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Monday, October 31, 2011

Post-War German Condemnations: Unenlightened Propaganda rather than History

I was at a friend's place. She is older than I and remembers more of the past. She told me a beautiful story about wanting to attend a session at the Nürnberg trial when she ran into a friend called Victor Klemperer. He advised her to stay away, the trials were about punishing the Germans, not justice. Why was there this hate against "the Germans"?

The answer is found in many American history books. Take for example David Stafford 2007. He wrote "Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II." N.Y.: Back Bay Books. The book is not, as you might expect, about the plight of refugees flocking into Germany or bombed out people fighting to keep children and themselves alive. It is about monitoring their feelings of guilt. And because Germans were not seen to be expressing guilt, the book is about the further judgement and condemnation of those who remained alive.

Thus Count Folke Bernadotte, a genuinely humane Swede in the Service of the Red Cross, who managed to persuade Himmler to allow Bernadotte to save interned Swedes, is quoted as having said: "The German people as a whole never made a serious attempt to cast off the yoke. They never seriously protested against the anti-Semitic policy, against conditions in the occupied countries...They have Failed (p. 506). True. But what Bernadotte had to say in 1945 Das Ende, Zürich: Europa Verlag, is much more profound than that. Yes, in retrospect one must agree that Germans failed. And after the war many, but not all, were in a state of stupor about their defeat and, perhaps, in the state of self-absorption that comes with survival. But Bernodotte is much more concerned to point out that the final scene of the demise of the Third Reich lacked the dignity of a true human tragedy. Why? Because the surviving officials of the Third Reich were so unbearably petty; they did not fight for a faith, nor from conviction of an idea, but merely for their naked existence, and that was soiled by inexpiable crimes. Bernadotte referred to the rather petty and pathetic leaders -- the kinds we saw frequently on tv screens during the Irak war and the Arab Spring. Since Bernadotte had worked with people from the German Resistance, he worried, but did not make collective judgement and voice wholesale condemnation.

Rev. David Cairns in the spring and summer of 1945 apparently told the British Council of Churches that German civilians were obsessed with their own survival and that of their families and friends...But what particularly bothered him was "the lack of understanding for the suffering that Germany has caused other people, and an unawareness of the hatred and contempt that, for example, Holland and Denmark, Poland and Belgium, feel for her." Above all Cairns complained that the sense of guilt was "rather lacking" (in Stafford, 2007:506). And Stafford goes on to quote Alan Moorhead who said April 22, 1945, "Not one German has any feeling of guilt." It is not said which Germans he observed. -- And we can be sure that he sat down with the whole German population, or a large representative sample, and had a talk about it with them. And finally, Anne Matheson complained that "these women have no pity but for themselves, Evening Standard 30 April, 1945.

The war was just over -- peace declared May 8, 1945. Yes, the war was just over. A general feeling of numbness had set in. Trümmer, rags, hunger -- and Allies, satiated, victorious, informed -- doing one thing and one thing only, taking the temperature of German guilt.

Authors who collected these condemning statements made no attempt to analyze what they found. For example, that in the last days of the war leaflets were dropped from planes saying "You are guilty." A collective judgement and condemnation before any trial and in the midst of destruction. Nor did the pulse-takers of German guilt think that they, coming from Allied countries were well informed about the murder of Jews in concentration camps, not least by the German military and Christian resistance, among them, Hans Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; by people who knew, precisely, because they were military or associated with its intelligence; by people who risked their lives to inform the Allies and to stop the war; by people who helped Jews escape; by people who were hanged on meat hooks in Plötzensee.


Many of the German population, by contrast, may have surmised that things were not right. But surmising is not knowing. Few of them listened to the BBC. And those who did, shut up and lived, and not only for themselves but for the future; for a sense of democracy and fairness that they knew well and would now have a chance to help put into place.

Authors like the one discussed here are popular in America. History for them is still written from the perspective of World War II Allied propaganda and with the attitude of punishing a whole people -- even though most of these people have long since understood that others suffered first and that their suffering was caused by the defeated.

Books like that of Stafford, and there are many others like it, teach us nothing about defeat. They ignore deliberately the resistance, deem it as having been small in number and ineffective. That it was a substantial minority and has much to tell us is ignored. Nevertheless, the Second World War is their story.

Saved by a Lutheran Orphanage in Telz and the people who did the saving were all WOMEN -- and we were not even their children. Life would be filled with guilt, but also with joy. And, yes, I know that the Third Reich killed -- totally unjustifiably -- millions of Jews and killed millions of others in a criminal war.