Commentary Magazine

The Survivors, by Norbert Muhlen

German Whitewash

The Survivors.
by Norbert MuhLen.
Thomas Y. Crowell. 288 pp. $3.95.

In the December 1962 issue of Der Monat (West Berlin) Norbert Muhlen published a plaintive article on the German image in contemporary American letters. Everybody, it seemed, was being beastly: Katherine Anne Porter was just plain anti-German; William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich had neglected to mention the other totalitarian dictatorships possessing “more or less terrible characteristics” that existed after World War I, and besides, his work showed a lack of “balance” and “thorough personal research” ; Kay Boyle had written that Germany’s present and future were “an indissoluble part of her past”; T. H. Tetens in The New Germany and the Old Nazis had resorted to tactics like presenting regrettable exceptions as the norm, citing questionable sources, and “disregarding evidence contrary to his own thesis”; dozens of paperback books on the Nazi period, though factual enough in content, were distorting the German image by focusing exclusively on the grisly past.

Behind this flood of misinformation—intended to mislead the American public into believing that the Germans were still Nazis and would never change—Muhlen discerned two moving spirits: the anti-German prejudices, possibly understandable, of a “relatively small but influential portion of the American reading public” (whom he did not care to identify) ; and the activities of various left-wing publishers, authors, reviewers, and propagandists (also unidentified) in the service of Moscow, whose aims were to divert public attention from the present misdeeds of the Soviets and to sow mistrust against the nation whose support is now indispensable to the defense of the West.

Presumably to counter this smear campaign, Muhlen has now published his sixth book on Germany. Unlike his gaudily titled past efforts—The Incredible Krupps; Schacht, Hitler’s Magician; The Vanishing Swastika—this one is called, soberly enough, The Survivors, and is an attempt to assess the situation of the Jewish minority living in Germany today and its outlook for the future. As could have been predicted from the tenor of his article in Der Monat, Muhlen’s forecast is very favorable; unfortunately, however, the procedures he follows in this book are such as virtually to discredit his opinion. Not only are his tone and manner offensive, but he also makes use of every rhetorical trick of which he accuses his opponents, and then some. This is a great pity—for in the end a good cause is compromised. I, for one, agree with Muhlen’s two major points—that Germany has changed for the better and that contact between Germans and Jews is necessary—but I am embarrassed to share them with him.

Take the language Muhlen has fabricated for The Survivors. Rapturous, simpering, effusive, it makes its apology for the German past by the simple Victorian expedient of lacking words for anything really bad. Even Auschwitz has its silver lining. If I seem to be exaggerating, let the reader meet Frau Renate Lasker-Schueler, a popular German-Jewish TV reporter who “has no unpleasant memories of her school days under Hitler, though during the war she was imprisoned for three dead years in the concentration camp of Auschwitz.” Revisiting Germany after the war, “she met and later married a brilliant German . . . in their TV programs she has often described her Auschwitz experiences in a warm, moving appeal.” And for variety here is another concentration-camp graduate, “a Jewish woman in Hamburg” who upon being asked by her eight-year-old daughter, what a concentration camp was, replied, “Something like a vacation resort, but not so much fun.”

Those samples are typical of Muhlen’s approach. The first part of the book, entitled “Facts and Figures” (though it contains no more real data than does any other section), takes the reader at a gallop through German-Jewish relations from 1945 to 1961. In some sixty pages it presents a historical sketch so impressionistic and superficial that one wonders whether it could have been written by the same man who faulted Shirer for lack of “thorough, personal research.” Though the picture it draws of a torpid, spiritless Jewish community is undoubtedly correct, it is Muhlen’s own lack of insight or sympathy that most strikes the reader. For example, he tells us that only 5 per cent of the Jewish community attends Sabbath services, but he has not taken the trouble to find out whether this is really a sign of unconcern (as he makes us think) or whether it is a delayed reaction to Auschwitz. Likewise, his explanation for the amazingly high rate of intermarriage—from 1951 to 1958 German Jews chose three times as many non-Jewish as Jewish partners—in terms of the scarcity of Jewish girls sounds remarkably superficial; one suspects that far different needs are at work here.



If Muhlen is inattentive to what goes on below the surface of Jewish behavior it is, at least partially, because he is so preoccupied with extenuating German behavior in the past and exaggerating German merits in the present. He remarks of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews that “some Germans approved of this active anti-Semitism; others did not,” quite as if there had been an open debate on the merits of what he so delicately calls “active anti-Semitism.” At another point he speaks of the Nazis’ awareness of “popular disapproval of their persecution of the Jews,” letting the matter drop there with no further qualifications. This, from the man who has accused T. H. Tetens of “disregarding evidence contrary to his own thesis”!

Even more disturbing is Muhlen’s frequent use of the device of trying to make the Germans look better by making the Jews look bad. To cite one illustration, consider how brusquely Nahum Goldmann is put in his place in Muhlen’s version of the Goldmann-Adenauer talks on the moral aspects of restitution: “Adenauer looked Goldmann straight in the face and replied: ‘I share your view that this is primarily a moral problem. . . I am therefore ready to accept the claim of one billion dollars as a basis for future talks, and will send you a letter confirming this before the day is out!’”

Or, for another example of the technique of invidious comparison, take the story of K.B., and the German reparations—a subject which repeatedly throughout The Survivors spurs the author to heights of lyric effusion: “. . . the significance of such a large figure as the 6 billion dollars Germany will have paid in reparations [at the termination of the program], like the figure of 6 million murdered Jews, often fails to penetrate human imagination. What this redress could do for a single individual, is clear in the case of K.B. This German Jew . . . had returned in 1954. His application for restitution claimed the worth of his parents’ residence—they had died natural deaths in Munich in the early Hitler years—his father’s factory building, bank account, valuables and so on . . . payment for his own confiscated library, wardrobe, and other lost objects, full restitution for the Jew tax and Dego contribution . . . indemnification claims . . . lost profits . . . reparations for the time his father had been in a Nazi jail. . . K.B.’s fare to America . . . damages. All these claims were investigated one by one, accepted and finally paid. . . Only one of his claims was rejected; the court did not consider a back injury suffered while he worked as a handyman a direct outcome of his racial persecution.”

Note the sledgehammer subtlety with which Muhlen makes his points: the casual mention of “natural deaths”; the massed aggregation of claims which is bound to prejudice the reader against the Jew; the detail, included it seems as an afterthought, in which only the alertness of the German court prevents the insatiably rapacious K.B. from fleecing the German people with a phony claim; and, of course, the massively offensive opening statement in which the six billion dollars in reparations are balanced against the six million Jewish deaths. This story of the greedy K.B. is, moreover, the only case study Muhlen offers on the question of individual restitution claims.



The second part of the book, “Germans Meet Jews Again,” covers much the same ground and focuses even more exclusively on “human interest” stories. One item reports at considerable length a notorious anti-Semitic incident which, if I read Muhlen right, was largely the fault of the Jew involved. He discusses, briefly, several other genuinely anti-Semitic incidents and then touches upon desecration of Jewish cemeteries, to sum up with scrupulous impartiality: “The number of Christian ones desecrated in the same period was somewhat higher, but comparatively, of course, lower.”

As for the extent of Nazi influence in the new Germany, Muhlen, while acknowledging the existence of Nazi groups, is at considerable pains to deny any and all importance to them, thus going much further than most German newspapers or periodicals would. There are many sweeping claims like the following: “Deprived of all influence, and unable to hold public office after they had served their sentences, they [former Nazis convicted of major crimes] were generally despised.” Yet, as of this writing, the case of Admiral Doenitz, Hitler’s official successor, is still agitating the German public. Some time ago, this convicted war criminal was invited to address the graduating class of a German high school; as could have been expected, he spouted all the old Nazi ideas from the platform, but not a single member of the faculty found reason to challenge him.

Or again: “The surviving hard core Nazis have no access to positions of power in the new Germany.” Need I remind Muhlen of the case of former SS Brigadenfuehrer and Chief of the Security Police in occupied Holland, Wilhelm Harster, who held the position of Oberregierungsrat for communal finances in Bavaria since 1956 and was dismissed on ground of “demonstrated incompetence” only a few months ago? Or of the affair of Dr. Theodore Oberlaender, who was dismissed from his cabinet post as Minister for Refugees several years ago because of his dubious past in East Europe, but who got back on the CDU ticket and was elected to Parliament only last May? Or the matter of Herr Theodor Saevecke, head of the treason section of Bonn’s security police until last February, who has been suspended pending a new investigation into his activities as head of the German security police in Milan in 1943 and 1944? Or of the discovery this past July that one of Germany’s three security services had been seriously compromised by the employment of former SS men in responsible positions—persons who had been acting as Soviet agents for years under the threat of Communist blackmail?

“It is understandable,” Muhlen writes, “that many Jewish survivors feel uneasy on meeting and dealing with those who were or seemed to be their persecutors; but the majority of these, by 1961, had passed the test of regeneration.”

May I recall to the author that in 1961, the German government felt it necessary to pass the so-called German Judges Law which gave judges and public prosecutors the opportunity to retire voluntarily without citing reasons. By 1962, one hundred forty-nine men had taken advantage of this law. Now, in 1963, the Senate of Hamburg and the government of Hessen—neither of which is Communist or anti-German—have proposed an amendment to Germany’s constitution to compel the remaining Nazis to retire.



All this, to be sure, must be seen against the very good record of the German courts in putting more than five thousand Nazi criminals behind bars. Nevertheless, Muhlen’s failure to look at the negative side amounts to a falsification of the facts, on this question as well as on the matter of German reparations. No doubt, West Germany deserves credit for the care with which it has handled both individual restitution claims and reparations to the State of Israel, but Muhlen, as usual, overstates the case. Surely, the five billion dollars in aid which Germany has received from its victors is at least as singular a phenomenon as the three billion it has paid out to its victims!

The last third of the book, “Castaways and Pioneers,” presents a series of vignettes of individual German Jews (among them the two I cited at the beginning of this review) that add up, despite what Muhlen intends, to a very depressing picture indeed—a picture of rootless people, cut off from German society, from their fellow Jews, and from their own past. In the final chapter, however, Muhlen expresses the high-minded hope that the Jewish community in Germany will experience a new birth of vitality. This chapter ends with a quote from Friedrich Hoelderlin: “Alas, the dead cannot be brought to life unless ’tis love that does so.” Since the book opens with a cliché—may the final epitaph of the six million be that they did not die in vain—it seems fitting that it should close with an equally pious platitude on their eventual resurrection through love.

All in all, The Survivors is an unappetizing little book which pushes its message—the emergence of a new Germany—with all the gimmicks at the disposal of the public relations industry. In doing so, its author not only slights his ostensible subject, the Jews, but through exaggeration, bias, whitewash, soft soap, and the use of tar and brush, destroys the credibility of his message. Though it is true that there have been great political improvements in the German Federal Republic since 1945, a book of this kind does little service to that truth. And the sad and bitter story of the situation of the Jews in present-day Germany remains to be written.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.