What Is De-Nazification?

U.S. plans for postwar Iraq include a program of “de-Baathification” for Iraqi government officials, the Washington Post reported last week. De-Baathification, the paper said, would borrow from the de-Nazification program established in Germany after World War II. What was de-Nazification, and how did it work?

As early as August 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt argued in internal memos that the German people must have it “driven home to them” that they had participated in a “lawless conspiracy” during the war. When the Allied leaders decided in 1945 to try major German war criminals at Nuremberg, they also agreed to pursue a de-Nazification policy for all Germans.

Under the program, the three Western Allies (Britain, France, and the United States) required every adult citizen in their zone of occupation to complete a 131-point questionnaire detailing—under threat of punishment for any false statements—his or her entire political career during the Third Reich. Authorities then examined these forms and exonerated some Germans. The rest of the cases were sent before tribunals that classified them as a major offender, offender, lesser offender, follower, or eligible for exoneration. The punishments ranged accordingly: Germans could serve jail time, lose their property, and lose their pension rights, among other consequences. In theory, all Germans would be “de-Nazified” before they could find new jobs.

In practice, de-Nazification ran into a number of snags. First, the program required an enormous bureaucracy the Allies were ill-equipped to manage. In the American zone of occupation alone, some 10 million Germans submitted questionnaires; reviewing each one took time, and finding German speakers to run the tribunals was tough. Efforts to facilitate the process often weakened its efficacy. The authorities proclaimed general amnesties (for, say, individuals whose sole official political affiliation was with the Hitler Youth in their teens) that left some Nazi sympathizers unpunished. And some of the Germans found to run the tribunals were reluctant to dole out harsh sentences to their countrymen, especially to those defendants who had obtained affidavits attesting to their anti-Nazi behavior. These affidavits, called Persilschein, or laundry certificates, were often attainable from local priests and were occasionally bought.

In addition to the logistical dilemmas, the United States ran into political tangles as it administered the program, which some felt should punish Germans and others felt should be a process that reintegrated Germans into society. As the Cold War began and the United States needed to win over its West German allies, de-Nazification was thought too alienating, and the system began to peter out by 1948. Some Germans with dubious histories were exonerated, simply because their tribunals were scheduled too late.

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Explainer thanks Volker Berghahm of