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Difficult homecoming

Interview: Cornelia Rabitz / hwOctober 29, 2012

The experience of Richard Kornitzer in Ursula Krechel's prize-winning novel "District Court" is representative of many victims of Nazism, who, after the war, returned to an unsympathetic German society.

A Nazi war crimes trial in Frankfurt am Main in 1964.
Image: ullstein bild

DW: Two things were very difficult for the [West Germany], at least in the early years: The handling of Nazi war crimes in the courts and the reparations, or so-called "restitution," for the surviving victims. What was the social and political climate like at the beginning of the 1950s? Why was it so difficult for the authorities and politicians to approach the victims?

Andreas Eichmüller: With its devastating consequences, the Second World War was responsible for the suffering of not just the victims of National Socialism, but also the entire population. Generally speaking, many people could point to the fact that they themselves had suffered. There was relatively little empathy for the real victims of National Socialism, those who were persecuted and murdered.

So how did politicians react? After all, there were former Nazi politicians, also lawyers, who were able to continue their careers.

They tried to take a relatively liberal approach and only bar the most obvious war criminals. On the other hand, what can one do with a people, who, to a greater or lesser extent, supported the National Socialist regime? One couldn't suspend all of the participants from their roles. Naturally, as part of the reparation process, steps were taken to afford victims a certain level of compensation. But from a contemporary perspective, it was very limited.

Konrad Adenauer (left) and Hans Globke pictured in 1961
Hans Globke (right), a former Nazi civil servant, was one of Konrad Adenauer's closest aidesImage: dapd

So compensation for the victims was a sort of act of clemency?

It was most definitely the case that the idea of compensation was unpopular among the German population - mainly because many of them saw themselves as victims, and believed themselves to be victims who could themselves file claims. So there was definitely a strong resentment and anti-Semitic feeling among a broad swathe of the population. The government had to tread carefully. On the other hand, [West German Chancellor Konrad] Adenauer's government passed the restitution laws. One paid reparations - but also because, in doing so, one could make a good impression on the international political stage. If it was left up to the general population, it wouldn't have happened.

Your recently published study is titled "No General Amnesty. The Prosecution of Nazi Crimes in the early Federal Republic of Germany."

In terms of legal processing, the 1950s, the focus of my study, are generally considered to be a period of great failures. Crimes committed in Eastern Europe were not really at the center of proceedings as they were in later years. Legal charges processed in the courts - but there was no means for people in Eastern Europe to file such charges. The situation improved with the establishment of the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes, which not only handled legal complaints but could also investigate them.

What interests a historian such as yourself in this particular topic today?

The handling of the legacy of dictators remains a topical issue. It's really interesting how West Germany approached the issue after 1945. With restitution, just as with the criminal proceedings, they were entering new territory. It hadn't happened before, not after the First World War, for instance. Then there was no restitution for victims, but reparations for the victorious states. There's something to be learned from that. There was no general amnesty in Germany. Unlike in other countries. It was a learning process - even taking into account the many failures. From the point of view of the victims, it was all very inadequate.

Andreas Eichmüller is an academic fellow at the Institute of Contemporary History (IfZ) in Munich. His book "Keine Generalamnestie. Die Strafverfolgung von NS-Verbrechen in der frühen Bundesrepublik" is published in German by Oldenbourg.