1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
The State Department in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Unsettling ties

March 3, 2012

Civil servants with ties to the Nazi Party were the rule rather than the exception after World War II, according to several studies. The German government has set out to investigate this dark period of its history.


Investigators made a chilling discovery in November 2011: What had seemed to be unrelated 10 murders of victims of Turkish and Greek origin between 2002 and 2007 were in fact a series of racially-motivated murders committed by a neo-Nazi terror cell. Critics allege that security agencies like the police and particularly the Office for the Protection of the Constiution had failed completely - and that they had possibly even turned a blind eye to the neo-Nazi terrorists.

Parliamentary committees and a joint federal-state commission have been charged with investigating the state's missteps. The question that worries many is whether whether neo-Nazi sympathizers may still occupy high German offices.

Post-1945 careers unbroken by a Nazi past

In the early days of West Germany after the war, right-wing sympathizers were certainly present in government offices. The better part of the Nazi's bureaucratic apparatus and personnel was simply reinstated after 1945, and silence about officials' own past shaped the intellectual climate in government institutions.

Hans Globke
Hans Globke's government career spanned the Nazi era and post-war democracyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The most prominent example of a career unbroken by a Nazi past is that of Hans Globke, who served as chief of staff and a close advisor to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in the 1950s. Globke had formerly worked in the Nazi administration as a lawyer who wielded significant influence in creating the Nuremberg Race Laws. That legislation built the foundation for the discrimination and persecution against Jews that led in part to the Holocaust.

Globke's case does not lend itself to generalizations about the Nazi elite's post-war fate. But it is significant that systematic investigations into continuities within the government's personnel came so late after the end of the war.

Investigations into the past

There is still much research to do when it comes to uncovering how careers in German bureaucracy continued before and after 1945. The German Foreign Ministry led the way in 2005, when then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer commissioned several historians to investigate the Ministry's past. The result was published in 2010, under the title "Das Amt und die Vergangenheit" (The Office and the Past).

Guido Westerwelle with historians Peter Hayes, Eckart Conze, Moshe Zimmermann, and Norbert Frei
Guido Westerwelle with the authors of "Das Amt und die Vergangenheit"Image: AP

In the summer of 2011, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Green Party succeeded in their calls for a non-partisan committee to examine the continuities and breaks among staff in governmental agencies. The goal is to arrive at a "definitive concept for coming to terms with the Nazi past." The petitioning parties would like the federal government to present such a concept.

But the former Director of the Institute for Cultural History Horst Möller and historian Michael Stolleis advised the parliament not to issue "wide-ranging research proposals without a problem-oriented program," and also to avoid the appearance of "politically-motivated assignments."

Political influence and limited access to documents

In the case of historians commissioned to investigate the past of the German Intelligence Service, political influence was in fact too big, says intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom. He also claims that the researchers unduly accepted guidelines from the head of the BND.

The research commission's leader Klaus-Dietmar Henke as well as BND head Gerhard Schindler disagree, with the latter having promised to provide "the greatest possible transparency."

Reinhard Gehlen
Reinhard Gehlen: a general under Hitler, later an intelligence director after the warImage: AP

The disagreements over investigating the German Intelligence Service's past demonstrate the challenges involved with such research. In the case of an intelligence service, the entanglement with the Nazi regime is likely to be much more significant than in, for instance, the ministry for agriculture. It becomes apparent, too, in the fact that the German Intelligence Service was led by Reinhard Gehlen, a general in the military during Hitler's rule, and other high-ranking Nazis.

Not even a thorough investigation into the BND's history will answer all questions, remarked Michael Hollmann, head of the Federal Archives located in Koblenz. At a parliamentary hearing, he made it clear that historians will be able to access most of the documents they requested, but not all of them.

Hollmann stressed that restricting documents doesn't represent an arbitrary exercise of power.

"The protection of sources and methods must, as in journalism, be accepted," otherwise the agencies could "close up shop," Hollmann said.

'Relatively high' continuity after 1945

In December last year, the federal government replied to an appeal issued by the Left Party, which had wanted to know how German political institutions had dealt with the Nazi past.

For West Germany, the federal government's commission noted that after the war's end, "continuities in personnel among civil servants was relatively high." Experts estimate that on average 70 percent of the personnel were able to continue their work without problems after 1945 despite having been employed in ministries and agencies during Nazi rule.

Some even suggest that figure could be closer to 90 percent.

How could democracy emerge?

For historian Micha Brumlik it is not the personnel of the federal ministries that can be credited with the fact that a democracy emerged successfully in western Germany after 1945. The Allies were the real initiators, he argued, noting that former Nazi Party, SS and Gestapo members could hardly be expected to have pushed for democracy.
And Dresden-based historian Klaus-Dietmar Henke wonders how democracy could have functioned so well "despite the lingering poison of Nazism and the lack of change among staff."

Part of the answer is likely that the several hundred thousand Nazi followers and even the remaining Nazi culprits adjusted quickly to the new times out of concern for their careers, just as they did in 1933 when the Nazis took power.

Though disagreements have emerged and much work remains, uncovering such networks in the State Department and well beyond has been a rewarding task - on that point, the experts in the German Parliament agree.

Author: Marcel Fürstenau / gsw
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg

Professor Micha Brumlik
Micha Brumlik say the Allies are to credit for the emergence of democracy in western GermanyImage: picture-alliance/ dpa
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Xi Jinping zu Besuch in Moskau

Xi ends trip to Russia as China grows more emboldened

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage