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The Triumph of German Democracy

David Frum

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the U.S. occupation authorities carried out a series of public-opinion surveys in the American occupation zone.

One question asked whether Nazism was “a bad idea, or a good idea badly carried out.” In his history of postwar Germany, Frederick Taylor writes: “The view that Nazism had been simply and unequivocally a ‘bad idea’ was never held by more than 40 percent of respondents, and by the end of the third post-war winter that number had declined to 30 percent with double that number—60 percent—now insisting that Nazism had been a ‘good idea’ gone wrong.”

Milton Mayer, a German-speaking American journalist, lived for the year 1952 in a small town in the state of Hesse. Mayer befriended and interviewed 10 men who had taken part in the burning of the town’s synagogue. With one sole exception, he found them not only unrepentant, but strongly convinced of their own victimhood. “The other nine, decent, hard-working, ordinarily intelligent and honest men, did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now. None of them ever knew, or now knows, Nazism as we knew and know it; and they lived under it, served it, and, indeed, made it.” And even that one exception only partially rejected Nazism. He “still believes, in part of its program and practice, ‘the democratic part.’”

This month, a united democratic Germany marks the 70th anniversary of its constitution, the Grundgesetz or Basic Law. The lengthy document—one version of the English text runs 135 printed pages—was composed under allied supervision in 1948 and 1949. The final text was completed May 8, 1949; approved by the British, French, and US occupying authorities on May 12, 1949; and entered into effect May 23, 1949. Its first article begins: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”

In 1949, it must have seemed highly uncertain whether the new German state could possibly honor those words. Impoverished and dismembered, its cities crowded with refugees driven from their homes, its standing in the world disgraced by aggression and genocide—Germany’s most likely fate seemed rapid descent into state failure. Milton Mayer observed the unanimous conviction of his German interlocutors that never again in their lives would they live as securely and comfortably as they had under Nazi rule before the start of war in 1939.

And yet, the state flourished and the constitution endured. Over the next 70 years, Germany honored its pledge to human dignity. It atoned for its crimes, found peace with its neighbors, recovered the eastern states from communism, and consolidated an advanced liberal democracy. Germany is hardly problem-free on this milestone anniversary. Yet the once-rickety Bundesrepublik has met the test of time and success. The constitution—originally viewed as only a provisional document—has become the foundation of a united German state. How was this accomplished?

It would seem an important question. The success of the German democratic transition could offer insights to others overcoming dark chapters in their past. Yet the topic is strangely under-discussed.

Instead, scholars of Germany produce and consume a vast and accumulating literature of fault and failure. The hypocrisies and limits of postwar de-Nazification are minutely examined. And it’s true: For decades after 1945, ex-Nazis held dominant roles in German medicine, law, academia, the civil service, and even the military. (Erich von Manstein, who planned the attack through the Ardennes that smashed the French army in 1940, helped organize the new West German army after serving only four years of his 18-year sentence for war crimes in the Eastern Front.)

The culture and society of postwar Germany stand under perpetual accusation. Left-wing artists and intellectuals have arraigned the materialism, conservatism, and conformism of postwar Germany as a continuation of the kitschy culture of Nazism. Conservatives riposte by indicting the violence, anti-Semitism, and contempt for institutions of the German Far Left as a continuation of the anti-democratic ideology of Nazism. (German leftists marked the anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1969 by an attempted bombing of the rebuilt Jewish Community Center in West Berlin. German left-wing terrorists were among the hijackers of the El Al airliner rescued by Israeli special forces at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.)

Problems, always problems! Germany is like a patient who has recovered from a terrible disease, and ever after monitors himself for a recurrence of the symptoms. And indeed, the symptoms are there: Neo-Nazi crimes against immigrants; immigrant crimes against German Jews; far-right parties gaining seats in state legislatures; the post-communists cannibalizing the democratic left—all there, all true.

But all this occurs against the background of the amazing success of German democracy since 1949, a story so big that it can be hard to see except at a distance.

The development of German constitutionalism seems especially glacial. Americans accustomed to looking to courts to propound grand declarations about law and rights will be disappointed by the caution of German jurists. In its first important case involving the rights of dissent, in 1957, the highest German court ruled for the government and against a person who had been denied a passport for political reasons. In the 1950s, the high court upheld the decriminalization of homosexuality; in the 1970s, the high court prevented the decriminalization of abortion. There was no German Justice William O. Douglas ready to convert the grand language of Article 1 of the German Constitution into a wide charter of judicial power.

And yet the rights of political dissenters, homosexuals, and women were protected, and strongly too. German society led the courts rather than the other way around, as so often in the United States. The constitutional idea drew its power from the complex workings of German federal system, from the give-and-take of German parliamentary life, from a media culture that did champion dissenters and minorities, and from a public opinion that since 1949 has grown ever more self-confident and tolerant.

It’s a sobering mirror image for Americans, who have arguably over-relied on judicial guardianship even as their local government has become less democratic, their political culture more polarized, their media system more reactionary and extreme, and their public opinion more authoritarian.

Much of the success of Germany’s democratic development depended on unique circumstances of time and place. “Economic miracles” like that which buoyed German democracy between 1950 and 1970 don’t come along every day. (If they did, we wouldn’t call them miracles.) The Cold War incubated German democracy, too. Democracy gained West Germany entry into NATO in 1955; democracy drew a sharp distinction between the freedom of western Germany and the police-state in the Soviet-controlled eastern zone.

Yet there are non-unique lessons too—lessons applicable to less-extreme democratic transitions.

In his superb history of the postwar aftermath in the two divided Germanies, Jeffrey Herf attributes this insight to Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor: You could have democracy in post-Nazi Germany or justice in post-Nazi Germany, but not both.

So many people were implicated in Nazi crimes that comprehensive justice could never command democratic assent. The price of democratic assent was to pretend that the crimes were the work of a tiny minority, of which the vast majority had no idea. “Democracy had to be built on a shaky foundation of justice delayed—hence denied …” The historian Joachim Fest quoted his own father’s answer to questions about Nazi crimes: “I did not walk to talk about it then and I don’t want to talk about it now.”

Yet it was not only guilt that was suppressed. It was equally impolitic to discuss German suffering during the war and aftermath. In a 1999 book, W.G. Sebald remarks upon the silence adopted by the postwar generation about the ruin of their country in 1945—not only the smashing of German cities by Allied bombing, but the expulsion of German populations from ancient homes, the mass rape of German women by Soviet soldiers: “There was a tacit agreement, equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described. The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction, as experienced by the great majority of the German population, remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret …”

This approach seemed a profoundly corrupt bargain to many who watched it in the making. In a famous essay from 1959, the philosopher Theodor Adorno bitterly complained, “The murdered are to be cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” In that same essay, Adorno wondered how committed, really, the Germans were to democracy.

Political democracy certainly is accepted in Germany in the form of what in America is called a working proposition, something that has functioned well up until now and has permitted and even promoted prosperity. But democracy has not become naturalized to the point where people truly experience it as their own and see themselves as subjects of the political process. Democracy is perceived as one system among others, as though one could choose from a menu between communism, democracy, fascism, and monarchy: but democracy is not identified with the people themselves as the expression of their political maturity. It is appraised according to its success or setbacks ….

But the successes kept coming. In Exorcising Hitler, Frederick Taylor vividly describes the two decades after the war as a “sleep cure.” And when the sleeper at last awoke, jolted by the social and political convulsions of the middle 1960s, it turned out that German democracy had somehow steadied its foundations after all. After 20 years of conservative governments, the elections of 1969 at last alternated power, electing the first Social Democratic chancellor since the Weimar Republic. Justice was never fully done, but memory returned—and returned with ever more onrushing intensity.

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