Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration

Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration

Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration

Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past: The Politics of Amnesty and Integration


Of all the aspects of recovery in postwar Germany perhaps none was as critical or as complicated as the matter of dealing with Nazi criminals, and, more broadly, with the Nazi past. While on the international stage German officials spoke with contrition of their nation's burden of guilt, at home questions of responsibility and retribution were not so clear. In this masterful examination of Germany under Adenauer, Norbert Frei shows that, beginning in 1949, the West German government dramatically reversed the denazification policies of the immediate postwar period and initiated a new "Vergangenheitspolitik," or "policy for the past," which has had enormous consequences reaching into the present.

Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past chronicles how amnesty laws for Nazi officials were passed unanimously and civil servants who had been dismissed in 1945 were reinstated liberally -- and how a massive popular outcry led to the release of war criminals who had been condemned by the Allies. These measures and movements represented more than just the rehabilitation of particular individuals. Frei argues that the amnesty process delegitimized the previous political expurgation administered by the Allies and, on a deeper level, served to satisfy the collective psychic needs of a society longing for a clean break with the unparalleled political and moral catastrophe it had undergone in the 1940s. Thus the era of Adenauer devolved into a scandal-ridden period of reintegration at any cost. Frei's work brilliantly and chillingly explores how the collective will of the German people, expressed through mass allegiance to new consensus-oriented democratic parties, cast off responsibility for the horrors of the war and Holocaust, effectively silencing engagement with the enormities of the Nazi past.


Most people know two things about modern Germany: that Hitler’s Germany, the most popular tyranny of the last century, initiated an unprecedented slaughter, the Holocaust, and that today’s Federal Republic is a democratic polity, peaceful and responsible. But we know or remember less about the process by which the country managed the transition from a state of horror to a state of constitutional order and stability.

How Germans dealt with the legal and political legacies of the Nazi past remains an important and instructive issue. We live in a world in which questions about how to make the transition from a criminal regime occupy nations in many parts of the world, from Eastern Europe to South Africa and Latin America. We could assume that Germany provides an extraordinary example of a successful transition. and on the whole it does—with a most tortured and ambiguous beginning.

It is precisely that beginning, by now forgotten and hitherto not fully explored, that Norbert Frei, a German historian of the postwar generation, reconstructs with admirable thoroughness, political insight, and moral sensitivity. His study begins with the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949—when the three Western occupying powers granted partial sovereignty to the newly elected government in Bonn . . .

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