Review: After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995, by Konrad Jarausch

After Hitler: Recivilizing Germans, 1945-1995 isn’t exactly a beach read. Christ, I’m studying this stuff and it got to be too much at times. (I did, however, give fair warning that my next couple of posts would revel in what seems to be the common theme of my life these days: all Germany, all the time. Next up is The Coming of the Third Reich, after which I think I can give myself permission to pick up, like, The Carrie Diaries.) Anyway, all that said, while Jarausch’s book is undoubtedly an academic text, it’s a wonderful, comprehensive analysis of how Germany righted itself after the Second World War, came to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust and developed a robust and thriving civil society that, Jarausch and most German historians agree, renders a “Fourth Reich” all but impossible.

Germany’s Basic Law is rooted in an unprecedented and unsurpassed constitutionalization of human rights; the Germans have (unlike, say, the Japanese) recognized the brutal reality of their World War II-era crimes and reconciled the Jewish genocide with their contemporary conceptions of national identity and “what it means to be German”; and they have fully internalized Western Enlightenment values and modernity into the national psyche. Europe as we know it today couldn’t have happened without them (by “them” here I of course mean West Germany); and, indeed, the future of the EU depends largely if not entirely upon them as well. The question Jarausch attempts to answer is how this all happened, and the questions he inevitably raises are whether or not it will last, and for how long? 

The book begins at Buchenwald, with the Allied liberation and the dissemination of reports and photographs so uneclipsed in their horror many Germans initially refused to believe them.  The Holocaust has become so ingrained in global consciousness that it’s almost hard to imagine a worldview uninformed by the atrocities that literally defined crimes against humanity; the sheer scale and methodical nature of Nazi crimes were all the more shocking because they were utterly unprecedented. And they were unequivocally German crimes—sure, other countries had blood on their hands (talking to you, France), and war is never pretty, but the Holocaust was envisioned and executed by the German police state, and with little resistance (for whatever reasons). The Adolf Eichmann defense, employed during his trial in Jerusalem, was founded in the SS Lieutenant-Colonel’s very banality, as Hannah Arendt would put it—in the idea of Eichmann as a functionary, a cog in a vast killing machine, all of which boils down to a collective accusation not just of all Germans (any of whom were equally as capable of becoming Eichmann, so the argument goes) but all of humanity. A few years ago, a Harvard political scientist named Daniel Goldhagen wrote a book called Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which promoted the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Jewish Holocaust (a thesis that, incidentally, doesn’t seem overly polemical upon close examination of the historical record); Goldhagen was condemned for his “indictment of a people,” and reviews pointed out that, in fact, France would have seemed the far more likely candidate to carry out an extermination of the Jewish people based on pre-war records of anti-Semitism (Alfred Dreyfus, et. al.). In other words, indulging in historical determinism—and really assigning any blame to culprits or factors other than the members of the Nazi high command judged at Nuremberg—invites charges of extremism. Why?

I happen not to agree completely with Goldhagen’s thesis, but I also don’t think it’s out of bounds. Furthermore, and while my interpretations are by no means ironclad (obviously), I do feel that when fellow students of international affairs examine Germany today, they all tacitly treat the Holocaust like it’s no longer relevant, and this isn’t even to mention casual observers who, when they think of the lingering effects of the genocide on Germany at all, whine things like “How much longer are we going to punish the Germans? I mean, that was ages ago!” Upon Germany’s insistence that Greece implement austerity measures to receive bailout funds, the mayor of Athens fired back with an invoice charting the 80 billion cost of the Third Reich’s occupation of Greece during the Second World War. And he did have a point. The influence of historical memory has diminished across the board: In the face of unmatched German economic power and the debt crises of previously solvent “success stories” like Ireland, the idea of atonement via the “European project” seems increasingly outdated and irrelevant. What does this mean for the country’s future?

Jarausch’s book gives West Germany its due for creating stable and enduring democratic institutions, but there’s also no denying the influence of external powers on German postwar identity. What really comes through, and for someone of my generation this cannot be emphasized enough, was how completely the Cold War defined not just Europe but arguably all of international affairs in the postwar era. Europe had been decimated and global power was bipolar; European heavyweights Britain, France and West Germany were swept under the American nuclear umbrella while the Eastern nations were at the mercy of the Soviets. There was no third way, especially not for Germany, for whom the entire concept of “national identity” ceased to exist—not just because the country was divided but because the horrors of the Holocaust rendered virtually any kind of nationalism taboo. It’s hard to say, then, whether the West Germans “chose” democracy after World War II, or if it was chosen for them. Not that it exactly matters how it came about—it did. Despite widespread fears upon the country’s reunification, the Fourth Reich never materialized. But because the EU wouldn’t be here without Germany, the country’s defeat, bifurcation and collective reckoning over how exactly things went so wrong so fast is critical to understanding whether Germany will still be willing to play by the same postwar rules in a new era—an era in which Germany is a united, thriving European power more than three generations removed from the Holocaust, the second biggest exporter in the world, and nursing increasingly independent relationships with China, Russia and other non-European, non-democratic regimes.  This, in a nutshell, is why German history is still as relevant as ever, and why Jarausch’s book should be read even by those among us who aren’t attempting to base some sort of career upon it :-).

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