Commentary Magazine

Is There a West German Menace?

To the Editor:

I think that Hal Lehrman has misread my book, The Return of Germany: A Tale of Two Countries, which he reviewed in COMMENTARY (April 1953). Since I greatly respect Lehrman as a conscientious and able colleague, and since the issues involved in his review transcend by far the interest in my book alone, I should like to set the record straight—at least on a few fundamental questions.

Lehrman says that I found “the Germans very often right and the West nearly always wrong.” This is most misleading. I tried to report, and to make understandable, the temper and the facts of present-day Germany. I had to refer to many actions of early American occupation policy which—in German eyes—were “wrong,” and left their impact. Often, in my own judgment, such measures were in fact “wrong,” and indeed many have since been abandoned because there remained few doubts about their “wrongness.” But Lehrman censures me for something quite different from this: my “general tendency,” he writes, “is to absolve Germans in the mass as ‘unpolitical,’ blame the Americans for many of the German failings, and explain away certain German aberrations which are not so easily dismissible.” I did none of these things.

It is true that I explained many seemingly puzzling German attitudes by a generalization about the prevalent “unpolitical” pattern of thought and behavior, with its passivity, lack of responsibility, and absence of those qualities of initiative, participation, and independence that mark citizenship in truly democratic countries. But I considered it my task to marshal the facts and leave it to my readers to draw up their own moral balance sheets. What I also did—explicitly in four chapters, passim throughout the book—was to explain the very unsound political and social consequences of this “unpolitical” attitude. Far from absolving the Germans because of their “unpolitical” attitude, I stressed the basic irresponsibility and political immaturity which underly it.

Nor did I “blame the Americans for many of the German failings.” Repeatedly, I reported how and why many Germans blame America and presented their arguments, which, I thought, should be of some interest to American readers. But after this I went on to explain (p. 217ff., p. 294) that German blame of Americans was mostly alibis and rationalizations. . . .

The trauma inflicted by the Nazi Reich was so deep that many non-Germans, including many genuinely fair-minded individuals like Lehrman, feel almost a compulsion to see its horrifying specter loom on the horizon once again. “To be fair,” Lehrman introduces his criticisms of my book, “it must be said that Muhlen’s book is primarily not about the West German menace but ‘a tale of two countries’—the two current Germanies.” Why does Lehrman seem to feel that the fact that a book on Germany is not only a book on the “West German menace,” but also deals with East Germany, needs explaining? Suppose a book on America by a modern Tocqueville were reviewed with the “fair,” apologetic introduction that it is not, say, about “American materialism,” nor about “the Wall Street paradise.” Must a serious reporter continue to focus on fearsome, hostile stereotypes in the minds of his readers and critics, or is it not rather his duty to face and tackle the more complicated, more interesting realities as he found them? If I did not write a book about “the West German menace,” it was for the simple reason that I found many more factors militating against such a potential menace than supporting it—while, at the same time, I found a clear and present menace in the Soviet power which controls East Germany.



I share with Lehrman, and with my other American as well as German friends, the conviction that we must watch with particular vigilance for signs of a re-emerging totalitarian menace in West Germany. (To stress this should be superfluous for one who fought Nazism in action for ten years—at times and places where this was, to say the least, far from being popular. . . .) I can see in West Germany little more than a few sporadic evidences of residual Nazism, and little politically organized anti-Semitic neo-Nazism with present strength or popular attractive power—in short, nothing that could be termed a “menace.”

I believe my conclusions are justified by the facts. My reviewer does not; and thinks fit to cast doubt on the correctness of my facts. Unfortunately I don’t have the space to answer in full all the questions he raises. When I talked to German audiences about America, and was inevitably asked, in three words, “And the lynchings?” it always took me several minutes to explain (not to “explain away”) the facts and their meaning. Similarly with the kind of questions Lehrman asks in his review.

“And the recent arrests of sub-Fuehrers?” Lehrman asks, casting doubt on my view that present neo-Nazism seems destined to failure. There have also been recent arrests of a larger number of Communist conspirators in West Germany—yet nobody considered this as a danger signal that West Germany was going Communist.

“And the sub-rosa Nazi proclivities of the FDP and the open pro-fascism of the DP?” (two West German right-of-center parties) asks Lehrman. The DP—which polled 4 per cent of the vote in 1949, and does not seem to have increased its following since—cannot be called pro-fascist if we judge it by its political program and record rather than occasional oratorical phrases in an election speech. Messrs. Seebohm, Hellwege, and Muhlenfeld, the leaders of that party, are ultra-conservative reactionaries whose anti-Marxist and monarchist views hark back to the era of Bismarck; they expelled all the genuine pro-Nazis (in North Rhine-Westphalia where the DP stands for the reestablishment of the Guelphish, pre-Hohenzollern rulers, and in Schleswig-Holstein), and voted for the Israel Reparations Treaty, the Western defense pacts, the other post-Nazi pro-Western commitments. It is even more mistaken or unfair to charge the FDP with “pro-Nazi proclivities.” That party is a strange amalgam of old-fashioned, strongly anti-Nazi liberals (such as Federal President Theodor Heuss, and Minister-President Reinhold Maier), and of conservative, sometimes reactionary rightists. They try to win former Nazi party members for their party, as do all the other German parties, though the latter admit to it less openly, considering that it is better to commit them to the democratic cause rather than turn them into a dangerous enclave of permanent outcasts. To call the FDP “pro-Nazi” is to commit the old error of confusing rightists with revolutionary totalitarians, a very different breed altogether.

And the infiltration of secret Nazi faithfuls into these parties, Lehrman asks? Undoubtedly a few have tried to infiltrate. Yet the same people who fairly object to calling “Communist” those American parties, churches, civil liberties groups, and unions in which a few secret Communists have infiltrated without conquering them, seem to have no scruples about calling those German parties “Nazi” in which the same thing has happened.

What about the Nazis in the Bonn Foreign Office? When the government was charged with sheltering a large number of them, Chancellor Adenauer ordered an investigation. Those who had actively been connected with Nazi crimes, and had succeeded in hiding their dark record during the turbulent postwar years, were immediately dismissed. Those of whose sincere conversion to the new ideas the Chancellor had personally convinced himself (as he assured me at the time) were kept in office.



Lehrman’s criticism of my report on anti-Semitism in Germany today is mainly concerned with the Auerbach case—which I described with intentional terseness. That the man who had him arrested “had a good anti-Nazi record”—Lehrman’s words for my report that he was sentenced to death by a Nazi People’s Court for his anti-Nazi activities—seems rather relevant in the light of the question whether Auerbach was a victim of neo-Nazi anti-Semitic persecution. On the other hand, the correct handling of the case by the judges was acknowledged by the defendants’ lawyers themselves. It is true that, as Lehrman says, “one of the chief prosecution witnesses has since been jailed for perjury,” but the case in which he perjured himself had nothing at all to do with the Auerbach case, and was tried only after Auerbach was dead. The state prosecutor declared that if he had known beforehand about it, he would not have used the witness, whose general credibility would have been impaired; but it does not seem likely that a different verdict would have been reached. Schumacher, who died exactly four days later, did not “express his horror over the case” to Auerbach’s widow, as Lehrman states; what he did was to send a message of condolence to the widow of the man who had been a member of his party. In the public statement in which he, like other German politicians, expresses his regret concerning the suicide, he wrote that Auerbach “might well have transgressed the limits of the law” (“die Grenze des Erlaubten gestreift”) . Although the full history of the Auerbach case will probably never be written, Lehrman’s questions cannot change the conclusion reached in my book that Auerbach was not a victim of anti-Semitic persecution.

It seems a distressing paradox that many people outside of Germany consider it lack of sympathy with the Jewish victims of the Nazi crime if one reports and documents (as I did) that pogromism and extermination was the terror rule of a totalitarian minority, and that the Nazi doctrine of racial hatred failed to leave a lasting impact on the German mind. In fact, any reporter who fails to report, because he fails to find, the signs of German anti-Semitism which people abroad expect him to see, runs the risk or having himself suspected of lack of sympathy for the Jews—or even of anti-Semitism.

Lehrman writes of “the German desire ‘to see as few Jews as possible in our universities.’” I do not doubt that some German voiced such a desire, and that there are quite a few thousand crackpots, fanatics, hate-consumed people in Germany today who agree with him. However, this hardly makes it “the German desire,” since Jewish students and professors are sincerely encouraged to come to West German universities, and since, according to all the evidence available, there is today less anti-Semitism in West German universities than there has been for decades. . . .

Does not Lehrman’s review boil down to his dislike of the fact that my book deals factually with present-day Germany, rather than concentrating once more on condemning yesterday’s Germany, and speculating on the potential menace of tomorrow’s Germany?

We cannot hope for a stable, free democratic Germany if we see her primarily in fearsome stereotypes based on the crimes of the Nazi regime; by treating the German nation as a permanently unregenerate criminal, we abort the real possibilities of regeneration. Are not “stringent measures” of tutelage and control based on uninformed suspicion less prudent, less persuasive, and less safe than an attitude of realistic understanding and (if I may use that much maligned term) brotherhood?

Norbert Muhlen
New York City



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