One of the things that’s generally known about Germany, but not often spoken about for various reasons(1), is how much continuity there was between the Third Reich and the early days of the Federal Republic. A certain degree of continuity is inevtiable any time a government changes; even the Bolsheviks brought back a lot of Tsarist officials simply because no one else knew how things worked. But the questions for West Germany after the war are how many, for how long and at what level?
Over time, and thanks in no small measure to confrontations in the late 1960s, more and more German institutions have taken an honest look at who did what to whom during the Nazi period, and where they ended up afterward. The answers to the three questions have often been quite a few, for their whole careers, and at leadership levels. Several forces have gotten companies and institutions to be more truthful about their activities from 1933 to 1945, and the continuity between that period and the postwar era. One such has been the simple passage of time. People who would have been expected to pay a price are now retired, or dead. No doubt, knowledge is coming at the cost of justice.
The latest institution to undertake such an examination is Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, or BKA). Credit to the BKA’s current president, Jörg Ziercke. He didn’t have to do it, and he didn’t have to let it be done so thoroughly. What has turned up in a study by historians is a remarkable number of SS men who went on to leadership positions in the BKA. Files used by the Gestapo to harass and persecute Roma and Sinti were taken over by the BKA, and harassment continued well into the postwar era, in some form at least into the 1980s. The views on “criminal biology” formed during the Third Reich were still influental at the BKA into the 1970s. The essential stories are here, here and here, from the newspaper whose web site still could be better organized. (I had hoped to translate these for this post, but real life kept getting in the way. The story hasn’t really made it into English-language media yet.) There was also a Sunday article, complete with charts of who from the SS rose to what position in the BKA, but I can’t find it online. The English-language Spiegel online has a summary here.
The questions resonate in the present, as post-Communist countries continue to wrestle with the legacies of their dictatorships. Who rose to power? Who did they step on to get there? What are the demands of justice in a new era? Other European countries have their own debates, and indeed their comforting myths, about collaboration, about wartime acts, about the fates of fellow citizens.
There aren’t any easy answers, especially more than half a century later. One good side effect is that the revelations may prompt Germany’s main intelligence service, the BND, and the constitutional protection office (Verfassungsschutz) to examine their pasts. With luck, they will be as honest as the BKA.
(1) Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe was a key reason at the time. As years passed, additional reasons came to include embarassment, fear of personal consequences, unwillingness to bother the old folks and now the passing of people with firsthand knowledge and consequent general ignorance. Another is that Germany has turned into a reasonably well functioning democracy despite the Nazi pasts of many people in its institutions.