Melcher's Ghosts

tags: Nazism, European history, German history, Denazification

Monica Black is a historian of twentieth-century Germany and central Europe. She is the author of A Demon-Haunted Land: Witches, Wonder Doctors, and the Ghosts of the Past in Post-WWII Germany (Metropolitan Books, 2020) and Death in Berlin: From Weimar to Divided Germany (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Black teaches at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and is editor-in-chief of the journal Central European History.

In the spring of 1953, a former Nazi named Anton Melchers, who in the Third Reich had been a newspaper editor, war reporter, and—according to his brother—talented propagandist, was admitted to the university psychiatric clinic in Heidelberg. His brother, a former high-ranking SS officer, brought him there because Melchers had stopped eating. At the clinic, Melchers reported hearing voices that accused him of sexual immorality and intimated that he would be “paraded” in the streets. Melchers was also preoccupied, his brother said, with anxieties about being “rounded up and taken away” as punishment for his National Socialist past.1

Melchers was in his early fifties and had no history of mental illness. He was highly educated and held a doctorate. But after the war, he lost his job as a reporter during denazification, a series of measures the Allies took in an effort to purge the former political order. He found it difficult to restart his life. He opened a residential hostel in Heidelberg with his mother, which he continued to run after her death, but that too went sour. After he kicked out an unmarried couple for “immoral” behavior, the former tenants retaliated, accusing Melchers of illegally permitting “nightly visitors,” a charge with overtones of sexual impropriety.2

Melchers’s is, perhaps, a story of mental illness, but it is also more than that, given that it unfolded against the backdrop of the Third Reich’s recent defeat. That event unleashed deep and enduring tensions in West Germany, and provoked fears of retribution and counter-retribution in a society awash in suspicion and bad blood. Denunciation had been commonplace in Nazi Germany. Citizens were encouraged to betray to the state those who defied the regime’s edicts (by violating, for example, the myriad racial laws aimed principally at Jews) or whom they suspected of disloyalty (because they refused to return a neighbor’s stiff-armed “Hitler greeting” or listened to foreign radio broadcasts.)

Then the Allies came, and a whole new layer of distrust and unease descended. Allied troops did not just blow up Nazi monuments and hack swastikas and offensive slogans off building facades; they also issued questionnaires and convened civilian tribunals to determine individuals’ degree of involvement in the Hitler regime, sorting the population into different categories based on their relative complicity. Those considered dangerous sometimes served time in internment camps. Those deemed less culpable were conscripted to clear rubble and their standard allotment of rations was reduced according to a calculation that depended on the category to which they had been assigned. As was true in Melchers’s case, individuals could be relieved—at least temporarily—of their civic rights and their employment, occasioning a considerable loss not only of income but also position and social prestige.

Denazification prompted less soul-searching than resentment and anxiety among the German population. People worried that their prior affiliations and involvement in everything from war crimes to far less nefarious acts—like having obtained property illegally during the Nazi years—would be revealed. That they would lose their jobs. That they might be prosecuted. That they would be unmasked, exposed. Melchers would almost inevitably have associated the regional occupying force, the United States, with both Germany’s humiliation and his own loss of power, and it is not inconsequential that he imagined that the proximate cause of his trouble was that one of his tenants had in fact had some Americans stay overnight, visitors whom he had promptly expelled. These particular Americans, Melchers was sure, had facilitated his downfall. Nor is it insignificant that the voices Melchers heard told him he would be publicly shamed, “paraded” in the streets for some ill-defined indiscretion. And, in a striking deflection, he worried that he would be rounded up and taken away, as Nazis like him had rounded up and taken their victims away.

Read entire article at Cabinet

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