After the liberation of Germany in May 1945 the Allied Powers initiated a comprehensive denazification program. Its purpose was to eradicate National Socialist thought from political, economic as well as intellectual and cultural life. As a first step the NSDAP and its subdivisions were prohibited, Nazi laws were abolished and the external signs and symbols of National Socialism removed. The main focus of the program was the systematic screening of all former members of the NSDAP – party membership was defined as the criterion for their dismissal from executive positions in industry and from public office.
The term denazification was first coined as a legal term in 1943 in the Pentagon, intended to be applied in a narrow sense with reference to the post-war German legal system. Soon afterward, it took on the more general meaning.
The denazification program in Germany mandated the elimination of Nazi names from public squares, city streets, and other venues. US, Soviet, and British soldiers enthusiastically removed Nazi emblems and renamed public spaces.
The process of denazification was carried out diversely in the various zones. The most elaborate procedures were instituted in the United States zone, where investigated individuals were required to complete highly detailed questionnaires concerning their personal histories and to appear at hearings before panels of German adjudicators. In the British and French zones, denazification was pursued with less vigor because the authorities thought it more important to reestablish a functioning bureaucracy in their sectors.
Denazification was most rigorous in the Soviet sector. Civil servants, teachers, and legal officials with significant Nazi pasts were thoroughly purged. Denazification was also used as an instrument for seizing the resources of the so-called “class enemy”: former Nazis who owned factories or estates were denounced and their property confiscated. After participating in the social transformation, some former Nazis were pardoned and even gained high positions within the new communist ruling class.
The denazification process mandated that simpler cases involving lesser offenders be tried before more complicated cases involving officials higher up in the Nazi regime. With time, however, prosecution became less severe, and the United States came to be more concerned with the Cold War. When denazification ended in March 1948, the more serious cases had not yet been tried. As a result, numerous former Nazi functionaries escaped justice, much to the regret of many Germans.
Diese Schandtaten: Eure Schuld! (“These atrocities: your fault!”) One of the posters distributed by U.S. occupation authorities in the summer of 1945
Very soon after the program started, due to the emergence of the Cold War, the western powers and the United States in particular began to lose interest in the program, and it was carried out in an increasingly lenient and lukewarm way until being officially abolished in 1951.
After the defeat as part of the Denazification the German and Austrian populations were forced to visit the concentration and deaths camps to be confronted with the crimes committed by their leaders.
German prisoners of war were forced to see footage of the atrocities in movie theatres.
The U.S. conducted opinion surveys in occupied Germany.Tony Judt, in his book Postwar: a History of Europe since 1945, extracted and used some of them.
- A majority in the years 1945–49 stated National Socialism to have been a good idea but badly applied.
- In 1946, 6% of Germans said the Nuremberg trials had been unfair.
- In 1946, 37% in the US occupation zone said about the Holocaust that “the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans”.
- In 1946, 1 in 3 in the US occupation zone said that Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race.
- In 1950, 1 in 3 said the Nuremberg trials had been unfair.
- In 1952, 37% said Germany was better off without the Jews.
- In 1952, 25% had a good opinion of Hitler.
British historian Ian Kershaw in his book The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich writes about the various surveys carried out at the German population:
- In 1945, 42% of young Germans and 22% of adult Germans thought that the reconstruction of Germany would be best applied by a ‘strong new Führer’.
- In 1952, 10% of Germans thought that Hitler was the greatest statesmen and that his greatness would only be realised at a later date and 22% thought he had made ‘some mistakes’ but was still an excellent leader.
- In 1952, roughly 33% opposed the assassination attempt of Hitler in the 20 July plot in 1944.
- In 1953, 14% of Germans said they would vote for someone like Hitler again.