Jacob Heilbrunn

Germany's New Confrontation with the Holocaust

Germany's confrontation with the Nazi past took an important new step with the publication this week of a study, commissioned by the Foreign Ministry, that examines the role that diplomats played during the Third Reich in helping to perpetrate the Holocaust. The record is shabbier than Germany had been willing to acknowledge, at least publicly. The nimbus surrounding the foreign ministry had been that it was, in fact, an elite redoubt of resistance to Nazism, personified by diplomats such as Adam von Trott zu Solz, who was a leading member of the July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, recently portrayed in the Hollywood film Valkyrie, (which itself focused on the role of the Wehrmacht).

The report, which will be published by Bertelsmann, indicates that the Foreign Ministry was much more complicit in the liquidation of Jews than it had previously acknowledged. Part of the training of an aspiring attache in 1938, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung observes, included visiting a psychiatric institution and the concentration camp Dachau. As the Wall Street Journal's Vanessa Fuhrman notes,

While studies in recent decades have chipped away at the myth of the German foreign office's insulation from Nazi crimes, the study marks the first the ministry has scrutinized its wartime record.

In the postwar era, the very diplomats who had served the regime during World War II went on to lend aid and assistance to their Nazi brethren seeking to escape justice by fleeing abroad. But it's also the case that America helped smooth the transition to the Federal Republic by pardoning many Nazis--specifically, in January 1951, High Commissioner John McCloy, in an act of realpolitik, acceded to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's wishes and commuted the prison sentences of the industrialist Alfried Krupp and several dozen other criminals convicted at Nuremberg. The amnesty was greeted with jubilation in West Germany and outrage abroad. Krupp's chums gave him a champagne breakfast upon his release.

The truth is that the ranks of Germany's Foreign Ministry were stuffed with Nazis during the postwar era. One of Adenauer's closest advisers was Hans Globke, who had during the Nazi era come up with the idea of forcing Jews to have the name Israel or Sarah. Meanwhile, East Germany, which liked to portray itself as a bastion of anti-fascism and denounce the West as a continuation of the Nazi regime, was living a lie--its first parliament meeting had numerous Nazi members. In many ways, East Germany, not the West, represented continuity with the repressive traditions of Nazism, not least in its deep hostility to Israel.

Today Germany is facing up to its Nazi traditions, recognizing that an entire nation was dragged into the muck of genocidal nationalism but actually went willingly. Former German Minister Joschka Fischer deserves high praise for commissioning the new study five years ago. That study, which is being published by Bertelsmann under the title The Ministry and the Past: German Diplomats in the Third Reich and the Federal Republic, has already begun to shed further light on this murderous epoch.