The German way of dealing with its Nazi past has been described as learning from the Germans. German Holocaust remembrance prefers to use the term Aufarbeitung or working through history. This working through history German-style is closely associated with Wiedergutmachung – literally: “making everything good again,” but correctly translated as “becoming good again.” Challenging the myth of having become good again is the idea that German denazification was never really done.
Instead, what was created after Hitler, was a myth that allowed most Nazis to re-enter the German administrative and corporate system without prejudice.
It left, for example, the wealth gained from the looting of Jewish properties and business largely untouched. These are today’s Nazi Billionaires. Much of this is linked to the eminent historical figure Niklas Frank – the son of SS-Reichsleiter Hans Frank – who oversaw Auschwitz. SS-boss Hans Frank was executed on 16 October 1946. Unlike Hans Frank, most Nazis fared much better in post-war Germany. Over the past half-century, Germany has even gained a global reputation for dealing honestly with the crimes of the Nazi era. On the surface, there was indeed a working through its Nazi history.
There was also an admission of individual and systemic guilt for the genocide against the Jewish people as well as against other individuals – political enemies – and non-Aryan groups like Roma and Sinti. One of the most visible signs of having “become good again” are the 100,000 Stolpersteine – stumbling stones – put into sidewalks throughout Europe – the vast majority in Germany. This is in addition to the construction of massive Shoah memorials in many cities. There are over 300 memorials across Germany. Meanwhile, the Shoah and the horrors of Nazism are taught about in depth in schools.
Yet there are also numerous problems with German-style denazification.
This effort was by no means simply a failed denazification. Instead, it was a well-crafted strategy to commemorate the Holocaust on the one hand – largely as a façade – while on the other hand those who enabled and financed Nazism, Hitler, and the Holocaust remained, on the whole, untouched. In other words, the way Germany dealt with its Nazi history should not necessarily be a model for other countries. Germany is not a model for how victimized groups should be treated. In particular, there is an almost endless list of known Nazi-era businesses that still thrive today. For example, just to name a few: Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes Benz, EDEKA, Melitta, Bahlsen, Dr. Oetker, Vorwerk, Tempo, Henkel, Degussa, Allianz, Porsche, Heckler & Koch, Deutsche Bank, Bosch, C. H. Beck Press, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Bundesbahn, and many, many more.
The “becoming good again” culture camouflages the previous looting of Jewish companies
– the infamous Aryanization – and the use of slave labour in the factories of the Nazi-era companies as well as the resulting profits. Worse, post-World War II denazification did not bring justice to the victims of Nazism.
Instead of justice, denazification remains linked to the Persilschein. A Persilschein is a state-issued denazification certificate that allowed Nazi criminals to be legally whitewashed and thus indemnified. Interestingly, it was German chemical industry mogul Hugo Henkel – also known as Mr. Persil – who gave the name to the infamous Persilschein. On 1 May 1933, he joined the NSDAP (membership number 2,266,961), and in January 1947, he and his two sons, Jost and Konrad, were denazified and were then able to get all their property returned.
In reality, when you think of Persil, think of Zyklon-B to understand Degussa’s history in the Third Reich. In the end, the 40 industrialists who were indicted for war crimes at Nuremberg represented only the tip of the iceberg. In many cases, they didn’t even include the worst Nazi perpetrators and profiteers.
Aufarbeitung makes us believe German denazification “has taken place” and “we no longer question it.” Yet, denazification was nowhere near the imposing, invasive, and all-encompassing process that the international narrative presents it to be.
Worse, German companies today have been rinsed clean of their Nazi crimes, profits, and ideology.
The basis of modern German wealth – so the common myth goes – is likely the result of the Marshall Plan and the associated German Economic Miracle. Therefore, German wealth today has nothing to do with Aryanization and the looting of Jewish businesses.
Still worse is this fact: In the almost fifty years up to 1998, some 106,000 preliminary proceedings were initiated for Nazi crimes. Only 6,494 ended with a verdict that deemed them a criminal offense. Historians estimate that the number of perpetrators directly involved in the Holocaust is about a quarter of a million; in addition, there were tens of thousands of political murders. More than 150,000 murderers were never even targeted by the judiciary. Virtually all of this is further obscured through the ideology of Wiedergutmachung – the German word for the reparations paid by Germany to the state of Israel meaning to make good again.
Worse still, in German myth-making, Jews are inevitably reduced to three essential elements: antisemitism, the Holocaust, and Israel. Of course, reparations were paid to Shoah survivors. But most of Europe’s Jews did not survive. The story continues with the fact that less than 20% of the value of Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators has been restored. As one of the most prolific writers on the Holocaust – Götz Aly – has shown rather comprehensively, a tremendous amount of wealth was plundered from the Jewish people.
Whatever the impact was on German capitalism, Germany’s post-Nazi advertising hype of Wiedergutmachung, Aufarbeitung, and denazification could cause some very serious dangers for Jewish people. Germany’s post-war myths carry with them the danger of people developing a false sense of security. Jews are led to believe that Germany has deeply and comprehensively denazified itself. It hasn’t.
One should not forget that Germany is the country where a right-wing politician named Hubert Aiwanger once wrote that he would happily watch Jews get a “free flight through the chimney of Auschwitz”, a “lifelong stay in a mass grave”, “a free shot in the back of the neck”, “a ticket … to the entertainment quarter Auschwitz”, and a “night’s stay in the Gestapo cellar, then a trip to Dachau”. In 2023, the obviously anti-Semitic Aiwanger received a voter boost of 4% in an election held shortly after the “scandal” broke in an apparently denazified Germany.
Instead of real denazification, it appears as if the ad campaign was an elaborate con to protect ex-Nazis, to safeguard pillaged Jewish property, and – most importantly – to let German companies and corporations off the hook. What Germany really needs is an Aufarbeitung of the culture of Aufarbeitung – a profoundly honest denazification of Germany’s systemic structures, which are still burdened by the leftovers of Nazism. Of course, the supposedly self-denazified Germany hardly embarked on the culture of Aufarbeitung out of its own free will, but was rather forced into it by its enfeebled position as the loser of the war. The myth insinuates that Nazism as the state ideology had collapsed and disappeared entirely with Hitler’s death. After the Nazi-Reich was eliminated, Germany was branded nationally and internationally as a morally reprehensible perpetrator nation. It needed to act to become good again.
Worse, Germany believes itself to have dealt with the crimes of the past.
With this self-assessment, it is “mission accomplished,” “case closed.” Yet, more than any other social class in Nazi Germany, the industrialists were the ones who profited from the economic boom and rearmament. They also collected the fruits from the plunder of the Jews. Some of those fruits – as illustrated in the book Nazis All The Way Down – are used in a very particular way.
It’s essential to mention, that Jewish organizations benefit quite directly from this formerly Nazi capital. Just taking one example out of many: As of 2022, the Jewish Museum of Frankfurt had listed among their partners: Commerzbank Foundation, Daimler AG, Deutsche Bank AG, Deutsche Bank Foundation, EVONIK Industries, Hertie Foundation, and Merck Family Foundation. Listed among their sponsors are: Commerzbank AG, C. H. Beck Foundation, Robert Bosch Foundation, Frankfurter Volksbank AG, Daniela Oetker, and the Herbert Quandt Foundation. All these people, foundations, and corporations, who profited handsomely during the Nazi era, are given a nice coat of whitewash by the Frankfurt Jewish Museum for the generosity with which they hand out some of the profits from Nazi crimes.
In the end, it is unavoidable that Germany today is utterly saturated by families who whitewashed their own Nazi pasts and are free to maintain their power and wealth. To preserve this, all of these families, companies, and foundations – from Henkel to BMW, to Adidas to Bahlsen, and dozens more of the wealthiest families and companies in Germany – have promoted the narrative of successful denazification.
Much of the alleged denazification – that never really took place – can also be found in German arts, music, academia, Germany’s churches, and science. And this also includes the Max Planck Institute and Rassenhygiene as well as the Robert Koch-Institute, both of whom were involved with experiments on human concentration camp victims in Buchenwald. In short, the Shoah’s industrial-scale killing was carried out with the support of German industry and science.
Ultimately, Germany’s myth of denazification also insinuates that everything was Hitler’s fault. As the narrative goes, with Hitler gone and the Nazi party defeated, the only goal is ensuring Never Again.
But Hitler didn’t personally produce Zyklon-B nor profit from its use in the murder of millions: German companies like Degesh, Degussa, Henkel, and IG Farben did.
In other words, denazification never removed the material privileges gained through Nazi crimes. Perhaps the raison d’être for denazification was exactly that: to secure material privileges gained through Nazi crimes.
Perhaps what Germany needs is a denazification 2.0. If this is honestly and thoroughly undertaken, it would not make things right or even, but it would lay the foundation for finally being able to declare that Germany was taking action in overcoming its Nazi past in a real way.
But what are the chances of that in a country that has made Wiedergutmachung, Aufarbeitung, and denazification the official state slogans for the justification of its own existence and for the protection of German wealth and German companies?
Photo: “Memorial of the Gross-Gerau Synagogue” – Source: Thomas Klikauer
Check out Ku Przestrodze / Watch Out project led by Forward Foundation, aiming at educating on what fascism and nazism really were, how they led to tragedies of millions of people and what should be done to never allow them to come back.