The Magazine

The Morning After

How Germany rebuilt, and reinvented, itself.

Apr 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 29 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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In the House of the Hangman

The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949

by Jeffrey K. Olick

Chicago, 392 pp., $29

The rather cryptic title of this book is drawn from a Cervantes adage as revised by Theodor Adorno: "In the house of the hangman one should not speak of the noose." An idiomatic English version might read: When you walk into the hangman's house, it is tasteless to speak of nooses.

So understood, it makes sense. For this book examines a large and awkward legacy of the Nazi era: what Germans themselves recall of the guilt ascribed to them by their World War II conquerors, and how they reacted to it. The ins and outs of that memory are, to use one of the author's favorite terms, "dialogical": One school of memory often reacts with another so that the "memory of memory" is unstable. A truism, possibly, although as our own Civil War shows, "cultural memory" following any searing conflict is a topic of unquestioned importance and power.

Perhaps, as the adage suggests, there was something a bit tasteless in demanding of the battered Germans of 1945 how they felt as citizens of a miscreant state, ruled for 12 years by a gangster regime that had started a ruinous world war and, as a matter of policy, set out to extirpate the European Jews. Any but sociopathic Germans must have felt bad about it, whether they admitted it to themselves or to their interrogators, and whether they had time or energy to pause for reflection from the struggle for mere survival in the ruins. They seem never to have been as explicit in admitting it as their conquerors might have wished. Many resented their judges and preferred self-generated rituals of penitence.

Olick borrows Ruth Benedict's distinction, in The Sword and the Chrysanthemum, between guilt (internal, individual, and conscience-generated) and shame (a response to what others might say or think about one's behavior). The former, she thought, was applicable to German culture, as to Western habits of mind generally, although the extent and nature of that guilt were debatable.

Were all Germans in some sense answerable for tolerating or submitting to Hitler and his crimes? Should guilt be limited to the 22 Nazi ringleaders tried at Nuremberg and the thousands of minor officials who did their bidding? Or was the lapse ascribable to the lurking demon in every human being, sometimes known as original sin? Many Germans preferred to view the Nazis and their works as apostate departures from the historic Germany of learning and art. A few others, notably Thomas Mann, one of the "external exiles" who spent the war years in this country and became an American citizen, admitted to some psychological kinship between themselves and Hitler. ("This man is my brother," was the title of a noted article by Mann in Esquire, though perhaps written before the depth of Hitler's monstrous works were known.)

These are all fascinating issues, as are the questions of what memory traces remain. But Olick, a specialist in the field of cultural memory who teaches sociology at the University of Virginia, would seem to have written here a rather different book from the one he says he set out to write. That is, In the House of the Hangman is actually a bit thin on the empirical data that would document popular or public memory. It focuses, rather, on what German elites--writers, politicians, clergy, historians, and others--thought, said, and wrote about the Nazi past and how it should be understood and atoned.

Implicit in the story Olick tells here is something remarkable, about which he offers no comment: The mantras of "re-education" and "denazification," high-minded and perhaps historically innocent, sound oddly like later practices that found echoes in the re-education and brainwashing enterprises of Chinese and Russian totalitarianism--even as the extension of the eastern boundaries of Poland into Silesia and East Prussia agreed to at Potsdam, leaving millions of ethnic Germans "displaced" and subject to mass transfer, might be thought to bear disconcerting resemblance to the "ethnic cleansing" that became a feature of the more recent Balkan civil wars. Not that any such parallel was intended; the precedents, if such they were, merely testify to the variety and relativity of geopolitical ambitions and ethics.

The so-called "four Ds" in postwar Germany--denazification, democratization, decartelization, and demilitarization--were much talked of but fitfully applied. Denazification, in particular, was soon turned over to German-run institutions; and at that stage the exculpatory certifications of millions of ordinary Germans by clergymen, Jews, and members of the German opposition were especially valued--in a process that took its popular name from a brand of laundry detergent! In this exalted postwar enterprise, there was a touch of the still-familiar American belief that rooted cultural and political habits may be remade by admonition. That seems to have been the hope of the distinguished social scientists who convened in the midst of the war at Columbia. They had an exalted faith in the capacity of the social sciences to devise therapies capable of relieving misbehaving peoples of bad attitudes. Harsh retaliations were threatened during the war, ranging from the cruel (the summary execution of tens of thousands) to the silly: FDR's endearing notion that if you could merely ban marching and uniforms the Germans would wean themselves from something called "Prussian militarism."

Yet according to Olick, neither of the particularly sticky bugaboo cultural memories of that time--neither an attempt to attribute "collective guilt" nor "pastoralization," the evanescent design for radical de-industrialization associated with Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR's secretary of the treasury--was ever seriously contemplated, although the latter provided material for Joseph Goebbels's propaganda and bureaucratic warfare in Washington.

Little or nothing of the sort ever rose, however, to the level of official policy, for many fundamental reasons, but chiefly for one: Nazism's Allied conquerors were far more concerned, during the war and after, with practical geopolitical and economic issues--reparations, the division and administration of occupation zones, feeding masses of displaced people, currency stabilization, and the like. And of course, the occupation soon became embroiled in Cold War tensions so that the issues were viewed thereafter in a different light. Hence, much of what this book deals with--the discussion conducted by German elites about their culpability--was, albeit important, a bit of a sideshow.

Olick portrays a number of the principal figures, from the acidly articulate Kurt Schumacher, first president of the Federal Republic, to the theologian Karl Barth and the eminent psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Jung attempted to fit the Nazi aberration into his theory of the "shadow," the unseen, sometimes antisocial, aspect of every human personality which, for healthy personal balance, should be identified and integrated. But Jung's theory was perhaps a bit recherché to be influential.

This very informative book would be even more interesting if it were stronger on the history of the period. But that history is only marginally the author's concern, the sociology of cultural memory. To fill out the historical deficit, In the House of the Hangman should be supplemented with the remarkable and underrated works of Sebastian Haffner (The Ailing Empire and The Meaning of Hitler), which deal with the same issues but are unlisted in the author's lengthy bibliography. There, a fine historian who speaks with the eye and voice of a native illuminates the issues of German calamity, rebirth, and memory.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington. His novel Lions at Lamb House about Freud and Henry James will be published in September.