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Olick 2005 book cover

Dialog about the Nazi Past: A Curious Blend of Accommodations and Rejection of Allied Postwar Policies Regarding Guilt

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), 381 pages
UCSB: DD256.48 O55 2005

by Mary Hull
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 Mary Hull

I am a junior sociology and history double major who has been taking classes specifically in political sociology and European history. I am particularly interested in European history because of the fascinating cultures, turbulent wars and powerful empires over vast lands that rose and fell with time, for example the 3rd Reich of Hitler’s Nazism. I chose to write about the extent of war guilt in Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II because it is crucial for everyone, including myself, to become familiar with how Germans, who lived during those years in which unprecedented horror occurred, dealt with their thorny past.

Abstract (back to top)

Jeffrey Olick discusses the Allied occupation of defeated Germany after World War II, the framework the Allies presented to Germany as for how to assign blame of the heinous acts committed during the war, and the resulting dialogue of German intellectuals who in part accommodated and in part rejected Allied postwar policies. Topics given the most attention to in the book are whether “true” German identity is represented by Prussian militarism or Volk culture, who is guilty and how large the circle of guilt is drawn, the existence of “inner emigrants” in Germany who did not overtly conspire against Nazism but opposed the regime nonetheless, and the various roles institutions such as the Christian church and the political parties played during the Nazi years. Olick’s primary goal is to describe collective memory, transitional justice, and the extent to which allied policies impacted German Memory after 1945.

Essay (back to top)


As a nation whose name has been and may forever be tainted by the atrocities committed against European Jews and others during World War II, the possibility of Germany having a future in which it can have a more “normal” national identity is uncertain. However, throughout the immediate postwar years to the present day there has been much scholarly discourse on the legacy of National Socialism, as well as whether or not the memories of National Socialism are appropriate . Nevertheless , the existence of this discussion reflects Germany is in a way “dealing” with its difficult past. Jeffrey Olick chimes in with this discourse in In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, as he focuses on the occupation period of the Allied forces and the outline they presented to Germany of the way in which memories of National Socialism should be constituted, as well as the resultant dialogue of German elites that appeared in response to Allied policies.

The book begins with Allied debates such as the demand for unconditional surrender, the “true” German national identity and whether it is based on the culture of Volk or the Prussian militarist ego, and the benefits of revenge versus democratic Allied polices for postwar Germany. Olick emphasizes the Nuremburg Trials and the “denazification” programs, for he believes that these policies laid the foundations for later German discussion.

Olick then addresses a series of debates by German intellectuals in Part II of the book, which focuses on “The Vanquished.” The three most important debates are the existence and role of “inner emigrants” who disagreed with the policies of the National Socialists and the “Other Germany,” which constituted a group that symbolized the “true Germany;” whether or not the chapter of National Socialism was an aberration in the story of German history; and difficult guilt concepts such as collective versus individual guilt. In addition, Olick focuses on two significant institutions, the church and the political parties, and reveals the ways in which these institutions simultaneously admitted and denied their roles in National Socialist Germany. Finally, Olick discusses Karl Jasper’s statement on German guilt and responsibility, and whether or not it is important for Germany to prevent acknowledgement or require acknowledgement, and the debate that his statements stirred.


In his book, Jeffrey Olick synthesizes the postwar comments of German intellectuals who were indirectly connected to those who committed atrocities because of their shared German nationality, therefore “in the house” of the hangma n, as the title implies. He is primarily concerned with explaining why memories of the Nazi era took the shape and form that they did and why this is significant. Some of the key questions he asks are: which issues about the past received the limelight, who was responsible for what happened, did what happened reflect absolutes about German national identity, and how should we evaluate the answers to these questions given by the German elite? Olick attempts to answer these questions by including numerous statements about these issues by the intellectual, political, and cultural German elites, and uses as his sources a variety of scholars who specialize in postwar German history. Olick’s goal is to outline the various ways in which Germans dealt with their complicated past, which was a combination of readjustment of Allied policies to meet German needs as well as a complete rejection of other Allied policies which they viewed as unacceptable. Though Olick never explicitly mentions in his conclusion that these various responses which are characterized by denial may be the most significant factor in contributing to why Germans have yet to achieve a “normal” national identity, the arguments he makes throughout the book compellingly point his readers to this deduction.

Olick claims the first attempt Germans made to reinterpret Allied policies came while the war was still in progress. The prospect of losing the war greatly frightened the Nazis for they believed that the Allies would take vengeance on those who had started an aggressive campaign and brought war to a continent dedicated to peace. Fearful for their own survival, Nazis attempted to use the concept of “unconditional surrender” to scare their population into supporting a greater war effort. The Nazis, not sure what “unconditional surrender” entailed, warned Germans the war could not be lost because of the consequences .

German propaganda, however, could not save Germans from losing the war, and German forces capitulated in the spring of 1945. In the aftermath of the war, a Jewish-American politician by the name of Henry Morgenthau Jr. proposed a postwar policy for Germany that included “flooding the mines and dismantling all industry in the Ruhr and Saar regions” (Olick 29). For this proposal , he was called the “Jewish Angel of Revenge” by Goebbels and thus discredited because he was accused of letting his identity interfere with official diplomacy. Hard line peace was vehemently argued against as Germans warned the Allies revenge could lead to greater evils such as the reemergence of National Socialism, a threat that must be permanently eliminated.

However, an adequate amount of punishment was crucial to prevent Germany from ever wanting to disturb the peace again, and Robert Vansittart, the head of the British Foreign Office, was one of the leading figures in this debate. Vansittart, who was a hard peace advocate, believed that “Nazism is not an aberration but an outcome,” and so as a result “Germans and the Nazis” must “sink or swim together” (Olick 45, 46). Unfortunately for Vansittart, similar to the way in which the term “Morgenthau” came to symbolize a more extreme view then the actual views of the individual Henry Morgenthau, Vansittart was dismissed as an anti-German racist, “a kind of Nazi inside out” (Olick 46). The socialist Victor Gollancz attacked the Vasittart view most heatedly when he claimed that it was imperialism which had led Germany astray, a general fault of all Western Civilization. Others, like Ropke, would agree, “Nazism is no fabulous monster, no dragon found only in the primeval forests of Germania” (Olick 170). Gollancz argued the idea of a separate German identity would have disastrous consequences, and might lead to “unnecessary German suffering,” which the Allies must avoid at all costs (Olick 48).

Many Germans, when it came to the question of German national character, agreed that Nationalist Socialism was a deviation from German identity, a movement that had fallen off course. Olick brings attention to the many scholars who believed the “true Germany” was represented by the “other Germany of…culture, humanism and the enlightenment” (Olick 54). Scholars such as Frederich Meinecke sought to illustrate “the third Reich as a period of inner foreign rule,” and therefore distance the “other Germany” from the Germany during the period of 1933 to 1945 (Olick 162). This diagnosis of the “real Germany” meant the simple replacement of National Socialism with “real” German institutions would help put Germany back on the correct track, a much more acceptable option than the abominable and condescending re-education system advocated by the Allies.

However, in contrast to Olick’s thesis there were a handful of Germans, two of whom are Thomas Mann and Theodor Litt, who did not attempt to defend their contemporaries and in fact actively supported a greater number of people being looked into in an effort to eradicate National Socialism. Thomas Mann claimed that these inner emigrants of the “other Germany,” could still be held accountable for the Third Reich “since they had failed to resist, especially in the form of a general strike” (Olick 150). Theodor Litt argued the dangers of “denial by some of any role at all,” in the German University system (Olick 278). Unlike the rest of their contemporaries who were busily trying to find ways to deny guilt, Mann and Litt did not try to defend these “other, true Germans.”

A theme revisited many times in Olick’s book is the refusal of the majority of Germans in the belief that all Germans could be held accountable for the evil that had taken place during World War II, especially because of the ignorance that prevailed amongst the general German population in regard to the immorality and corruption of their leaders. However, many Allied soldiers reported the “indifference of Germans to what many Germans claimed they were seeing and hearing for the first time” (Olick 98). This evidence supports the idea Germans wished to hide the knowledge they had of the atrocities that were being committed in their names, for ignorance is an impossible claim to make due to the prevalence and scale of the atrocities that took place. Yet by maintaining the veil of ignorance, Germans were able to present a case in which they were also victims of their own leaders as well as in the aftermath of the war, because they were subject to “horrific bombing raids…raped by invading troops…homeless…expelled from the East…and dying en route” (Olick 100). Therefore, according to Olick, it is not too surprising that the general population supported the Nuremburg Trials, which pointed fingers at certain individuals and projected the blame solely on these individuals.

According to research at the time of the Nuremburg Trials, 79% of Germans supported the judicial process (which stands as counterevidence to Olick’s thesis for here was one Allied policy that Germans did not reject or even wish to alter). However, some Germans argued the Nuremburg trials were an illegitimate way to punish the vanquished. Germans who opposed the Nuremburg Trials argued that the tribunals used ex post facto law, or laws that had not existed at the time the crime occurred were being applied to Germans after the incident. These Germans claimed that in a fair trial the defense and the prosecution has equal power, but since the Allies had won the war, the trial was instead a mere showcase for predetermined convictions (Olick 112). However, the Allies soon found putting an individual on trial was no easy routine. Those who were put on trial, such as Hermann Goring, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Marshall Keitel, attempted to argue their way out of guilt with claims such as the “ardent love for my people, its happiness, its freedom, and its life,” as well as excuses like the “soldier’s performance of his duty” (Olick 115). Finding “active Nazis” became rather difficult, for “German leaders argued…. those who joined earlier were starry eyed idealists who may not have understood where things were going, while those who joined later were distasteful opportunists who understood better exactly what they were supporting,” while Allies believed the exact opposite was true (Olick 120). Prominent leaders were able to blur the line that distinguished those who were active Nazis from those who were forced to become members in later years.

Along with military officials, politicians also came up with various justifications to redirect blame. Politicians such as former Federal President Heuss claimed the right to make a “political mistake,” even one so great as the Enabling Act that essentially gave Hitler dictatorial powers in 1933 (Olick 133). Virtually every individual who had either helped bring the Nazis to power or helped them accomplish some of their horrifying goals was able to find one excuse or another to deny the accusations made against them.

As the international stage changed with the heightening of the Cold War , the Allies wished to replace punishment policies with rehabilitation policies in an effort to curry favor with West Germans. Therefore, the responsibility of further prosecuting war criminals was placed into the control of Germans. Germans had long argued the necessity of German involvement to begin the appropriate process of German rehabilitation, (and criticized the Allies for suppressing Antifa ’s that Germans argued would have justly dealt with Nazis) but as soon as this occurred the process came to be “mired in corruption” (Olick 125). This rapid corruption and erosion of the legal system shows Germans were not ready or perhaps not willing to acknowledge guilt at the political level.

An interesting point that should be made is the assigning of the role of the Holocaust in the greater “German catastrophe” as a peripheral phenomenon (Olick 173). This distortion of the Holocaust explains why so many Germans had the audacity to equate Jewish suffering before and during the war with German suffering after the war. This absurd construing of the actual policies of the Nazis is perhaps one reason why many did not agree with the assertion of collective guilt.

Though there was an effort after the war for institutions connected with the Nazi regime, such as the Protestant church and the communist party, to admit collective guilt, both offered rather limited statements. Both the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt announced by the Protestant church, and the admission by the communist party of its role in Nazi Germany were in a way a step forward because each statement brought attention to their part in sharing the blame of the terror that occurred under the Nazi regime, but because of the way that the statements were worded, it sounded “as if their only failure was not having been saints” (Olick 215). Both institutions seemed to offer concessions, but after analyzing the true message of these statements, it seems that both institutions accepted blame only because they were composed of human beings who were not infallible.

Karl Jaspers, the author of Die Schuldfrage,The Question of Guilt, offered a system of assigning guilt that in part accommodated Allied views of collective guilt and in part accommodated stubborn Germans views of individual guilt. Jaspers made logical “distinctions among criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical guilt,” which blamed every German, but divided them “along different lines of disappointment” (Olick 284). Though Jasper’s ideas still created opponents, his system defined collective guilt in a way that was more acceptable in the eyes of Germans.

In conclusion, Olick speaks of “Model Germany” and how in the past decade scholars have looked at the amount and quality of postwar discussion in Germany as the paradigm example of how to “process a difficult past.” Olick stresses that though Germany may still have issues over accepting war guilt, a true lesson to be learned from postwar Germany is the very act of caring so much about the past.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/20/07)

Book Reviews

  • Johnson, Victoria. “In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949. (Book review).” Social Forces 85.1 (Sept 2006): 596(2) Expanded Academic (ASAP page--password protected).
    Johnson believes Olick’s book would be much stronger if in the introduction he included his concluding remarks about the “value of dialogical methods” and what “empirically constitutes official memory,” but praises his work for connecting questions of morality with the political history of German as well as current events.
  • Biess, Frank. “In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949. (Book review).” Ethics & International Affairs 20.1 (March 2006): 135(4). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale.
    Biess admires Olick’s book for some original ideas such as the importance of Allied occupation for forming memory as well as the idea of memory as a “reflexive” concept rather than static, however, at the same time Beiss believes the broad approach Olick used meant that he did not add many new opinions to the field of study.
  • Hist 133c essays by: Shannon Heliker, Sean Kim

Related Books

  • Maar, Michael. Bluebeard’s Chamber: Guilt and Confession in Thomas Mann/London; New York, verso 2003. UCSB Library Pt 2625 A44 Z7454513 2003
  • Harada, Hiroko. Aspects of Post-war German and Japanese Drama (1945-1970): Reflections on War, Guilt and Responsibility/Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 2000. UCSB Library PT 668 H356 2000

Web Sites

  • Klaus P. Fischer, “The Question of German Guilt.” 1997. http://mars.wnec.edu/~grempel/courses/hitler/lectures/german_guilt.html.
    This webpage is a chapter from Nazi German: A New History, and discusses the idea of collective guilt as well as whether or not Germany has come clean today. This website is very helpful, and addresses many of the same points in Olick’s novel.
  • Alexander Kimel, “Holocaust: Understanding and Prevention.” 15 Jan 2002/16 May 2006 http://www.kimel.net/responsibility2.html.
    This website, made by a holocaust survivor, addresses the issue of blame with holocaust responsibility, graduated responsibility and transmission of historical responsibility. At the end of the website page the author asks some probing questions and attempts to answer them. The website is beneficial for students of Germany, especially on questions of German guilt.

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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
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