At the beginning of Aftermath, Harald Jähner poses the question: How did West Germans, after twelve years of Nazi dictatorship and four years in historical limbo without their own state—“a kind of no-man’s-time,” he calls it—“gradually become ordinary citizens again?” He seeks the answer in the “bitter education” of everyday life in the early postwar years, an underappreciated cultural efflorescence, and an “extraordinary feat of repression.” To fully appreciate Jähner’s novel and idiosyncratic approach, it is useful to begin by reviewing the political, economic, and institutional factors and then the broader cultural and attitudinal approaches that other historians have invoked to explain the Federal Republic’s successful postwar democratization and commitment to living in peace with its neighbors, which stand in such stark contrast to Germany’s behavior in the first half of the twentieth century.

Conservative German historians in particular have emphasized the country’s fateful geopolitical position as a beleaguered and “encircled” Central European power denied equal status as a global power by the imperial democracies in the West because of its belated national unification, and threatened first by the Russian colossus and then by Soviet communism in the east. The resulting fortress mentality was conducive to intensified militarism and authoritarianism and thus to the rejection of the soft materialism and liberalism of Western Europe. The vindictive Versailles Treaty and the alien democracy imposed on Germany at the end of World War I left it vulnerable to seduction by a demagogic dictator. Finally, the totality of German defeat in 1945 and the cold war partition of both Germany and Europe ended its exposed position in the center of the continent and left the Western allies eager to embrace West Germany as a bulwark of European civilization against the threat from the east.

Explanations by liberal German historians have differed primarily in shifting focus from Germany’s geopolitical bad luck, its politically immature masses, and Western malevolence to its failure in the nineteenth century to emulate the West in developing a liberal-democratic tradition commensurate with its economic industrialization and urbanization and with the emergence of modern middle and working classes. This failure left the old elites—especially the aristocrats who filled the top ranks of the officer corps and government—struggling to resist the inevitable pressures for reform through intensified nationalism and imperial expansion—a Sonderweg, or “special path,” that led them first to what the German historian Fritz Fischer dubbed a “grab for world power” in World War I and ultimately to a gamble on an antidemocratic alliance with the Nazis and a second war of aggression. Total defeat not only removed the Nazi dictatorship but took down the old elites who had repeatedly blocked democratization.

Whatever the divergent interpretations concerning the origins of the “German catastrophe,” the post-1945 period found West Germany ready for democracy. Internally, with crucial numbers of Prussians, Protestants, and Social Democrats trapped in the eastern zone occupied by the Soviet Union, the new demography of West Germany permitted a fundamental reconfiguration of political parties. (Imagine how different American politics would be if the states of the Deep South or the West Coast were suddenly separated from the US.) Catholics, no longer a defensive minority, could take the lead under Konrad Adenauer, who served as West Germany’s chancellor from the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949 until 1963, in creating the broad-based, middle-class Christian Democratic Party (CDU). And the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the most popular party between 1890 and 1932 but now consigned to second place, openly abandoned the Marxist rhetoric of class struggle and revolution and gracefully accepted its position as the loyal opposition.

The highly fragmented parliamentary system of the 1920s, in which many parties openly opposed democracy itself, had rendered the Weimar Republic dysfunctional. This was replaced after the war by two major parties and one minor party (the Free Democrats) that all operated within a democratic and pro-Western, anti-Communist consensus. In contrast with the revolving-door governments, widespread national grievance, and economic crises of Weimar, the CDU’s long reign (from 1949 until 1969, when the SPD came to power in coalition with the Free Democrats) and the Western alliance provided the stability, security, and prosperity needed for further democratic maturation.

No institution exemplified this transformation more radically and quickly than the German churches. With deeply embedded nationalist, authoritarian, anti-secular, anti-liberal, anti-Marxist, and anti-Semitic traditions prior to 1933, many Protestants and Catholics had been considerably more supportive of the Third Reich than of the Weimar Republic. After the war the churches were among the foremost critics of Allied trials and of reeducation and denazification programs, exploiting the Allies’ naive assumption that surely they had been untainted by complicity with National Socialism. In the following decades, however, the German churches transformed themselves into champions of pacifism, internationalism, democracy, and human rights.


The churches’ initial stance toward Allied policies for dealing with the defeated country reflected a much broader German conviction in the immediate postwar period of their own victimization, as Robert G. Moeller explained in his classic work War Stories. In this highly selective memory of the war, Germans were the victims of Allied terror bombing, the widespread rape and pillage by the Red Army, the expulsion of millions of “ethnic Germans” from their traditional homelands in Eastern Europe, and the confinement of large numbers of POWs in lethal Soviet captivity until the mid-1950s. Moreover, Germans were also double victims of Hitler—first as subjects of the Nazi dictatorship and second for being unfairly stigmatized after the war with the accusation of “collective guilt” for Nazi crimes. In Adenauer’s convenient formulation, the Nazi crimes had been committed by only a small number of fanatics but unfortunately carried out in the name of the entire German people.1

How did German democracy emerge out of such a pervasive exculpatory and selective memory of the recent past? Jeffrey Herf counterintuitively but persuasively argued that it was precisely Adenauer’s choice to put justice and memory on hold that enabled him to establish democracy. Adenauer was “haunted” by his full awareness of the breadth and depth of popular support for the Third Reich and believed that if justice and memory were served immediately, there could be no building of a democratic consensus. Thus “Adenauer struck a bargain with compromised Germans: in exchange for his reticence about the Nazi past, they would agree to accept the new democracy, or at least not try to destroy it.”2

If Moeller and Herf explain what did not happen on Germany’s path to democracy—namely an early and open confrontation, both in public discourse and in the courtroom, with the nation’s recent criminal past—Konrad H. Jarausch’s After Hitler helps us understand the “learning process” through which Germans changed attitudes, “recivilized,” and democratized.3 Jarausch takes the effects of the Allies’ threefold policy of demilitarization, denazification, and decartelization more seriously than many historians. The Allies imposed institutional demilitarization, while “mental” and “cultural” demilitarization was accomplished primarily by the Germans themselves. They may have felt no sense of responsibility for the Third Reich and its crimes, but crucially they also distanced themselves from the war as futile, senseless, and never again to be glorified, much less repeated. The shock of defeat, occupation, and postwar hardship also led to a rethinking of nationalism. What followed was a sense of German identity based on shared victimization and stigmatization, though not shared guilt. With growing prosperity and stability, Jarausch writes, this identity was eventually edged aside by a sense of economic pride (“Deutschmark nationalism”) and “constitutional patriotism.”

Denazification was perhaps the most contested policy the Allies initiated, and it was soon turned over to the Germans. It was resented for its commonsense assumption that most of the millions of Nazi Party members had actually supported the Nazi cause. It was mocked for the ease with which the vast majority of those being investigated could assemble contrived testimonies to demonstrate that they had been only nominal or coerced Nazis or even covert opponents. In the Western zones, less than 5 percent of the cases heard resulted in a verdict of highly incriminated, incriminated, or less incriminated. More than 95 percent of those investigated were either deemed nominal party members, exonerated, or simply amnestied outright.

Nonetheless, if denazification did not result in justice for individual Nazis, it effectively ended open Nazi influence or advocacy. All those whitewashing their pasts and pretending to have been only nominal Nazis while democrats at heart henceforth had to behave in a manner consistent with their postwar self-portrayal. Like the wave of bandwagon Nazi wannabes who swamped the party with membership applications in the spring of 1933 and soon learned how to act like “real” Nazis, postwar ex-Nazis had every incentive to learn to act like “real” democrats.

Decartelization may have been the least appreciated Allied contribution to German transformation. Before 1933 the German economy was based on private property but not a free market. Three thousand cartels fixed prices, market shares, and production allocations. This system easily adapted to the Nazis’ crash rearmament program and war economy, and the cartels profited in many ways: the destruction of labor unions, the discount purchase of Jewish-owned competitor businesses, highly profitable rearmament contracts, the takeover of foreign businesses in conquered countries, and finally the allocation of millions of forced and slave laborers. The Allies had every reason to dismantle this system, but what was unusual historically was the decision in 1947 to promote German economic recovery and prosperity through Marshall Plan aid and currency reform. This opened the door for a particular German contribution—Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard’s “social market economy” as the basis of the German economic miracle of the 1950s. A “competitive, but at the same time socially responsible, economy” was compatible with both the CDU’s Catholic social doctrine and social democracy’s commitment to a welfare state and thus formed another vital point of consensus foundational to German democracy.


Jähner is in agreement with Jarausch that Germany’s path to democracy was a learning process, but he emphasizes the bitter lessons drawn from a “sum of experiences” in the immediate postwar period. The first was the vast movement and mixing that resulted from five million Germans fleeing the cities to the countryside during the war to avoid bombing, followed by the demobilization of 10 million soldiers and the arrival of 12 million expellees from the east. Jähner rejects the Federal Republic’s myth of an “integration miracle,” noting that resettling expellees often required intervention and coercion to overcome the resistance of locals who considered them primitive and alien. Regional differences in customs and dialect were vastly reduced as Germans experienced “deprovincialisation” through this mixing and eventual assimilation and homogenization of populations from different regions.

But ultimately negotiations around the Equalization of Burdens Act in 1952 (compensating those who had lost their possessions through bombing or displacement) provided Germans with a practical lesson in the compromises of democratic politics. What Jähner does not mention is that while victims of bombing and expulsion (most of whom presumably had supported the Third Reich) were compensated at the taxpayers’ expense, non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime such as Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, “asocials,” and the forcibly sterilized were denied compensation on the grounds that they had not been subjected to specifically Nazi racial persecution or Allied military actions but rather to legitimate German measures for public order, morals, and health.

A second common experience involved coping with economic hardship. During the war the Third Reich had looted other countries to maintain domestic living standards, and Germans did not feel real deprivation until after the war, peaking in the “hunger winter” of 1946–1947. Aggravating the problem of shortages was the collapse of the currency. Increasingly people had to live off black market bartering, which required behavior just the opposite of the Germans’ self-image of rectitude, sobriety, and preferring order over chaos and security over risk. Jähner writes that living off the black market also provided a “vital learning experience” in creativity, improvisation, and daring, but many Germans perceived themselves as “sliding into criminality,” the normality of which “horrified” them in ways that their acquiescence to or participation in Nazi crimes during the war never had. They quickly reverted to law-abiding behavior when the 1948 currency reform ended hoarding and nonmonetary black market exchange. Jähner does not comment on no one seeming to have drawn the lesson that the anti-Semitic stereotype of dishonest and deviant economic behavior that Germans had long identified as a Jewish racial characteristic had turned out to be situationally, not racially, caused.

Other bitter experiences shared by many Germans in the immediate postwar period were strained marital, gender, and generational relations within families. With the prolonged absence of husbands, wives took on decision-making in ways not easily relinquished when men returned, often as “burned-out losers.” Divorce rates doubled over the pre-war rate, peaking in 1948. Young people were attracted to both the “dancing frenzy” of the immediate postwar period and to aspects of American popular culture. They felt alienated from returning fathers trying to reassert their authority, while elders viewed skeptical and independent children as disrespectful. And women fraternized openly with occupation troops—what Jähner characterized as an “erotic counterpart of the Marshall Plan” important to the “spiritual demobilisation” of Germans.

Jähner is less interested in the official Allied programs of demilitarization, denazification, and decartelization than he is in cultural policies that effectively contributed to “remoulding minds.” For instance, a small number of Americans were successful in identifying Germans who had been actual anti-Nazis and assisted them in starting dozens of newspapers under American supervision and licensing.

Even less visible was the American influence in facilitating a German efflorescence in the visual arts and design. Abstraction became the predominant cultural mode of West Germany, pervading not just the art world but also industrial design. This served a double purpose. Abstraction symbolized a rejection of the Nazi past, with its mocking repression of “degenerate art.” It also offered a superior alternative to the stolid, government-sponsored socialist realism of the Communist bloc. Serving denazification and anticommunism simultaneously, the abstract art movement attracted clandestine American funding from the CIA through a cover organization—the Congress for Cultural Freedom—run by disenchanted ex-Communists like Arthur Koestler. Many left-wing artists were simultaneously unwitting recipients of CIA funds and subjects of CIA surveillance. But the chief beneficiaries were the Germans. “Design determines consciousness,” Jähner suggests, and “the victory procession of abstract art in West Germany”—“the art of freedom,” he calls it—could be seen as “an indication of successful denazification.”

In one important respect Jähner is very much in line with recent scholarship. Postwar Germans “wallowed” in their own suffering. They perceived themselves as having been “abused” and “duped” by Hitler and devoured by war. In an “extraordinary feat of repression” the Holocaust had to be literally “unspeakable” and “unsayable” for Germans unable to face up to their own guilt. However “infuriating” this “intolerable insolence” may have been, Jähner still concludes that it was a “necessary prerequisite” for democratization. It opened the way not for the continuation of National Socialism but rather for the successful integration of ex-Nazis and a new start. German democratization had “nothing to do with historical justice.”

Beginning in the 1960s Germany became increasingly noteworthy for its “coming to grips with the past” (for which the Germans invented the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung). However differently Jähner and other historians portray various factors in Germany’s democratization, they are in agreement that the brief postponement of a historical and judicial reckoning with the Nazi past was one important element in this process.