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The idea of purging the German state apparatus in the wake of the Allied victory was agreed to at the Potsdam Conference (17 July–2 August 1945). The so-called Potsdam Agreement urged the removal of all Nazi influence not only from the state apparatus but also from German society at large, its culture, press, economy, and judicial system. The agreement expressed no more than a general principle, however, and the actual denazification process changed over time in response to the political constraints affecting the Allied occupiers; it also varied according to the occupation zone concerned.

In all zones, nonetheless, denazification meant an immense enterprise of social engineering, the prelude to which was the mass arrest of a proportion of the male population of Germany. Thus some 183,000 people were confined in internment camps between May 1945 and January 1947. Of these an estimated 86,000 were freed. These figures refer solely, however, to the three Western Occupation Zones.

This internment was legally underpinned by the so-called Law of Liberation from National Socialism and Militarism (March 1946), endorsed by the Inter-Allied Council for Berlin, which defined categories of guilt and envisaged the judicial sanctions to be taken against each. Classification, triage, incarceration, and sanction: the clear intention was that the social engineering of purge be meticulously controlled and administered in a manifestly consistent way. In reality the practice of the different occupying forces quickly diverged.

The Soviet Occupation Zone was undoubtedly the most affected by repressive measures. The Soviets imprisoned in special camps anyone suspected of involvement in the party or state organization of the Third Reich, and no fewer than forty-two thousand people lost their lives in a purge of striking swiftness and comprehensiveness. The reasons for the Soviets' particularly energetic attention to denazification had much to do with the ideology and legitimacy of the socialist state they wished to build. Conditions in the special camps were especially harsh, and the entire process of denazification was supervised by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. The repression was thus characterized by secrecy and violence, but it might at the same time be seen as serving a ritual function necessary and preparatory to the reintegration, in the context of a society in chaos, of compromised elites whose experience remained indispensable to material and state reconstruction.

The U.S. approach to denazification was distinguished by the sheer scale of the arrests and the number of indictments. The simplest cases were dealt with by means of a questionnaire comprising 131 questions, a procedure that later elicited a blistering retort from Ernst von Salomon in his book Der Fragebogen (1951; The questionnaire), which revisited the experience of the German generation marked by World War I—a generation that supplied the chief protagonists in the Nazi tragedy.

Once they had answered the questionnaire, suspects were classified according to five categories—major offenders, offenders, lesser offenders, followers, and exonerated persons—as defined in the aforementioned Law of Liberation. No fewer than nine hundred thousand cases were tried by the 545 denazification courts set up in the U.S. Occupation Zone; most cases were assigned to German judges. But if the American approach to denazification was characterized by its massive scale and bureaucratic tendencies, it also underwent a distinct evolution. Under the direction of High Commissioner John McCloy, and in the context of the first tensions of the Cold War, the Americans put the brakes on denazification from 1948 on. By that time the construction of the Federal Republic of Germany created a pressing need for the talents of the wartime generation, and the Americans demonstrated a pragmatism in this regard that lends a measure of credibility to the charge, formulated by the East Germans, that denazification was never completed, through collusion between defeated and victorious capitalists.

The French and British adopted an even more pragmatic approach than the Americans. They too based their work on a five-class categorization, leaving the two less-serious classes of suspects to German courts and releasing the majority of their detainees without ever seriously investigating their activities during the Nazi period.

These practical differences in the approaches of the occupying powers are reflected in the statistics for their respective zones. Of 250,000 people imprisoned overall, some 86,000 were freed in 1947. But whereas the American, British, and French together released between 42 and 53 percent of 183,000 detainees, the Soviets for their part continued to hold 88 percent of their 67,000 prisoners captive. Their policy was thus marked at once by its breadth and its harshness.

Generally speaking, denazification wavered between two imperatives: one, ethical and witness-bearing in nature, demanded prosecution and punishment for Nazi crimes; the other, of a pragmatic order, argued for more lenient treatment in the light of Germany's absolute need to rebuild.

Approaches to denazification differed, but (with the possible exception of the Soviet and East German variant) they were an intelligible response to the situation. In West Germany proceedings against presumed Nazis became rare during the 1950s but picked up once more thereafter with a wave of trials. By that time, however, denazification had given way to the simply judicial (and indeed very systematic) prosecution of selected Nazi crimes.

See alsoNuremberg Laws; Occupation, Military; Potsdam Conference.


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Christian Ingrao