Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2014

Post-war Lies, Germany and Hitler’s Long Shadow, by Malte Herwig, translated by Jamie Lee Searle and Shaun Whiteside

Post-war LiesPost-war Lies, by Malte Herwig, is a challenging book to read and review, because it would be so easy to fall into the trap of sitting in moral judgement about Germany’s Nazi past.   You might also ask, what’s it got to do with us, in Australia in the 21st century, if Germany is still exploring its mea culpa issues?

Well, I would argue that a thoughtful reader makes for a thoughtful citizen, and Germany’s quest for truth is relevant to many societies.  While the Holocaust is unique in human history, the acquiescence of ordinary citizens in morally culpable crimes against humanity might be more common than we like to admit.  Herwig in his concluding chapter quotes the German author Martin Walser saying that if concepts of ‘state’, ‘people’, ‘nation’ or ‘race’ have any meaning at all, then each individual has a responsibility to enquire into his complicity in political crimes.  (Or as I would put it, you can’t belong and then wilfully ignore what is being done in your name).  Walser was talking about complicity in the crimes of the Third Reich, but he could IMO just as easily be talking about political crimes against asylum seekers or future generations who will suffer the effects of climate change.  He could just as easily be talking about the complicity of non-indigenous Australians in the distortion of its Black history.

Post-war Lies explores the vexed question of the culpability of the generation born in Germany between 1919 and 1927, and specifically whether they were members of the Nazi Party or not.  According to Wikipedia there were 8.5 million members of the Nazi Party, (10% of the population) while Herzig says 10.1 million, but whatever the exact numbers were, in the post-war de-Nazification period (1946-1948)  it was intended that these people should be the subject of intense scrutiny.  The Allies were determined to rid Germany of Nazi ideology entirely, to punish supporters whose complicity was criminal, and to ensure that Nazi Party members were removed from positions of influence.  (See Wikipedia).   The numbers, of course, made the goal unachievable.  Inevitably, people slipped through the net.  And by the 1950s, it was realised that it wasn’t possible to create a functioning, economically independent and democratic state without the contribution of these people, and the Constitution was amended so that ‘minor offenders’ who’d been sacked could be re-employed. Herzig’s figures show that some West German government departments were completely dominated by ex-Nazi Party members.

But those were the older generation.  A generation defined by the date that they joined the Nazi party.  If they were one of the 1.5 million that joined the Party before Hitler came to power in 1933, they were defined as ‘hard-core Nazis’ (See Wikipedia), (differentiating them from those that Herzig calls opportunists, conformists or the ambitious).  They were expected to atone for what had been done (if such atonement is ever possible).  But Herzig’s interest is in the Flakhelfer generation, the Hitler Youth generation that in some contexts can be described as child soldiers, and in particular those who became the high-profile leaders in positions of influence who helped to rebuild post-war Germany into a genuine democracy. For these people exposure of any Nazi past is a stain on Germany’s contrition and a personal affront.  Despite what looks like compelling evidence, the claim that they progressed from the Hitler Youth (which was compulsory for Aryans from 1936, and unavoidable) to becoming members of the Nazi Party, is, apparently, almost universally denied.

Herzig quotes Nietzche’s to explain how repressed memory works:

Long before Sigmund Freud, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described how repression works: ‘I did that, says my memory.  I cannot have done that, says my pride, and remains adamant.  In the end, memory yields.’

It is an important metaphor, and one that could serve as the motto of a whole generation of Germans. (p. 79)

Under the American Occupation in what was (before reunification) the Federal Republic of Germany i.e. West Germany, records from the Nazi regime were stored in the Berlin Documents Centre (BDC), and among them was an index of Nazi Party membership.  Herzig traces the story of the suppression of this index by both Germany and the US, and the ongoing denials of what it contains.   Astonishingly, despite eventual American efforts to extricate itself from this remaining vestige of the Occupation, this archive – with the most politically sensitive records hidden away in the safe of the American Director, Mr Simon – remained under US control until 1994 where all attempts to access it by researchers and journalists were resisted.  The archive wasn’t resistant, however, to East German spies who used what they knew of it to publish the Brown Book in 1965, which named and shamed 1,800 West Germans in political, economic, administrative, military, legal and academic fields,  (p.104), the GDR operatives bragging to their superiors in East Germany that it included ‘SS murderers from A to Z’ and ‘Members of the Gestapo, the SD, [the Nazi Security Service] and the SS in the West Berlin police force’.  (p.105).  According to Herzig, East Germany also used their files to blackmail West Germans into performing surveillance activities for them.  They succeeded in this because the threat of exposure was so shameful.

(Herzig also says that German staff at the BDC also pilfered Nazi memorabilia such as Hitler signatures and Nazi insignias and sold them on the black market.  Eventually the US appointed a new Director, sped up the process of microfilming all the documents, and introduced computers, temperature/humidity controls and better security in the building before handing it over to Berlin (which was by then unified though Bonn remained the capital until 1999).

In addition to discussing the role of high-profile politicians instrumental in suppressing the historical record, Herzig devotes two chapters to the preeminent German authors and intellectuals, Günter Grass and Martin Walser.  Both of these deny membership of the Nazi Party, using what Herzig calls the ‘fairy tale’ claim (p. 155) that they were never members because they were automatically joined up by some unknown flunky as a ‘birthday present’ for Hitler on his 55th birthday, and since they didn’t sign the application forms the membership was invalid.   This argument was accepted in a 2012 court case in which Walser’s reputation was questioned – but Herzig remains sceptical:

The court delivered its verdict on 5 October 2012, and partially admitted Walser’s claim.  As the assertion that Walser had been a member of the NSDAP [National Socialist German Worker’s Party, i.e. the Nazi Party] was likely to diminish the author’s social standing, the chamber judged that it was up to the accused* to prove Walser’s membership.  But the court did not recognise Walser’s card in the central NSDAP card file as proof of his membership, and accepted his statement that he had never made a membership application.  Without a signed membership application, there was no NSDAP membership – that was the essence of the judgement.  However, in the Federal Archives only 600,000 membership applications have been preserved, compared to 10.7 million membership cards.  Following the logic of the Hamburg judge, one might de-Nazify 10.1 million NSDAP members with a stroke of the pen on account of the fact that their applications no longer exist. (p.234)

* In Australia, defamation cases are torts i.e. civil matters: the person suing is called the ‘plaintiff’ and the ‘accused’ in this excerpt would be called the ‘defendant’.  The term ‘accused’ is only used in criminal trials.  It may be a translator’s error or it may be that European courts operate differently.

Courts, in Germany as in Australia I presume, operate to a different standard of proof to history, a standard that is different again in the court of public opinion.  Herzig argues that the secrecy surrounding the index, and the US government’s complicity in the suppression of politically sensitive records is indicative of their stance about the issue.  To refute the court’s dismissal of the index as proof of membershp, he also quotes Nazi directives and research from the Federal Archives which contradict it:

…under Point 3 [in Directive 1/44 by the Reich Treasurer on 7 January 1944 regulating the intake of memberships] it says “The membership application should be carefully filled in by the boys and girls to be accepted into the party, signed in their own hand and passed to the responsible Hitler Youth leader.”

and, from a statement in the Federal Archives:

‘In the holdings of the Federal Archives there are reference documents as well as many individual case studies which reveal that the NSDAP party bureaucracy operated highly meticulously, that the membership recruitment process was highly regulated and that, fundamentally, no one could be accepted into the NSDAP without their own participation.’ (p.233)

Again, one might wonder why it matters if very old men interrogate their own pasts or not.  Well, Herzig’s view is, first of all, based on a commitment to the historical truth, but also a belief that it is wrong to deny the transformation that has taken place.  Men like Grass and Walser are representative and from their writings…

… in a hundred years it will still be possible to read [their] work as a record of the processes of consciousness of an entire generation that grew up in a dictatorship but created a democracy.

Walser’s generation may have been too young in the Third Reich to become perpetrators.  But they are the burnt children of bad parents – parents who brought up their children not in the spirit of civic enlightenment and tolerance…  … These children were deceived by an idealism infected by National Socialism.(p.227)

Herzig asks that under these circumstances isn’t it probable that these young people:

… were given an application form to fill in, and obeyed the demand that they join the party? That they signed and promised something that had nothing to do with them?  That assumption might come closer to the actual reality of the situation for intelligent and ambitious young people in the Third Reich than retrospective attempts to explain away the existence of the membership cards. (p.230)

For him it is a liberating issue, one that gives the story of this generation a happy ending, because it proves that things can go the other way, and that the good can grow from the bad. (p.245)

In 1946, the American newspaper correspondent Judy Barden wrote of de-Nazification in Bavaria: ‘It will take 72 years, until 2018, to complete the task.’ While de-Nazification was officially declared finished in 1948, the Nazi pasts of many of the Flakhelfer generation still surprise and preoccupy us even today.  But it would be wrong to try to retroactively de-Nazify exemplary democrats such as Martin Walser, Walter Jens, or Hans-Dietrich Genscher by simply denying the existence of the NSDAP membership cards.

On the contrary: the life’s work that these Flakhelfer created after 1945 as artists, academics, or politicians deserves to be acknowledged all the more for having been produced under the most unfavourable conditions imaginable.  Seduced and betrayed, they were released by the Third Reich into an uncertain future – one which they mastered.  So they didn’t just contribute to the democratic success story of the Federal Republic.  Their fate effectively embodies the transformation from bad to good. (p. 243-4)

Two omissions would have made this book easier to read: an index, and a glossary to complement the list of acronyms.  The term Vergangenheitsbewältigung might be familiar to some, but it certainly wasn’t to me, and if it was explained early in the book I had forgotten what it meant when I encountered it again. (It means ‘the struggle to deal with the past’, thank you Wikipedia).

Author: Malte Herwig
Title: Post-war Lies, Germany and Hitler’s Long Shadow
Translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle and Shaun Whiteside
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2014

Fishpond: Post-War Lies: Germany and Hitler’s Long Shadow

Or direct from Scribe (Australia)
or from links at Scribe (UK)


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the review.


    • Thanks, Jonathan. You should be able to get hold of it in the UK if you want to, (or nag your library into getting it) because Scribe expanded their publishing into the UK last year. Not often Aussie publishers do that!


  2. Wow. This sounds like my kind of book — love things that explore moral culpability etc. It’s available in UK as Kindle edition, so have added it to my wish list for a time I feel like reading something heavy.


  3. This sounds like an interesting book, but also challenging to read. I have been very interested in the WWII and Nazi ,and good to know that there’s one to read in Xmas.


  4. It’s always good to have some titles at the ready when someone asks what you would like for Christmas!


  5. It seems to me all too easy to damn a whole group ( as in “bad parents…who brought their children up not in the spirit of civic enlightenment and tolerance”) and it’s particularly common when talking about Nazism. I’ve always thought that exactly the same thing could have happened in any of the so-called “enlightened” countries. Not many people have the perceptiveness, the concern or the moral courage to see through something like Nazism and reject it. And could you honestly say that the majority of people in any country bring their children up in “the spirit of civic enllghtenment and tolerance.” I don’t see too many signs of it.


  6. […] in the massive task of identifying former Nazis (something I already knew about from my reading of Post War Lies by Malte Herwig.)  There is an interesting episode in which a German character thought to be […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: