After World War II, Most ‘Ordinary Nazis’ Returned to Lives of Obscurity. The World Must Recover Their Stories Before It’s Too LateRoundup
tags: history education, Nazis, World War 2, Holocaust memory
Daniel Lee is the author of The S.S. Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi, available now from Hachette Books.
Among the numerous tragedies of the current COVID-19 crisis is the large number of Holocaust survivors who count among the disease’s victims. In recent weeks, newspapers across the world have published moving obituaries of individual Jews who, more than three-quarters of a century ago, fled persecution, went into hiding or survived the horrors of the concentration camps. A number of these tributes have even reflected on a world in the not too distant future in which there will no longer be Holocaust survivors to share their testimony. With educators aware of this situation, holograms of remaining survivors have been produced, so that future generations will be able to ask questions about life in 1930s and 1940s Europe.
But while first- and second-generation Holocaust survivors are often no strangers to the public exposure that comes with educating their communities about the past, the same cannot be said for most former Nazis and the children of perpetrators, whose participation in or relationship with the Third Reich has not undergone the same level of public interest or scrutiny.
After the war, most ordinary Nazis—Gestapo agents, S.S. and S.A. auxiliaries, party members and government officials, as well as German citizens who embraced the party’s rhetoric—faded into relative obscurity and were able to create fresh false identities and make a clean break with their pasts. They were aided by a silence within families and within the polity that persisted for decades. When post-war trials against Nazis occurred, they generally ignored low-level functionaries and killers and aimed to convict only prominent members of the regime. Between 1945 and 1958, only 6,093 former Nazis were convicted of having committed a crime—a drop in the ocean when we remember that in 1945 the Nazi party had eight million members. Despite the swathes of people caught up in Nazism before and during World War II, most of us can, today, name only a handful of Nazis, almost always those who formed part of Hitler’s inner circle.
In this context, it is unsurprising that we’re not commonly seeing stories in German newspapers of Holocaust perpetrators or their descendants being affected by the virus. Looking at the figures, we discover that more than 5,000 of the 8,700-plus COVID-related deaths in Germany were people aged over 80. Logic dictates that many of these people, who would have been children or adolescents if they lived in Germany during the Third Reich, likely had parents who made up Hitler’s millions of nameless and faceless followers. Other fatalities of the novel coronavirus in Germany were in their late teens and even early 20s during the Second World War; more than 1,600 of those who died were aged over 90, while dozens were aged more than a hundred.
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