How were German minds changed after the Nazis were driven from power?
January 28, 2017 8:06 AM   Subscribe

What was done to change the minds of German supporters of the Nazis after World War II? If Hitler rose to power with democratic support, it seems inconceivable that just losing the war would turn Germany into the open, tolerant society it has been for the last 70 years. So why did so many Germans seemingly abandon Nazi ideas to embrace multiculturalism and respect for minorities (obviously I'm generalising)? What articles or books can I read to better understand the change in the German psyche after the war?
posted by matthew.alexander to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Your premise is wrong, or at least overstated. Germany hasn't been an "open, tolerant society" for the last 70 years; it reacted to the horrors of war and occupation by resolutely focusing on economic growth at all costs (google "Wirtschaftswunder") and suppressing memory of the past. Fassbinder was relentless about calling this out; watch his "BRD Trilogy" and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, among others. There is and always has been plenty of intolerance; they had simply become convinced it wasn't a good idea to turn it into government policy.
posted by languagehat at 8:18 AM on January 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

I can't say much about the time after the war because I wasn't born, but I know that when my grandmother married my Jewish grandfather, people in her bavarian village still made a lot of antisemitic remarks, and even now, there is quite a lot of latent antisemitism in Germany.

Right-wing parties have always existed all through the past decades, and they're gaining force again because many Germans see the waves of immigrants and blame all their problems on them.

Germany may seem more open and tolerant than the US because we managed to separate state and church a bit more (although still not enough by far) and because most people simply don't come in touch with many minorities. You see almost no black people on the streets here, jokes about Asians are still super common (I have a previous question about this, even) and people with Polish last names sometimes get murdered in their own apartments. A series of murders targeting people of Turkish origin has been called "döner murders", most Germans hate muslims, and sexism is rampant. (Btw, your German health insurance won't cover birth control pills. Catholic hospitals can deny you rape kits.) Gay marriage is not yet a thing.

Many young, educated Germans are lovely people with an open mind, and a lot of us consume tons of English language media, but please don't assume that most of our grandparents welcome people of colour with open arms. (My above-mentioned grandma always sends cookies to my Japanese fiancé, though - probably because she's so relieved I finally found someone and am not a lesbian after all...)
posted by LoonyLovegood at 8:31 AM on January 28, 2017 [20 favorites]

As Frederick Taylor argues in Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, it was a more complicated story:
West Germany was left to cleanse itself. It was not the seamless process of confronting the truth that is usually told. As Taylor puts it, Konrad Adenauer's conservative, complacent country took "the sleep cure". The 1950s and early 60s was an era of forgetting. Germany paid billions of Deutschmarks in compensation to Jews, but few Nazis were prosecuted. In 1952, 60% of civil servants in Bavaria were former Nazis. It was in the 60s, when a new generation of Germans began asking their parents "What did you do in the Third Reich?", that the real transformation began and New Germans sensitive to their recent history emerged.
Two first-hand accounts: the final volume of Victor Klemperer's diaries, The Lesser Evil, by a Jewish survivor in East Germany; and Noel Annan, Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany, by a British intelligence officer who witnessed the denazification process.
posted by verstegan at 8:33 AM on January 28, 2017 [18 favorites]

This is just armchair musings, but Nazis were heavily invested in the idea that might makes right and that they were superior to others. Losing the war so completely kind of invalidates the whole philosophy. Japan arguably experienced an even larger cultural shift postwar for similar reasons.
posted by rodlymight at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, Germany is a bit more complicated than that. I lived in Germany for a couple of years. I found that the way people split on right/left issues was different than the typical fault-lines in American politics, which can make German society look more tolerant and open to American eyes I think than it actually is, because Americans tend to assume that a certain set of beliefs always go together but that's not always the case. For instance, I knew a lot of people in Germany who were way far left (by American standards) on social issues like public healthcare, social security, taxes, and public transportation--while also being pretty far right on issues like immigration. Hell, Germans still have some pretty deep divisions within German society itself (East/West, North/South), so I met a lot of Berliners who disliked Bavarians and Swabians, much less Muslim immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. Germans aren't unique in that way though; a lot of European countries are not as coherent as you might think. Just imagine if Texas and California shared a border and then had something like the last 2,000 years to fight with each other about things.

As for educating/re-educating people, those strategies varied differently between West and East Germany. West Germany implemented a curriculum in every high school where kids spent 1-3 years learning about the history of the Holocaust and World War II and Hitler. My West German friends have told me that those classes were so heavy that they were a lot to get your head around as a teenager. But all of my German teachers have also told me that East Germany, under the Soviet Communist regime, basically shoved most of that history under the rug and framed World War II and the Holocaust as either Hitler's vendetta against the communists, or a situation created by a corrupt capitalist society. Which means that young East Germans didn't get, by and large, a very thorough or accurate account of what actually happened during World War II.

As for sources, here's an interesting article from 1995 about teaching the Nazi past in Germany, and a very in-depth answer about the differences in East and West Germany education from the /r/AskHistorians subreddit.
posted by colfax at 9:00 AM on January 28, 2017 [14 favorites]

German here - vintage 2nd generation post war - both my parents were born in the 1940s, after the end of the war. I think you're overly optimistic about the 70 years of multiculturalism and openness. That's simply not the case. And on preview, this is a purely West German version of observations.

A lot of the ideas of the Nazis were not exactly new. Antisemitism and racism and discrimination of people on all kinds of grounds was very widespread in many countries including Germany. Whilst a lot of people would not have condoned open violence on a wide scale they accepted these ideas on some level. The Nazis put in place structures that legalised and formalised these ideas and allowed them to persecute people. But they didn't do that all in one go.

After the war the country was completely devastated, the infrastructure was broken, there was limited, inadequate housing, there were large numbers of displaced people, a lot of soldiers in captivity as POW and everybody had been touched by death. And the country was occupied by the allied forces.

So the vast majority of people who were probably not very liberal to start out with, had lost everything and were struggling to survive on a daily basis. They went right back to not being very liberal and focused on survival. Those who had held more active roles in the Nazi regime were normally smart enough to keep their mouths shut and play nice with the occupying forces. And they were often well educated/had skills the occupation forces needed to start the process of rebuilding and put the structures in place that would be required after the beginning of the Cold War.

The population at large did not undergo changes in values in the interwar period that made the Nazis possible nor after WWII, that prevented a return. But it became very poor form to promote these views after the war. The media and local governments were monitored by the occupying forces and simply could not promote such sentiments as policy.

It was the first post war generation that actively challenged this failure to engage with the past and fostered a more liberal mindset. As they rose into positions of power institutions started to modernise as well. But that timeline is consistent with a lot of the western world and not specific to Germany.

And to rebuild a whole country takes a lot of economic contributors so at some point Germany became open for migrant workers. They were expected to be mainly men, come to work, send money home and leave again. But more often than not they stayed, their families joined them and made the country more diverse.

But the country is still conservative in many ways, there is still a very homogenous white population especially outside large cities. There are plenty of people who would consider themselves to be multicultural because they go to the local Italian/foreign cuisine restaurant and have no problem with admitting refugees to the country in principle. They have no problem with social liberal ideas and norms but are very upset if the local authorities put housing for asylum seekers in their community. These are all people who had years of lessons on 20th century German history with focus on the how and what of two wars and Nazi regimen shoved down their throats at school.

When I went to pre school/primary school there was one child of non German background in my class, there was never more than one person of different cultural background in my class during secondary school - this was an academically selective state run school in a suburb of Munich. I gather less academically focused schools may have been a bit more diverse because academic selection at an early age is a disadvantage to people with immigration background. But it is these academically selective schools that churn out people who get into higher education, professional careers and political office - at least in large parts of Germany.

So peaceful is probably true, multicultural and open perhaps in parts. But a lot of this impression comes from how unacceptable it is to support anything else as public policy/media outlet.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:41 AM on January 28, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'd agree with all the other posters (especially languagehat) that you're to an extent misstating the phenomenon you want to examine here. There was no great "changing of minds," rather a reorientation towards economic development accompanied by an official posture of anti-Nazism and above all a generational change in attitudes. For a quick and dirty read, you could do worse than Tony Judt's Postwar, especially chapter 7, "Culture Wars."
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:17 AM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I was in Germany as a small child, living near Frankfurt. Many of the civilian workers for the occupation stated they fought on the Eastern front. They were starving, I knew one family who survived on nettle soup. The woods were full of bomb craters. They received an ass kicking, and any Skinnerian will tell you that is not how people change. There were some rewards to no longer being allied with a Nazi government. Like food to eat, and jobs in a rebuilt society. Many of the old monarchic, and totalitarian elements were destroyed, and maybe a new spirit came into the world of the old Deutsche Ordnung. I don't know, but, I like the Germans, the youth confound the old, with the elders stating, everything has to be kurz, (shortened,) like the Kurfurstendam, one of the main boulevards in Berlin, is the Ku-dam, and so forth. They had their fifties prosperity, later than we did, but it came. East Germany suffered long. When I was in Berlin ~25 years ago, they still hadn't cleaned up from the war, the main cathedral was still black from industrial grunge. The wall was down, I drove some folks backwards through the Brandenburger Tor, and these middle aged folks who had been imprisoned behind the wall, were squealing with delight. The east Germans had to contend with a totalitarian system long after the war was over. What change came to them must have been bitter and perhaps little change, as they still had to knuckle under to uncompromising ideology of a different order.
posted by Oyéah at 11:18 AM on January 28, 2017

Card carrying Nazis were only about 10% of the population. This was before the global information networks we live with today. The world was shocked to find out what was going on in the Concentration Camps. Many ordinary Germans did not know what was going on. Someone created a game to demonstrate how you could even be employed in the process, yet kept in the dark about what was really going on. You could try to look that up.

You could look up The Wave experiment in the US, as well as Milgram's shock experiments.

It was a different world. No one was recording stuff on their smart phone and tweeting it to the world. A lot of people just did not know or felt helpless to resist what they did know. The most common defense at the Nuremburg Trials was "I was just doing my job."

Your question is sort of like asking "Why do the children of mobsters put up with such evil parents? Why aren't they calling the cops on them?" A) They may have no idea what their parents really do for a living. B) They are dependent and don't have the kind of power you presume.
posted by Michele in California at 11:57 AM on January 28, 2017

Many of those who were confronted with the facts of the Holocaust (and could make themselves believe them) were shocked and appalled and turned away from Nazi thought; this would for instance apply to many people who grew up under Nazi rule and hadn't seen much else...the generation of my parents, born around 1930. Many of them left the old world behind, having found an easy tool to voice their protests against their parents,
With the generation of my grandparents - all born around 1900 - things were more complicated and diffuse. Typically, one of my grandfathers, when I knew him in the 60s, supported the standard Christian right-wing party (CDU) and defended its values. I wasn't able to look into his head, but it may have been a matter of choosing whatever seemed safest and otherwise keeping quiet. A lot of similar not-nazi-hardliner-but-going-with-the-flow-veterans ended up with the official and accepted right-wing parties after the war. Others were nazis who kept their past hidden, including a few top politicians, which led to a bunch of juicy scandals in Western Germany during the sixties and seventies.

On the other hand, I witnessed as a kid a solstice party of a family in southeast Western Germany close to the Czech border. The people present were absolutely unchanged, sang the songs my mom later told me were stock from the Hitlerjugend, and dreamed of the great old time. So, perhaps no open marching in the streets and smashing things; instead a quiet backwater campfire party, but just as brown.
posted by Namlit at 12:05 PM on January 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

What articles or books can I read to better understand the change in the German psyche after the war?

Postwar by Tony Judt

The German Genius by Peter Watson
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 12:19 PM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might want to do some research on the experiences of Turkish immigrants to Germany in the post-war era for an accounting of how Germany dealt with ethnic and religious diversity.
posted by the hot hot side of randy at 12:45 PM on January 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yeah, Germany is simply not very diverse (maybe Berlin is, but even there, I almost never see anyone black) and there is no awareness, no lessons on racism, nothing.

We did hear a LOT about WW2 in school - to the point a friend (who didn't know my family's background) told me the Jews should stop complaining by now.
The former East didn't have that, which may or may not be the reason right-wing parties are always stronger there. Saxony and other eastern states have whole areas no foreign-looking person should step into if they value their health or life. Germans are extremely sceptical of Muslims.

I remember visiting a friend from school and her parents insisted that the German Democratic Republic had been great and they could get anything and go anywhere they wanted. This friend also once told ME, the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor whose first family was gassed and who almost died in Auschwitz that her grandparents had to walk by a concentration camp every day and how awful that was. I think a lot of Germans did know what was happening in those camps - or what did they think happened to the Jews they wanted to get rid of? - and just pretend they didn't, just like they pretend the GRD was swell.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:33 PM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

A family member of mine was an American MP in Germany in the early 1950s. By his report, a regular part of his job was to beat up people who were still singing ‘Deutschland uber alles’ in the beer halls. This was done with truncheons.
posted by spibeldrokkit at 1:47 PM on January 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

It hasn't been mentioned directly, so here's just a reminder that Germany was basically occupied up till 1990, by the US, the UK, France and the Soviet Union. There were 100s of thousands of soldiers all over the place, making sure that Germany wasn't too independent. The four powers managed their parts differently, but even though the optics were better in the West, one never really doubted who was in charge. During the 60's and 70's, when the boomers came of age, there was a lot of anger from young people towards their parents, culminating in the Baader-Meinhof group of terrorists.
Another thing is that one of the reasons Germany isn't very friendly to immigrants is that older Germans don't speak languages. It is getting better, but even many young Germans struggle with learning English or French or Spanish. Obviously, if you are determined to migrate to Germany, you learn the language, but till recently it wasn't like Germany was first on many people's list. (Berlin is different from the rest of Germany, for many reasons).
While a lot has been written about Germany's past as a motivation for the generosity Angela Merkel has been showing recently, there is also the fact that Germany and all of Europe is on the edge of a demographic catastrophe. The boomers started going on pension already a few years ago, and there are not nearly enough young people to fill out their places or take care of them as they grow older. Merkel is more direct and honest than most European politicians about this, but there is also the thing that Germany's economy is better than most, and thus more in need of workers here and now.
posted by mumimor at 2:29 PM on January 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

A family member of mine was an American MP in Germany in the early 1950s. By his report, a regular part of his job was to beat up people who were still singing ‘Deutschland uber alles’ in the beer halls. This was done with truncheons.

Officially or unofficially? As of May 1952, it was the official National Anthem. (It was illegal before that date.)
posted by IndigoJones at 3:57 PM on January 28, 2017

You might want to read the story of Anna Rosmus, who as a teenager in the late 1970s began to uncover the Nazi history of her home town of Passau (Bavaria) that most people were keeping quiet about. She met silence, resistance, and then harassment and death threats, and ultimately emigrated to the US in 1994.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:37 AM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

« Older Should I take a new role, after committing to...   |   Help me curb online spending Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.