One of the standard lines you hear out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-nazi groups in the east. This dodgy narrative indicates that the struggle of the two Germanies is far from over.
To begin with, it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. The Soviet Red Army’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.
Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made a few token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.
But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. These included those responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31‘ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given favoured treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to help in the fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.
So maybe there was some truth in the East German decision to call the wall they built the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Facist Security Wall.