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Who wasn't a Nazi?

How to deal with German history. And Tom Cruise.

by Karen Margolis

Why did Tom Cruise want to style himself as a German resistance hero in a Hollywood action movie? What did resistance mean in Nazi Germany? And can we judge the people who didn't fight fascism or communist repression? The heroes and villains of 20th-century German history are a perpetual media theme, and Germany spends more time and energy examining its past than most other countries. Karen Margolis takes a critical look at how this history is being presented today.

The hype about Tom Cruise starring as Count von Stauffenberg, the man who nearly assassinated Hitler, raises important issues about the changing view of history and the people who make it. While some Americans in the US are already idolising Barack Obama as a new messiah, Germany is about to embark on a year-long review of events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. Twentieth century history is in trend — whether in movies, books, exhibitions or memorial plaques on the street — and is being rewritten all the time to fit the needs and ideas of today.

For some time now the German media have been treating us to a recurrent display of historical archaeology, fact flinging and mud slinging on a subject that affects a small but influential minority. Some of the country's leading intellectuals have been waging a battle of accusation and counter-charge about events that happened over 60 years ago. For most of us born after 1945, it's an arcane if sometimes entertaining exhibition of pride and prejudice. Its only relevance is that it's about the one issue where today's apparently self-confident, forward-looking Germany is still on the defensive — the Nazi era.

Since the debate concerns membership of the Nazi Party, complicity in Nazi crimes and the changing interpretation of 20th century history, it makes sense to go back to the period after the end of the war and try and envisage what happened in the chaos of defeated Germany. In 1945, shortly after the surrender of the German Army ended the Second World War in Europe, the US occupying forces in Germany issued a booklet entitled "Who was a Nazi?" The Eisenhower government in the US had coined the term "denazification" and launched the process of identifying Nazis in occupied Germany as the first step toward destroying the ideology and social structures that had led to war, terror and mass extermination.

"The question WHO is a Nazi is often a dark riddle," the US Third Army G-5 Section reported in June 1945, adding, "The question WHAT is a Nazi is also not easy to answer." (My emphasis.) The task of bringing Nazi criminals to justice was helped by the huge volume of files amassed by the authorities to record their activities and to monitor and control their citizens during the dictatorship. In 1945 the US psychologist Saul Padover was assigned to investigate the mood and opinions of people in the West German city of Aachen. He noted in his book, "Experiment in Germany", published in 1946, that most records had survived, “because German officials preferred to burn people rather than paper.”

Propaganda & Denazification

Across the border in Soviet-occupied East Germany, denazification seemed to be faster and more radical. After the war the country's leaders were quick to impose a new system they called "socialist", in which propaganda about the golden future took precedence over examining the Nazi past. The Stalinist Soviet authorities kept tight control of denazification. In the early days of Soviet occupation, former Nazi officials were often shot outright. Members of the Nazi Party and related organizations were summarily dismissed from their jobs, and many suspected former Nazis were interned in camps. Later, East Germany borrowed old Nazi smear tactics to attack West Germany relentlessly as "fascist". The East Germans were right to criticize their Western neighbour for not being rigorous enough in weeding out Nazis in positions of public responsibility — but the irony was that gradually some old Nazis were allowed to creep back into public life under communism as well.

In West Germany after 1945, the Nuremberg trials meted out justice to some of the major war criminals with worldwide publicity. At the same time, the Allies took steps to establish a constitutional democracy over the rubble of defeated fascism. In the re-civilising process, millions of Germans aged over 18 in the Allied occupied zones had to fill in a questionnaire that was used as the basis of classification into five categories ranging from major offender to "fellow traveller" and "exonerated". Very few young people were prosecuted or discriminated against for previous Nazi sympathies. Some were sent to "re-education". Most — including many young men who had fought in Hitler's armies — were put into the two lowest categories and given the chance to prove themselves in rebuilding their country.

All this means that the heated recent debate in Germany about some prominent intellectuals' Nazi involvement was merely a storm in an eggcup. Men at the centre of the row, like Walter Jens, former head of the Academy of Arts, novelist Martin Walser and cabaret artist Dieter Hildebrandt were aged between 16 and 19 when their names were entered on Nazi Party membership lists. Only they themselves know whether or not this was done with their consent. But as far as the world is concerned, under the laws introduced by the Allied occupying powers after the war, their youth largely exonerated them from complicity in Nazi crimes.

Maybe the real question is: why did anybody in that situation feel the need to keep silent all those years? Why wasn't it possible to admit a youthful mistake — a mistake made by hundreds of thousands of other young people who enthusiastically joined Nazi youth organizations and marched in uniform to cheer Hitler? Why wasn't it possible, with growing maturity, to analyse the experiences (not just as fictional portrayals of "the others"), and examine personal involvement and emotions? How was it possible to read the growing number of eyewitness accounts of barbarism and inhumanity, to see the oft-played films and newsreels, without being reminded of scenes that nobody can be capable of repressing forever? And how was it possible to assume the mantle of conscience of the nation, sitting in judgment on others, the "real" Nazis? — especially as the release of files and photographs from previously sealed archives and industrious historical research started leading to more and more revelations about the involvement of "ordinary" citizens.

The Grass Question

In fact, if we were to revise that booklet from over 60 years ago, the title would have to be changed to "Who wasn't a Nazi?" On one level this debate can be dismissed as a last-ditch attempt to discredit an intellectual generation that has dominated the German scene for far too long. The public is getting tired of moralising sermons and the anguished outpourings of the tortured German soul. Influential voices in the foreign press reacted with shock and open condemnation of German intellectuals who took over 60 years to come clean about their Nazi ties. But in Germany, the counter-attack on these intellectuals largely failed because they are still too powerful. In fact, as so often in the media, it's not morals that count but airtime, column inches and website hits — and here the top names of the intelligentsia know only too well how to score. Even negative publicity is good for business.

Two years ago G¸nter Grass capitalised yet further on his "confession" of membership of the Waffen SS. He published a book of poems & drawings expressing his sorrow and anger at being "witch-hunted". This was my instant reply:

         8 lines on Günther Grass

         They were many, the guilty
         who buried their shameful secrets 
         in the debris 
         of more than half a century

         All that time he juggled shame with fame
         then sold a well-timed exposure 
         harvested publicity 
         and earned a lot of money

Reading the story of the Waffen SS, you can see that it would be impossible for anybody to be a member without knowing what he was part of. The Waffen SS remained unswervingly loyal to Hitler right to the very end. Its name was synonymous with masculine military might and pride at being elite, effective and inhuman. Its deeds were legendary among small people who dreamed of greatness — including young men recruited with propaganda fanfares to fight for their country. As Grass himself says, describing the Waffen SS in his autobiography, "Peeling the Onion": "I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent."

Nobody can condemn G¸nter Grass and his teenage soldier comrades retrospectively for being caught up in the end of a terrible war. Nobody did condemn them in the time of retribution after the war. It is they, and people with similar stories, who have condemned themselves every day since then by concealing their own involvement while demanding the right to know about others. There can be only one answer to why they kept quiet: guilt. They may have witnessed or heard of crimes we can't imagine, they may have been subject to degradation and humiliation themselves, or they may have been just terrified… and they kept quiet at the time and have been keeping quiet ever since. If some of them talk about it now at all, it is because they're old enough to be almost beyond judgment. Most of their contemporaries who might have shared their experiences or could comment knowledgeably on their versions are dead.

Leaving aside the media's fascination for famous names, it's odd that so much time is being spent on such minor details from the Nazi past. After all, for the last 18 years Germany has been engaged in another unsavoury historical examination that has raised yet another, more recent question of loyalty and betrayal: who wasn't a Stasi spy? On the evidence of the Stasi (East German secret police) files, once again many leaders of the German intellectual class have proved their moral bankruptcy. Writers, dramatists, artists, lawyers and clergymen who had been feted by the West during the Cold War as the moral conscience of communist East Germany turned out to have memory holes that even Einstein's relativity theory would be stretched to explain. The revelations prompted me to write a poem addressed to one of the neighbourhood spies who wrote reports for the Stasi on many people, including me.

                  Der Durchschnittsdichter und
                  -denker durch die vier Jahreszeiten

                 Wenn’s warm wird
                 Verrät er seinen Nächsten;
Wenn’s heiß wird
                 Haut er ab. (Reisetagebuch.
Während die Blätter fallen
Lobt er die Täter:
Wenn’s wieder kalt wird
Klagt er, daß er Opfer ist

                 Oktober 1991
                 (auf Deutsch geschrieben)


                 The mediocre poet and
                 thinker through the four seasons 

                 When it gets warm
                 He betrays his nearest and dearest
                 When it gets hot
                 He takes off. (Travel diary.)
                 As the leaves are falling
                 He praises the culprits
                 When it gets cold again
                 He complains that he's a victim. 

                 October 1991

Seen from outside, the intellectual class that dominates public discourse today in Germany today seems to have failed to self-examine itself thoroughly. It is actually the inheritor of a sorry rump since Nazi policies after 1933 drove out or murdered Germany's great minds. The political scientist Hannah Arendt was one of the Jewish intellectuals who saw the signs early on and left Germany in 1933. In an interview with Social Democratic politician G¸nter Gaus in 1964, she recalled the atmosphere around her at that time.

"…You know about the idea of conforming (Gleichschaltung), bringing people into line with Nazi policies," she said. "What it meant was that our friends conformed! The problem for us personally was not what our enemies did, but what our friends did. The rush to conform actually occurred fairly voluntarily, or at least, people weren't acting yet under the threat of terror. What happened was this: it was like an empty room taking shape around you. I lived in an intellectual environment, but I also knew other kinds of people. And I could see that among intellectuals this conformity was the rule, you could say — but not among other groups. I've never forgotten that."

After the war, groups of writers and intellectuals in East and West Germany tried to recover the links to Germany's great tradition in literature and the arts, including the illustrious image of the deutscher Dichter und Denker (German writer and thinker). Maybe one reason why they failed is that, for all their energetic and outspoken campaigns for a new culture appropriate to the new age, they never managed to defeat the shadow of the past. If Grass first admitted his involvement at the age of 80, we're tempted to ask how many others never came clean.

The spectre of the deutscher Dichter und Denker as personified by self-appointed bearers of literary tradition still haunts Germany today. For me, it conjures up the image of a bunch of self-important elderly men sitting around their regular cafÈ table reading the latest book reviews and swapping tips about how to get invited on TV talk shows. Women are rarely invited and even less often accepted as equals; the deutscher Dichter or Denker is an uncompromisingly male figure.

Critical self-examination is never easy — and if a whole class has proved incapable of it and still promotes this outmoded image of a disappearing culture, we shouldn't be surprised that its individual representatives snuggle under blankets of lies. The German ÈmigrÈ philosopher Theodor Adorno was quick to observe in his book "Minima Moralia" (1946) that after the war ended, the situation which existed before the Nazis had begun to blur truth and lies had not been restored. Lying had come to sound like truth, and truth sounded like lying. It had become "a labour of Sisyphus to hold on to the simplest piece of knowledge."

Many arguments about the validity of evidence related to both the Nazi era and the communist regime in East Germany prove his point all too well. The worst thing about this discussion is that it is completely alienating for most observers, and particularly for young people today. They have to witness iconographic figures whose names and works are supposed to represent German culture indulging in subterfuge and petty squabbles to avoid talking about what really happened to them personally.

This unhealthy concentration on the past is scarcely the way to rouse awareness about the social problems that exist today. It's actually a distraction from active campaigns against the real and growing threats in Germany and elsewhere, such as racism, anti-Semitism, undemocratic laws and political corruption.

But meanwhile a different group of intellectuals has emerged, many of them from the second or third post-war generation, who are concerned with new ways of analysing and interpreting the history of Nazism and communist rule in East and West Germany. Since the 1980s, a fresh approach to history has developed, taking it out of the realms of academia and making it accessible through exhibitions and memorial centres.

Within a small radius right in the centre of Berlin — the city that was once the heart of the Nazi terror machine — there is a clutch of memorials and visitors' centres that clearly exhibit the scars of the 20th century. The monstrous crimes and suffering that make Germany's modern history unique are shown here openly for all to see. One of the primary aims is to present this history for young people today so as to dispel myths and provoke thought and discussion.

The culture of commemoration

A trip to this part of town is like being swept along in a time machine. A new slogan has been coined for the city centre of Berlin: the culture of commemoration. Starting from Checkpoint Charlie, the memorial to the Cold War that's like walking onto a film set, you can go down to the corner of Wilhelmstrasse till you come to the Topography of Terror. This open-air exhibition is on the site where the Gestapo and other Nazi security forces once held sway, where the lives of millions of people were signed away by bureaucratic monsters at their desks while anti-fascists were being imprisoned and tortured in the cellars below. Strolling down the street, you can read the (often dark) history of the old government quarter and its ministerial buildings in the open-air exhibition, "Historic Wilhelmstrasse". The visitors' centre under the nearby Holocaust Memorial bears witness to how the Nazis systematically planned and carried out the mass murder of the Jews of Europe; at this monument you are likely to meet many foreign visitors, descendants of the victims and their families, who come to remember their persecuted and murdered relatives. Moving on to the next chapter in Germany's history, not far away in Mauerstrasse you can see an exhibition about the complex and ugly system maintained by the Stasi (the East German secret police) to spy on its own citizens.

A short walk then takes you to the German Resistance Memorial Center in Stauffenbergstrasse, where you will discover that Germany had its own home-grown resistance, ranging from school and college students to communists organised in underground cells, to men and women from the heart of the establishment, many of whom marched to Hitler's tune for years before deciding to take the plunge into opposition. The stories of some genuine heroes are told here, people who risked and gave their lives to fight fascism inside the dictatorship.

In 2007 this memorial centre showed a special exhibition about a little-known but important woman in the left-wing opposition, Mildred Harnack — the only American woman to be murdered by the Nazis as a resistance fighter. She and her husband Arvid Harnack were leading members of a resistance group known as the Red Orchestra. It included communists and socialists, government officials working undercover, aristocrats and railway workers, artists and artisans, and many young people — some not much older than G¸nter Grass when he joined the Waffen SS. The Red Orchestra helped victims of persecution and foreign forced labourers, published anti-fascist leaflets and tried to set up links with the Soviet Union. After the Gestapo discovered the group in 1942, more than 100 members were executed by Nazi hangmen.

Mildred Harnack was sentenced to death by the Reich Court Martial and judicially murdered in Plˆtzensee Prison in Berlin in 1943. A literary scholar, she spent her final hours working on the English translation of a poem by Goethe titled Verm‰chtnis ("Legacy"), pencilling her version into the small volume of his poems she had with her in her cell. Her last words before she went to the guillotine were, "And I have loved Germany so much."

Finally, in answer to those who still argue that resistance was impossible for ordinary men and women, a unique little museum that opened in 2006 in Berlin's city centre is dedicated to a local hero, Otto Weidt, who helped Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. Otto Weidt's Workshop for the Blind is tucked away on the first floor of a dilapidated building right next to the tourist hotspot around the Hackesche Hˆfe. The museum tells the story of how Weidt, a brush manufacturer who was blind himself, gave jobs to mainly blind and deaf Jews to protect them from persecution. Helped by a group of friends, he cared for his workers, negotiated with the Gestapo on their behalf, and tried to keep up their spirits in the face of destruction. Inside the museum you can see the windowless back room where he hid a Jewish family to save them from deportation. His bravery and humanity later earned him the title of "Righteous among the Nations", awarded by Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem to people who helped to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Of course, there's a danger today of making heroes of "good Germans" to compensate for all the "bad" ones in the past. The debate about Tom Cruise's much-publicised project to adopt Count von Stauffenberg as "his" (i.e. Hollywood's) kind of hero has highlighted this problem. Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Hitler and the failed coup of 20 July 1944 planned by anti-Hitler groups in the military are certainly the stuff of a good movie plot. But considering Hollywood's treatment of some other great names and events of the past, we can hardly be surprised that Cruise's film sacrifices historical accuracy for romanticism (after all, it's fiction, not a documentary). The angry debate in Germany about the film is actually more about Cruise's membership of Scientology, the controversial organisation he openly represents, and the attempt to promote a kind of idealised heroism that has nothing to do with the real German resistance. It's understandable that serious historians, critics of ideological sects and some of Stauffenberg's descendants object to his name being linked with Scientology and Hollywood marketing. But in the end, the film-going public will decide what kind of distortion it's prepared to swallow. Meanwhile the publicity offers a good chance to reconsider notions like resistance and heroism in the light of real historical events.

Stauffenberg himself is an example that profoundly disproves the old adage, "once a Nazi, always a Nazi". In his final act of bravery he was undoubtedly a hero, but like so many other Germans he initially supported Hitler and was proud of his officer status in the German Army. His opposition to the Nazi regime developed slowly, and was inextricably linked to ideas of honour and a military ethos that are difficult to understand today.

Whatever picture the movies or other accounts paint for us, we should never forget that 20th-century German history was not made by great and famous men alone, nor by good or bad Germans; it was made just as much by ordinary people faced with sometimes terrible choices that we can't judge accurately from today's perspective. This applies not just to Germany but to every other country that has suffered under a dictatorship in modern times.

The big questions in Germany today are no longer about who was or wasn't a Nazi or a Stasi informer. Much more important is the issue of how to sweep out the musty corners of the past — the lies, guilty secrets and half-truths left over from the fascist and socialist states of the 20th century. Maybe then it will be possible to create a culture fit for democracy in the 21st century.

Revised version ©
Written for MUT by Karen Margolis, 2009.
With thanks to Ute Stiepani, Katy Derbyshire and Andre Simonoviescz for inspiration, comments and criticism.

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© - 10.1.2009. Foto: Kulick


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