Hitler was also repeatedly hindered by his alliance with Italy. It’s hard to think of a worse military ally than Benito Mussolini and Italy. Germany’s military resources were constantly being diverted to assist Italy in Greece, the Soviet Union, North Africa, Sicily and finally on the Italian mainland itself. It would have been far better for Hitler if Italy had never entered the war at all. It would have been much better for Italy, too. Hitler and Mussolini were a marriage made in hell.
Another of Hitler’s key strategic errors was his utter failure to coordinate the war efforts of his Axis allies or to even discuss with them an overall global strategy that might win the war. Hitler never even told his key allies about his own important military decisions beforehand, and, similarly, the Japanese government never gave Hitler prior knowledge of its attack on Pearl Harbor, and Mussolini often kept Hitler in the dark about his own military adventures, most notably, the Italian attack on Greece. The Axis powers also failed to exchange even basic intelligence information or details on new weaponry and naval strategy. The Japanese government refused to become involved in the war against the Soviet Union. In comparison, the Allies were much more coordinated, sharing information, strategy and the timing of supplies and offensives.
In the summer of 1942, Hitler’s failure to capture Moscow the previous year led him to embark on a second huge offensive to defeat the Soviet Union in the hope of gaining the grain and oil resources that he required to sustain a long war. This resulted in the failed attempt to take Stalingrad, which resulted in a catastrophic defeat in February 1943. During 1943 Germany lost the Battle of the Atlantic, was on the retreat in the Soviet Union, had been driven out of North Africa, and was now bitterly defending the Italian mainland.
In the summer of 1944 Germany failed to prevent the D-Day landings and soon it had lost France and all the territory it had occupied in the Soviet Union since 1941. At this point in the conflict, any pragmatic German leader would have sought peace terms, but Hitler vowed to fight on to the bitter end against an overwhelming Allied coalition.
It was primarily Hitler who dragged Germany to disaster from 1943 onwards. By then he had abolished the independence of the judiciary, dispensed with the Reichstag and weakened the influence of the Nazi Party. Such was Hitler’s dictatorial power by then that he was able to impose his own desires on his government, the military commanders and the entire German nation. Hitler, an instinctive gambler, believed in the power of his own will to change the course of events, but like every gambler he did not know when to stop.
The unconditional surrender of Germany in May 1945 spared the world any continuation of its criminal Nazi-dominated government, but it left Germany with its own sovereignty extinguished, its economy ruined, its armed forces abolished and with no functioning government. Furthermore, it was occupied by foreign armies.
Hitler, although dead, cast a long shadow over Germany. Between 1945 and 1949, Germany was divided into four occupied zones, each administered by the victorious Allies: the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France. On 23 May 1949 the democratic Federal German Republic (BRD) was created from the eleven states within the Allied administrative zones of Britain, France and the United States. The communist German Democratic Republic (DDR) began to function as a state in the Soviet occupation zone from 7 October 1949. With the onset of the Cold War, Berlin was bitterly divided between East and West, as symbolized by the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Germany was offered no peace settlement by the Allies. Instead, the major Nazi war criminals – excluding Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler, who had all committed suicide – faced a single trial at the International Military Tribunal at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg. The defendants were all charged with crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trial, which received huge international media coverage, took place between 14 November 1945 and 1 October 1946. There were 403 court sessions during the proceedings.
There were originally twenty-four defendants at the main Nuremberg Trial, but Robert Ley, the leader of the German Labour Front, committed suicide only three weeks before the first trial began. Martin Bormann, though listed as ‘missing’, was tried in absentia. The twenty-two men who gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trial were: Hermann Göring, the former head of the Luftwaffe and the Gestapo; Karl Dönitz, who succeeded Hitler as German leader; the two former Foreign Ministers, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Konstantin von Neurath; Wilhelm Frick, former Minister of the Interior; Albert Speer, Munitions Minister; Rudolf Hess, Deputy Führer until May 1941; Franz von Papen, former Chancellor; Dr Hjalmar Schacht, former Economics Minister, and his successor Walther Funk; the industrialist Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach; Baldur von Schirach, former Hitler Youth leader; Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Reich Commissioner of the Netherlands; Alfred Rosenberg, the Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories; Julius Streicher, editor of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer; Fritz Sauckel, Plenipotentiary in charge of forced labour; Hans Fritzsche, head of the news division of the Ministry of Propaganda; Hans Frank, Governor-General of the General Government; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA); and the leading army officers Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl, plus Erich Raeder, the former chief of the German navy.
All defendants were subjected to intelligence tests prior to the start of court proceedings. The majority were classed as of ‘above average’ intelligence. At the top came Schacht (143), followed by Seyss-Inquart (141), Göring and Dönitz (138), Papen and Raeder (134). The rest recorded figures from 106 to 130. At the very bottom were the brutal Nazi Fritz Sauckel with a score of 118 and the crude antisemite Julius Streicher with a score of 106.
All of the defendants tried to distance themselves from their war crimes by claiming that it was all Hitler’s fault and they were only ‘taking orders’. At the end of the trial, twelve of the defendants were given death sentences: Bormann (in absentia), Frank, Frick, Göring, Jodl, Kaltenbrunner, Keitel, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg, Sauckel, Seyss-Inquart and Streicher. Papen and Schacht were acquitted. No sentence was issued to Krupp – he would be dealt with at a later trial of businessmen. Prison sentences varying from ten years to life were imposed on the rest. Hermann Göring, the most famous Nazi at the trial, killed himself with a cyanide capsule on the night before he was due to be hanged.
There were twelve subsequent trials of high-ranking SS, military and government figures from December 1946 to April 1949, most notably of concentration camp officials, military officers, doctors, businessmen, judges, government officials and leaders of the Einsatzgruppen. The leaders of the Einsatzgruppen claimed at their notorious trial they were not cold-blooded murderers, but had been carrying out the orders of the Führer. Most of the defendants at the war crimes trials resorted to the same lame excuse. The industrialists were let off the hook completely and returned to run all of the major German companies which still exist to this day. The courts in the West German zones of occupation convicted only 5,228 defendants between 1945 and 1950 of war crimes. From 1945 to 1997, just 1,878 people ever faced trial in West German courts for war crimes committed in the Nazi era.
During the period of the Allied occupation, from 1945 to 1949, all Germans went through a ‘denazification’ process, which aimed to remove all those who had been key members of the SS and Nazi Party. It was carried out in the western zones of occupation. As there had been 8.5 million members of the Nazi Party it was a huge task. It was reckoned about 45 million Germans were connected in one way or another with Nazi organizations.
The denazification process aimed to confront Germans with what they had done during the Nazi era, but it also encouraged a collective and selective amnesia. All Germans were required to fill in a short questionnaire (Fragebogen) asking questions about their involvement in Nazi organizations. Five categories of potential offender were listed: (1) Major offenders – these would face arrest, trial and sentencing; (2) Offenders – these included Nazi Party activists; (3) Lesser offenders – these would be given probation; (4) Followers and Fellow Travellers – they would be subject to possible employment restrictions; and (5) Exonerated – no sanctions.
Every German who experienced the denazification process wanted the prized certificate of blamelessness. This became jokingly known as the ‘Persil Certificate’ (Persilschein), a reference to the popular soap powder, which in newspaper advertisements promised to wash clothes ‘whiter than white’. It was suggested Nazi war criminals were trying to wash their brownshirts white. Around 3 million Germans went through a more detailed denazification process. In the end, however, overstretched Allied officials accepted what they were told on the forms, which meant most Germans ended up being ‘exonerated’.
There was no real purge of former Nazis in West Germany after 1945. Astonishingly, seventy-two judges of the notorious Nazi ‘People’s Court’ were re-employed in the courts of the West German Federal Republic. In total, around 80 per cent of all former legal employees in West Germany kept their jobs. The same was true in the medical profession, the universities, the schools, the police force and the civil service. Between 1956 and 1961, a total of 66 per cent of the employees of the West German Interior Ministry were former Nazi Party members. There’s little doubt former Nazis at the heart of the West German state and judiciary influenced the policy of not pursuing Nazi war criminals.
As part of the denazification process, the US Opinion Survey section conducted twenty-two surveys into German attitudes towards Hitler and National Socialism. It found 77 per cent of Germans thought that the murder of the Jews was ‘unjustified’, with 64 per cent thinking the persecution of Jews was the key reason for Germany’s defeat. However, when Germans were asked if Nazism had been a bad idea, only 53 per cent replied ‘Yes’. Among those under thirty, 60 per cent thought Nazism was ‘a good idea, but carried out badly in the end’. Only 21 per cent thought Nazism had been ‘bad’ before the Second World War began. A total of 41 per cent of Germans expressed complete ignorance about what had happened in the concentration camps. In a further poll in 1950, only 38 per cent thought the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals had been fair. Despite this, National Socialism – or even a fervent form of nationalism – never returned in West Germany prior to unification.
There was a similar denazification process in communist East Germany, but it was much more comprehensive. Anyone tainted with Nazi associations was removed from employment. The DDR presented itself as the embodiment of communist resistance to Hitler’s regime. The most high-profile trials of Nazi war criminals in the DDR were the famous ‘Waldheim Trials’, which took place from April to December 1950. Of the ninety-one defendants, twenty-four were sentenced to death and seventeen of those were executed, a further thirty-one were given life sentences and the rest much shorter terms in prison.
Contrary to popular belief, the notorious East German secret state police, the Stasi, was not staffed by former Gestapo officers. Former Nazi Party members did not occupy key positions in the post-war East German judiciary either. In 1950 of the 1,000 East German judges, only one was a former Nazi Party member.
The East German government repeatedly published damaging allegations concerning the lack of denazification in West Germany. In 1965, the National Front of the DDR published the so-called ‘Brown Book’, titled War and Nazi War Criminals in West Germany. It named a staggering 1,800 former leading Nazis who still held key positions in West Germany. The list included 15 government ministers, 100 generals and admirals, 828 senior judges and public prosecutors, 245 members of the foreign and diplomatic service, and 297 senior police officials, including former SS, SD and Gestapo officers. The West German government called it ‘pure falsification’ and the book was banned from sale. However, it turns out that the ‘Brown Book’ seriously underestimated the number of former Nazis who had retained prominent positions at the top of West German society.
The people of East Germany suffered much worse deprivation in the post-war era than those in the affluent West, who enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and a stable parliamentary democracy dubbed ‘The German Miracle’. The East Germans never received the huge injection of American funding through the Marshall Plan which had helped to rebuild the West German economy. In the same period, the cash-starved Soviet occupiers stripped East Germany of much of its industry and supported the repressive East German communist regime. Not surprisingly, the citizens of East Germany felt themselves to be the double victims of the Hitler years.
During the Cold War era, the Western Allies wanted to rehabilitate West Germany as a politically and economically strong bulwark against Soviet communism. This undoubtedly led to a softening of attitudes in the West towards Nazi war criminals. The West Germans were given an alibi by the Western Allies: pin all the blame on Hitler and his criminal Nazi regime.
This helps to explain the deafening silence surrounding the Hitler years in West Germany. There was a widespread unwillingness to discuss what had happened. Instead, self-pity became the norm. The ‘Don’t Mention the War’ episode (called ‘The Germans’) of the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers was very close to the truth. In 1955, when the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, was asked if West Germany was commemorating the tenth anniversary of the liberation from Hitler, he replied: ‘You don’t celebrate your defeats.’
West Germans did feel a strong sense of victimhood, even though Germany launched the war, conquered much of Europe, enslaved and murdered millions of innocent victims, caused the deaths of millions of soldiers, destroyed countless cities and towns all over Europe, and murdered civilians on an unimaginable scale. Instead of showing contrition, the West Germans became preoccupied with their new prosperous life.
The murder of the Jews was a taboo subject. There was no single ‘Holocaust Trial’ ever mounted by the West or East German government. The term ‘Holocaust’ was not even in common usage in the immediate post-war era in West or East Germany. The most well-known Jewish victim of the Holocaust was, of course, the teenager Anne Frank, whose diary became a worldwide bestseller. In the subsequent Hollywood film, however, her Jewishness was downplayed. There are no scenes of her being a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau or Bergen-Belsen.
It was the newly created state of Israel that brought the Holocaust to worldwide attention when it dramatically captured the high-ranking Gestapo official Adolf Eichmann on 11 May 1960. He was living in a quiet middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires in Argentina at the time. Eichmann’s sensational trial, which began on 11 April 1961, was broadcast on TV and radio and reported in newspapers around the world. The testimony of Jewish Holocaust survivors was given graphic expression for the first time.
Eichmann gave his testimony in a routine manner, coming across not as a Nazi fanatic, but as a sort of middle-class bank manager of death. He claimed to have sorted out the paperwork that ensured millions of people died, but was just a seemingly powerless cog in the wheel and was only ‘taking orders’. The philosopher Hannah Arendt memorably summed up Eichmann’s matter-of-fact attitude as the ‘banality of evil’.
The Eichmann trial gave fresh impetus to a group of more radical West German lawyers who now wanted to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. This led to the most famous West German trials related to the Holocaust in the post-war period: the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, which took place between 20 December 1963 and 19 August 1965. These trials were given extensive media coverage. Twenty-two defendants were charged with murder and other serious crimes committed while they were working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. A total of 248 Holocaust survivors delivered harrowing testimonies. At the end of the trial, all but five of the accused were convicted, with six receiving life sentences. However, an opinion poll conducted at the time revealed that 57 per cent of West Germans were not in favour of any more Nazi war crimes trials.
It was not until the 1970s that the Nazi period and the Holocaust were even included in the German school curriculum. It was really the American TV series The Holocaust – broadcast on West German TV in 1979 to an audience of 14 million – that led to a change of attitude, as the West German public began to see the Holocaust as a distinct Jewish experience.
Since the reunification of Germany in 1990 there has been a very noticeable willingness of younger Germans – who had no personal involvement in what happened during the Nazi era – to confront many inconvenient truths about the Nazi era. Steven Spielberg’s epic Schindler’s List (1993) prompted most German history teachers to take their students to see the film. The crimes of the Wehrmacht, once denied, are now fully acknowledged. The former SS-run German concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Sachsenhausen are now moving memorials to the victims of Hitler’s terror. All German schoolchildren now visit them as part of the school curriculum. In Germany in recent years there has been a flood of new documentaries, films and novels, as well as university courses, dedicated to the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes.
There’s now a Holocaust memorial in the centre of Berlin. In 2001, a Jewish Museum opened and is now one of the city’s leading tourist attractions. The German democratic government now makes frequent payments to former slave labourers of the Nazi era and to victims of the Holocaust. The heroism of those who stood up to the Nazis is also celebrated in Berlin’s German Resistance Memorial Centre. It’s now generally accepted most German people during the Nazi era were not just taking orders, but were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler and fought to the bitter end to preserve his criminal regime.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume all Germans have finally come to terms with the enormity of what happened during the Hitler years. The victims of Hitler’s genocide and their families continue to suffer the pain and grief and the haunting memories. Adolf Hitler’s long shadow over Germany and over humanity itself has not yet disappeared and it probably never will.