Post-War Lies

Malte Herwig (trans. Jamie Lee Searle, Shaun Whiteside)


If memory were a concert, the Last Judgement of the German past might sound a little like this: ‘Tones of terror from childhood overlap with memories of marching songs and hymns, popular melodies, vulgarities, boozing. The ringing photoflashes from Riefenstahl’s Nazi Nuremberg offend us, glaring ignorance slips from the throes of the fanfare, the stupid harmony of the conformers and followers.’

With his Requiem, first performed in 1993, the composer Hans Werner Henze wanted to make a stand against this ‘stupid harmony of conformers’. In his memoirs, he depicted himself as an opponent of the Nazi regime, for which he served as a Wehrmacht soldier at 18 years of age. In 2009, while researching in the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), I discovered that the truth wasn’t quite so simple: the man who became the modernising father figure of classical music after 1945 had joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) as late as 1944. The discovery of his membership card caused a scandal, but Henze played it down. It must be a ‘feint’ on the part of the Nazis, he claimed, a fake. He alleged that he had been enrolled in the party without his knowledge as part of a collective enrolment arranged as a ‘birthday present’ to Hitler from the Gauleitung, the leadership of the regional branch of the NSDAP. Much of the German media accepted his self-excusing claim without criticism, ignoring the index card or rejecting his NSDAP membership as an ‘unproven allegation’. When the famous composer died in 2012, the obituaries restricted themselves to reproducing his official biography. After all, Henze had long been regarded as ‘an artistic authority beyond all criticism’. The idea that he of all people — a man who had always engaged critically with the horrors of the Nazi era — should himself have been a member of Hitler’s party just didn’t fit the picture.

Henze is not the only member of the so-called Flakhelfer generation whose youth in the Third Reich is now appearing in a new light. Ever since the NSDAP membership cards were handed over by the US to the German Federal Archives in 1994, more and more well-known names have surfaced. Politician and artists, academics and journalists, leftist liberals and conservatives. They all have just one thing in common: they grew up in the Third Reich and after the war went on to become prominent intellectuals and leading figures of the young Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). A list of these names conjures up a cultural pantheon of the German post-war era: Martin Walser, Dieter Hildebrandt, Siegfried Lenz, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Horst Ehmke, Erhard Eppler, Hermann Lübbe, Niklas Luhmann, Tankred Dorst, Erich Loest, Peter Boenisch, Wolfgang Iser — in recent years, despite their impeccable post-war careers, a whole generation of father figures have become suspect for having participated in National Socialism before 1945. However, with the exception of Eppler, none of the individuals in question who are still living have ever admitted to signing a membership form. The NSDAP — a club of accidental members?

As more names emerged, the public became confused, while the men under the spotlight clammed up, feeling misunderstood. Their attempts to depict their party membership as having been accidental or unwitting became ever more suspect. In the face of the ‘predominantly unreliable sources and evidence’ available, the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung expressed its hope that, in the case of Hans Werner Henze, the ‘evil spirits’ would soon sink back into obscurity. Furthermore, another newspaper stated, the composer simply didn’t deserve to have his life-long artistic and political engagement degraded to some kind of exercise of penance ‘on account of an unproven allegation’. It is a new curtain-closing debate, one in which a younger generation is expected to brush aside even the slightest of doubts on the biographical integrity of their role models, and to accept a black-and-white past peopled with evil Nazis and the good founders of the Federal Republic who got rid of them. The idea that even fractured biographies have the potential to be instructive and exemplary simply doesn’t fit into the dogma of these laterborn high priests of Vergangenheitsbewältigung — the struggle to come to terms with Germany’s past.

The events that played out among the ranks of the Federal Republic’s intelligentsia carried over into the homes of normal German families: if you believe the stories, Hitler seized power over the Germans in 1933 as quickly and abruptly as he disappeared again in 1945, without any of their own relatives having had anything to do with it. The Third Reich was Hitler and Himmler, Goebbels and GoÅNring. But Granddad wasn’t a Nazi, nor — in light of the events that followed — was there ever any mention of the fact that Grandma had made doe eyes at the Führer along with her friends in the Bund Deutscher MaÅNdel (the NS League of German Girls).

Or have we children and grandchildren of the Flakhelfer — those final eyewitnesses of the Third Reich who, now in their late eighties, grew up in the Nazi dictatorship, were sent to war at 17 and, after the downfall in 1945, helped build the Federal Republic and shape it to the present day — simply not been listening attentively enough? Is it perhaps also down to us if, over 60 years after the war ended, we are still astounded to find out how extensive the entanglements of the Third Reich’s totalitarian system of rule really were?

The great public uproar in Germany over studies into the institutional involvement of the AuswaÅNrtiges Amt (the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in the Holocaust, or the Allied interview recordings of German prisoners of war shows just how deep the rift has become between the life experiences of the Flakhelfer and the sanctioned historical understanding of today’s society. This rift is also the only possible explanation for why the NSDAP memberships of prominent citizens of the Federal Republic, such as writer Martin Walser or politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher, were willingly suppressed not just by the individuals in question but others, too, and why such revelations continue to cause controversy.

Since the Goldhagen debate in the 1990s about the wholesale involvement of  ordinary Germans’ in the mass slaughter of the Holocaust, rarely has a historical topic been discussed as heatedly in the German public sphere as the question of whether someone could become a member of the NSDAP without their own cooperation and knowledge. It jars with that clear-cut relationship between good and evil that shapes our ‘enlightened’ conception of the history of the Third Reich: white roses and black medals, Stauffenberg and Hitler, resisters and accomplices.

Even today, over six decades after the NSDAP was banned, there are still all kinds of creeping myths about it in Germany that are rooted in the immediate post-war era. In reality, only around 15 per cent of Germans were members of the NSDAP. In this context, it sounds ludicrous to still claim that only force, and never opportunism, played the decisive role in a person’s decision to join the party. Indeed, why would a party that from time to time even imposed enrolment freezes be interested in signing people up without their knowledge? The truth of the matter is that the NSDAP was far more popular than people are willing to admit today. On the one hand, after 1945 no German wanted to claim any involvement with the party; on the other, the myth is still perpetuated that the enrolment of entire half-year groups was carried out in secret.

Post-War Lies Malte Herwig (tr. Jamie Lee Searle, tr. Shaun Whiteside)