‘Belgians and French and Dutch had been brought up in the war to believe
that their patriotic duty was to cheat, to lie, to run a black market, to
discredit and to defraud: these habits became ingrained after five years’.
Paul-Henri Spaak (Foreign Minister of Belgium)
‘Vengeance is pointless, but certain men did not have a place in the world
we sought to construct’.
Simone de Beauvoir
‘Let a hard and just sentence be given and carried out,
as the honour of the nation demands and its greatest traitor deserves’.
Resolution of Czechoslovak resistance organizations,
demanding severe punishment for Father Józef Tiso, November 1946
In order for the governments of liberated Europe to be legitimate, to claim for themselves the authority of properly-constituted states, they had first to deal with the legacy of the discredited wartime regimes. The Nazis and their friends had been defeated, but in view of the scale of their crimes this was obviously not enough. If post-war governments’ legitimacy rested merely on their military victory over Fascism, how were they better than the wartime Fascist regimes themselves? It was important to define the latter’s activities as crimes and punish them accordingly. There was good legal and political reasoning behind this. But the desire for retribution also addressed a deeper need. For most Europeans World War Two was experienced not as a war of movement and battle but as a daily degradation, in the course of which men and women were betrayed and humiliated, forced into daily acts of petty crime and self-abasement, in which everyone lost something and many lost everything.
Moreover, and in marked contrast to the still living memory of the Great War in many places, there was in 1945 little of which to be proud and much about which to feel embarrassed and more than a little guilty. As we have seen, most Europeans experienced the war passively—defeated and occupied by one set of foreigners and then liberated by another. The only source of collective national pride were the armed partisan resistance movements that had fought the invader—which is why it was in western Europe, where real resistance had actually been least in evidence, that the myth of Resistance mattered most. In Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland or Ukraine, where large numbers of real partisans had engaged the occupation forces and each other in open battle, things were, as usual, more complicated.
In liberated Poland, for example, the Soviet authorities did not welcome public praise for armed partisans whose sentiments were at least as much anti-Communist as anti-Nazi. In post-war Yugoslavia, as we have seen, some resisters were more equal than others—at least in the eyes of Marshall Tito and his victorious Communist fighters. In Greece, as in Ukraine, the local authorities in 1945 were rounding up, imprisoning or shooting every armed partisan they could find.
‘Resistance’, in short, was a protean and unclear category, in some places an invented one. But ‘collaboration’ was another matter. Collaborators could be universally identified and execrated. They were men and women who worked or slept with the occupier, who threw in their lot with Nazis or Fascists, who opportunistically pursued political or economic advantage under cover of war. Sometimes they were a religious or national or linguistic minority and thus already despised or feared for other reasons; and although ‘collaboration’ was not a pre-existing crime with legal definitions and stated penalties, collaborators could plausibly be charged with treason, a real crime carrying satisfactorily severe punishment.
The punishment of collaborators (real and imagined) began before the fighting ended. Indeed it had been going on throughout the war, on an individual basis or under instructions from underground resistance organizations. But in the interval between the retreat of the German armies and the establishment of effective control by Allied governments, popular frustrations and personal vendettas, often coloured by political opportunism and economic advantage, led to a brief but bloody cycle of score-settling. In France some 10,000 people were killed in ‘extrajudicial’ proceedings, many of them by independent bands of armed resistance groups, notably the Milices Patriotiques, who rounded up suspected collaborators, seized their property and in many cases shot them out of hand.
About a third of those summarily executed in this way were dispatched before the Normandy landings of June 6th 1944, and most of the others fell victim during the next four months of fighting on French soil. If anything, the numbers are rather low considering the level of mutual hatred and suspicion abroad in France after four years of occupation and Marshall Pétain’s regime at Vichy; no-one was surprised at the reprisals—in the words of one elderly former French prime minister, Edouard Herriot, ‘France will need first to pass through a blood bath before republicans can again take up the reins of power’.
The same sentiment was felt in Italy, where reprisals and unofficial retribution, especially in the Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy regions, resulted in death tolls approaching 15,000 in the course of the last months of the war—and continued, sporadically, for at least three more years. Elsewhere in western Europe the degree of bloodshed was much lower—in Belgium about 265 men and women were lynched or executed in this way, in the Netherlands less than 100. Other forms of revenge were widespread, however. Accusations against women, for what French-speaking cynics were already calling ‘collaboration horizontale’, were very common: ‘moffenmeiden’ in the Netherlands were tarred and feathered, and all over France there were scenes of women stripped and shaved in public squares, often on the day of local liberation from the occupiers or very shortly thereafter.
The frequency with which women were charged—often by other women—with consorting with Germans is revealing. There was some truth to many of the accusations: offering sexual services in exchange for food or clothing or personal help of one kind or another was one avenue, often the only one, open to women and families in desperate straits. But the popularity of the charge and the vindictive pleasure taken in the punishment is a reminder that for men and women alike the occupation was experienced above all as a humiliation. Jean-Paul Sartre would later describe collaboration in distinctly sexual terms, as ‘submission’ to the power of the occupier, and in more than one French novel of the 1940s collaborators are depicted as either women or weak (‘effeminate’) men, seduced by the masculine charms of their Teutonic rulers. Wreaking revenge on fallen women was one way to overcome the discomforting memory of personal and collective powerlessness.
Anarchic acts of retributive violence in liberated eastern Europe were also widespread but took different forms. In the West the Germans had actively sought collaborators; in occupied Slav lands they ruled directly and by force. The only collaboration they encouraged on a sustained basis was that of local separatists, and even then only so long as it served German ends. As a result, once the Germans retreated the first victims of spontaneous retribution in the East were ethnic minorities. The Soviet forces and their local allies did nothing to discourage this. On the contrary, spontaneous score-settling (some of it not altogether unprompted) contributed towards a further removal of local elites and politicians who might prove an impediment to post-war Communist ambitions. In Bulgaria, for example, the newly-constituted Fatherland Front encouraged unofficial retribution against wartime collaborators of all colours, invoking the charge of ‘Fascist sympathiser’ on a wholesale basis and inviting denunciations of anyone suspected of pro-Western sentiments.
In Poland, the main target of popular vengeance was frequently Jews—150 Jews were killed in liberated Poland in the first four months of 1945. By April 1946 the figure was nearly 1,200. Attacks on a smaller scale took place in Slovakia (at Velké Topolčany in September 1945) and in Kunmadaras (Hungary) in May 1946, but the worst pogrom occurred in Kielce (Poland), on July 4th 1946, where 42 Jews were murdered and many more injured following a rumour of the abduction and ritual murder of a local child. In a sense these, too, were reprisals against collaborators, for in the eyes of many Poles (including former anti-Nazi partisans) Jews were suspected of sympathy for the Soviet occupiers.
The exact number of people killed in Soviet-occupied eastern Europe, or in Yugoslavia, during the first months of ‘unauthorised’ purging and killing is not known. But nowhere did the unregulated settling of accounts last very long. It was not in the interest of fragile new governments, far from universally accepted and often distinctly makeshift, to allow armed bands to roam the countryside arresting, torturing and killing at will. The first task of the new authorities was to assert a monopoly of force, legitimacy and the institutions of justice. If anyone was to be arrested and charged with crimes committed during the occupation, this was the responsibility of the appropriate authorities. If there were to be trials, they should take place under the rule of law. If there was to be bloodletting, then this was the exclusive affair of the state. This transition took place as soon as the new powers felt strong enough to disarm the erstwhile partisans, impose the authority of their own police and damp down popular demands for harsh penalties and collective punishment.
The disarming of the resisters proved surprisingly uncontentious in western and central Europe at least. A blind eye was turned to murders and other crimes already committed in the frenzied liberation months: the provisional government of Belgium issued an amnesty for all offences committed by and in the name of the Resistance for a period of 41 days following the official date of the country’s liberation. But it was tacitly understood by all that newly re-constituted institutions of government must take upon themselves the task of punishing the guilty.
Here the problems began. What was a ‘collaborator’? With whom had they collaborated and to what end? Beyond straightforward cases of murder or theft, of what were ‘collaborators’ guilty? Someone had to pay for the suffering of the nation, but how was that suffering to be defined and who could be assigned responsibility for it? The shape of these conundrums varied from country to country but the general dilemma was a common one: there was no precedent for the European experience of the preceding six years.
In the first place, any law addressing the actions of collaborators with the Germans would necessarily be retroactive—before 1939 the crime of ‘collaboration with the occupier’ was unknown. There had been previous wars in which occupying armies sought and obtained cooperation and assistance from the people whose land they had overrun, but except in very particular instances—like that of the Flemish nationalists in German-occupied Belgium during 1914-18—this was regarded not as an invitation to crime but simply as part of the collateral damage of war.
As noted, the only sense in which the crime of collaboration could be said to fall under existing law was when it amounted to treason. To take a representative instance, many collaborators in France—whatever the details of their behaviour—were brought to trial and convicted under Article 75 of the 1939 Penal Code, for ‘intelligence with the enemy’. But men and women brought before French courts had often worked not for the Nazis but rather with the regime of Vichy, led and administered by Frenchmen and ostensibly the legitimate heir to the pre-war French state. Here, as in Slovakia, Croatia, the Protectorate of Bohemia, Mussolini’s Social Republic at Salò, Marshal Ion Antonescu’s Romania and in wartime Hungary, collaborators could and did claim in their defence that they had only ever worked for or with the authorities of their own state.
In the case of senior police or government officials who were palpably guilty of serving Nazi interests via the puppet regimes that employed them, this defence was at best disingenuous. But lesser figures, not to speak of the many thousands charged with accepting employment in these regimes or in agencies or businesses that worked with them, could point to a genuine confusion. Was it right, for example, to charge someone with membership after May 1940 of a political party that had been legally represented in a pre-war parliament but had gone on to collaborate with the Germans during the occupation?
The French, Belgian and Norwegian governments-in-exile had tried to anticipate these dilemmas by issuing wartime decrees warning of harsh post-war retribution. But these were intended to deter people from cooperating with the Nazis; they did not address the broader questions of jurisprudence and fairness. Above all, they could not resolve in anticipation the problem of weighing individual against collective responsibility. The balance of political advantage in 1944-45 lay in assigning blanket responsibility for war crimes and crimes of collaboration to predetermined categories of people: members of certain political parties, military organizations and government agencies. But such a procedure would still pass over many individuals whose punishment was widely demanded; it would include people whose chief offence was inertia or cowardice; and above all it would entail a form of collective indictment, something anathema to most European jurists.
Instead, it was individuals who were brought to trial, with results that varied greatly with time and place. Many men and women were unfairly singled out and punished. Many more escaped retribution altogether. There were multiple procedural irregularities and ironies, and the motives of governments, prosecutors and juries were far from unsullied—by self-interest, political calculation or emotion. This was an imperfect outcome. But as we assess the criminal proceedings and associated public catharsis that marked the transition in Europe from war to peace, we need to keep constantly in mind the drama of what had just taken place. In the circumstances of 1945 it is remarkable that the rule of law was re-established at all—never before, after all, had an entire continent sought to define a new set of crimes on such a scale and bring the criminals to something resembling justice.
The numbers of people punished, and the scale of their punishments, varied enormously from country to country. In Norway, a country with a population of just 3 million, the entire membership of the Nasjonal Sammlung, the main organisation of pro-Nazi collaborators, was tried, all 55,000 of them, along with nearly 40,000 others; 17,000 men and women received prison terms and thirty death sentences were handed down, of which twenty-five were carried out.
Nowhere else were the proportions so high. In the Netherlands 200,000 people were investigated, of whom nearly half were imprisoned, some of them for the crime of giving the Nazi salute; 17,500 civil servants lost their jobs (but hardly anyone in business, education or the professions); 154 people were condemned to death, forty of them executed. In neighbouring Belgium many more death sentences were passed (2,940), but a smaller percentage (just 242) carried out. Roughly the same numbers of collaborators were sent to prison but whereas the Dutch soon amnestied most of those convicted, the Belgian state kept them in prison longer and former collaborators convicted of serious crimes never recovered their full civil rights. Contrary to longstanding post-war myth the Flemish population was not disproportionately targeted for punishment, but by effectively repressing the (mostly Flemish) supporters of the wartime New Order the pre-war Belgian elites—Catholic, Socialist, Liberal—re-established their control of Flanders and Wallonia alike.
The contrast between Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands (and Denmark), where the legitimate governments had fled into exile, and France, where for many people the Vichy regime was the legitimate government, is suggestive. In Denmark the crime of collaboration was virtually unknown. Yet 374 out of every 100,000 Danes were sentenced to prison in post-war trials. In France, where wartime collaboration was widespread, it was for just that reason punished rather lightly. Since the state itself was the chief collaborator, it seemed harsh and more than a little divisive to charge lowly citizens with the same crime—the more so since three out of four of the judges at the trials of collaborators in France had themselves been employed by the collaborationist state. In the event, 94 people in every 100,000—less than 0.1 percent of the population—went to prison for wartime offences. Of the 38,000 imprisoned, most were released under the partial amnesty of 1947 and all but 1,500 of the remainder under an amnesty in 1951.
In the course of the years 1944-51, official courts in France sentenced 6,763 people to death (3,910 in absentia) for treason and related offences. Of these sentences only 791 were carried out. The main punishment to which French collaborators were sentenced was that of ‘national degradation’, introduced on August 26th 1944, immediately after the Liberation of Paris and sardonically described by Janet Flanner: ‘National degradation will consist of being deprived of nearly everything the French consider nice—such as the right to wear war decorations; the right to be a lawyer, notary, public-school teacher, judge or even a witness; the right to run a publishing, radio or motion-picture company; and above all the right to be a director in an insurance company or a bank.’
49,723 Frenchmen and women received this punishment. Eleven thousand civil servants (1.3 percent of state employees, but a far smaller number than the 35,000 who had lost their jobs under Vichy) were removed or otherwise sanctioned, but most of them were re-instated within six years. All in all the épuration (purge), as it was known, touched some 350,000 persons, most of whose lives and careers were not dramatically affected. No-one was punished for what we should now describe as crimes against humanity. Responsibility for these, like other war crimes, was imputed to the Germans alone.
The Italian experience was distinctive, for a number of reasons. Although a former Axis power, Italy was authorized by the Allied governments to carry out its own trials and purges—it had, after all, switched sides in September 1943. But there was considerable ambiguity as to what and who should be prosecuted. Whereas elsewhere in Europe most collaborators were by definition tarred with ‘Fascism’, in Italy the term embraced too broad and ambiguous a constituency. Having been governed by its own Fascists from 1922-43, the country was initially liberated from Mussolini’s rule by one of his own marshals, Pietro Badoglio, whose first anti-Fascist government itself consisted largely of former Fascists.
The only obviously prosecutable Fascist crime was collaboration with the enemy after (the German invasion of) September 8th 1943. As a result, most of those charged were in the occupied north and were connected to the puppet government installed at Salò on Lake Garda. The much-mocked ‘Were you a Fascist?’ questionnaire (the ‘Scheda Personale’) circulated in 1944 focused precisely on the difference between Salò and non-Salò Fascists. Sanctions against the former rested on Decree #159, passed in July 1944 by the interim legislative Assembly, which described ‘acts of special gravity which, while not in the bounds of crime, [were] considered contrary to the norms of sobriety and political decency’.
This obscure piece of legislation was designed to get around the difficulty of prosecuting men and women for acts committed while in the employ of recognised national authorities. But the High Court established in September 1944 to try the more important prisoners was staffed by judges and lawyers who were themselves mostly ex-Fascists, as were the personnel of the Extraordinary Assize Courts set up to punish minor employees of the collaborationist regime. In these circumstances the proceedings were hardly calculated to garner much respect among the population at large.
Unsurprisingly, the outcome satisfied no-one. By February 1946, 394,000 government employees had been investigated, of whom just 1,580 were dismissed. Most of those questioned claimed gattopardismo (‘leopardism’ or ‘spot-changing’), arguing that they had played a subtle double game in the face of Fascist pressure—after all, membership of the Fascist Party had been obligatory for civil servants. Since many of those doing the questioning could just as easily have found themselves on the other side of the table, they were decidedly sympathetic to this line of defense. Following the highly-publicized trials of a few senior Fascists and generals the promised purge of government and administration petered out.
The High Commission assigned the task of administering the purge was shut down in March 1946 and three months later the first amnesties were announced, including the cancellation of all prison sentences under five years. Virtually every prefect, mayor and mid-level bureaucrat purged in the years 1944-45 would get his job back or avoid payment of the fines imposed, and most of the nearly 50,000 Italians imprisoned for Fascist activities spent little time in jail.13 At most 50 people were judicially executed for their crimes, but that does not include 55 Fascists massacred by partisans in Schio Prison on July 17th 1945.
During the Cold War, Italy’s suspiciously painless transition from Axis power to democratic ally was often blamed upon foreign (American) pressure as well as the political influence of the Vatican. In reality matters were more complex. To be sure, the Catholic Church got off very lightly indeed, in view of Pius XII’s warm relations with Fascism and the pro-actively blind eye he turned to Nazi crimes in Italy and elsewhere. Church pressure was brought to bear. And the Anglo-American military authorities certainly werereluctant to remove compromised administrators while they were trying to re-establish normal life throughout the peninsula. And on the whole the purge of Fascists was more efficiently carried out in regions where the left-wing Resistance and its political representatives held sway.
But it was Palmiro Togliatti, the 51-year old leader of the Italian Communist Party who, as Minister of Justice in the post-war coalition government, drafted the June 1946 Amnesty. After two decades in exile and many years as a high-ranking official in the Communist International, Togliatti had few illusions about what was and what was not possible in the aftermath of the European war. Upon his return from Moscow, in March 1944, he announced in Salerno his Party’s commitment to national unity and parliamentary democracy—to the confusion and surprise of many of his followers.
In a country where many millions of people, by no means all of them on the political Right, were compromised by their association with Fascism, Togliatti saw little advantage in pushing the nation to the brink of civil war—or, rather, in prolonging a civil war already under way. Far better to work for the re-establishment of order and normal life, leave the Fascist era behind, and seek power through the ballot box. Moreover Togliatti, from his privileged standpoint as a senior figure in the international Communist movement whose strategic perspective reached beyond the shores of Italy, had the Greek situation in mind as a caution and a warning.
In Greece, despite a significant level of wartime collaboration among the bureaucratic and business elites, post-war purges were directed not at the Right but the Left. This was a unique case but a revealing one. The civil war of 1944-45 had convinced the British that only the firm re-establishment of a conservative regime in Athens would stabilize this small but strategically vital country. To purge or otherwise threaten businessmen or politicians who had worked with Italians or Germans could have radical implications in a country where the revolutionary Left seemed poised to seize power.
In short order, then, the threat to stability in the Aegean and south Balkans switched from the retreating German army to the well-dug-in Greek Communists and their partisan allies in the mountains. Very few people were severely punished for wartime collaboration with the Axis powers, but the death penalty was liberally assigned in the war against the Left. Because no consistent distinction was drawn in Athens between left-wing partisans who had fought against Hitler and Communist guerillas trying to bring down the post-war Greek state (and indeed, more often than not, they were the same men), it was wartime resisters rather than their collaborationist enemies who were likely to find themselves tried and imprisoned in the coming years—and excluded from civil life for decades afterwards: even their children and grandchildren would pay the price, often being refused employment in the bloated state sector until well into the 1970s.
The purges and trials in Greece were thus blatantly political. But so, in a sense, were the more conventional proceedings in western Europe. Any judicial process brought about as the direct consequence of a war or a political struggle is political. The mood at the trials of Pierre Laval or Philippe Pétain in France, or the police chief Pietro Caruso in Italy, was hardly that of a conventional judicial proceeding. Score-settling, blood-letting, revenge and political calculation played a crucial role in these and many other post-war trials and purges. This consideration needs to be borne in mind as we turn to official post-war retribution in central and eastern Europe.
There is no doubt that from the point of view of Stalin and the Soviet occupation authorities throughout the territories under Red Army control, the trials and other punishments of collaborators, Fascists and Germans were always and above all a way of clearing the local political and social landscape of impediments to Communist rule. The same applied to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Many men and women were accused of Fascist felonies when their major crime was membership of the wrong national or social group, association with an inconvenient religious community or political party, or simply an awkward visibility or popularity in the local community. Purges, land expropriation, expulsions, prison sentences and executions aimed at extirpating incriminated political opponents were important staging points in a process of social and political transformation, as we shall see. But they also targeted and punished genuine Fascists and war criminals
Thus in the course of his attack on the Catholic church in Croatia Tito also prosecuted the notorious Cardinal Alois Stepinac of Zagreb, apologist for some of the worst crimes of the Croat Ustase regime, who might well have considered himself fortunate to spend the next fourteen years under house arrest before dying in his bed in 1960. Draza Mihajlović, the Chetnik leader, was tried and executed in July 1946. In his wake many tens of thousands of other non-Communists were killed in the two years following Yugoslavia’s liberation. They were all victims of a politically-motivated policy of revenge; but considering their wartime actions in the Chetniks, the Ustasa, the Slovenian White Guard or as armed Domobranci many of them would have received heavy sentences under any system of law.14 The Yugoslavs executed and deported many ethnic Hungarians for their role in Hungarian military massacres in the Vojvodina during January 1942, and their land was made over to non-Hungarian supporters of the new regime. This was a calculated political move, but in many cases the victims were surely guilty as charged.
Yugoslavia was a particularly tangled case. Further north, in Hungary, post-war Peoples’ Courts really did begin by trying actual war criminals, notably activists in the pro-German regimes of Döme Sztójay and Ferenc Szálasi during 1944. The ratio of fascists and collaborators condemned in Hungary did not exceed the numbers found guilty in post-war Belgium or the Netherlands—and there is no doubt that they committed serious crimes, including anticipating and enthusiastically executing German plans to round up and transport to their death hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Only later did the Hungarian authorities add categories like ‘sabotage’ and ‘conspiracy’, whose overt purpose was to net a broader range of opponents and others likely to resist a Communist takeover.
In Czechoslovakia the Extraordinary Peoples’ Courts, established by Presidential Decree on May 19th 1945, handed out 713 death sentences, 741 life sentences and 19,888 shorter prison terms to ‘traitors, collaborators and fascist elements from the ranks of the Czech and Slovak nation’. The language is redolent of Soviet legalspeak and certainly anticipates Czechoslovakia’s grim future. But there really had been traitors, collaborators and Fascists in occupied Czechoslovakia; one of them, Father Tiso, was hanged on April 18th 1947. Whether Tiso and others received a fair trial—whether they could have received a fair trial in the atmosphere of the time—is a legitimate question. But the treatment they got was no worse than that accorded to, say, Pierre Laval. Post-war Czech justice was much preoccupied with the troubling and vague category of ‘crimes against the nation’, a device for visiting collective punishment on Sudeten Germans especially. But the same was true of French justice in those years, with perhaps less cause.
It is hard to judge the success of the post-war trials and anti-Fascist purges in formerly-occupied Europe. The pattern of sentencing was much criticized at the time—those who were tried while the war was still going on, or immediately following a country’s liberation, were apt to receive tougher punishments than those prosecuted later. As a result, minor offenders dealt with in the spring of 1945 received far longer prison terms than major collaborators whose cases did not come to court for another year or more. In Bohemia and Moravia a very high percentage (95 percent) of death sentences was carried out because of a rule requiring that prisoners be executed within two hours of the passing of judgment; elsewhere, anyone who avoided immediate execution could anticipate a commutation of his sentence.
Death sentences were frequent at the time and provoked scant opposition: the wartime devaluation of life made them seem less extreme—and better warranted—than under normal circumstances. What caused greater offence, and may ultimately have undercut the value of the whole proceedings in some places, was the manifest inconsistency of the punishments, not to mention that many of them were being passed by judges and juries whose own wartime record was spotty or worse. Writers and journalists, having left a written record of their wartime allegiance, came off worst. Highly publicized trials of prominent intellectuals—like that of Robert Brasillach in Paris in January 1945—provoked protests from bona fide resisters like Albert Camus, who thought it both unjust and imprudent to condemn and execute men for their opinions, however ghastly these might be.
In contrast, businessmen and high officials who had profited from the occupation suffered little, at least in western Europe. In Italy the Allies insisted that men like Vittorio Valletta of FIAT be left in place, despite his notorious engagement with the Fascist authorities. Other Italian business executives survived by demonstrating their erstwhile opposition to Mussolini’s Social Republic at Salò—and indeed they had often opposed it, precisely for being too ‘social’. In France, prosecutions for economic collaboration were pre-empted by selective nationalization—of the Renault factories, for example, in retribution for Louis Renault’s considerable contribution to the German war effort. And everywhere small businessmen, bankers and officials who had helped administer occupation regimes, build the ‘Atlantic Wall’ against an invasion of France, supply German forces and so forth were left in place to perform similar services for the successor democracies and provide continuity and stability.
Such compromises were probably inevitable. The very scale of destruction and moral collapse in 1945 meant that whatever was left in place was likely to be needed as a building block for the future. The provisional governments of the liberation months were almost helpless. The unconditional (and grateful) cooperation of the economic, financial and industrial elites seemed vital if food, clothing and fuel were to be supplied to a helpless and starving population. Economic purges could be counter-productive, even crippling.
But a price for this was paid in political cynicism and a sharp falling away from the illusions and hopes of the liberation. As early as December 27th 1944, the Neapolitan writer Guglielmo Giannini wrote as follows in L’Uomo Qualunque, the newspaper of a new Italian party of the same name that appealed precisely to this sentiment of derisive disenchantment: ‘I am the guy who, meeting an ex-gerarca, asks ‘how did you get to be a purger?’ . . . I am the guy who looks around and says, ‘These are Fascists methods and systems’ . . . I am the guy who no longer believes in anything or anyone.’
Italy, as we have seen, was a hard case. But sentiments like those of Giannini were widespread in Europe by late 1945 and prepared the way for a rapid shift in mood. Having assigned blame for the recent past, and punished those whose cases were the most egregious or psychologically satisfying, the majority of people in the lands recently occupied by the Germans were more interested in putting uncomfortable or unpleasant memories behind them and getting on with their fractured lives. In any case, very few men and women at the time were disposed to blame their countrymen for the worst crimes. For these, it was universally agreed, the Germans must take full responsibility.
Indeed, so widespread was the view that ultimate blame for the horrors of World War Two must fall on German shoulders alone that even Austria was held exempt. Under an Allied agreement of 1943, Austria had been officially declared Hitler’s ‘first victim’ and was thus assured different treatment from Germany at the war’s end. This appealed to Winston Churchill’s insistence on the Prussian origins of Nazism, a view driven by his generation’s obsession with the emergence of the Prussian threat to European stability in the course of the last third of the nineteenth century. But it also suited the other Allies—Austria’s pivotal geographical position and the uncertainty over central Europe’s political future made it seem prudent to detach her fate from that of Germany.
Nevertheless, Austria could hardly be treated as just another Nazi-occupied country whose local Fascists and Nazi-collaborators would need to be punished, after which normal life could be resumed. In a country of under 7 million inhabitants there had been 700,000 NSDAP members: at the war’s end there were still 536,000 registered Nazis in Austria; 1.2 million Austrians had served in German units during the war. Austrians had been disproportionately represented in the SS and in concentration camp administrations. Austrian public life and high culture were saturated with Nazi sympathizers—45 out of 117 members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were Nazis (whereas the Berlin Philharmonic had just 8 Nazi Party members out of 110 musicians).
In the circumstances, Austria got off lightly, astonishingly so. 130,000 Austrians were investigated for war crimes, of whom 23,000 were tried, 13,600 condemned, 43 sentenced to death and just 30 executed. Some 70,000 civil servants were dismissed. The four occupying Allied powers agreed in the autumn of 1946 to let Austria thenceforth handle its own criminals and ‘denazification’. The education system, particularly infested, was duly denazified: 2,943 primary school teachers were dismissed and 477 secondary school teachers, but just 27 university professors—despite the notoriously pro-Nazi sympathies of many senior academics.
In 1947 the Austrian authorities passed a law distinguishing between ‘more’ and ‘less’ incriminated Nazis. 500,000 of the latter were amnestied the following year and their voting rights restored. The former—about 42,000 in all—would all be amnestied by 1956. After that Austrians simply forgot about their involvement with Hitler altogether. One reason for the ease with which Austria emerged from its dalliance with Nazism is that it suited all local interests to adjust the recent past to their advantage: the conservative People’s Party, heir to the pre-war Christian Social Party, had every reason to burnish its own and Austria’s ‘un-German’ credentials so as to divert attention from the corporatist regime they had imposed by force in 1934. The Austrian Social Democrats, indisputably anti-Nazi, had nonetheless to overcome the record of their pre-1933 calls for Anschlusswith Germany. Another reason is that all parties were interested in massaging and flattering the votes of ex-Nazis, a significant electoral constituency that would shape the country’s political future. And then, as we shall see, there were the new configurations shaped by the onset of the Cold War.
Calculations like these were far from absent in Germany. But there the local population was not offered a say in its own fate. In the same Moscow Declaration of October 30th 1943 that relieved Austria of responsibility for its Nazi allegiance, the Allies warned the Germans that they would be held responsible for their war crimes. And so they were. In a series of trials between 1945 and 1947 the Allied occupying powers in Germany prosecuted Nazis and their collaborators for crimes of war, crimes against humanity, murder and other common felonies committed in pursuit of Nazi goals.
Of these procedures the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried the major Nazi leadership between October 1945 and October 1946 is the best known, but there were many others: US, British and French military courts tried lower-level Nazis in their respective zones of occupied Germany and together with the Soviet Union they delivered Nazis to other countries—notably Poland and France—for trial in the places where their crimes had been committed. The programme of War Crimes Trials continued throughout the Allied occupation of Germany: in the Western zones more than 5,000 people were convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity, of whom just under 800 were condemned to death and 486 eventually executed—the last of these in Landsberg prison in June 1951 over vociferous German appeals for clemency.
There could hardly be a question of punishing Germans merely for being Nazis, despite the Nuremberg finding that the Nazi Party was a criminal organization. The numbers were too great and the arguments against collective guilt too compelling. In any case, it was not clear what could follow from finding many millions of people guilty in this way. The responsibilities of the Nazi leaders were clear, however, and there was never any doubt about their likely fate. In the words of Telford Taylor, one of the US prosecutors at Nuremberg and Chief Prosecutor at subsequent trials: ‘Too many people believed they had been wrongfully hurt by the leaders of the Third Reich and wanted a judgment to that effect.’
From the outset the German War Crimes trials were as much about pedagogy as justice. The main Nuremberg Trial was broadcast twice daily on German radio, and the evidence it amassed would be deployed in schools, cinemas and re-education centers throughout the country. However, the exemplary benefits of trials were not always self-evident. In an early series of trials of concentration camp commanders and guards, many escaped punishment altogether. Their lawyers exploited the Anglo-American system of adversarial justice to their advantage, cross-examining and humiliating witnesses and camp survivors. At the Lüneberg trial of the staff of Bergen-Belsen (September 17th-November 17th 1945), it was British defence lawyers who argued with some success that their clients had only been obeying (Nazi) laws: 15 of the 45 defendants were acquitted.
It is thus hard to know how far the trials of Nazis contributed to the political and moral re-education of Germany and the Germans. They were certainly resented by many as ‘victors’ justice’, and that is just what they were. But they were also real trials of real criminals for demonstrably criminal behaviour and they set a vital precedent for international jurisprudence in decades to come. The trials and investigations of the years 1945-48 (when the UN War Crimes Commission was disbanded) put an extraordinary amount of documentation and testimony on record (notably concerning the German project to exterminate Europe’s Jews), at the very moment when Germans and others were most disposed to forget as fast as they could. They made clear that crimes committed by individuals for ideological or state purposes were nonetheless the responsibility of individuals and punishable under law. Following orders was not a defense.
There were, however, two unavoidable shortcomings to the Allied punishment of German war criminals. The presence of Soviet prosecutors and Soviet judges was interpreted by many commentators from Germany and Eastern Europe as evidence of hypocrisy. The behaviour of the Red Army, and Soviet practice in the lands it had ‘liberated’, were no secret—indeed, they were perhaps better known and publicized then than in later years. And the purges and massacres of the 1930s were still fresh in many people’s memory. To have the Soviets sitting in judgment on the Nazis—sometimes for crimes they had themselves committed—devalued the Nuremberg and other trials and made them seem exclusively an exercise in anti-German vengeance. In the words of George Kennan: ‘The only implication this procedure could convey was, after all, that such crimes were justifiable and forgivable when committed by the leaders of one government, under one set of circumstances, but unjustifiable and unforgivable, and to be punished by death, when committed by another government under another set of circumstances.’
The Soviet presence at Nuremberg was the price paid for the wartime alliance and for the Red Army’s pre-eminent role in Hitler’s defeat. But the second shortcoming of the trials was inherent in the very nature of judicial process. Precisely because the personal guilt of the Nazi leadership, beginning with Hitler himself, was so fully and carefully established, many Germans felt licensed to believe that the rest of the nation was innocent, that Germans in the collective were as much passive victims of Nazism as anyone else. The crimes of the Nazis might have been ‘committed in the name of Germany’ (to quote the former German Chancellor Helmut
Germany and Austria: Allied Occupation Sectors
Kohl, speaking half a century later), but there was little genuine appreciation that they had been perpetrated by Germans.
The Americans in particular were well aware of this and immediately initiated a programme of re-education and denazification in their zone, whose objective was to abolish the Nazi Party, tear up its roots and plant the seeds of democracy and liberty in German public life. The US Army in Germany was accompanied by a host of psychologists and other specialists, whose assigned task was to discover just why the Germans had strayed so far. The British undertook similar projects, though with greater skepticism and fewer resources. The French showed very little interest in the matter. The Soviets, on the other hand, were initially in full agreement and aggressive denazification measures were one of the few issues on which the Allied Occupation authorities could agree, at least for a while.
The real problem with any consistent programme aimed at rooting out Nazism from German life was that it was simply not practicable in the circumstances of 1945. In the words of General Lucius Clay, the American Military Commander, ‘our major administrative problem was to find reasonably competent Germans who had not been affiliated or associated in some way with the Nazi regime . . . All too often, it seems that the only men with the qualifications . . . are the career civil servants . . . a great proportion of whom were more than nominal participants (by our definition) in the activities of the Nazi Party.’
Clay did not exaggerate. On May 8th 1945, when the war in Europe ended, there were 8 million Nazis in Germany. In Bonn, 102 out of 112 doctors were or had been Party members. In the shattered city of Cologne, of the 21 specialists in the city waterworks office—whose skills were vital for the reconstruction of water and sewage systems and in the prevention of disease—18 had been Nazis. Civil administration, public health, urban reconstruction and private enterprise in post-war Germany would inevitably be undertaken by men like this, albeit under Allied supervision. There could be no question of simply expunging them from German affairs.
Nevertheless, efforts were made. Sixteen million Fragebogen (questionnaires) were completed in the three western zones of occupied Germany, most of them in the area under American control. There, the US authorities listed 3.5 million Germans (about one quarter of the total population of the zone) as ‘chargeable cases’, though many of them were never brought before the local denazification tribunals, set up in March 1946 under German responsibility but with Allied oversight. German civilians were taken on obligatory visits to concentration camps and made to watch films documenting Nazi atrocities. Nazi teachers were removed, libraries restocked, newsprint and paper supplies taken under direct Allied control and re-assigned to new owners and editors with genuine anti-Nazi credentials.
There was considerable opposition even to these measures. On May 5th 1946, the future West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer spoke out against the denazification measures in a public speech in Wuppertal, demanding that the ‘Nazi fellow travellers’ be left in peace. Two months later, in a speech to his newly-formed Christian Democratic Union, he made the same point: Denazification was lasting much too long and doing no good. Adenauer’s concern was genuine. In his view, confronting Germans with the crimes of the Nazis—whether in trials, tribunals or re-education projects—was more likely to provoke a nationalist backlash than induce contrition. Just because Nazism did have such deep roots in his country, the future Chancellor thought it more prudent to allow and even encourage silence on the subject.
He was not altogether mistaken. Germans in the 1940s had little sense of the way the rest of the world saw them. They had no grasp of what they and their leaders had done and were more preoccupied with their own post-war difficulties—food shortages, housing shortages and the like—than the sufferings of their victims across occupied Europe. Indeed they were more likely to see themselves in the role of victim and thus regarded trials and other confrontations with Nazi crimes as the victorious Allies’ revenge on a defunct regime.15 With certain honorable exceptions, Germany’s post-war political and religious authorities offered scant contradiction to this view, and the country’s natural leaders—in the liberal professions, the judiciary, the civil service—were the most compromised of all.
Thus the questionnaires were treated with derision. If anything they served mostly to whitewash otherwise suspect individuals, helping them get certificates of good character (the so-called ‘Persil’ certificates, from the laundry soap of the same name). Re-education had a decidedly limited impact. It was one thing to oblige Germans to attend documentary films, quite another to make them watch, much less think about what they were seeing. Many years later the writer Stephan Hermlin described the scene in a Frankfurt cinema, where Germans were required to watch documentary films on Dachau and Buchenwald before receiving their ration cards: ‘In the half-light of the projector, I could see that most people turned their faces away after the beginning of the film and stayed that way until the film was over. Today I think that that turned-away face was indeed the attitude of many millions . . . The unfortunate people to which I belonged was both sentimental and callous. It was not interested in being shaken by events, in any “know thyself.” ’16
By the time the western Allies abandoned their denazification efforts with the coming of the Cold War, it was clear that these had had a decidedly limited impact. In Bavaria about half the secondary schoolteachers had been fired by 1946, only to be back in their jobs two years later. In 1949 the newly-established Federal Republic ended all investigations of the past behaviour of civil servants and army officers. In Bavaria in 1951, 94 percent of judges and prosecutors, 77 percent of finance ministry employees and 60 percent of civil servants in the regional Agriculture Ministry were ex-Nazis. By 1952 one in three of Foreign Ministry officials in Bonn was a former member of the Nazi Party. Of the newly-constituted West German Diplomatic Corps, 43 percent were former SS men and another 17 percent had served in the SD or Gestapo. Hans Globke, Chancellor Adenauer’s chief aide throughout the 1950s, was the man who had been responsible for the official commentary on Hitler’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. The chief of police in the Rhineland-Palatinate, Wilhelm Hauser, was the Obersturmführer responsible for wartime massacres in Byelorussia.
The same pattern held true outside the civil service. Universities and the legal profession were the least affected by denazification, despite their notorious sympathy for Hitler’s regime. Businessmen also got off lightly. Friedrich Flick, convicted as a war criminal in 1947, was released three years later by the Bonn authorities and restored to his former eminence as the leading shareholder in Daimler-Benz. Senior figures in the incriminated industrial combines of I.G. Farben and Krupp were all released early and re-entered public life little the worse for wear. By 1952 Fordwerke, the German branch of Ford Motor Company, had reassembled all its senior management from the Nazi years. Even the Nazi judges and concentration camp doctors convicted under American jurisdiction saw their sentences reduced or commuted (by the American administrator, John J McCloy).
Opinion poll data from the immediate post-war years confirm the limited impact of Allied efforts. In October 1946, when the Nuremberg Trial ended, only 6 percent of Germans were willing to admit that they thought it had been ‘unfair’, but four years later one in three took this view. That they felt this way should come as no surprise, since throughout the years 1945-49 a consistent majority of Germans believed that ‘Nazism was a good idea, badly applied’. In November 1946, 37 per cent of Germans questioned in a survey of the American zone took the view that ‘the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans’.
In the same poll of November 1946, one German in three agreed with the proposition that ‘Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race’. This is not especially surprising, given that respondents had just emerged from twelve years under an authoritarian government committed to this view. What does surprise is a poll taken six years later in which a slightly higher percentage of West Germans—37 percent—affirmed that it was better for Germany to have no Jews on its territory. But then in that same year (1952) 25 percent of West Germans admitted to having a ‘good opinion’ of Hitler.
In the Soviet-occupied zone the Nazi legacy was treated a little differently. Although Soviet judges and lawyers took part in the Nuremberg trials, the main emphasis in denazification in the East was on the collective punishment of Nazis and the extirpation of Nazism from all areas of life. The local Communist leadership was under no illusions about what had taken place. As Walter Ulbricht, the future leader of the German Democratic Republic, put it in a speech to German Communist Party representatives in Berlin just six weeks after the defeat of his country, ‘The tragedy of the German people consists in the fact that they obeyed a band of criminals . . . The German working class and the productive parts of the population failed before history.’
This was more than Adenauer or most West German politicians were willing to concede, at least in public. But Ulbricht, like the Soviet authorities to whom he answered, was less interested in extracting retribution for Nazi crimes than in securing Communist power in Germany and eliminating capitalism. As a consequence, although denazification in the Soviet zone actually went further in some instances than it did in the West, it was based upon two misrepresentations of Nazism: one integral to Communist theory, the other calculatedly opportunistic.
It was a Marxist commonplace and Soviet official doctrine that Nazism was merely Fascism and that Fascism, in turn, was a product of capitalist self-interest in a moment of crisis. Accordingly, the Soviet authorities paid little attention to the distinctively racist side of Nazism, and its genocidal outcome, and instead focused their arrests and expropriations on businessmen, tainted officials, teachers and others responsible for advancing the interests of the social class purportedly standing behind Hitler. In this way the Soviet dismantling of the heritage of Nazism in Germany was not fundamentally different from the social transformation that Stalin was bringing about in other parts of central and eastern Europe.
The opportunistic dimension of Soviet policy towards ex-Nazis was a function of weakness. The Communists in occupied Germany were not a strong movement—and their arrival in the baggage train of the Red Army was hardly calculated to endear them to voters. Their only political prospect, beyond brute force and electoral fraud, lay in appealing to calculated self-interest. To the east and south Communists did this by encouraging the expulsion of ethnic Germans and offering themselves as guarantor and protector for the new Polish/Slovak/Serb occupants of the Germans’ vacated farms, businesses and apartments. This was obviously not an option in Germany itself. In Austria the local Communist Party made the mistake, in elections held in late 1945, of rejecting the potentially crucial support of minor Nazis and former Party members. In doing so it doomed the prospects for Communism in post-war Austria. The lesson was not lost on Berlin. The German Communist Party (KPD) decided instead to offer its services and its protection to millions of former Nazis.
The two perspectives—doctrine and calculation—were not necessarily in conflict. Ulbricht and his colleagues certainly believed that the way to expunge Nazism from Germany was by effecting a socio-economic transformation: they were not particularly interested in individual responsibility or moral re-education. But they also understood that Nazism was not just a trick perpetrated on an innocent German proletariat. The German working class, like the German bourgeoisie, had failed in its responsibilities. But for precisely that reason it would be more, not less likely to adapt itself to Communist goals, given the right combination of stick and carrot. And in any event the authorities in eastern Germany, like those in the West, had little choice—with whom else should they run the country if not ex-Nazis?
Thus on the one hand Soviet occupation forces fired from their jobs huge numbers of ex-Nazis—520,000 by April 1948—and appointed ‘anti-Fascists’ to administrative posts in their zone of occupation. On the other hand, German Communist leaders actively encouraged former Nazis whose records were not too publicly compromised to join them. Not surprisingly, they were very successful. Ex-Nazis were only too happy to expunge their past by throwing in their lot with the victors. As party members, local administrators, informers and policemen they proved uniquely well-adapted to the needs of the Communist state.
The new system, after all, was remarkably like the one they had known before: the Communists simply took over Nazi institutions like Labor Fronts or residential block-wardens and gave them new names and new bosses. But the adaptability of ex-Nazis was also a product of their vulnerability to blackmail. The Soviet authorities were quite prepared to conspire with their former enemies in lying about the nature and extent of Nazism in eastern Germany—asserting that Germany’s capitalist and Nazi heritage was confined to the western zones and that the future German Democratic Republic was a land of workers, peasants and anti-Fascist heroes—but they also knew better and had the Nazi files to prove it, should the need arise. Black-marketeers, war profiteers and ex-Nazis of all sorts thus made excellent Communists, for they had every incentive to please.
By the early 1950s, more than half the rectors of East German institutes of higher education were former Nazi Party members, as were over 10 percent of the parliament a decade later. The newly-formed Stasi (state security agency) took over not just the role and the practices of the Nazi Gestapo but many thousands of its employees and informers. Political victims of the incoming Communist regime, often charged in a blanket manner as ‘Nazi criminals’, were arrested by ex-Nazi policemen, tried by ex-Nazi judges and guarded by ex-Nazi camp guards in Nazi-era prisons and concentration camps taken over en bloc by the new authorities.
The ease with which individuals and institutions switched from Nazism or Fascism over to Communism was not unique to East Germany, except perhaps in scale. The wartime resistance in Italy harboured quite a few ex-Fascists of various kinds, and the post-war moderation of the Italian Communist Party probably owed something to the fact that many of its potential supporters were compromised with Fascism. In post-war Hungary the Communists openly courted former members of the Fascist Arrow Cross, even going so far as to offer them support against Jews seeking the return of their property. In wartime London the Slovak Communists Vlado Clementis and Eugen Löbl were stalked by Soviet agents recruited from pre-war Czech Fascist parties, whose testimony would be used against them in their show trial a decade later.
Communists were not alone in turning a blind eye to people’s Nazi or Fascist pasts in return for post-war political services. In Austria, former Fascists were often favoured by Western authorities and allowed to work in journalism and other sensitive occupations: their association with the corporatist, authoritarian regime of pre-war Austria was neutralized by the Nazi invasion and by their altogether credible and increasingly serviceable antipathy for the Left. The Allied Military Government in the frontier zone of north-east Italy protected former Fascists and collaborators, many of them wanted by the Yugoslavs, while Western intelligence services everywhere recruited experienced and well-informed ex-Nazis—including the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, the Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie—for future use: not least against the ex-Nazis in Soviet service, whom they were well-placed to identify.
In his first official address to the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany, on September 20th 1949, Konrad Adenauer had this to say about denazification and the Nazi legacy: ‘The government of the Federal Republic, in the belief that many have subjectively atoned for a guilt that was not heavy, is determined where it appears acceptable to do so to put the past behind us.’ There is no doubt that many Germans heartily endorsed this assertion. If denazification aborted, it was because for political purposes Germans had spontaneously ‘denazified’ themselves on May 8th 1945.
And the German people were not alone. In Italy the daily newspaper of the new Christian Democrat Party put out a similar call to oblivion on the day of Hitler’s death: ‘We have the strength to forget!’, it proclaimed. ‘Forget as soon as possible!’ In the East the Communists’ strongest suit was their promise to make a revolutionary new beginning in countries where everyone had something to forget—things done to them or things they had done themselves. All over Europe there was a strong disposition to put the past away and start afresh, to follow Isocrates’ recommendation to the Athenians at the close of the Peloponnesian Wars: ‘Let us govern collectively as though nothing bad had taken place.’
This distrust of short-term memory, the search for serviceable myths of anti-Fascism—for a Germany of anti-Nazis, a France of Resisters or a Poland of victims—was the most important invisible legacy of World War Two in Europe. In its positive form it facilitated national recovery by allowing men like Marshall Tito, Charles De Gaulle or Konrad Adenauer to offer their fellow countrymen a plausible and even prideful account of themselves. Even East Germany claimed a noble point of origin, an invented tradition: the fabled and largely fabricated Communist ‘uprising’ in Buchenwald in April 1945. Such accounts allowed countries that had suffered war passively, like the Netherlands, to set aside the record of their compromises, and those whose activism had proven misguided, like Croatia, to bury it in a blurred story of competing heroisms.
Without such collective amnesia, Europe’s astonishing post-war recovery would not have been possible. To be sure, much was put out of mind that would subsequently return in discomforting ways. But only much later would it become clear just how much post-war Europe rested on foundation myths that would fracture and shift with the passage of years. In the circumstances of 1945, in a continent covered with rubble, there was much to be gained by behaving as though the past was indeed dead and buried and a new age about to begin. The price paid was a certain amount of selective, collective forgetting, notably in Germany. But then, in Germany above all, there was much to forget.