Adam R. Seipp, review of Mikkel Dack’s “Everyday Denazification in Postwar Germany: The Fragebogen and Political Screening during the Allied Occupation”

Mikkel Dack. Everyday Denazification in Postwar Germany: The Fragebogen and Political Screening during the Allied Occupation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. 350 PP. Cloth $110.00. ISBN 9781009216333.

Dack - Everyday Denazification 2023

The Fragebogen (Questionnaire) was a ubiquitous feature of life in the ruins of Hitler’s Reich. As we learn in this fascinating study by Mikkel Dack, twenty million German adults filled out this form at least once. They detailed their work history, political affiliations, and associational lives across the years of Nazi rule. The stakes were high. Germans found to have been complicit with the fallen regime faced the possibility of losing the ability to rebuild their professional careers in the new postwar order.

Dack’s monograph, based on his doctoral dissertation, offers remarkable insights into the construction, deployment, and legacies of this apparently simple 131-question document. Vividly written and full of interesting case studies, this book will challenge the way that we write and teach about this period of German history. By placing the Fragebogen at the center of the story, Dack argues that we can better understand what he calls “everyday denazification,” the process through which ordinary Germans accounted for and, in many cases, distanced themselves from the choices they made during the Nazi regime.

The book is organized into five chapters, with an introduction and conclusion. Dack structures the argument chronologically and thematically. Its focus is sweeping, taking us from taking us from Allied planning offices into the city halls and homes of Germans before zooming out to pose questions about what, if anything, we can learn from denazification for post-conflict vetting in the future.

The introduction lays out the argument in an admirably clear way. Too much of the existing literature on denazification focuses on the question of “success” or “failure,” with something of a consensus emerging around a narrative that stresses the Allies’ good intentions but lack of follow-through. As the Allies handed the process to the Germans, any hope of a real reckoning with the Nazi past faded.

Instead, Dack argues that the Fragebogen achieved a remarkable degree of what its designers hoped to accomplish. The act of filling out the questionnaire, and having one’s responses evaluated by the occupiers, forced Germans to assume at least some measure of accountability for their actions. They had to tell their personal story in a formalized way, requiring them to position themselves in relation to the Nazi state and its policies.

Dack also demonstrates the important continuities between the occupying powers regarding denazification. While each of the victorious powers developed slightly different systems, a rough consensus evolved around the Anglo-American Fragebogen. Its implementation marked what was probably the largest survey ever conducted up to that point.

The first chapter outlines the planning and assumptions that underlay the Fragebogen. The questionnaires were the result of a “dysfunctional” (22) planning process that could never settle on how to balance the need to punish Germans with the desire to rehabilitate the country. Beginning in 1943, a series of civilian-dominated planning staffs starting with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) developed a screening procedure to be applied after Germany’s defeat. Planners included social scientists and German exiles from across the political spectrum, who had widely varied ideas about the origins and solutions to National Socialism.

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the document itself. The questionnaire went through multiple iterations, reflecting the ambiguities of the planning process. Some senior Allied leaders, notably American Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, complained that the proposed screening process was too lenient. This resulted in a series of last-minute changes and multiple versions of the Fragebogen at the same moment that Allied troops began to seriously engage in the occupation mission.

The third chapter tells the story of the occupier’s experience with the Fragebogen. Dack captures the extraordinarily improvised nature of the early occupation. Trained civil affairs personnel were thin on the ground. Occupation troops often lacked the linguistic and cultural competency to sort out who was who in a chaotic landscape. Completed Fragebogen forms generated enormous amounts of paper, much of which ended up in ever-growing piles that might never be read. To avoid this morass, the Allied powers shifted responsibility to Germans as quickly as possible. In the American Zone, the establishment of German-led tribunals (Spruchkammern) eased the administrative burden on the occupiers, but also compromised any real aspiration for a thorough vetting of German society. These tribunals, Dack notes, were “the true champion of the Fragebogen.” (152)

Chapter 4 is the heart of the book, in which Dack explores the responses of Germans to the Fragebogen and the broader denazification process. Germans did not know what to expect from denazification as the war ended, which is not surprising since the Allies who administered the process didn’t really know either. What Germans discovered was that the denazification process did not stop with the Nazi leadership; it developed into an inquiry into the choices made by individuals and communities. Ordinary Germans quickly came to resent Fragebogen and the personal scrutiny it represented. Dack records a German joke captured in a British report in 1947. “Hitler declared that the Third Reich would last a thousand years. He survived the first twelve years. Denazification will easily occupy the remaining 988” (191).

When asked to account for their activities during the Nazi period, many Germans lied “and some were caught doing so” (173). Here, I would have liked to see more discussion of the multiple uses of the Fragebogen. Yes, Germans lied – but the occupiers sometimes chose to believe them even when it was clear that they were not being honest. There were reasons for this. In my own work on rural northern Bavaria, I have seen several instances in which chronically under-resourced American occupation authorities accepted the exculpatory self-presentation of Germans with administrative experience whom they must have known had problematic pasts. The need to find competent and willing partners in the postwar period led to all manner of compromises.

Dack also provides an interesting case study of denazification in Kreis Hersfeld, a largely rural region of eastern Hesse. This area, on the boundary between the American and Soviet Zones, was chosen in part because of the relative completeness of the surviving records. As Dack demonstrates, later cynicism about the Fragebogen should not blind us to the fact that contemporaries saw these documents as having real consequences. Germans feared, not without reason, that the wrong answers would cost them their livelihoods and their future at a time when everything seemed to be in flux.

The final chapter examines strategies that Germans adopted in completing the Fragebogen. Some used the documents to engage in denunciation of others, a clear legacy of the Nazi period and a reflection of the frayed bonds of social obligation that followed the war. Others engaged in strategic self-fashioning, creating non-Nazi or even anti-Nazi political pasts and sometimes portraying themselves as rescuers and protectors of individuals and groups persecuted by the regime. However disingenuous these efforts may have been, Dack argues that they created space between individuals and Nazism that helped shape political life in postwar Germany.

In the conclusion, Dack looks ahead to the democratic future of the Federal Republic of Germany to make the case that we need to have a broader understanding of the long-term implications of the vetting campaign the Fragebogen helped to initiate. This is probably too optimistic, since the eventual instantiation of a plural multi-party democracy in the Federal Republic required decades of consolidation. The denazification of the Soviet Zone, after all, certainly did not produce a multi-party democratic political constellation. However, Dack’s conclusion that modern states engaged in post-conflict political reorientation can learn from the German experience is welcome. Such change, he asserts, “cannot be achieved without the active participation of the population” (262).

Mikkel Dack has provided us with a well-researched, clearly written, and deftly organized study of everyday denazification that deserves wide attention.

Seipp headshotAdam R. Seipp is Professor of History and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas A&M University. He is the author or editor of several books, including Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952,Modern Germany in Transatlantic Perspective, and The Berlin Airlift and the Making of Cold War.  He has published articles recently on topics including the Fulda Gap, war in fiction, and the liberation of Buchenwald.

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