Malte Herwig's new book reveals Germany's postwar Nazi coveruptags: World War II, Cold War, Nazis, Germany, West Germany
For the last seven years, the German journalist Malte Herwig, a reporter at Suddeutsche Zeitung magazine, has arduously, conscientiously tackled the challenge of researching and writing a book about the postwar German government’s “double game,” as he calls it. In Die Flakhelfer (DeutscheVerlags-Anstalt), which comes out in Germany on Monday, he reveals that, for half a century, the German leadership sought to suppress the names of prominent citizens who were Nazi Party members in the Second World War while pretending to seek them, and while simultaneously pursuing the soul-searching process of coming to terms with Germany’s grievous Second World War history—a process Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Herwig finds this behavior troubling. In New York this week he explained the genesis of his book.
In 2006, Herwig was working as a reporter for Der Spiegel when he learned—along with the rest of the world—that Günter Grass, the Nobel-Prize winning author, had been a member of Hitler’s S.S. in the Third Reich. Herwig promptly called Grass for an interview. “I wanted to know from Grass, why did you keep stumm for so long, and why did you then out yourself?” he recalls. “Grass told me that, one morning, while he was in the bathroom shaving, he caught himself whistling the tune of an old Hitler Youth song, “Uns're Fahne Flattert uns Voran,” which is the tune of the Hitlerjugend. He said it made him realize how deeply the Third Reich had impressed itself on him, and he decided, as a writer, that his means of trying to come to terms with this would have to be his writing, so that’s what he did.” Shocked that such an admired postwar figure—an icon of conscience—could have concealed such a defining secret for so long, Herwig went to the Berlin branch of the Bundesarchiv, where files of the Nazi era are kept, to see if he would find other familiar names. What he saw in those files, he writes in “Die Flakhelfer,” was “a political-cultural pantheon of the German Postwar era.”
“They were the last people you would have expected to be members of the Nazi Party,” Herwig said. The names included “leftists, Communists after the war, very educated, upright democrats.” Growing up in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1980s, Herwig had “learned about the Holocaust in high school, learned about the Third Reich, learned even about the crimes of the Wehrmacht [Germany’s army in the Second World War],” he said. “I really thought I lived in an enlightened age, and that Germany had come to terms with and owned up to its Nazi past. It was only when I discovered these files that I realized: Wow. There’s a lot of hidden information here that they didn’t tell us about.” He wanted to know, he said, why the names had remained hidden for so long....
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