A German bestseller
Post-War Lies is a superb portrait of a torn generation: the Nazi Party’s youngest members, those born between 1919 and 1927, who were raised on an ideological diet of racism and militarism. A number of them — from prominent politician Hans-Dietrich Genscher to writer Martin Walser — were later to become leading public figures in federal Germany.
In this meticulously researched book, Malte Herwig reveals how Germany handled these former party members. For nearly half a century, it was a case of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. While the US government held captured Nazi records — such as the party’s central membership file — the German government used every available means to delay the return of the Nazi archive for half a century until the last top politician with a Nazi file had retired. Herwig also found a list of high-ranking German politicians whose Nazi membership files had been secreted between the 1960s and early 1990s.
Many of this generation kept quiet about their connection to the Nazi Party, or denied it, or pushed it to the backs of their minds and forgot all about it. Post-War Lies tells their hitherto unknown story, from the Third Reich to the post-war de-Nazification process and into the present. It is also a young historian’s contribution to an important contemporary debate about historical truth and human honesty.
PRAISE FOR MALTE HERWIG
‘Herwig follows the bungled attempts to destroy the bureaucratic records and identifies prominent post-war politicians, artists, writers and others who hid or denied their involvement with the Nazis … [revealing] undercurrents of Nazism that still exist’ The Herald Sun
‘A must read.’ Die Welt
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About the Author
Malte Herwig is a reporter, broadcaster, and historian. He is known for his in-depth interviews and investigative features, and his articles have appeared widely in US, British, and German publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Observer, and Vanity Fair. Herwig was the only journalist to interview former SS captain and convicted war criminal Erich Priebke.
Jamie Lee Searle is a literary translator from German.
Shaun Whiteside is a Northern Irish translator of French, Dutch, German, and Italian literature.
Read an Excerpt
Germany and Hitler's Long Shadow
By Malte Herwig, Jamie Lee Searle, Shaun Whiteside
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2013 Malte Herwig
All rights reserved.
The Funeral Pyre
The 'Thousand-Year Reich' was already teetering towards its demise when, in 1944, the 35-year-old Polish Jew Salmen Gradowski buried a few hastily scribbled pages of his diary not far from Crematorium III in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
As a member of the Sonderkommando — the prisoners forced to work in the crematoria — Gradowski witnessed at first hand the mass murder in the gas chambers. He didn't survive the camp, but his written account was found after the end of the war. It begins with the words: 'To the person who discovers this note, please search everywhere, scour through every centimetre of earth. Dozens of documents are buried here, mine and those of others, which can shed light on what happened here. Search so that posterity may find the traces of the millions who were murdered.'
By the time World War I drew to an end, Germany and large parts of Europe lay in ruins. But not only were the clues about the murdered buried in the smoking funeral pyres of the Third Reich; those about the perpetrators were, too.
The imminent end to their rule did not halt the National Socialists' desire to destroy; on the contrary, it seemed to spur them on. Until the very end, the downfall was managed with horrifying efficiency: death marches were organised; prisoners, civilians, and deserters were executed; and soldiers were sent to futile deaths.
'If we go under,' Goebbels announced at a press conference in March 1945, as if the end were still a possibility rather than a certainty, 'then the entire German people will go down with us, and in such a glorious way that even in a thousand years, the heroic downfall of the Germans will be at first place in world history.'
In reality, though, the National Socialists' trust in their own posthumous reputation was so scant that they had long since begun to erase the evidence of their crimes. Any incriminating documents that hadn't already been annihilated by Allied bomb attacks were to be destroyed or hidden.
By October 1944, the Reich Minister for Home Affairs had commanded that all important files be destroyed due to the threat of enemy occupation, 'in particular those of a secret and political nature, and those which could be of significance for the enemy in conducting its warfare'.
The order to destroy the Nazi bureaucracy came from the highest level, but the destruction was also carried out in individual initiatives by lower-level officials. The perpetrators were intent on erasing all proof of their own involvement in the National Socialist mass crime.
But in its attempts to destroy its own tracks, the murderous efficiency of the National Socialist administration failed. The Third Reich left reams of papers behind: from the mountain of files to secret orders, from the fastidiously kept archive to the hastily hidden party-membership book, thousands of tons of written records from the Nazi Reich survived.
After 1945, even millions of ordinary Germans — the followers and accomplices or those who realised late what had been taking place — were intent on getting rid of all the compromising evidence from the Nazi era. In the files of the East German Ministry for State Security, which searched high and low in the living rooms of the 'Workers' and Farmers' State' for Hitler picture books and other Nazi kitsch, there are lists of confiscated objects found tucked away in secret drawers of old cupboards, in ventilation pipes, cellar crates, between balconies and roof tiles, or cemented into window frames. The same would have applied in the West: anyone who had been part of it all, particularly party members, never spoke of it, or pleaded mitigating circumstances when questioned.
A hasty decision
By the spring of 1945, the US Army had reached Munich, and anxiety was growing among the upper ranks of the National Socialist Party. While the remaining men in the German population were summoned into battle by rallying calls, the leaders in Munich organised their own escape.
First, though, an embarrassing legacy needed to be disposed of, one which under no circumstances was to fall into the hands of the victors: the central membership index of the National Socialist German Workers' Party, that orderly catalogue of perpetrators and followers which provided information on millions of party comrades. The card index was still in the administration building of the NSDAP Reich Treasury Minister at Königsplatz, lurking like an explosive device.
Stefan Heym was a war reporter in Munich with the American troops when the city was seized, and later worked his experiences into the novella Eine wahre Geschichte (A True Story). In it, he imagines a scene in which the last conclave of Nazi leaders are looking for a way to quickly dispose of the incriminating material:
'The card index?' said someone. 'Oh yes — the card index ...'
Everyone knew precisely which card index was being referred to. Munich, the so-called 'Capital City of the Movement,' was home to the extensive card index of the National Socialist Party, an index of seven million party members both at home and abroad, complete with all personal details. Each card held information about the individual's professional role, official positions, awards, addresses, connections and other relevant remarks. The cards of members who the Gestapo didn't completely trust were bordered in red. It was a first-class and very useful card index, a true masterpiece of German efficiency. Except, at this moment in time, it was a catastrophe.
'So what shall we do with it?' asked the man who had mentioned it in the first place. All those present could imagine what would happen if the card index fell into the enemy's hands. Because if it was the intention of the Americans, English, French and Russians to rid Germany of all its Nazis, all they would need to do was pay visits to the individuals listed in alphabetical order in the index.
'Burn it!' declared the Gauleiter [regional Nazi Party leader] who was leading the meeting. 'Just throw it in the furnace and be done with it!'
He stood up to leave. He was in a hurry to put some distance between himself and the Capital City of the Movement.
But the man who had posed the question wasn't satisfied. 'We can't burn it,' he said.
'Have you ever tried to burn cards that are packed so closely together? They may singe a little around the edges, but they won't burn.'
'Then separate them!'
'Seven million cards?' asked the man who had been the first to mention the index. He could feel that the others resented him for this; they just wanted to get away, and he was holding them up. But they couldn't argue with him, because none of them would dare to admit in front of everyone present that they were willing to surrender seven million members of their party to the enemy.
So he persevered: 'You said that we should separate them and burn the cards individually. Do you have an idea of how long that would take? How long do you think we can hold Munich for?'
The participants of the meeting fidgeted on their chairs and waited for someone to come up with a sensible idea. In the end, a small man stood up. So far he had not said a single word in the meeting, because he was actually very clever and had already organised his escape back when the others were still talking about hedgehog defence positions in Witebsk and Minsk. 'Why don't we have them pulped?' he suggested.
'Pulped! Yes, of course!' said the Gauleiter, assuming that the matter was now dealt with.
'But where?' said the man who had brought the problem up in the first place. He was stubborn.
'In a paper mill, you idiot!'
'I know that a paper mill is where you pulp things. But do you happen to know a paper mill that we still have under our control?'
'Bring me a Munich address book!' ordered the Gauleiter. 'At once!'
The book was brought. Never before had so many perspiring faces leant over a single address book. They found the names and addresses of various paper mills in the suburbs of Munich. But as soon as they checked the addresses against the entries on the tactical map on the wall, they realised that the routes in question had either already been taken by the enemy, or were in the process of being taken.
At long last, they found a small paper mill that was situated in a part of the city that was still relatively secure.
This is likely to be a fairly accurate depiction of the Nazi leaders' embarrassing deliberations about what was to be done with the dangerous burden of evidence. But what happened next would exceed the imagination of even the most daring of writers.
The miller of Freimann
On 18 April 1945, a hastily assembled SS convoy left the centre of Munich with its controversial cargo. The heavily armed SS men were responsible for making sure that another several hundred kilograms of debris were piled onto the still smouldering bonfire of the 'Thousand-Year Reich'. Himmler's people needed 20 trucks disguised as civilian transports and several days in order to fetch the membership cards and letters from the fire-resistant safes of the NSDAP Reich Treasury Minister in Königplatz and deliver them to the Josef Wirth paper mill in the Munich suburb of Freimann. There, the files were to be destroyed before the American troops marched in.
But the SS hadn't reckoned with the paper mill's owner. Hans Huber was no friend of the Nazis. His brother Karl was a neurologist, and had emigrated to the US after 1933 when the new leaders forbade him from practising as a doctor because he had married a Jewish woman. Now Karl lived in New York, and Hans was being ordered to help destroy the secrets of those who had persecuted his brother.
The miller was an astute man, and soon realised what kind of papers he had piled up under his roof. Before rushing off, the men of the SS commando gave the order, accompanied by the threat of all possible punishments, to destroy the papers at once. But Huber was not prepared to accept any more orders, especially not by April 1945. He decided to hide the files under some other old papers until the SS had withdrawn and the Third Reich had come to an end.
At the beginning of May, the war was entering its final week when a young Polish Jew following the US Army found out about the transport. Michel Thomas had taken part in the emancipation of Dachau with the Counter Intelligence Corps of the 45th Division, and immediately set off to see the miller of Freimann. 'At first I thought it might be gold, or other treasures of some kind,' he later told his biographer, 'so I took one of the Jeeps and drove to the paper mill. When I arrived, I saw mountains, absolute mountains of papers. The SS had simply unloaded everything, ordered that it be destroyed, then fled again.'
Thomas pulled a drawer from one of the archive cabinets that had been flung on the heap and fished out one of the cards. It didn't take him long to realise that these were the membership cards of the NSDAP, and he spent the next few hours clambering over the mountains of files and putting together a selection of the most interesting documents as proof of his discovery. Alongside the party membership cards, the hoard of documents also contained party correspondence, personnel files, and curious Nazi kitsch. Next to a written order signed personally by Himmler, Thomas found an art print depicting the execution of the Württemberg-born court Jew Joseph Süß Oppenheimer in Stuttgart on 4 February 1738, an SS album with watercolours from the Greek campaign, and files from a trial which Hermann Göring brought against Der Stürmer editor Julius Streicher, during which the latter's paedophiliac penchant for young boys was revealed.
Before Thomas returned to the 7th US Army headquarters in Munich with the evidence he had gathered, he made sure that a delegation of military police were summoned to guard the mill night and day.
But if he thought that the Americans would welcome his discovery with open arms, he was mistaken. 'I took the samples to the military administration and told them I had arranged for guards to watch the mill. Now it was their job to pursue the matter further, because it was outside of my jurisdiction. They said that they would take care of it, but they didn't.'
Even when Hans Huber turned up in the office of the American commander of Munich with three sacks full of NSDAP membership cards, they still seemed only vaguely interested in the contents. Whether this was down to the newly established US military administration being overstretched, or to Huber's inadequate command of English, the result was the same, as it often is with bureaucratic matters: at first, nothing was done at all.
The fact that the occupying forces eventually realised the importance of the files was thanks not least to the persistence of Munich woman Anny Olschewsky, who had been interned in the Dachau concentration camp for eight months. Her Polish father, brother-in-law, and brother had been executed by the Nazis as opponents of the regime. After Munich was liberated, 37-year-old Olschewsky approached the military administration and was employed by the security officer of the 3rd US Army as an assistant on the document search.
She soon chanced upon a hoard of Nazi papers in one of the NSDAP administration buildings. In the summer of 1945, she took two sacks full of Nazi documentation to the office of Major William D. Brown and tried to impress upon her American superiors that this haul couldn't possibly be everything, that there must be more somewhere. When it was established that the sacks came from Hans Huber's paper mill, where the majority of the files still were, the aggravation caused was considerable: 'Any idiot' should have realised the significance of the documents being stored there, complained the archive consultant of the US military government. But it took another two months before Major Brown was able to convince his superiors in Berlin and Frankfurt that they had to act quickly.
If one believes Stefan Heym's True Story, the brave miller was even temporarily taken into custody by the Americans after he received death threats from his fellow countrymen, who feared that membership cards bearing their names might be found under his roof.
In October 1945, the Americans eventually sent a team of 16 former concentration-camp internees from Dachau to the mill, accompanied by officers of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). There, they set to, separating waste paper from the treasure trove of files. What they discovered in those paper mountains, piled high up to the rooftop, exceeded all their expectations. The central membership index of the NSDAP contained the names of over 8 million party members, along with their membership cards (of which there were more than 10 million due to duplication), personal data, passport pictures, and other documents. Major Brown and his people had, as The New York Times rejoiced, 'hit the jackpot'.17
The index cards were the crown jewels among the files plundered from the Third Reich by the Allies. They were seen by many as 'the key for blowing open the NSDAP's underground activities, for exposing members abroad and for swift de-Nazification'. Once the American experts had recognised the importance of their discovery, they quickly turned their attention to evaluating it.
The files were still being stored in Huber's mill when the leader of the US military administration in Bavaria, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Hensel, shared the first information gleaned from them with The New York Times in October 1945. Many Germans claimed that they had become party members only under duress or even without their own knowledge. After the discovery of the central index, Colonel Hensel left no doubt about what he thought of such statements: 'These files contradict all the stories that these people were forced into the Nazi Party. They show that all members made an application and were obliged to pass various tests before they were admitted into the party by the Nazis.'
By the evening of 20 October, the sorting work at the mill was complete. Loaded with 72 postal sacks full of NSDAP membership cards, the last truck left Huber's mill at sundown, transporting the files back to Munich, where the SS had packed them up just six months earlier.
Their discoverer, Michel Thomas, emigrated to Los Angeles soon after the war and became a successful language teacher, counting Hollywood celebrities such as Barbra Streisand, Grace Kelly, and Woody Allen among his students. The documents that he took from the Freimann paper mill in May 1945 remained in his possession. After his death, the American archivist Robert Wolfe, who himself had fought in World War II as an officer and who was responsible for the looted German military files in the National Archives in Washington for over 40 years after the war, paid tribute to Thomas's unique discovery: 'The success that the victorious powers had in punishing war crimes and de-Nazifying Germany was largely attributable to the possession of and access to the Nazi Party's files, discovered, identified and reported by the CIC agent Michel Thomas.'
Excerpted from Post-War Lies by Malte Herwig, Jamie Lee Searle, Shaun Whiteside. Copyright © 2013 Malte Herwig. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Abbreviations,
Introduction: The Recruits,
1 The Funeral Pyre,
2 Members Only,
3 The Boys Left Standing,
4 The (Former) Lives of Others,
5 In Mr Simon's Safe,
6 Last Ink: Günter Grass,
7 'The need to spell out our lives': Martin Walser,
8 The End of Their Story,