Post-War Denazification and Restitution in Germany

by Irena Fick

It is well documented that Nazis who held high office during the Third Reich were reintegrated and continued to work as judges, in police forces, in the Foreign Office and in the secret service of the Federal Republic of Germany. They were also employed in the Offices for Restitution.

Communists and socialists and their organisations continued to be under surveillance after the war, their activities controlled and constrained by public authorities acting in the interests of corporations. Communists, who had made up 78 per cent of the anti-fascist resistance, were accused of anti-constitutional conduct, and the German Communist Party of Germany was banned in 1956, active Communists were again persecuted and a not insignificant number were imprisoned. A thorn in the flesh of the unbridled development of corporate power. It started early:

It was in 1949 that the Adenauer government started to reverse the denazificaton policies operated in the immediate post-war years, amnesty laws were passed, war criminals released from prison, and civil servants who had been barred from holding public office were, with some exceptions, reinstated.

In 1953 a Restitution Law was passed, enabling those who had been persecuted for racial, religious or political reasons to claim reparations; there was, however, a marked hierarchy in the way compensation was awarded. This can be seen when comparing how the children of two groups of members of the resistance fared:

The suffering of the families of the Kreisauer Kreis after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944 should not be underestimated. The children were discriminated as ‘children of traitors’, not only during the last few months of the war but also, despite their social status, by their by now reinstated teachers during the 1950s. But a special fund was set up to enable the children of those involved in the failed coup to attend private boarding schools and to finance holidays for them.

The experience of the children of working class resistance fighters was very different. For the most part their suffering started much earlier, often immediately after the Nazis came to power, and lasted for many years. While their parents were in prison or concentrations camps, many were sent to children’s homes where they were treated harshly and were denied adequate medical treatment. Where there was only one parent incarcerated, the other parent and the children were denied welfare benefits. They were ‘traitor families’. No fund was set up for them.

A stark example of the shoddy practices in implementing restitution: Eugen Gerstenmaier, a member of the Confessing Church, associated with the Kreisauer Kreis from 1942, who would later become President of the Bundestag, was awarded 281,107 DM because he twice lost out on promotion in Nazi Germany. He was eventually forced to resign after a public outcry. In contrast, an associate professor who, like Gerstenmaier, lost his authorisation to teach at a university (venia legendi) for political reasons and had to keep his family of four children on 400 Marks per month was awarded 1,653 DM.

Then there is the case of Bartholomäus (Barthel) Schink, a member of the Cologne Edelweißgroup of young resisters. He was one of 12 publicly hanged without trial on 10 November 1944. He was 16. When his mother applied for posthumous recognition for him as an anti-fascist resistance fighter in December 1952 she had to wait ten years to be informed that her application had been rejected. The parents of the young people active in Edelweißgroups were communists or social democrats, often themselves in the resistance and imprisoned. They were working class. The authorities denied political motives for their actions and continued to regard them as criminals as defined in their Gestapo files. After much public protest, Bartholomäus Schink was finally rehabilitated in 2005.

The persecuted Sinti, like others, had to prove their entitlement to restitution under the law which only applies to those persecuted for racial, religious or political reasons, not to other victims persecuted, for example, for being outcasts. During the 1950s stereotyping of and discrimination against Sinti continued unabated, and in case of doubt, Offices for Restitution would call on precisely the Nazis who had persecuted Sinti during the Third Reich to establish whether the persecution of a Sinti family had been on a racial basis or on legal grounds such as combating crime. Their recommendations could deprive the victims of any compensation. Note: the persecution itself was not denied. This situation eased somewhat during the 1960s.

It took years of campaigning for compensation for other victims, for example ghetto survivors (the Ghetto Pension Law was enacted in 2002), and it often takes international protests to embarrass and shame the German government into acting. The second largest group the Nazis persecuted is that of Soviet Prisoners of War. About 60 per cent, around three million, Soviet POWs died as a result of deliberately genocidal policies: intentional starvation, exposure, and summary execution. After a long campaign the German government finally agreed in 2015 to pay each of the estimated 4,000 survivors still alive, 2,500€ as symbolic compensation. There are still other victims who have as yet to be recognised and any survivors or their families deserve to be compensated urgently.

On a personal note: My parents, father: tortured by the Gestapo, several prisons, concentration camp, mother: interrogated and held by the SS overnight several times, three months prison in Mährisch Ostrau; they received – as far as I remember – 12,000 DM. It’s a matter of class.