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

The Aftereffects of Nazi Germany

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 Sean Kim
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 Sean Kim

I am a senior Asian American Studies major and History minor. My interest in German history began after being introduced to many World War II films and books by the mainstream media. Although my fascination with Germany history started with the glorified versions of World War II made by Hollywood, my interest in the lesser known details developed after taking History 133B – a class that discussed Germany from 1900-1945. Since that course provided excellent background information for possibly the most crucial moment in German history, I wanted to further expand my own knowledge of what happened after the Second World War.

Abstract (back to top)

Jeffrey K. Olick’s In the House of the Hangman is a wonderfully informative book that explains not only the effects of Nazi Germany in the society’s political, social and economic system, but also how it affected an individual psychologically. The fact that Olick gets deep down to the consequences suffered on an individual level is perhaps the most intriguing part of the book. In the House of the Hangman clearly describes the burdens that were carried by the future generations of Germany, what measures were taken to “fix” the remaining ideals of Nazism, and how everything played out in the end.

Essay (back to top)

The Aftereffects of Nazi Germany

Jeffrey K. Olick is the author of the book In the House of the Hangman: The Agonies of German Defeat, 1943-1949. His book's main argument is that while most ordinary Germans were supposed to be perceived as unaccountable for the genocide, deaths, and terror that were caused by the Nazi regime during World War II, the reality of that was that Germans were still characterized as Nazis by fellow German citizens and could not escape the aftermath of Nazism because Germans were strictly categorized as either “bad” or “good” without any gray area. Either Germans were still portrayed and understood as the ruthless and war-hungry Nazis, or as peace lovers who never went down the Nazi path despite the fact that there was no real way to distinguish a Nazi from an ordinary German. Also, de-Nazification’s methods proved to be too unreliable for it to not affect Germany’s social structures after World War II.

After World War II, many of the Nazis who were not the top leaders during the war, or a major part of the Holocaust went on with their lives like ordinary Germans who had no involvement in any of the atrocities. Because of this, there was no real, objective way to distinguish the between “bad” Germans and the “good” Germans. Describing it was simple: the “bad” Germans were the ones who still carried the Nazi mentality and perhaps continued to participate in Nazi activities, and the “good” ones were clearly the opposite. But since discovering whether or not someone still had a Nazi mentality was not as obvious, “ on On July 7, 1945, the American Military Government (AMG) issued a clarifying directive that included a long list of organizations whose members were by definition suspect” (Olick 120). Anyone who would fall under this list would be arrested automatically. However, this basic way of defining who was an active Nazi was unrealistic and too broad to be accurate.

Less than a month later, AMG released a further directive called AMG Law No. 8, which “divided those who had joined the party before May 1, 1937, from those who had joined after that date” (Olick 120). The idea of this was that Germans who had joined before this date had to have known about and agreed with Nazis’ ways of conducting their political, social and economic strategies, but the Germans who joined after May 1st, only joined out of fear; merely a survival tactic. German citizens who were found as Nazis were seen as too dangerous and potentially unable to be de-Nazified through the systems implemented by the victors of World War II.

Because of the decrees by AMG, Americans had a pretty clear perception of Germans, and according to Olick’s source of statistics, the “majority of the Americans did in fact distinguish between the German people and the Nazi regime” (Olick 42). But the British did not share the American sympathy. Some of the loathing and skepticism against Germany and its people were manifested in many written works. Books were written as a result of doubts in Germany’s ability to change from a war-hungry nation to a peace-loving country because of World War I and World War II. Sigrid Schultz, a notable American reporter, wrote a book titled Germany Will Try It Again, and one of the chapters from that book was titled “Nazism is Contagious.” Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of the impossible task de-Nazification faced.

Olick describes de-Nazification as basically “transforming an entire society guided by state-of-the-art social scientific theory” and practice on the population of Germany (Olick 58). The idea of de-Nazification was to ensure that war would not recur. Through de-Nazification Germans would be re-educated and entirely abandon the slightest indication of Nazism. But to find the best way to re-educate the Germans was an issue. To attempt to properly and successfully re-educate an entire population of a country, many psychiatrists, psychologists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and other knowledgeable experts that could give significant and effective advice were called in to figure out a plan. Germany’s citizens were seen as test subjects in an international-scale science project. Richard M. Brickner, a psychiatrist, was the project’s leader. Brickner proposed that “Germany possessed a ‘paranoid’ culture characterized by ‘megalomania,’ ‘the need to dominate,’ a ‘persecution complex,’ and ‘retrospective falsification’” (Olick 59). This theory by Brickner did not state a way to accurately distinguish a German with the Nazi mindset from an ordinary German , but it did offer possible solutions to a successful de-Nazification. Two of the four D’s, demilitarization and democratization, were linked to re-education because the project leaders wanted a whole new generation to be exposed to a nation that had completely broken with the characteristics of Germany’s supposed ‘paranoid’ culture. Despite Brickner’s hopes, many scientists claimed that Germany could not be changed by re-education because the “German national character was thoroughly authoritarian” and no amount of re-education or re-culturing could make a significant impact on the society and its economic and political structure (Olick 61).

The effect Nazi Germany had on the lives of Germans and Germany itself was almost permanent. Nazi Germany’s deep impact left a terrible impression of ordinary Germans on countries that were involved in both World Wars. In the text, Olick describes American and British soldiers’ reactions to the indifference and alleged ignorance expressed by the German citizens regarding what went on inside the concentration camps that were located near towns and villages. Soon after the war, Germans were bombarded by flyers and films that revealed the horrors of concentration camps. Photographs of concentration camp victims were posted all over the cities with such “slogans as ‘These Atrocities: Your Fault’ and ‘This is Your Fault’” (Olick 98). Even a film made from footage recorded by the American, British, and Soviet soldiers was supposed to be released in order to expose everything that had happened, and to show to the allegedly ignorant Germans in order to humiliate them and dehumanize their culture and society. This caused ordinary Germans to feel tremendous guilt and they were forced to bear it all when their part in the war might or might not have been trivial.

In chapter nine of In the House of the Hangman, Olick asks who is guilty, who is not, and how anyone could determine it. Even though de-Nazification was in effect, “the entire adult population was technically under suspicion” regardless of who could be a possible Nazi regime sympathizer (Olick 183). Many times Germans were ostracized for even being affiliated with someone who had connections to the Nazi regime.

After the Second World War, many Germans took on a different approach in response to what happened during Nazi rule. Initially, the citizens of Germany took on a victimization approach, saying that they were victims of Hitler’s power similarly to Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other racial and social groups that were persecuted during the war; that they had no choice but to abide by the Nazi standards and laws because they did not want to suffer the same fate. They claimed simply to have been casualties of war. Later, the Germans took on a new approach of handling their involvement in the war and the horror Nazis caused. Their reaction to concentration and extermination camps “was indeed nothing more than defensive attempts to deny – to themselves as much as to others – their implication as individuals and as a collectivity in what had happened”, but their denial was obviously false since there are records of townspeople watching the prisoners of those camps march through frequently (Olick 140). Germans continued to claim their ignorance of what had happened in the concentration and extermination camps. Finally, the Germans even argued that the “good” Germans did what they could to resist Nazism.

Besides the effect on the society, the impact of Nazi Germany was also felt on the economic level. Because of the AMG Law No. 8, over a quarter million people were arrested automatically and many of them were restricted from working in certain career fields. Arrested Germans who were found to be strong Nazi regime sympathizers were left with very little options for work after incarceration. They were mostly limited to manual labor jobs and other fields of work that had little or no influence on the political structures of the country. Of course, there were many cases where arrests were not completely valid and justified due to errors in the de-Nazification system.

Despite all of the measures that were taken in order to prevent another recurrence of war and brainwash the people of Germany to become more docile, many faults were discovered within the methods used. Olick explains his counterargument to his own claims most in chapter six of his book. First, as previously mentioned, the laws and directives established by AMG only broadly categorized the Germans into two different groups. But its means of differentiating a “good” German and a “bad” German was clearly inaccurate since a way of discriminating one person from another simply based on their past cannot be absolutely precise, as their true intentions can be falsified, or simply rejected. Second, “perhaps the greatest problem with this automatic arrest phase, however, was that there was no quick way to determine who had been an active, and who merely a nominal, participant; the Americans erred on the side of quick arrest” (Olick 121). This hasty decision led to many false arrests since the time needed for proper investigations and processing was not available. Even the idea and practice of re-education had problems. The author of the book Re-Educating Germany, Werner Richter, argues in his book that “one cannot simultaneously enslave a people and educate it for freedom,” thereby expressing his discouragement and disapproval for the paradoxical theory of re-education.

The only counterevidence to the strict “bad” and “good” categories that I found in Olick’s text is the part where he describes how the majority of the Americans were able to distinguish a Nazi sympathizer from an ordinary German. But it still leaves a large portion who believed either all Germans were good or simply bad. In another statistical fact, Olick mentions that the “National Opinion Research Center (NORC) poll found that 64 percent of Americans thought that most Germans would like to get rid of the Nazis, though only 31 percent thought they were capable of doing so” (Olick 42). Besides that, Olick makes a strong argument supported with solid evidence regarding the main topic.

The aftereffects of Nazi Germany were noticeable in many aspects of the German peoples' lives. Olick’s In the House of the Hangman does an excellent job explaining those consequences, the optimistic attempts to transform an entire population, and the mistakes that were present in the reform system. German society changed drastically as it went through the tribulations of dealing with Hitler and the Nazis’ terrible doings. Blame was cast on the general public for either showing ignorance of the concentration and extermination camps, or outright denying any acknowledgement or participation. In closing, in spite of their resistance, the people of Germany faced the consequences of the Nazi regime to a large extent.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/14/07)

Book Reviews

  • Moore, Michaela H., “How to Handle a Toxic Past: Model Germany”. H-Net. May, 2006.
    Overall, Michaela Moore agrees with most of Olick’s points and provides some of her own points as well. While Moore's analysis of the subject Olick wrote about are congruent, there are a few things Moore disagrees with because of Olick’s lack of contextualization with actual political and cultural developments.
  • Ron, James, Canadian Journal of Sociology Online. Dec. 2005.
    Like Moore, James Ron does agree with many of Olick’s key arguments regarding the aftermath of Nazi Germany. Ron points out that the most informative section in In The House of Hangman is the part where Olick describes the postwar German intellectual discourse which seems to fascinate Ron’s eager curiosity.
  • Hist 133c essays by: Shannon Heliker, Mary Hull



  • http://www.virginia.edu/sociology/peopleofsociology/jolick.htm
    This is Jeffrey Olick’s faculty website at the University of Virginia. It is a basic, yet informative page that announces the courses he has taught, his curriculum vitae, some personal information, as well as a small biography and a photo.
  • http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/156240.ctl
    This is the official website of the publisher for the book In The House of Hangman. It provides much information about the book (ISBN, price, size, total pages, etc.) in addition to a short description of the book and a table of contents.

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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:
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