A common joke in Germany after the war ran: ‘The way people talk now, you’d think Hitler had been the only Nazi.’ What about everyone else?
Some top Nazis escaped, or were executed or imprisoned after the war. But the millions who had been involved in Nazi violence did not simply go away.
Following early trials and denazification, the majority of former Nazis were rehabilitated. The new postwar states officially denounced Nazism, but made compromises. West Germany acknowledged responsibility but amnestied former Nazis at the expense of justice. East Germany, the self-proclaimed ‘anti-fascist state’, absolved itself of responsibility, but effected radical social transformation by political oppression. Austria adopted the convenient label of having been ‘Hitler’s first victim’ and barely confronted Nazi legacies.
Individuals also developed new narratives about a compromised past. When interrogated by Allied officers towards the end of the war, German civilians admitted they knew about atrocities. But from May 1945 onwards, most began to deny any knowledge of atrocities.
How did perpetrators and those complicit with Nazism navigate their Nazi past after 1945?
Nazis in disguise
The successful Jewish neuroscientist, Leonard Sheinkman, is found murdered in Stockholm. He has been strung up by his feet and had a wire inserted through his temple. He was a concentration camp survivor, and detectives suspect an antisemitic motive. Yet the police discover that Sheinkman was living under a false identity. He was a former Nazi, Anton Eriksson, whose successful career was built on the medical experiments he carried out on concentration camp inmates. Eriksson’s murder is in revenge for his Nazi crimes.
Although this story is fiction, from Arne Dahl’s thriller Europa Blues (2001), it is true that some Nazis disguised themselves, including as Jews, to evade justice after the war. Alexander Fuert, a suspected war criminal, reportedly practiced as a Jewish doctor in Israel until 1954. Former Nazis often continued their careers after the war, well-integrated in society.
Writers of fiction have used the startling figure of the Nazi disguised as a Jew to challenge the idea that there is a recognizable perpetrator identity. People are not always what they seem, and even the most unlikely citizen may once have been involved in mass murder. Individuals can move in and out of perpetration without feeling they have compromised their identity.
Saul K. Padover, Psychologist in Germany: The Story of an American Intelligence Officer (London: Phoenix House, 1946), p.53.
Only following orders?
Later defensive self-representations can be at odds with the historical sources. Heinz Villain volunteered for the SS aged 17 in 1938 and later joined the notorious Death’s Head Division. He served in concentration camps at Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Warsaw. After the war, Villain fled from Soviet internment camps in Austria and worked in mining and as a blacksmith. At the Düsseldorf Majdanek Trial (West Germany, 1975-1981), he was accused of participation in killing at least 17,002 Jews on 3 November 1943, during the so-called Operation Harvest Festival at Lublin-Majdanek. Villain claimed in his trial that he was ‘acting under duress’ and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment.
But in an interview in 1981, Villain reflected: ‘today one thinks differently about it … then one was young and under orders … or obedience … but only to a degree. I mean, if someone said, jump into the water, I wouldn’t have jumped. But like I said, one was in some respects still under duress.’
Villain stressed that he was in Lublin only briefly and absent for several months due to typhoid fever. However, SS files contain praise for Villain’s participation despite his illness: ‘He conducts this difficult service exuberantly and selflessly. Villain had typhoid fever but constantly participates in special operations.’ This was a euphemism denoting deportations and mass killings, including of Jews.
Source: University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre, Richard Crossman Papers, Mss.154/3/PW/1/109-115, Report by US intelligence officer John P. Dickson, ‘Notes on a Trip to Western Rhineland Area,’ 21-28 March 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:
Source: 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.