Denazification

In March 1945, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin met in Yalta. With Nazi Germany on the brink of defeat, the Allied leaders discussed the post-war reconstruction of Europe, specifically Germany's fate after the war had ended. Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union agreed that Nazism had to be banished from all areas of German society. Within months, Adolf Hitler was dead, Germany surrendered, and the seismic policy of denazification commenced.

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    Denazification

    Initiated by the Allies after the Second World War, denazification was the process of cleansing German society of Nazism.

    Purpose of Denazification

    During the Yalta Conference on 11 March 1945, the Allied leaders agreed that wiping out all traces of Nazism was paramount in the post-war reconstruction of Germany.

    This affirmation was reiterated on 2 August 1945, when the Allied leaders met at Potsdam. During the Potsdam Conference, a declaration was made:

    All members of the Nazi party who have been more than nominal participants […] are to be removed from public or semi-public office and from positions of responsibility in important private undertakings.1

    Importance of Denazification

    One of the few post-war policies that the Allies agreed on, ridding Nazism from German society was essential in the post-war reconstruction of Germany and Europe. Long before the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Grand Alliance recognised that German society would have to be purged of Nazism and re-familiarised with democracy. While removing Nazi symbols, literature, and street signs was a fairly straightforward process, removing Nazi ideology from German society was more arduous.

    Despite the difficulties involved, denazification was unquestionably essential:

    • Only by removing Nazis from public office and positions of power could the Allies prevent the rise of extremism that had dominated interwar politics.
    • The only way Germany could be readmitted back into the international fold was through a period of democratic re-education.
    • Denazification would go some way in healing the deep wounds they had inflicted on countless groups during the Second World War.
    • Denazification would help bring to justice those culpable in the Nazi crimes of the Second World War.

    Marshall Plan Denazification

    Before the implementation of the Marshall Plan in 1948, United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. proposed an entirely different plan to deal with post-war Germany. This proposal – dubbed the Morgenthau Plan – sought to cripple Germany to prevent the country from waging war in the future. While the Morgenthau Plan had some impact – notably the dismantling of German heavy industry – the proposal was ultimately not adopted.

    Understanding that an economically strong Germany was integral to European recovery and seeing the German people as fundamental to the denazification process, the Allies settled on the Marshall Plan.

    Marshall Plan

    A US foreign policy that sought to prompt the economic recovery of Western Europe by providing financial aid to countries.

    As well as delineating the Allies' confusion on how best to deal with post-war Germany, the Morgenthau Plan and Marshall Plan also give us insight into the USA's anxiety about the spread of communism.

    If the Morgenthau Plan had been adopted in Germany, it would have inevitably propagated the spread of communism due to the resultant weak economy. It's of no surprise that 'agreement with the Soviet Union [regarding the Morgenthau Plan] was fairly readily achieved'. 2

    The Morgenthau and Marshall Plans sought to denazify Germany but went about it differently. The Morgenthau Plan aimed to cripple Germany and make the country compliant to the Allies. In contrast, the Marshall Plan sought to rebuild Germany to stimulate democracy.

    The Difference between the Denazification of Germany and the Nuremberg Trials

    Between 1945 and 1946, Nazi leaders were tried as war criminals by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. During the 13 military tribunals, 200 members of the Nazi hierarchy were tried for war crimes.

    Denazification Nuremberg Trials StudySmarterFig. 1 - Nuremberg Trials

    While the terms often get conflated, the process of denazification was separate from the aims of Nuremberg. The Nuremberg Trials sought to punish Nazi war criminals for specific crimes. In contrast, denazification sought to cleanse German politics and society of Nazism.

    Compulsory Questionnaires

    In 1946, Great Britain, France, and the US introduced a questionnaire system to identify former Nazis. This questionnaire drew inspiration from the questionnaire used by the US forces in Italy in 1944.

    Every adult living in an Allied occupation zone had to complete a 131-point form outlining what their occupation was in Nazi Germany. While dishonesty on the questionnaire was a punishable offence, many Nazis lied about their actions during the Third Reich and escaped sentencing.

    The "Scheda Personale"

    After the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943, the US forces began to track down Fascists in the Italian military regime. Created by Major Aldo Raffa, the US army used a questionnaire called the 'scheda personale' to identify those associated with Mussolini's regime. Upon its success, it became the blueprint for the questionnaire used by the Allied forces throughout the denazification process.

    Five Categories of Culpability

    In March 1946, the Allies set out five categories of culpability:

    1. Major Offenders would be arrested immediately and sentenced to death, imprisonment, or hard labour.
    2. Activists, Beneficiaries, and Militarists would be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.
    3. Lesser Offenders were placed on probation for up to three years.
    4. Followers of the Nazi regime would be subject to restrictions on their employment, travel, and political freedoms.
    5. Some individuals were exonerated and received no sanctions or imprisonment.

    Denazification Adolf Hitler Street Sign Removed StudySmarterFig. 2 - The sign for Adolf Hitler Street is removed

    Denazification Campaigns

    Let's discuss how denazification differed between Germany's four occupied zones.

    The Division of Germany

    Firstly, let's quickly examine the division of Germany after the Second World War.

    De-Nazification Division of Germany StudySmarterFig. 3 - Post War Division of Germany

    As we can see from the map, Germany was divided into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allies: Great Britain, France, the USSR, and the USA. Berlin was also divided among the four Allies.

    Denazification of Germany

    Despite the Allies agreeing on the five categories of culpability, denazification in the four German occupation zones varied drastically.

    The Soviet Union

    In East Germany, the Soviet Union took advantage of denazification to forward communism in the region. Unlike in the Western zones – which honoured fair and democratic elections – the East German parliament was filled with communists loyal to Moscow.

    France

    Denazification in the French zone focussed on cleansing the civil service, government organisations, and industry. France took advantage of German industry and resources; by doing this, they weakened Germany and strengthened their own faltering economy. To this end, they allowed Nazis from other occupational zones to come and work.

    The USA

    Denazification in the US occupation zone was comprehensive and strict. The Americans removed anyone actively associated with the Nazi regime from government positions; such overarching bureaucratic change led to a shortage of government workers. While the US sought to re-establish Germany as a functioning democracy, they considered German society untrustworthy and wholly guilty.

    Great Britain

    Denazification in the British zone focused on cleansing the German administrative organisations. The British process was far more moderate than that of the US. The British mainly aimed to reconstruct the German economy, allowing former Nazis to take on important government positions.

    Problems with Denazification

    There were several problems with the denazification process. Let's look at a table outlining the issues.

    IssueExplanation
    Cold War PoliticsAs Cold War hostilities between the US and the Soviet Union began to develop, the US realised they needed to gain favour among the people of West Germany. The alienating process of denazification went against this geopolitical aim. Consequently, in March 1946, the US gave control of the denazification tribunals over to the German people.
    Punishment or Reintegration?There was a fierce debate among government officials in the US regarding denazification. Some politicians believed the Germans should be punished, whereas others thought re-education was the way forward.
    Escaping PunishmentFrance and the US declared youth amnesties for people born after 1 January 1919. Such amnesties meant that young Nazis – such as members of the Hitler Youth – were exempt from punishment.
    Logistical IssuesIn the US occupation zone, approximately 10 million Germans handed in questionnaires. Reading and processing the questionnaires took a considerable amount of human resources.
    Bias towards countrymenThe development of Cold War hostilities caused the Allies to lose interest in denazification. The US and Great Britain gave control over the denazification process to the German people in 1946, with France following suit in 1951. This development was problematic because many Germans were reluctant to give harsh sentences to their peers.

    Hitler Youth

    Set up in 1922, the Hitler Youth was a Nazi Party youth organisation.

    Amnesty

    The term amnesty refers to when a government elects to forgive those guilty of a crime.

    The End of Denazification: Timeline

    The emergence of the Cold War saw the Allies lose interest in the denazification process; initially, control of the process was delegated to the Germans before being entirely abolished in 1951. Here is a brief timeline outlining the end of denazification.

    DateEvent
    January 1946The British handed over control of the denazification tribunals to the German people.
    March 1946The US handed over control of the denazification tribunals to the German people.
    February 1948The Soviets stated that denazification in the Soviet zone would end on 10 March.
    May 1951Denazification was abolished in West Germany.

    Denazification – Key takeaways

    • Denazification was a policy enacted by the Allies after the Second World War to rid German society of all traces of Nazism.
    • The denazification process varied drastically between the four occupation zones, with the Allies using denazification to pursue their own aims.
    • While denazification and the Nuremberg Trials often get conflated, they were entirely different policies. Denazification sought to rid Germany of Nazism, whereas the Nuremberg Trials sought to punish known Nazi collaborators.
    • A series of fundamental problems hampered the denazification process, including the looming Cold War, logistics, and German bias.
    • The Cold War saw the Allies lose interest in the denazification process.

    References

    1. 'The Potsdam Resolutions on Germany', 1 August 1945
    2. Charles P. Kindleberger, 'The Marshall Plan and the Cold War', International Journal 23/3 (1968), p. 369.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Denazification

    What does denazification mean?

    Denazification was the process of ridding Nazism from all areas of German society.

    What was the denazification program?

    Initiated by the Allies after the Second World War, the denazification program sought to cleanse German society of Nazism.

    Why was denazification important?

    Denazification was an integral step in the post-war reconstruction of Germany. It was necessary to cleanse Germany of Nazism so it could re-establish itself as a democratic nation.

    How long did denazification take?

    The denazification process occurred between 1945 and 1951. 

    What impact denazification have on Germany?

    The denazification process saw former Nazis removed from positions of importance in Germany. Serious offenders were imprisoned, given hard-labour, and even sentenced to death.

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