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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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.