January 5, 2023

1949. Ultranationalism in West Germany

Extremism in the Occupied West
Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer exiting the Hotel Petersberg in 1949 (Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

March 2, 1949

During the past six months these things have happened in Western-occupied Germany:
  • An unidentified man in Frankfurt said, "It would take only a few SS divisions to wipe out the occupation." 
  • In Munich, a man who appeared to be Jewish was brushed off a streetcar. 
  • In Bavaria, a youthful politician has earned the nickname "The White Hitler" in speeches defending concentration camps like Dachau and Buchenwald. 
  • In Württemberg-Baden, German police made more than 10,000 home searches without benefit of the required search warrant.
In the final months of the fourth year of occupation of Germany there are old and familiar stirrings among the people.

Some alarmed Americans have labeled it nationalism—"German nationalism is on the march again." British officials with whom I have talked predict: "Yes, it will follow the same old pattern. Reconstruct Germany economically and her nationalism will follow, and after that you'll have a German army on your hands again."

From the French, the British, and the Americans, there is almost this fetish about German nationalism and fear of its reemergence. The world has good reason to be concerned.

The strange thing about this situation is that there is very little definition or agreement of just what exactly is meant by "German nationalism." About the best definition of the term was given recently by General Clay, American military commandant for Germany. "There are two kinds of German nationalism," Clay said. "The kind sponsored by Hitler, which placed every German above every other national on earth. Then there is a kind of German nationalism in which the German as a person finds pride in his history and culture and contributions to society. This second kind of nationalism is a form of patriotism inherent in every country and acceptable to a free world."

There is still confusion here among the occupation authorities and among the Germans themselves about just what is the "despised" German nationalism and what is the brand of German patriotism acceptable to the conquering powers.

There can be no doubt that the German people are beginning to find themselves and regain some of the courage and strength that was so beaten out of them in the war. There is a definite trend of independence in every phase of German public life, whether it be in the press, the radio, public meetings, or ordinary conversation.

Whether this resurgent initiative now expressing itself in Western Germany is to become the old-time "Deutschland über alles" nationalism, or whether it will develop into a decent free and democratic patriotism, is the number one question of internal German affairs right now.

To have a closer look at one phase of this so-called German nationalism I went into Bavaria. For the past year the reports from this southern province have sounded the most ominously nationalistic of any section of occupied Germany.

It was Bavaria that gave Hitler and his Nazis their initial support in forming the movement that brought war to the world. The Bavarians, incidentally, don't like to be reminded.

Bavaria, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, is not typical of all Germany. In fact, many Bavarians claim that they are not really Germans at all—that independent Bavaria preceded and has outlasted Germany. Perhaps it is true that the Bavarians are an insular, "distilled" type of German. At any rate, the stresses of Bavaria's internal politics certainly reach their peak in a narrow brand of nationalism that reeks of the kind of National Socialism that got its start there under Hitler.

In Bavaria there is a small but vocal separatist movement which finds strong support among the aristocrats and monarchists who would make Bavaria an independent European country—some say under a limited monarchy. Bavarians still retain their titles inherited from the old royal families, however the slogans of the separatists have a much less ancient ring.

"Bavaria for the Bavarians" is this group's slogan. Something like 15,000 refugees a month are coming into Bavaria. The Bavarians want nothing to do with them. In fact, some extremists advocate that the province have a law restricting marriage there to proven Bavarians.

The Bavarians do not only restrict their dislike to the Poles and Czechs who seek refuge in their country. They also have a great dislike for the Prussians, who they manage to blame for their involvement in a losing war. To them, all who are not Bavarian are foreigners.

Another expression of German nationalism is in antisemitism, which is becoming more and more bold not only in Bavaria but all over Germany.

There is the example of two advertisements in scattered newspapers. One ad for a Neustadt clothing store pointed out that the company was a "pure German enterprise." Another want-ad asked for women workers and specified that only "Rhein Germans need apply." Occupation officials jump on these incidents when they discover them.

But antisemitism is becoming flagrant, intelligence officials tell me, in its more disreputable forms. The scrawling on latrine walls, the jostlings on streetcars, and the wild, vicious, ritual rumors that fed the propaganda of Julius Streicher and his pogroms.

This peculiar kind of German nationalism is most certainly on the increase here. German antisemitism seems to be the result of a national inferiority complex. And embedded as it is in generations of Germans—fanned to flames by Hitler—one of the biggest jobs of establishing democracy in Germany is to put down this kind of inhumanity. There are critics of our military and civilian occupation authorities who say that too many Americans, and British and French for that matter, pay too little attention to German antisemitism. Some may even agree with it.

The most overt political expression of nationalism in postwar Germany came, surprisingly enough, in public announcements of the formation of new political parties. The one that got the most publicity was the abortive "League of German Revival" which was to be headed by the notorious Otto Strasser. Several similar super-nationalist organizations have been trying to get started. They bear such names as "Union of the Middle" and the "National Democratic Party." These movements base their appeal first on anticommunism. All demand the restoration of the prewar German borders, particularly the return of Silesia from Poland. All complain of the hardship which the occupation is inflicting on the German people, and in this sense they are not only anti-Russia but also anti-Western Powers.

As you know, Strasser is not permitted to leave Canada. His projected party has not been licensed by the occupation powers, but I have it on reliable authority that there is already the start of an underground political party in Germany. It is small now and officials are not too concerned, but it is being watched with vigilance.

The most overt expression of political nationalism of the most flagrant kind again I found in Bavaria. A young man, 27-years-old, named Karl Meissner tried to found what he called "the Deutsche Bloc" in Munich. His good-looking blond features and his eloquence on the platform earned him the unofficial name of "The White Hitler." Before he was stopped by the military government, Meissner went on record in speeches that said the people Hitler put in concentration camps were criminals anyway, and that the Jews were responsible for Germany's troubles and other such stuff out of Mein Kampf. Perhaps Meissner's most fantastic statement was his defense of Britain's Lord Haw-Haw who he somehow regarded as a martyr. The Deutsche Bloc was a small movement.

I have given you many examples here of German nationalism as it is being expressed in scattered places throughout the western part of the country.

I do not want to leave the impression that this occupied nation is a seething mass of resurgent Nazis waiting for the moment to rise up and strike down those few Jewish folk left here by Hitler and then start another campaign of world conquest.

There are many honorable and decent Germans trying to work out their problems with the nations of the West, and many are making a sincere effort to pull Germany up to the status of a respected government in the community of nations.

However, the Germans of good will would appear to be in the minority, just as the fanatical Germans such as Bavaria's Karl Meissner and others are also in the minority. There is a great mass of Germans in the middle of these two political positions who don't know what they will do in the future or who are too busy trying to eke out a living to care what happens.

Unfortunately, it is this mass of ordinary Germans who have been led into every Teutonic adventure in Germany's history, whether the leader was a Kaiser or a Hitler. They are ready, or nearly ready, to be led again. The question in Germany is what kind of leadership.

The communists are attempting to use German nationalism in the current struggle between the East and the West. They advocate a quick peace treaty, what they call unification of Germany, and oppose such Western security measures as the Ruhr statue and the Occupation Statute.

Only the most blatant German opportunists, other than the confirmed communists, are following this appeal from the Soviet zone. Suspicion of the German communists and their Russian masters is too great even for the most cynical nationalist to follow. Nationalism in Germany manufactures its own brand of cynicism.

Military government officials in the small towns and counties of Western Germany say that in the past year there is a stiffening and negative attitude gradually developing among Germans against the occupation.

Although the German people are living and eating better than any time since the war, the complaints are more frequent and the whining more prevalent. There is also a widespread campaign underway to discredit the occupation powers. So far the campaign expresses itself in attitudes and ridicule. And of course there is virtually no credit or gratitude given for the tremendous amount of effort and money spent by America in reconstructing the country.

The recent shakeup in the American sponsored newspaper, Neue Zeitung in Munich, was among other things a protest against this hard to define negative attitude of the Germans finding its way into print.

For example, the nationalism inherent in a current newspaper campaign attacking an American-sponsored beauty contest for Miss Bavaria is one method of discrediting American efforts to help the country. We sponsored the contest to encourage tourist trade. "Beauty contests are not Bavarian," one paper sobs. This is the sort of thing that makes it difficult to put one's finger on German nationalism. It in itself is not important, but the attitude is there.

The difficulties of adapting Germany's past to a Western democratic future are tremendous. There is another example. In Munich not many weeks ago the Baron Wolfgang von Beck, chief of the Bavarian state hunting department, resigned his job. The reason: the introduction of a new hunting law that would allow every German to apply for a hunting license and shoot Bavaria's game in season. This was a revolutionary step for this part of Germany because hunting on the great estates—the only suitable lands for shooting—was a privilege of the rich and politically favored and, of course, the aristocracy. The last Marshal of the Hunt under the last German Reich was Hermann Göring.

Baron von Beck resigned, and I quote, "because the new law would make a cheap business of what used to be a sport and recreation."

Von Beck has a good reputation among the American military government of Bavaria as a sincere and cooperative German. His insistence of preserving the old game laws for the privilege of the few might be called a form of nationalism. Perhaps it is true.

There is another example of this kind of thing that occurred last year in the province Württemberg-Baden.

A recent study of police procedures revealed just how deadly and overwhelming is the German heritage of fear of the police handed down from the Gestapo.

This study revealed that, in 10,651 home searches recently conducted, only 81 were supported by warrants. In other words, 10,570 violations of the law were committed by the police in the province of Württemberg-Baden, and it wasn't discovered until the American military government made a survey.

Shortly afterward the military government issued a directive for public education of Germans recommending that they be informed of their privileges under a democracy.

It is true that in many cases resurgence of German nationalism, as so labeled, is a lack of acceptance or understanding of democracy. But in this spring's political stirrings in the German people there is something more to this. It can be assumed that every German desires the reconstruction of his country. It can also be assumed that no German likes occupation—at least in history there is no record of such a thing.

There are enough German soldiers and mothers and wives and sisters in this country to assume that there still remains a great pride in the temporary achievements of the German army in the last war, and pride in the spirit and resilience of the German people.

It must also be assumed that a desire for revenge still exists, not so much in the younger generations as in the older. For the elders, it is still "Deutschland über alles."

It is a fact that the ghost of German nationalism is stirring in its grave this spring, but the threat of resurgence of this political monstrosity is not at this moment as widespread or as serious as it might sound.

The democracies of the West still have time and opportunity to lead and direct the formation of a decent and cooperative Germany into the council of governments. There is no set formula or pattern of operation.

One thing is certain. The job cannot be done simply by condemning German nationalism and letting it go at that.

The West has the job of instructing and at the same time directing Germans to use their political privileges granted under the West German government now in the making. It has been so long since these privileges have been valid here that the Germans forget they are available.

The fault of democracy everywhere, including the United States of America, is that too few people make use of it.

The problem of Germany is to get the great mass of people interested in working in their free government. The alternative is totalitarianism, either of the right or the left, and probably war.