UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133c Homepage > 133c Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Dealing With Collective Guilt and Memory During Allied Occupation, 1943-1949

Book Essay on: Jeffrey K. Olick, In The House of the Hangman:The Agonies of German Defeat 1943-1949
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 380 pages

by Shannon Heliker
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
at amazon

About Shannon Heliker

I am a fourth-year Cultural Anthropology major and History minor. I had never taken a German history class until this quarter, but I have taken several European history courses. I was interested in obtaining a deeper understanding of German politics, culture, and history because I feel as though it has played an important role in the history of Europe in general. I chose Olick’s book because I was really interested in immediate post-war Germany and how Germans attempted to come to terms with their Nazi past.

Abstract (back to top)

Jeffrey K. Olick’s book examines the theory of “collective guilt” and explains how most Germans reacted to it. Olick looks at various debates among the Allies in dealing with post-war Germany. He also looks at how most Germans reacted to the Allies’ accusations of guilt and the proposed plans to rebuild and “punish” Germany. The main point of Olick’s book is to show how important the Allied occupation period (1943-1949) was in forming the collective memory of Nazi Germany. Most Germans rejected the notion of collective guilt and instead saw National Socialism as something that happened to the German people. Furthermore, most Germans believed that what happened to Germany was not unique to Germany; rather, it was an extreme manifestation of wider Western, capitalistic trends, like nationalism, militarism, and mass society. When historians study “post-war Germany,” many start in 1949, the year when the federal state was created. Although the Allied occupation period is very important, it is often overlooked. The fact that Olick chose to focus on the Allied occupation period is important in providing the framework for German responses to National Socialism in general.

Essay (back to top)


In his 2005 book, In The House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949, Jeffery K. Olick examines debates, literary works, and primary sources to try to understand why and how German memories of wartime atrocities were framed. Olick examines the theory of “collective guilt” and explains how most Germans reacted to it. This is essential in his exploration of German memories of wartime atrocities, because Olick argues these memories were in part framed in reaction to Allied accusations of collective guilt. Olick examines postwar Germany and the legacies National Socialism had not only on Germany, but also on the Allies. The main point of Olick’s book is to show how important the Allied occupation period was in forming the collective memory of Nazi Germany. Although many historians describe post-war German attitudes beginning in 1949, the year the new federal state was created, the Allied occupation period is important in providing the framework for German responses to National Socialism. The problems of Allied occupation policies enabled many Germans to avoid self-examination. Instead, many viewed the Allies’ theory of collective guilt as efforts to make Germany the scapegoats for problems inherent to the West as a whole.

The Allies, De-nazification, and “Collective Guilt”:

In the first part of the book, labeled “The Victors,” Olick focuses on debates members of the Allies had in dealing with postwar Germany. Olick examines various views, ranging from extreme measures, like unconditional surrender, to reparations, and more specifically to the common proposals of de-nazification and re-education measures. From “hard peace” to “soft peace,” Olick looks at three distinct schools of thought. The “outlaw theory” proposed that a small clique was responsible for National Socialism. The “Neo-Marxist theory” argued that National Socialism was the product of social tensions inherent in capitalism. The third proposal, supported by U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., believed that long-term re-education of the entire German population—whether political, cultural, or psychological—could prevent a resurgence of German militarism. At the root of the dilemma the Allies faced was the issue of whether and in what ways all Germans were responsible for National Socialism and everything it had created. Americans and Britons debated to what extent National Socialism was a product of German culture and to what extent it was a “deviation, accident, or even foreign plague” (28). Regardless of whom the Allies believed should feel guilty; Olick makes it clear that while there was much talk about guilt, shame, and collective guilt, there was no coherent guilt debate in the years of Allied occupation.

For the most part, the Allies did intend to rid the country not only of National Socialism, but of what they believed to be a pervasive culture of “militarism” (41). However, there were varying ideas among the Allies as to how that should happen. United States Vice President Henry Wallace, an advocate of a “soft peace,” said in 1942, “We [the Allies] must de-educate, and re-educate people for democracy… the only hope for Europe remains a change of mentality on the part of the German” (41). However, some, like Theodor Kaufman, were advocates of a “hard peace.” Kaufman’s book, Germany Must Perish!, argued that because Germany had started a total war, it had earned total destruction as a nation (52). In addition, American journalist William L. Shirer argued in his work Berlin Diary, published in 1941, that it was Germany’s “national character” that was at the root of its aggressive militaristic and socially racist policies (53-54). Similarly, U.S. President Roosevelt, who was initially a strong supporter of “unconditional surrender,” regarded German society in its entirety, rather than just the temporary German leadership, as the source of trouble (41).  However prevalent this discourse of “hard peace” was, the majority of Anglo-American opinion generally pursued more moderate plans of “re-education” and de-nazification.

Thus, the majority of Anglo-American thinking favored moderate reparations from production, rather than dismantling industrial resources or unconditional surrender. The point, Olick explains, was to make the “new” Germany dependent on the markets of Western Europe and the world. In order to accomplish this, rebuilt Germany would require a relatively centralized state (67). Interestingly, Olick points out that most Americans believed ordinary Germans should not be held accountable (41). The popular view in Germany both during the occupation, and many years after, was that the Third Reich was the result of historical contingencies exploited by individuals; thus, responsibility resided with the leaders. Thus, for many Germans, the plans of re-education and de-nazification seemed accusatory, arrogant and illegitimate. Most regarded these as unjustified charges of collective guilt. Many Germans believed National Socialism was caused by “generalized forces of Western history at large” (96). Thus, many Germans viewed the theory of collective guilt as efforts to make Germany the scapegoat for problems inherent to the West as a whole.

In this way, Germans often characterized accusations of collective guilt as “Pharisaical,” referring to the ancient Jewish cult that, in Christian doctrine, represents hypocrisy (96). Ironically, Olick points out, Germans repeatedly equated themselves with the Jewish people. Many Germans, unwilling or unable to come terms with the past, took on the role of “victims” and rejected any measure of guilt. Many Germans, instead, referred to themselves as the “new pariahs” who were persecuted by the now vengeance-seeking Allies. Furthermore, Germans rarely empathized publicly with those they persecuted, and instead focused on the suffering caused to Germans by Hitler and Allied occupation. Olick pays considerable attention to U.S. treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., labeled the “Jewish Angel of Revenge,” and his Morgentahu Plan for postwar Germany. Olick’s approach to memory is seen in his approach to the Morgenthau plan. He doesn’t look so much into the policies of the plan. Instead, Olick looks at how Morgenthau was turned into “the Jew Morgenthau as the emblem of revenge,” even though his plan was not as extreme as most made it out to be (33). Olick shows that for Germans themselves during the occupation and afterward, Morgenthau was evidence of the Allies’ retaliatory position, the supposed source of German suffering. Germany was supposedly now suffering the same treatment as the Jews. Regardless of what explanations for National Socialism were debated, Olick makes it clear that in the postwar occupation period the majority of Germans saw themselves as victims; and therefore most Germans rejected the notion of collective guilt.

Nuremberg Trial and the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt:

In the second part of his book, titled “The Vanquished,” Olick examines the meanings of German history and collective guilt. When examining how important institutions confronted the question of guilt in the immediate postwar period, Olick looks specifically at the how the Church and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg confronted the issue. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg from November 1945 - October 1946, also known as the Nuremberg Trial, reflected the inherent contradictions in condemning postwar Germany.  On the other hand, the Protestant “Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt” of 1945 was an important example of German acknowledgement of responsibility.

As Olick explains, many ordinary Germans turned to churches for leadership in answering the question of guilt. There was a widespread religious revival in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war. According to Olick, it was generated in part from “spiritual desolation” and in part because of a “reflexive return to more ‘traditional’ cultural values after the Nazi experiment” (203). Churches were placed in an important position to speak for the German people because there were no real governmental institutions in the early months of postwar Germany. The Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt of 1945, declared by the Protestant Church, was an example of German acknowledgement of responsibility, but also served to show in which way Germans felt responsible. The Declaration notes that the guilt experienced was only for not having resisted harder; the crimes for which Germany was burdened with guilt were the crimes of Hitler and his officials (219). Thus, as seen in the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, many Germans dealt with accusations of collective guilt by focusing on the suffering caused to Germans by Hitler and National Socialism. Thus, Olick maintains that the more interesting part of looking at the question of guilt was not if Germany was truly accused of collective guilt, but rather, whether most Germans felt accused, why they felt that way, and how they reacted to it.

Part of the German reaction to the guilt debate was nothing more than “defensive attempts to deny their implication as individuals and as a collectivity in what had happened” (170). In most political accounts from the immediate postwar discourse, the main point was that National Socialism was something that happened to the German people (163). The second major feature of immediate postwar explanations was that what had happened to Germany was not unique to Germany. In this view, Germany was only the most extreme manifestation of wider trends, like nihilism, nationalism, militarism, and mass society.

Furthermore, the Nuremberg Trial revealed the contradictions Germans saw in the Allies’ theory of collective guilt. Nuremberg was more about dictatorship and aggressive war, called “crimes against peace,” than about the racial policies of Nazi Germany toward German Jews, labeled “crimes against humanity,” though, according to Olick, that is the opposite of how Nuremberg has been remembered (108). The trial faced criticisms from Germans and others for various reasons. Many felt individuals could not be held accountable for acts of the state; only German courts had jurisdiction; and charges against entire organizations violated the principle of individual guilt. However, at the same time, the trial rejected collective guilt, but condemned entire organizations (112-114). The legacies of the Nuremberg system were contradictory; and thus, many felt they were illegitimate. In addition, for much of the main trial, most Germans paid little attention.


In concluding his book, Olick recognizes that there was no “right” way to punish, blame, or condemn individual Germans or all Germans; rather, the accounts of the theories of collective and individual guilt show that there were attempts to come to terms with an impossible past. The important question, instead, is how these attempts were structured in dialogue with each other and with the past. After confronting the issue of postwar guilt, many Germans wanted to desperately look forward. The Third Reich no longer existed; however, many Germans still struggled with the question of guilt. Olick makes it clear that simply condemning individuals fails to see the process of cultural structuring. To describe it as “collective moral failure” accuses Germans for failing to come to terms with National Socialism properly. This, according to Olick, is an accusation that is “not adequate to the complexities of the history of memory” (338). The point, according to Olick, is to take the history of Germany, without abandoning moral distinctions, and make it seem as if everyone is simultaneously victim and perpetrator. “All nations have suffered, and all have engaged in immoral activity,” asserts Olick (340). The fact that Olick chose to focus on the Allied occupation period is important in showing the continuity of Germany’s past. Even with the establishment of the new federal state in 1949, the collective memory of Nazi Germany was shaped by discussions and debates in the Allied occupation period. The policies of the Allies shaped German memories of Nazism in general because it caused many to view themselves as victims of the retaliatory Allies instead of perpetrators; thus, many Germans remained defensive rather than repentant.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/x/07)

Book Reviews:

  1. Ron, James ( McGill University). Canadian Journal of Sociology Online. December 2005. (http://www.cjsonline.ca/pdf/hangman.pdf)
    Ron links Olick’s book to a more general theme of “transnational justice.” Ron notes Olick’s detail and historical focus, but also notes that this sometimes makes this book difficult and tedious to read. However, overall, Ron agrees that this book is helpful to anyone who wants to learn more about Germany, sociology of collective memory, or the politics of transnational justice.
  2. Johnson, Victoria (University of Missouri-Columbia). Social Forces. Volume 85, Number 1. September 2006. Johnson relates Olick’s study of post-war Germany to today’s post-war Iraq. Johnson notes comparison in areas of transnational justice and collective responsibility. Johnson argues that Olick’s book is helpful to students of German history and also Americans looking at present-day Iraq.
  3. Eckert, Astrid M. ( Emory University). Cambridge Journals Online. Central European History, Volume 40, Issue 01, pp. 181-183. Published online by Cambridge University Press February 27, 2007. Eckert is impressed by Olick’s use of various sources across a variety of disciplines and notes that Olick’s approach to German history is unorthodox in this way. However, Eckert notes that this approach can produce a certain “randomness,” which can be hard to follow. She agrees that this book would be helpful to students unfamiliar with the German post-war debates. (http://journals.cambridge.org)(direct link needs password).
  4. Hist 133c review essays by: Mary Hull, Sean Kim

Related Books and Articles:

  • Janowitz, Morris. “German Reactions of Nazi Atrocities.” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Sep., 1946), pp. 141-146. This article contains detailed interviews with Germans exploring what most Germans knew about the atrocities during WWII. The article also explores the theme of collective responsibility. (jstor).
  • Wielenga, Friso. “An Inability to Mourn? The German Federal Republic and the Nazi Past.” Cambridge Journals Online. European Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, 551-572. October 2003. This article deals with how and in what ways Germans dealt with their Nazi past. Most scholars believe Germany did not actually deal with its past until the mid 1960s. However, Wielenga argues that it began in 1945, as soon as the war ended.
    (cambridge journals)(abstract).
  • Merritt, Richard L. Democracy Imposed: U.S. Occupation Policy and the German Public, 1945-1949. Merritt examines U.S. occupation in Germany immediately following the war. Merritt pays specific attention to what ordinary Germans thought about the war, Allied occupation, and National Socialism in general. Part II and Part III (pp. 85-270) are specifically relevant to similar topics explored by Olick, like denazification.(google books).


(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/13/07; last updated: 6/20/07
back to top, to Hist 133c homepage, 133c Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage