How German Artists Helped The Nation Remake Itself After Hitler


Following the destruction of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian Third Reich, how did Germany manage to remake itself into a democratic nation? In “After the Nazis: The Story of Culture in West Germany,” the historian Michael H. Kater contends that the arts deserve much of the credit. Kater’s new book — the latest among his many distinguished studies of 20th-century German culture and politics — focuses on West Germany, more formally the Federal Republic of Germany, between 1945 and 1990, the year when it was reunited with East Germany after the fall of the latter’s communist government. During these years, the FRG needed to rebuild its cities, political system and economy while also confronting — or sometimes refusing to confront — vestiges of Hitler’s National Socialism.

That today’s Germany is so highly respected — even as it navigates continued threats from 21st-century forms of racism and fascist ideology — can be largely attributed, Kater says, to the novelists, artists, critics, musicians, dramatists, journalists and filmmakers who refused to allow the nation to minimize, excuse or forget the Holocaust.

Throughout, the German-born Kater pulls no punches. Chapter 1 begins this way:

“On Tuesday, May 1, 1945, I was drying a small collection of Hitler stamps on the windowsill of my grandfather’s house in a small village near Bremen. … All of seven years old, I had been looking forward to joining the Hitler Youth like the older neighborhood boys whom I played with and admired. … Hitler’s portrait — a lithograph, black on white — hung in our dining room. Sitting underneath it, I loved listening to the march music on the radio, drumming to it on the tabletop.”

That day, however, the music was interrupted by a voice somberly announcing: “Our Führer Adolf Hitler has fallen in the defense of Berlin. Heil Hitler!” This was followed by the singing of the national anthem, “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.” Kater remembers being utterly bewildered.

After Germany’s surrender to the Allies, some 250,000 die-hard Nazis were initially placed in internment camps. As Kater recalls: “When I was allowed to visit a friend of my mother’s in Hanover in 1948, her husband, a former SS medical officer just returned from a British internment camp, put me and his children in a car. He took us to the railway station and pointed to some miserable-looking, badly dressed people hurrying to and fro. ‘See, those are Jews,’ he said to us, ‘filthy vermin. Unfortunately we did not remove enough of them.’ He was entirely unrepentant.”

Over the next 500 pages, Kater, a professor emeritus at Canada’s York University, repeatedly demonstrates that such antisemitism long persisted among many Germans. Programs of “denazification” were halfhearted, and numerous former Nazis easily obscured their past as they segued into positions of influence and power in the new Federal Republic. Many ordinary people retained their admiration, even reverence, for the führer. According to Kater, “As late as the mid 1950s, 42 percent of all Germans thought Hitler to have been one of the greatest German statesmen, had he not started the war.”

While the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi elite were taking place in 1945 and 1946, conservative German newspapers and media maintained that Hitler and his lieutenants were alone responsible for the Holocaust. Few recognized the culpability of the nation as a whole. Instead they pointed out that all of Germany had suffered. Surely, these pundits argued, Germans and Jews were both victims of the Nazi regime.

As Kater shows, all these comforting lies, moral equivocations and delusions were gradually exposed and dismantled by the postwar era’s cultural intelligentsia, largely through works of art and investigative reporting. But it took a long time. As Kater writes, “By the mid-1950s, covering the past up in silence was helping Germans to concentrate on the economic and social reconstruction of the country and forget their guilt, even though … this was morally questionable and futile in the long run.”

In the 1950s and the two following decades, artists led the attack on that willed amnesia. Rather than accept the complacency and conspicuous consumption brought about by West Germany’s “economic miracle,” they probed the society’s sore spots, questioned their families about what they had done or not done during the war, reopened the old wounds. Every sort of authoritarianism or censorship was utterly rejected as fascistic. While the elders yearned for art that was safe, traditional and nonconfrontational, the young weren’t going to let that happen.

Over the course of his book, Kater discusses the celebrated Gruppe 47 collective of writers, the new German cinema, experimental music, the dadaist “happenings” of the Fluxus movement, controversial plays and TV series. The 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s were the heyday of writers Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass (both Nobel laureates), as well as Ingeborg Bachmann, Martin Walser and the young Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The world-famous composers Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen explored atonal and electronic music. Avant-garde filmmakers included Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Few artists were more innovative, not to say outrageous, than Joseph Beuys or his slightly more sedate colleagues Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer. In these years, Wieland Wagner restaged his grandfather Richard Wagner’s operas, stressing their universality instead of Teutonic grandiosity, and Rolf Hochhuth’s searing play “The Deputy” exposed the connections between the Vatican and the Third Reich.

By the 1960s, intellectuals regularly morphed into political activists. One highly esteemed journalist, Ulrike Meinhof, remade herself into the leader of the Red Army terrorist group known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. As Kater writes, Meinhof and “all members of the terrorist units were incensed by the presence of former National Socialists in the Federal Republic’s political and industrial, social and educational structures.” The group kidnapped, and eventually killed, the rich industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer because of his “stellar Nazi record: Hitler Youth, Nazi student administrator, and SS.”

As a survey of West German culture, “After the Nazis” also discusses the spurious Hitler diaries; reflects on the popular but tacitly exculpatory TV series “Heimat” (“Homeland”), which tracks a small-town German family during the Nazi era; touches on the emerging women’s movement; and devotes several pages to the horrific mistreatment of the Turkish and East European “guest workers” who were essential to Germany’s “economic miracle.”

While Kater rightly extols the artists and intellectuals who both “helped Germany to defeat the spirit of Nazism” and acted as contrarian gadflies during the tenures of Chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, as well as other political leaders, his book’s last chapter sounds a more disturbing note. Kater writes that by the late 1970s and 1980s, the momentum of change had started to slow: “As Nazi threats faded into the background, however, so did West Germany’s cultural scene begin to lose some of its former urgency, indeed quality, and the once innovative writers, artists and musicians came to resemble pillars of society.” Some conservative scholars now wanted “to relativize and historicize the Third Reich” — to liken it to other historic phenomena — “and thereby lift the moral stain.” In this view, the Holocaust wasn’t “unique”; there had been plenty of similar atrocities in the world’s past. Incredibly, the historian Ernst Nolte asserted that in Auschwitz, “not just Jews but also hard-working SS guards weighed down by their heavy burden could properly be regarded as ‘victims.’” Around this time, Nazi tokens and memorabilia grew fashionable among young people: The hip took to wearing swastikas on their jeans. Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s 1977 epic, “Our Hitler,” as this Wagnerian experimental film is called in English, sympathetically mythologized its subject.

So, as illuminating as “After the Nazis” is, I wish Kater had continued his account past 1990 to show us more fully the development of today’s German nation. Might he be at work on a follow-up volume? Whatever the case, this book’s coda does mention, albeit only in passing, a certain chemical physicist with a doctorate from Leipzig named Angela Merkel.