Looking for the Roots of Today’s Germany

Three new histories of the country since WWII reveal continuing debates about how its current incarnation came to be

Looking for the Roots of Today’s Germany
Demonstrators rally in Berlin in February against right-wing extremism. (Hami Roshan/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

By 1942, Germans had grown accustomed to news of brave victories and stunning conquests. In three years of war, they had watched Poland, France, the Low Countries, Norway and Yugoslavia all fall like dominos to the seemingly invincible Wehrmacht. The defeat of the Soviet Union had not come quickly, but it was only a matter of time. Britain would then surely follow.

For those whose belief in this ultimate victory was still unshaken, Hermann Goering’s speech over the radio on Jan. 30, 1943, came as a grave shock. Hidden behind the praise he heaped on the heroes of Stalingrad who had “obeyed the law which everyone must obey — the law to die for Germany” was an acknowledgment that the city — and the battle — was lost. Two days later, the German army there surrendered. It was the bloodiest defeat suffered by any army in human history.

The ambiguities in official reports only fanned the flames of speculation. After all, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers there were not simply numbers but sons, fathers and brothers. Such was the despair that a man on a Berlin tram reportedly told other passengers openly: “I can assure you 100% that we no longer need to lose this war; we have already lost it.” It was just one manifestation of a much wider rise in “envy, suspicion, and prejudice” the Nazi SS observed spreading through German society.

On the night of July 24-25, the shock came home. Incendiary bombs rained down on Hamburg from Allied planes, setting much of the city alight. Some fires raged for days. While Germany had seen sporadic bombings before, this time they continued night after night. Those of July 28 were 10 times larger than three days before. Streets and buildings were transformed into blazing infernos, burning at up to 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit). The daylight failed to reach Hamburg through the thick cloud of dust and smoke.

Goering, the head of the air force (Luftwaffe), had once promised no enemy aircraft would ever find itself in Germany’s skies. But now tens of thousands of Germans lay dead in their own homeland and 1 million found themselves homeless. Those lost at Stalingrad would be joined by millions more as the Soviet Red Army marched on Berlin. Its advance was accompanied by the rape of at least hundreds of thousands of German women and girls. City after city was reduced to rubble from the air. Tens of millions of Germans were displaced from their homes, never to return.

As far as the Allies were concerned, this was what was needed to shake the Germans from their dark slumber under the Nazi regime. Germans had brought unimaginable suffering to countless millions across Europe. Their defeat would have to be more total than any in human history. What would come after that for the defeated Germans, beyond occupation, was anybody’s guess.

Even before Berlin had fallen, the Allies took steps to undo the idea of Germany that Adolf Hitler had brought into being. Austria’s independence would be restored and Hitler’s other annexations reversed. Prussia, the militaristic culture of which was blamed for many of Germany’s ills, would be destroyed and partitioned between Poland and the Soviet Union. Tens of millions of Germans would even be expelled from Eastern Europe, meaning that, by 1950, 1 in every 5 East Germans and 1 in 6 West Germans was an expellee.

This new vision (or nonvision) of Germany was more radical than most people would realize today. Prussia and Austria, the two countries whose rivalry defined German history for centuries, would have no role to play in the new Germany. The Germans and their language, which had once been scattered across the whole eastern half of Europe, would be cordoned off in the area designated for them by the victorious powers.

At some point between then and now, a new Germany seems to have emerged from the rubble, one that appears in just about every respect to be the antithesis of the country that surrendered in 1945: a pacifist and socially liberal country, famed for its “Erinnerungskultur” (remembrance culture) of its past crimes and “Willkommenskultur” (welcoming culture) toward outsiders in need. As three books published in 2023 make clear, it was a long and winding journey to get here. So what exactly do these books tell us about where this new Germany came from?

Michael J. Kater’s “After the Nazis” looks for its roots in West German culture. He paints a rich picture of how Germans who ended up in the French, American and British occupation zones after World War II refashioned themselves into Westerners in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), blending memoir with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of culture in the new state. Neither the Allies nor the Germans themselves could turn Germans into liberal democrats overnight. It was the tireless efforts of artists, writers, filmmakers and so on, who insisted Germans confront their collective past, that refashioned Germany into the country we know today, Kater suggests.

With her own blend of memoir and history, Katja Hoyer’s “Beyond the Wall” focuses on the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR). The book caused a stir in Germany for its attempt at a more balanced view of the communist dictatorship, which many in the West see as more akin to Nazi Germany than West Germany. The history and memory of the GDR is still a tense subject in a country where a certain liberal triumphalism reigns supreme and political differences between the east and west of the unified Germany are threatening to send it into political turmoil. Hoyer articulates well why millions of Germans felt content living in a police state. It does not mesh easily with narratives of West Germany’s cultural revolution.

How to reconcile these differing experiences of new Germanness? This is the task Frank Trentmann set for himself in his voluminous history of modern Germany, “Out of the Darkness.” It begins not with 1945 or 1949 but right before the horrors of the war that Germans had unleashed were brought home to them through Stalingrad and Hamburg. Consciously aware of the impossibility of speaking of a single Germany from 1942 to 2022, he chose the apt subtitle “The Germans, 1942-2022.”

Divided into four occupation zones in 1945, the Germans would be without a country to call their own for four years. From 1949 to 1990, they would end up living in two rival Germanies, as the country became a front line in a global Cold War between the capitalist West and communist East. But initially, neither side denied that there was and would continue to be some kind of unified “Germany” in the future. What was not clear was what it would look like and how they would get there, though Germans were no strangers to political reincarnation.

Centuries before 1945, “Germany” was shorthand for the sprawling and decentralized Holy Roman Empire in which most Germans lived, divided among thousands of sovereign political units ranging from small estates of imperial knights to the rival great powers of Austria and Prussia. After the empire’s fall in the early 19th century, it was replaced by a German Confederation consisting of a much-reduced number of 39 independent, mostly princely states. Most of these were united into the Prussian-led German Empire in 1871. This empire was then replaced by the first German republic in 1918, itself replaced by Hitler’s party-state in 1933. Each of these Germanies represented a radically different vision of what Germanness was and how it should manifest politically. It was not just a regime that was destroyed in 1945 but the political legitimacy of a certain idea of Germanness.

In one of the more evocative visions of postwar Germany, an American journalist suggested that the only Allied policy toward the defeated country should be to leave the Germans “naked on the side of the moon, facing reality, facing ultimate responsibility for their own futures.” He went on to argue that “there is no educational process we could devise for them which would be half so rich as to compel them to fill in, for themselves, the empty spaces of the unknown future that gapes before them.” The impetus for a new Germany would have to come from within.

Decades on, Germans would come to understand the end of World War II as “Year Zero”: a fresh start for the country that allowed it to go from the militaristic and racialist empire it was in 1942 to the open, liberal, democratic country it is today. Historians later conjured up whole narratives that explained where German history had erred from the otherwise liberal Western trajectory it supposedly should have been on, corrected only by the total and utter defeat of 1945. But for Germans living amid the rubble of the Third Reich, there was no Year Zero.

As Trentmann poignantly recounts, in 1942 most Germans still believed they were fighting a just, clean and necessary war in which they would ultimately emerge victorious. They felt at the end not like guilty aggressors but like innocent victims, or at least aggressors who had paid what dues they owed through their own suffering. Such feelings were not eradicated suddenly in 1945, nor indeed for many years after. Exiled Germans and persecuted German Jews alike were often so disappointed by the Germany they found on their return that they opted for permanent emigration.

While the Nuremberg trials put the crimes committed in Germany’s name into stark focus, they did not evoke anything approximating a “national reckoning” in the wider German public. In one of his many personal anecdotes, Kater recalls how even as a young boy in 1943 he heard “ominous” conversations about Jewish neighbors who had disappeared. They may not have known the details, but the sheer number of Germans involved at all levels in the industrialized genocide of the Jewish people made it impossible to hide.

As American demographers found out in 1946, not only did many Germans know about the murder of Jews, Poles and other “non-Aryans,” but 37% even agreed it was necessary “for the security of Germany.” In the mid-1950s, 42% of Germans still thought Hitler would have been among the greatest German statesmen if he had not started the war.

The half-hearted process of “denazification” that the Allies instituted did little to dampen such unrepentant pro-Nazi sentiment. It left it to most individuals to self-report their own party connections, which suddenly made it appear as if there were never any Nazis in Germany. Professors, diplomats, priests, judges, civil servants and ordinary people denied their support of or participation in the Nazi regime to themselves and others.

In another illuminating personal anecdote, Kater recalls how as a doctoral student in the early 1960s he came up against the invisible brick wall put up by former Nazis keen to conceal their pasts. While conducting primary source research on the SS research organization, the Ahnenerbe, he was summoned to the office of Deputy Director Wolfgang A. Mommsen. He berated Kater for supposedly misplacing documents and barred him from doing further research.

Kater then embarked on a trip to Washington, D.C., where the National Archives kept microfilm copies of all the Ahnenerbe documents. As it turned out, Mommsen’s name popped up again and again. He was a Nazi Party member and had helped loot archives in the occupied territories. In March 1942, he even witnessed the murder of Jews in Riga, noting in his diary: “There should be nothing left. Now it’s the turn of the Jews from the Reich, who are allowed to shovel snow here for a few days on their way to death.” In 1967, Mommsen became the president of the Federal Archives of West Germany.

This strange disconnect between the wartime activities of many prominent postwar German figures and their total silence about them helped contribute to a generational conflict that culminated with the student protests of 1968. Kater, while of a slightly older generation, clearly follows in its intellectual tradition. In his portrayal of the FRG, one encounters former Nazis and “residual fascist dogma” at every turn. It was “the convergence of a creative energy and a left-liberal disposition” personified by figures like the novelist Guenter Grass that was “crucial in generating culture in West German society.” This culture in turn helped Germany “defeat the spirit of Nazism,” he contends.

While Kater quite vividly explains the prominence of former Nazis in the FRG, he is less clear about what exactly this “spirit of Nazism” was. Postwar West Germany was conservative and conformist, but the Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer and his successors embodied a political tradition strikingly different from the Nazis’. Adenauer’s Germany was proudly Western and capitalist, promoting reconciliation and integration with its Western European neighbors. Ex-Nazis may indeed have been everywhere, but this was true even in the communist GDR (in 1954, 27% of the Communist Party members were former Nazis) and has more to do with the all-encompassing nature of the totalitarian regime than the deeply held ideological convictions of most Germans.

As Trentmann points out, West Germany’s economic miracle did more to reorient the values of most Germans than art or culture could. If the spirit that Kater has in mind is the conservative spirit that dominated the 1950s, then it was this material revolution, which culminated in the reorientation of social values from collectivism to individualism in the 1960s and ’70s, that expunged it. West Germans did not feel much guilt for World War II and tolerated unrepentant Nazis in their midst, but the dominant attitude toward the past was forgetfulness, not a desire to return to it.

In this regard, the GDR was not so different. The hardened core of German Stalinists who created and led the country had a very clear idea of the new Germany they wanted to create. Walter Ulbricht, the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) dominating but uncharismatic leader, believed East Germany had all it needed to create “actually existing socialism” on the path to fully fledged communism. He and his party focused on the utopian future, not on past sufferings they interpreted as a crisis of capitalism.

Yet as the historian John Connelly pointed out in a review of Hoyer’s book in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the SED was firmly out of step with native German democratic and socialist traditions that found their expression in the revolutions of 1848 or 1919. It was a thoroughly Stalinist entity transplanted onto German soil, rather than something that grew naturally out of it, and it is difficult not to see this as part of the reason the GDR struggled to find legitimacy.

Mass protests against the Stalinization process nearly brought down the SED in 1953 — it was saved only by the intervention of Soviet troops. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent de-Stalinization of the Soviet Union and its satellites, Ulbricht remained indefatigable in his policies, seeing himself as no less important a figure in the history of communism than Stalin himself, despite the emigration of millions to the other Germany. In a desperate attempt to arrest the brain drain, Ulbricht suddenly erected a wall in Berlin in 1961. Officially, it was an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” In reality, it was an anti-emigration barrier. Ulbricht remained in his post until 1971, when he was finally forced out by his colleagues.

Even as millions of East Germans fled westward for a better life, for a variety of reasons millions more decided to stay put. For many of them, this was because of a genuine belief in the socialist project underway in the country. Hoyer, through dozens of vignettes collected through her own interviews, gives a well-rounded picture of why many people felt this way. In spite of its authoritarianism and the oppressive police state, the GDR provided opportunities for employment, education and cultural enrichment many could never have dreamed of before.

Where the book falters is in showing why so many millions more could not bear the country, even risking their lives to escape it. In millions of East Germans’ lives, the stultifying conformism, oppressive police state and lack of political or economic freedom were far more than a footnote. Living a “basically quite pleasant” life in the GDR was predicated on self-repression, conformism and total deference to state authorities. Hoyer neither denies nor minimizes these aspects of the GDR, despite what some reviewers have suggested, but they are quite avowedly not the focus of the book.

Hoyer even suggests at certain points that the GDR was a victim of its own success, but this is difficult to square with the fact that it simply could not afford to maintain these successes. It fulfilled its citizens’ needs but could not fulfill their desires. And when a crisis hit, it struggled even with the needs. The collectivist ethos many people were genuinely attached to could not survive the country unraveling around them.

By the 1970s, the Germans had settled into their respective states. Under the FRG’s first Social Democratic prime minister, they finally signed a treaty recognizing each other’s existence in 1972. This paved the way for both Germanies’ entries into the U.N. and the GDR’s establishment of relations with Western countries. In spite of their more secure international standing, they were less sure about their own past and future.

The oil crisis of the 1970s hit both Germanies hard. East Germany in particular struggled to deal with successive economic crises, forcing the country into crippling debt just to provide basic consumer goods like blue jeans or coffee to its beleaguered population. West Germany, meanwhile, was hit by a wave of terrorist attacks mostly perpetrated by the far-left Red Army Faction, which claimed it was struggling against a still-existing fascist regime in West Germany.

This crisis of confidence that gripped the FRG in many ways culminated in the so-called “Historikerstreit,” or “historians’ dispute.” The question of how to interpret the Nazi past within the context of wider German history had preoccupied many historians since the 1960s, but only in the 1980s did it erupt into the pages of national newspapers in such a dramatic way.

It was launched by the right-wing historian Ernst Nolte, with an article published in one of Germany’s leading dailies in 1986. While the interpretation of the Nazi past as an aberration in German history was already dominant in the FRG, Nolte took the argument a step further. Germans were becoming too fixated on the negativity of the Nazi past and should in effect learn to forget it, he contended. The Holocaust was not exceptional, nor was Nazi totalitarianism more broadly.

Countless leading intellectuals accused Nolte of whitewashing or minimizing the Nazi past, arguing instead that the Holocaust was an exceptional evil that must serve as a warning to future generations. This attitude, that Germany should confront rather than shun the uncomfortable moments of its past, had long been present in the work of the left-liberal artists whom Kater credits with so much cultural influence in the FRG. But paradoxically, it never became foundational to West German identity.

It was only around the year 2000 that responsibility for the Holocaust became central to German identity, but by then West and East Germany were both long gone. The Berlin Wall had come down suddenly and unexpectedly in 1989, and the following year the GDR was dissolved, its former territory integrated into the federal republic. Germany then faced a much more immediate past it was forced to contend with, one that many in East Germany clearly feel was not handled properly.

The GDR and its legacy were discarded wholesale by the FRG. Judges, officers, professors and police who had once formed the backbone of its administration lost their jobs, often replaced by counterparts from the FRG. In the 20 years after reunification, 10% of those living in the former GDR moved westward. As difficult as the transition may have been, West Germans are often keen to point out that nearly 2 trillion euros also went eastward in the 25 years after reunification.

What Hoyer’s “Beyond the Wall” lacks in analytical insight it makes up for in its strong contemporary relevance. As of early 2024, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the most popular party in every state of the former GDR. One of its strongest competitors is the old-school leftist Sahra Wagenknecht’s new party, which combines strongly left-wing economic policies with social conservatism. It appears there might not be a new Germany after all, but two of them.

Perhaps neither of them is quite as new as they appear. Trentmann’s thesis is that the Germans have always had a “solipsistic sense of moral superiority” rooted in a “stunning capacity for self-deception” that shaped how Germans experienced the fall of the Third Reich and postwar reconstruction. Germany’s modern history is not a reflection of World War II as a point of rupture, but a process of adaptation in which the same virtues and faults that have always plagued the Germans have survived unaffected. Harsh as the assessment may be, such accusations are a running theme of modern German history.

In just about every crisis that has faced the European Union in the 21st century, Germany has drawn often vitriolic accusations of being more concerned with its own sense of moral superiority than the consequences its decisions hold for other countries. Greece saw Germany’s behavior in the Eurozone crisis as harsh and punitive toward the bankrupt country. Hungary and other Eastern European countries accused Germany of “moral imperialism” during the 2015 migrant crisis. Decades of German energy and security policy were condemned as naive and short-sighted across the Western world in the wake of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

For many, the cherry on top has been the country’s reaction to Israel’s 2023 invasion of the Gaza Strip. German politicians, media, cultural and educational institutions have appeared overwhelmingly supportive of Israel even as international condemnation grows to unprecedented levels. Many scholars have pointed to the country’s much-lauded memory culture as the culprit in this seeming moral blindness.

Some critics see these failings as aspects of the same old solipsistic sense of moral superiority and stunning capacity for self-deception that have always troubled Germany. The country has adapted and grown but is not the moral paragon it sometimes prefers to pretend it is.

These books by Hoyer, Kater and Trentmann collectively offer a fascinating insight into the making of modern Germany. What is striking about them is not Germany’s exceptionalism but the banality of its postwar experience. Germany under the Nazi regime perpetrated unimaginable crimes across Europe, including the most horrific genocide in human history directed against Europe’s Jews. Few involved faced any real consequences beyond those killed in action. And yet the postwar trajectories of both Germanies closely followed those of their neighbors. In the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, a united Germany once again developed in largely the same way as other Western nations, down the “End of History” path of social liberalism, post-nationalism and political inertia.

It is a testament more than anything to the approach taken by the victorious powers. The United States, the United Kingdom and France helped lift West Germany from the darkness. They did not force the country to go it alone. The experience of East Germany was less congenial but not so different from what the Soviets gifted all their brotherly nations in the East.

Today, some Germans demand morality in place of material comforts. Others demand material comforts without morality. The same is true in Austria, Sweden, France, Italy and many other European countries. Right-wing populists, left progressives and liberal centrists sound much the same as their counterparts elsewhere, even if they have their own national peculiarities. The new Germany is unexceptional, but perhaps that is precisely how the world wants it to be.

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