Can We Hold Trump And His Allies Accountable Without Further Splitting America?Roundup
tags: Nazism, World War 2, German history, Denazification
Samuel Huneke is a historian of modern Germany and an assistant professor of history at George Mason University.
Since the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, there have been calls for criminal inquiries into everything from his dodgy tax returns to his 2016 campaign’s involvement with Russian intelligence. Over the past two years, as evidence of his and his administration’s wrongdoing have mounted, those calls have become more fervent. Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris said in June 2019 that, were she president, her administration would prosecute Trump.
Yet Joe Biden won the presidency in no small part with an appeal to unity. Liberals fear that his bipartisan ethos might lead him to forgive and forget the Trump administration’s crimes, from bribery to obstruction of justice to routine violations of the Hatch Act. And we’ve been here before. In 2009, President Barack Obama declined to prosecute Bush administration officials for the commission of war crimes, torture in particular. Some commentators see a pattern of Republican abuse and Democratic forgiveness stretching back to Watergate and the Iran-contra scandal. If Trump and his associates are not prosecuted, they argue, it might set a devastating precedent. Others worry that the desire to prosecute Trump could amount to no more than “vengeance” that would further erode democratic norms. This vigorous debate on the left asks how we as a nation can get to the bottom of the Trump administration’s criminal behavior, while also ensuring that no future administration can act in such a manner again.
While there are critical differences between what this administration is suspected of doing and the violence committed by Nazi Germany, the commentariat often compares Trumpism to Nazism. It is no surprise, then, that some have referred to Germany’s denazification as a model for how the new president could deal with Trump and his administration. But those who use the comparison should recognize the mixed results of the German approach. The denazification process is widely considered to have been only partially successful — but it also underscores the importance of confronting painful and criminal pasts.
Historians have assessed these efforts in different ways. On the one hand, the Nuremberg trials established a set of international criminal norms, in particular that international tribunals could punish genocide and other crimes against humanity. When special courts were created to prosecute perpetrators of genocide in Yugoslavia and Rwanda decades later, it was to the precedents of Nuremberg that they turned.
On the other hand, if denazification’s principle purpose was to convince ordinary Germans of the wrongness of Nazism, then it was at best a partial success. Although Germans initially expressed support for the Nuremberg trials, their enthusiasm quickly waned as it became clear that they, too, might be subject to prosecution. The idea of collective guilt was anathema. When West Germany was founded in 1949, many Germans did their best to forget the 12 years of Nazi rule.
Although many Germans had rejected denazification by 1949, those four years had given their country a chance to decouple their state and society from National Socialism. The processes begun by the Allied Powers confirmed that the Nazi Party had been a criminal organization and that (West) Germany would henceforth be a democratic state. Ultimately, the trials of former Nazis offered Germany’s politicians a chance to rethink German democracy and to place it on surer footing.
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