When Malte Herwig, now a reporter for Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in Germany, worked as a journalist for the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel n 2006, when, he read that the leading left-wing thinker and Nobel laureate Gunter Grass had been an SS member in his youth. Like many others, he called Grass for an interview, because he wanted to understand why the author had decided to come clean after so many years.
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Grass told him that one morning, as he was shaving in his bathroom, he caught himself humming the tune of “Our Flags Lead Us Forward,” a Hitler Youth song. This showed him how deeply rooted he still was in his Third Reich past, and made him realize he could no longer flee the truth.
Herwig, who was 34 at the time, was astounded by the intolerable ease with which Grass − a public figure famous the world over − managed to hide the dark secret of his past for so long. Wasting no time, he hurried to the Bundesarchiv (the German Federal Archives), where Nazi-era files are kept, to look for names of other famous Germans hiding Nazi pasts. What he found astounded him. On the list were left-wing activists, Communists, academics and democrats − not types one would have expected to see among Nazi Party members.
As someone who was raised in the German school system of the 1980s, Herwig learned a great deal about the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it was hard for him to understand how and why so many Germans tried to hide their past − and succeeded.
“Well, I’m 40 now and thought the Third Reich was long in the past, until I discovered that former Nazi Party members sat at every German federal cabinet table,” Herwig told Haaretz this week. “In fact, the last former National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) member resigned from government abruptly only in 1992 − the year I left school. To me, that is not the past, and the fact that these things were never talked about shocked me.”
Herwig provides the answers to his many questions in a book just published in Germany, the result of a thorough investigation he carried out in recent years. The book’s name, “Die Flakhelfer” (“The Antiaircraft Warfare Helpers”), was the nickname given to German youth who helped the German army in the last days of the war by manning antiaircraft batteries.
In American hands
Take, for example, Hans-Dietrich Genscher: Eventually serving as Germany’s foreign minister, Genscher joined the Nazi Party at the end of the war and succeeded in hiding this until the 1990s. The Nazi past of his cohorts, who rose to senior positions in Germany, was kept hidden for decades. The book reveals that, for close to half a century, Germans in very senior government positions intentionally obstructed access to the 11 million Nazi member files.
It is now clear that the files were kept in a German archive in the American sector of Berlin. “For decades, the German government prevented the return of these files to Germany, even though the United States was ready to return them as early as 1967,” Herwig revealed. “The German government didn’t want them back because the files contained too many secrets about the Nazi past of politicians at the highest levels − presidents, chancellors, ministers ... Germany knew that the Nazi Party files were a Pandora’s box that would be opened the minute they came back to Germany. As long as they remained in American hands, the secrets were safe,” he added.
How did the files end up in the American sector? After the war, in 1945, the U.S. army seized the Nazi files and moved them to Berlin, the German capital, where the Americans established the Berlin Document Center in a building that, during the war, had served as the Gestapo’s audio surveillance center. As soon as the war ended, the Americans started using these files against the Nazi war criminals in the dock during the Nuremberg trials.
However, as Herwig explains, the American government was worried that too much scrutiny of the files would annoy West Germany − the newly formed country and America’s ally in the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. and the Eastern Bloc. The Americans, therefore, were in no rush to reveal the material, which could have embarrassed their West German allies.
In his investigation, Herwig discovered how the Germans played the two sides off against each other: Officially, the German government publicly appeared to demand the Americans return the files, because the Bundestag (Germany’s Federal Parliament) demanded it. But, behind the scenes, the Germans asked the United States to say that an immediate return of the documents was impossible, thereby allowing them to blame the Americans.
“No wonder,” Herwig said. “The German foreign ministry, headed by Hans-Dietrich Genscher, was responsible for these negotiations. But, of course, Genscher’s name was itself in these files as a member of the Nazi Party. No wonder he had no interest in that becoming public. It was only after he resigned in 1992 that the files were finally handed over to Germany, in 1994.”
Now, present-day freedom of information laws in the United States and Germany have forced the authorities to reveal all information and correspondence on the topic. In the fall of 2011, Herwig started digging into forgotten files in the U.S. National Archives in Washington in a search for information about the Nazi files. “I discovered the biggest postwar cover-up, going all the way up to the heads of state,” he said.
Washington kept copies of the Nazi files as well as all the administrative material of the Berlin archive. The discoveries from his digging continued to shock Herwig. For years, the rumor among those in the know was that the American director of the Berlin Document Center had a secret safe where he kept the most sensitive files, including embarrassing information about the Nazi past of senior German figures. During his stay in Washington, Herwig realized the rumor was well founded. He calls the list he found there “the opposite of Schindler’s list” and “the hall of shame.”
The list featured the names of dozens of 1970s and ‘80s politicians. He was astounded that former Nazi Party members had sat at every German federal cabinet table from the time of Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) and right up to Helmut Kohl ((1982-1998.
In 2007, Herwig started publishing a series of articles in Der Spiegel in which he exposed the Nazi past of a string of German politicians, intellectuals and artists.
Not everyone was enamored of his investigative series. Some were critical of him for having dared to reveal the stains on the past of respectable German citizens. “But, excuse me, that’s what it says right here in the file,” he told his critics, and went on doing his research.
“When you search for the truth, there will always be people who attack you because they don’t like the truth. But without knowing the truth, we are condemned to repeat the past,” he said. “I am not out to judge 17-year-olds for what they did in times of war and under a dictatorship. But I cannot take lies and denial. In my book, I expose the pervasive post-wartime lies of Germany − the collective denial that lasts to this day. Today we rightly condemn the Holocaust, Wehrmacht atrocities and Hitler’s criminal policies. But if you ask ordinary Germans, you will find that the deafening silence of the postwar years persists.” He summarizes this silence with the line: “No, Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi!”
How the system worked
After he received permission to look at classified American Cold War diplomatic documents, he also found documentation − a single paragraph − that explained to him how the whole system worked. In a 1987 memo, Daniel Simon, the head of the Berlin Document Center, wrote the following to his colleagues: “I have no doubt that if we were to offer them [the German government] the Berlin Document Center [with its incriminating files], they would refuse the offer.” Similar sentiments were also expressed over the next several years.
Only in 1994, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were the files finally returned to the German archive in the city. The first politician whose Nazi past was exposed straight afterward was Hans-Dietrich Genscher. It became clear that he joined the Nazi Party in 1944. Coincidentally or not, Genscher had retired from politics two years earlier.
Many, including Genscher, denied their Nazi past even after it came to light. Many claimed, and still claim, that some “unknown hand” signed them up for the party without their knowledge. This was true also of Martin Walser, a writer with dozens of novels to his credit; and Hans Werner Henze, a well-known composer and prominent left-wing activist. Herwig refuses to believe them, insisting that a personal signature was required from anyone joining the Nazi Party. Anyone who claims otherwise, he says, is “trapped in a myth.”
“The people I feature in my book managed to turn themselves from NSDAP members into upright democrats,” he says. “Looking at their ‘broken biographies,’ we learn that history is not black and white, but that even intelligent and well-educated young people could succumb to Nazism. It is worth keeping that in mind and being watchful if we want to prevent succumbing to totalitarian ideas, new forms of racism and radicalism today.”
Last year, Herwig interviewed former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who served from 1974-82. He asked him: “Why do think people such as Genscher to this day refuse to admit a little thing such as signing a Nazi Party membership form at the age of 17, at the end of the war?” Schmidt answered: “After you’ve decided to lie, it’s very hard to tell the truth.”
Three years ago, when he was 37, Herwig discovered that his own grandfathers had been members of the Nazi Party. “I asked my parents whether my grandfathers − whom I never met − had been NSDAP members. They didn’t hesitate to reply that, yes, they had both been in the party,” he said. “I was shocked because I had always assumed I would have been told about that. It turned out I had simply never asked the question directly. This made me realize how important it is to ask these questions, and to ask them before it’s too late.