Nearly seven decades after the fact, the history of Germany during the Nazi years continues to metastasize. The New York Times reports that German Foreign Ministry documents have opened a chilling new window on the mass murder of Jews. “What is coming to light now — and causing a major debate in Germany over the past few weeks — is the active involvement by Nazi Germany’s civil servants,” writes reporter Judy Dempsey.
For decades, she recounts, “bodies like the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry managed to make the public believe they had been relatively ‘clean’ during the Nazi years. They pointed to their continuing efficiency as a source of pride.” But in 2003, an obituary about a German diplomat named Franz Nusslein omitted his long war-crimes sentence for a role in the murder of Czech citizens, the Times writes. Anger over such “whitewashed obituaries” cascaded into protests that led to a commissioned study of the ministry’s past. The result – “Das Amt und die Vergangenheit,” or “The Ministry and the Past” – was published this autumn. “It became a best seller, shocking a public used to looking up at its diplomats as gentlemen who would never dirty their hands,” Dempsey writes.
According to the report, Eckart Conze, head of the commission of historians who wrote the study, described the Foreign Ministry under Hitler as a “criminal organization.” Likewise, a similar inquiry found that the Finance Ministry sullied itself by shaking down Jews to help underwrite the Wehrmacht. “The Reich’s Finance Ministry literally plundered the assets of the Jews,” said Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrat finance minister from 2005 to 2009 who decided to open the ministry’s archives. “It was systematic.” And civil servants made the entire enterprise possible. “You see how the society was occupied,” Steinbrück tells the Times. “The economy and civil society were instrumentalized by the Nazis. Of course, many people knew what was happening to the Jews. But there was a kind of collective seduction. When all this is over, we should get a much greater understanding about the apparatus of power.”