Ralf Beste, Georg Bönisch , Thomas Darnstaedt, Jan Friedmann , Michael Fröhlingsdorf and Klaus Wiegrefe
March 6, 2012
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 Nazi 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.
The Grandchildren Want to Know
And the grandchildren want to know. A specialized history book like "Das Amt" ("The Department") hasn't had this much success as a bestseller in a long time. The publisher, Blessing Verlag, has already sold more than 75,000 copies of the €34.95 thriller about the Nazi foreign ministry.
In 2005, then Foreign Minister and Green Party member Joschka Fischer deployed a commission of historians to trace the new activities of old Nazis in his ministry back to their roots. In a dispute over obituaries for deceased diplomats, which are customarily couched in reverential terms, it had become apparent that the spirit of yesterday still hovered above the Foreign Ministry, especially when it came to diplomats with a Nazi past.
It was only the work of the historians deployed by Fischer that finally debunked the legend that the diplomats had been part of a secret resistance cell in the Third Reich. The story first emerged in the years after the war when, following the Nuremberg Trials, officials from Hitler's foreign ministry were also put on trial. At the time, Ernst von Weizsäcker, the former secretary of state in Hitler's foreign ministry, defended himself against the accusation that he had been a willing helper to the dictatorship. One of the supporters of his cause was his son Richard, who later became the German president.
This old theory was still quasi-official in 1979, when Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP) was the foreign minister. "The Foreign Ministry put up a fierce and sustained resistance to the plans of the Nazi leaders, and yet was unable to prevent the worst from happening," a brochure titled "Foreign Policy Today" declared.
In truth, it wasn't just a few implanted Nazis who participated in the Holocaust through the so-called Judenreferat (Jewish Department). In fact, the entire ministry implemented the political dictates of the rogue regime with the practiced effectiveness of a functioning government agency. The Foreign Ministry was "part of this monstrous dictatorship, and it performed its duties," says Norbert Frei, a historian from the eastern German city of Jena and one of the authors of the study.
'Maintaining the Continuity of Berlin Tradition'
After the war, the restoration of former officials to positions in the Foreign Ministry occurred at an astonishing rate. The political division alone soon counted 13 former Nazi Party members among its top officials, while 11 of the 17 senior members of the legal department were former Nazis. "There is no other federal ministry," then SPD parliamentarian Fritz Erler concluded, "that is maintaining the continuity of Berlin tradition in this manner than the Foreign Ministry."
The restoration of the old elites also had consequences for foreign policy, which veteran diplomats still deny to this day. Old Nazis were usually sent to posts in South America and Arab countries, where they shaped the image of the supposedly new republic. The diplomats repeatedly took steps to protect Nazis hiding abroad and accused war criminals from persecution.
In the 1950s, the German embassy in Buenos Aires unquestioningly issued travel documents to the family of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key organizers of the Holocaust, for a trip to Germany. No one bothered to draw any conclusions about Eichmann's whereabouts.
As SPIEGEL revealed in 1968, the main legal protection office at the Foreign Ministry even developed into a "warning service" for old Nazis. With the help of the Red Cross, the diplomats informed about 800 Germans and Austrians that they should avoid traveling to France, because they had been convicted of war crimes there and could run into "difficulties."
The case of the Finance Ministry, in particular, highlights the dangerous pragmatism adopted by West Germany's founders in their personnel policies. Shortly after the new constitution had come into effect, Konrad Adenauer, postwar West Germany's first chancellor and anything but a Nazi sympathizer, demanded an "end to this sniffing out of Nazis."
"You can't build a Finance Ministry if you don't have at least a few people in senior positions who understand something about earlier history," Adenauer told the parliament, seeking to justify his support of staffing continuity.
An Abominable Lawyer
The chancellor, for his part, entrusted himself and his chancellery to Hans Globke, a former official in Hitler's interior ministry and one of the authors of the Nuremberg race laws. The man Adenauer once called "my dear Herr Globke" was the most powerful government official in Germany for a time, even though anyone who wanted to know could easily consult the abominable lawyer's anti-Semitic concoctions. He was responsible for the mandatory assignment of the first names Israel and Sara to Jews in Nazi Germany. The ability to quickly identify someone as a Jew was one of the preconditions of the Holocaust.
Globke was the most capable civil servant that the new country believed it had at its disposal. Part of his competence had to do with the precision with which he once distinguished among different classifications of Jews: "The three-eighths Jew, who has one fully Jewish and one half-Jewish grandparent, is considered a crossbreed with one fully Jewish grandparent, while the five-eighths Jews with two fully Jewish grandparents and one half-Jewish grandparent is considered a crossbreed with two fully Jewish grandparents." With the same Prussian bureaucrat's sense of perfection, Globke also developed Adenauer's center of power, the Federal Chancellery at Schaumburg Palace. Globke was adept at pleasing everyone. During the Nuremberg war crimes trials, he even appeared as both a witness for the defense and a witness for the prosecution.
Only once did the past catch up with Adenauer's senior state secretary. When it was revealed that Globke, as an assistant department head in the Nazi interior ministry, had announced that "the independent state of Luxembourg was dissolved" as a result of the Nazi occupation, Luxembourg demanded that Globke return the Grand Cross of the Order of the Oak Crown, which the small country had conferred on him after the war, in 1957.
This didn't seem to trouble Adenauer, who said: "I don't know of anyone who could replace Globke." The "Globke System," which SPIEGEL ridiculed at the time, wasn't just a system of spinning thread that all came together at the Chancellery. It was also a system that was holding together the young Federal Republic. Globke was a defining force in West Germany. The country needed men like him, people who were flexible and experienced -- and who didn't look back.
Institutions that, unlike the Finance Ministry, were newly established in the spirit and on the foundation of the new constitution, also employed people formerly affiliated with the Nazis. As the new study shows, former SS members with Gestapo experience were employed at the BfV as wiretapping and postal surveillance experts -- initially as free agents, "because, after all, they did have to respect the fact that these people were tainted," then BfV President Hubert Schrübbers once noted. Schrübbers himself was later removed from office over allegations of his own Nazi past. But nothing against Hitler's Gestapo. "These people were experts," a former senior BfV official said in 1965.
There was no looking back when the Globke system dominated the entire security apparatus. Even contemporaries suspected that Nazi-era experts were given jobs in the intelligence services of the new republic and at the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA).
The British press openly scoffed at the "Gestapo Boys" working for the organization headed by Reinhard Gehlen, the precursor of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The networks of old Nazis were also an issue in Bonn. SPD opposition leader Kurt Schumacher took Adenauer to task, claiming that the intelligence service was "infiltrated" with men from the vicious SD -- the intelligence service of the SS.
Today, experts estimate that about one in 10 of Gehlen's employees came from the empire of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, bringing the total to a few hundred men. They do not include those who may have been involved in murder campaigns while wearing the gray uniform of the Nazi armed forces, the Wehrmacht, or as Nazi officials.
The situation was even worse at the BKA. At times, former members of the SS's Totenkopf division held more than two-thirds of all senior positions. When the agency began looking into the past of its employees in 1960, about 100 officials, or a quarter of the entire workforce, were investigated.
The payrolls of the BKA, BND and BfV include men like former SS Oberführer Wilhelm Krichbaum, who, as head of the Geheime Feldpolizei (Secret Military Police), tortured and killed tens of thousands of "suspected partisans" on the Eastern Front. Krichbaum joined the Gehlen Organization in 1948 and was soon put in charge of its district office in the Bavarian town of Bad Reichenhall.