. Depending on the nature and severity of their affiliation with the Nazi party, the could have been set free, or they could have been sentenced to death — or a number of possibilities in between. Anyone with any substantial connection to the Nazi party was not allowed to run for office, as was anyone who was not yet documented. However, this whole convoluted process proved incredibly difficult, as rooting out ideologies by stacks and stacks of paper often is, and has been considered a failure by many. Still, their priority was to try to get the Germans on board with their same western democracy.
The Soviet Union was very concerned with class, and essentially flipped the existing class system on its head. They put the pressure on wealthy land owners, tried to instate Communism in every echelon of German government. Often times, the upperclassmen were automatically assumed to have been affiliated with the Nazi party, and were “redistributed” regardless. What was Soviet controlled Germany would eventually become East Germany.
Regardless of the location, it became increasingly clear that it is difficult to separate a sense of blame toward an entire people from the desire to rebuild and start anew. Despite the five classifications (major offenders, offenders, lesser offenders, followers and persons exonerated) aimed at clearly defining the levels of involvement with the Nazis, the “us versus them” mentality did make things difficult, as was mentioned before with the French. For example, the British received criticism for running an interrogation camp in Bad Nenndorf, where there were reports of torture and deliberate starvation on suspected Nazis; the Soviets ran “NKVD special camps” while denying their existence, and those interned there may not even have been Nazis — some just rebelled against Stalinism. Approximately 43,000 people died in these Soviet camps, out of the total 158,000 imprisoned there.
Censorship was an important part of the efforts to expel the Nazi ideology from German culture, though talk of censorship, even in extreme circumstances such as these, always bring up controversy, even by those who vehemently disagree with the ideology being censored. This meant changing newspapers, radio stations, movie theaters — the works. The Allied powers attempted to confiscate every bit of Nazi propaganda or material, though again, how this was interpreted and carried out depends on the zone and who controlled it.
Today, Germany has banned the display of swastikas and it is a criminal offense to deny the holocaust. Anyone who visits would be shocked that Nazi Germany ever existed there — but again, it has not been stricken from the history books. The entire world remembers the Nazi party and their ideology is now one of the most hated of all time.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press; GIF courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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