Knowledge about atrocities

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Daniel Lerner, Chief editor of the Allied Psychological Warfare Division, reported after travelling through occupied Germany in the first two weeks of April 1945

Daniel Lerner, Chief editor of the Allied Psychological Warfare Division, reported after travelling through occupied Germany in the first two weeks of April 1945:

We have come a long way from the early days when not a single Nazi could be found in Germany. There are many Germans who now admit that they were members of the Nazi Party, sometimes quite brazenly. … The current line is that one “had to be” a Nazi … to improve his economic position or to keep his job, or to stay on friendly relations with a man who might be in a position to do him good. Some “had to be” Nazis because they were told to join by a local Party official. It apparently never occurred to most of them that one might refuse to join and take the consequences.

This self-exculpation is largely responsible for the total absence of a genuine sense of defeat, and its implications, among the Germans. It is anticipated by most that the Allies will help to feed and rebuild Germany, that no Germans other than a few high Party officials will be (or should be) made to suffer. … And even among those Germans who accept “the guilt of the German nation”, only rarely does one include himself on the list of those guilty.

All this elaborate structure of psychological evasion is built upon a deep sense of guilt. Nearly every German has some knowledge of the atrocities committed within Germany and in foreign lands. A surprisingly large number admit to knowledge of the “Gaswagen” and how it was used – although the name LUBLIN does not always strike a spark. …

Protestations of their innocence by Germans frequently are neutralized by the verbal slips and errors they make in the course of interrogation … the Nazi terms which remain part of the German vocabulary are an important clue to the profound influence of the Nazi decade. …

Few of these Germans are the “perfect Nazi”; but they are what HITLER’s early analysis assumed them to be – farmers, shopkeepers, unemployed workers, hungry capitalists, nationalists, racists and adventurers, who would for the sake of one or another point in the program remain acquiescent in the whole. Large numbers of Germans now claim, for example, that they never favored the persecution of Jews, or atrocities against Poles and Russians, or the outbreak of war. They neglect to mention (because they “never thought of it that way”) that for the sake of a job or a pension or a subsidy or a “Greater Germany”, they remained silent against atrocities and persecutions or cheered wildly during the Blitzkrieg rumble of German tanks into Poland.

  1. How did Germans justify their membership in the Nazi Party?
  2. How can we evaluate their professed rejection of persecution and atrocities in light of the absence of widespread protest and people’s support for select policies?
  3. After the end of the war, most Germans denied that they had known about atrocities. How can we evaluate such claims in light of this report?

University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre, Richard Crossman Papers, MSS.154/3/PW/1/67-71, Daniel Lerner, ‘Notes on a trip through occupied Germany,’ 18 April 1945.