Image: SZ Photo
Bavarian Constitutional Assembly at the Main Auditorium (Große Aula) at the University of Munich, 1946

For many of the West German states founded in the wake of World War II, 2016 and 2017 marked the seventieth anniversary of their founding. The degree to which they chose to commemorate these events varied widely: North Rhine-Westphalia organized a grand ceremony attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s Prince William, and Hesse held numerous events commemorating the history of its founding and regional successes, but other states, perhaps regarding seventy years as a rather unorthodox milestone, were more restrained in their celebrations or saw little need to mark the anniversary at all. Schleswig-Holstein, for instance, organized only a small celebration, which was unceremoniously pushed back from the actual anniversary of the state’s founding, August 23, to October so as to coincide with the end of the State Horticultural Show in Eutin.1 The state’s former minister-president, Björn Engholm, thought this was perfectly adequate: “After all, seventy years is no reason to have all the world’s choirs take to the stage,”2 he was reported as saying in the press. However, this attitude also came in for criticism. Wolfgang Kubicki, leader of the FDP faction in the state parliament, complained that in Schleswig-Holstein “celebrations of our own achievements are always given the lowest priority.”3

One striking thing about the commemorations was the marked emphasis on issues that had remarkably little to do with the states’ founding or the crucial groundwork for the future that had been laid seventy years earlier. Most representatives of the states understood the seventy years since their state’s founding primarily as a story of economic success. This was something to which Hesse, for instance, was keen to draw attention, emphasizing that, based on certain economic parameters, it was doing even better than Bavaria or Baden-Württemberg.4 Another commonly mentioned topic was the integration of refugees and displaced persons after 1945, with parallels being drawn to the present-day refugee crisis. For example, Hannelore Kraft, then minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, credited the various waves of immigration as a factor behind the “economic strength, … social cohesion, and … cultural diversity”5 that her state now enjoyed, seventy years after its founding.

Clearly, the German states found it difficult to celebrate the history of their own founding and those who had been central in these historical events. They also struggled to establish their own democratic tradition worthy of celebration.

It would appear that the same problem that has long affected the historiography of the Federal Republic of Germany as a whole was being repeated at the level of the states. According to Axel Schildt, there exist five (competing and in some cases contradictory) ways to narrate the history of the Federal Republic: 1) as a history of success, 2) as a history of failure, 3) as a history of modernization, 4) as a “burdened” history [Belastungsgeschichte], and 5) as a history of Westernization.6 Given these divergent interpretations, it is no wonder that “celebrating” has proven difficult. This article will therefore focus specifically on the establishment of statehood in the German states after 1945 and investigate how this history should be classified in light of recent research, so that it can be seen more clearly what exactly there is to “celebrate” seventy years on.

Because the examination and comparison of specific examples results in more detailed understanding of the historical developments, the German states of Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate will serve as case studies. The circumstances and general conditions surrounding the foundation of these two states varied in ways that allow for a productive juxtaposition. For reasons of space, however, this comparison of the two states’ early years focuses on three key aspects: a) the establishment of statehood and democracy, b) economic reconstruction, and c) efforts to address the burden of the National Socialist past.


To properly assess the establishment of statehood and democracy in Germany after 1945, it is necessary to consider the background against which it took place, for—in the words of political scientist Hans-Peter Schwarz—our recent history is “only fully comprehensible … if one attempts … to understand it from the perspective of catastrophe, as a response to the physical, political, economic, and moral chaos out of which West German society emerged.”7 This background cannot be described as anything less than a total catastrophe of previously unimaginable scope. Allied-occupied Germany was in a state of complete collapse, without any state structures: many of the Third Reich’s political leaders had eluded responsibility for their crimes by fleeing the country or taking their own lives. Until literally the last minute, they had continued to issue senseless orders to keep on fighting and dying, thereby adding to the tally of their crimes and driving the German state as a whole into utter ruin. National Socialism had long eroded regional political identities, as the case of Bavaria illustrates especially clearly. Although there had still been a state by the name of “Bavaria” and a Bavarian minister-president, Ludwig Siebert, during the Third Reich, Siebert governed Bavaria as little more than a puppet of the National Socialist regime, overseen by a Reichsstatthalter (Reich governor). After he was succeeded by Gauleiter Paul Giesler in 1942, the last remnants of Bavarian sovereignty disappeared completely, since Giesler for all intents and purposes ceased to exercise the office.8 His counterpart in the Palatinate region, Josef Bürckel, proceeded in a similar manner, attempting to loosen the ties between the Palatinate and Bavaria so he could build up a realm along the French border in which he could exercise unlimited power.9

The dissolution of state structures was accompanied by the wholesale destruction of infrastructure and industry by the Allied air campaign and the combat operations in the final weeks of the war. While rural areas were spared the worst destruction, urban areas in Bavaria were devastated: around 33 percent of Munich and 51 percent of Nuremberg were destroyed, and the latter’s population after the war was less than half of what it had been before. On March 16, 1945, three weeks before the city was occupied by American forces, 75 percent of Würzburg was destroyed by an aerial bombardment that left 90 percent of homes in ashes and killed almost five thousand people.10

Matters were similar—or even worse—in the areas that were incorporated into the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1947. This was where, even as the war was in its final stages, the utterly senseless Ardennes Counteroffensive had been launched, resulting in high casualties and destruction on a massive scale. Ninety thousand soldiers perished on the German side alone in this insanity. The BASF chemical plant complex in Ludwigshafen, the region’s only major industrial site, was subjected to sixty-five aerial attacks with a combined total of some forty thousand bombs: these attacks completely destroyed one-third of the complex and damaged the remaining two-thirds so badly that no further production was possible. Moreover, after the war the company was sequestered by the French military administration, meaning its future was completely uncertain. All the bridges over the Rhine and twenty of the twenty-one bridges over the Mosel had been destroyed.11

On top of the destruction of the economic infrastructure, a global food crisis that was particularly acute between 1946 and 1948 meant the Allies were not always able to provide the Germans with sufficient food. The crisis hit the French occupation zone, in which the region that became Rhineland-Palatinate was located, harder than the American zone, in which Bavaria was located, because the weakest member of the anti-Hitler coalition did not even have enough food for its own population. Thus, there were protests over food shortages both in Ludwigshafen in the Palatinate and over the border in Lyon.12

Alongside the collapse of the state, the wholesale economic ruin, and the devastated livelihoods of many, Germans were also faced with the moral guilt their nation had brought upon itself. Before long, there could be no doubt in any honest person’s mind about the terrible toll of the war, with previously unimaginable war crimes and the murder of six million Jews and many other groups of victims now coming to light. People at the time had no idea how the victors would deal with a nation that had committed such crimes, or how, in the face of this guilt, a new German statehood, however constituted, could even be contemplated.13

It would be hard to overstate the bleakness of the situation. Even if we bear in mind only these few, by no means exhaustively described aspects, it is astonishing that there was anybody at all willing to take over from the Allied authorities and accept responsibility for the unenviable task of making a new start. It could hardly have been the prospect of success, fame, material reward, or even simply gratitude that motivated them—from the perspective of 1945/46, there was scant hope of any of these things.


It is striking that the re-establishment of statehood in Germany in the years that followed, culminating in the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, came from the bottom up out of the individual occupation zones, under the oversight of the Allied military commanders. This is especially clear in the case of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Ordinance No. 57 decreed the founding of a “Rhenish-Palatinate [Rheinpfälzisches Land]” on August 30, 1946. Following elections for the Gemeinderat (municipal council, September 15, 1946) and Kreisversammlung (district assembly, October 13, 1946), an advisory state constituent assembly was formed out of these two bodies (elected on November 17, 1946). The constituent assembly drafted a constitution, which was put to a referendum on May 18, 1947.14 In Bavaria, the state constituent assembly was directly elected on June 30, 1946, following local and municipal elections in the first half of the year. The assembly approved the draft version of the constitution on October 26, 1946, and it was subsequently accepted by 71 percent of Bavarian voters in the parliamentary elections on December 1, 1946. Although both constitutions were produced under Allied oversight, they were based on preliminary work carried out long before, which could now finally be put to use. Wilhelm Hoegner in Bavaria and Adolf Süsterhenn in Rhineland-Palatinate are thus rightly considered these states’ respective “constitutional fathers.”15

The new Rhineland-Palatinate constitution did not enjoy the same relatively widespread acceptance as its Bavarian counterpart, winning the referendum by a narrow margin of 53 percent. This slim majority was only secured thanks to strong support in the predominantly Catholic districts of Koblenz and Trier. In Rheinhessen and the Palatinate, a majority of voters actually rejected the constitution: not because they were fundamentally opposed to democracy, but rather due, firstly, to doubts about whether the artificial construct of Rhineland-Palatinate could possibly have a future and, secondly, to a dispute over a reform to the school system that was also on the ballot; whereas the newly founded CDU wanted to reintroduce denominational schools, even in areas where they had been abolished prior to 1933, the SPD, FDP, and Communist Party favored interdenominational schools, and ultimately rejected the whole constitution.16

All the same, the constitutions of both states have survived down to the present day without any fundamental changes. One need look no further than the preambles to register a fundamental rejection of the recently fallen National Socialist dictatorship and a passionate commitment to erecting in its place a new, democratic state governed by rule of law—a commitment that did not need to be compelled by the victorious powers.17

“In the face of the scene of devastation into which the survivors of the 2nd World War were led by a godless state and social order which lacked any conscience and respect for human dignity”—so begins the preamble to the new Bavarian constitution—“the Bavarian people herewith bestows upon itself the following Democratic Constitution.”18 Thus, the very first words of the document make a conscious break with the past and express respect for human dignity. In line with these aims, the second part of the constitution is devoted to civil liberties. Very generally, the Bavarian constitution of 1946 is marked by its desire to help forge a Bavarian identity—a desire that it was at least partially successful in realizing. This is why, in a rhetorical move unusual in a constitution, the document refers to Bavaria’s long history and its population’s common roots in an attempt to unite Bavarians behind the nascent democracy. The constitution thus drew on historical tradition and Bavarian identity in the service of establishing a democratic order. How could the fundamental new start down a democratic path have been formulated any more clearly?19

The new, patched-together state of Rhineland-Palatinate had no such traditions and territorial continuities to which its constitution could refer, which may be one reason why the preamble refers to God at great length than any other German state constitution. The document’s opening phrase—“Conscious of their responsibility before God, the source of right and creator of all human community”—elevates its status above that of a merely human contract. Its stated aims are “to secure the freedom and dignity of man, to regulate community life according to the principle of social justice, to promote economic progress for all people, and to form a new democratic Germany as an active member of the community of nations.”20 Part one of the constitution then sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people of Rhineland-Palatinate, which are justified on the basis of natural law.21

All the work that went into establishing these new principles of statehood within Germany clearly proved fruitful, as evidenced by how long the constitutions have endured. In Axel Schildt’s terms, we thus appear to have here a remarkable history of success—even if such a history may nowadays strike us as “boring” and arouse the suspicion that a kind of simplistic, apologetic foundational myth is being handed down.22 This suspicion can be countered by incorporating aspects of what Schildt terms the “history of failure.”23 In the worldviews of both Bavaria’s and Rhineland-Palatinate’s constitutional fathers, there were elements that appear strange and contradictory when viewed through the lens of our modern, developed conception of democracy, and which seem to suggest the existence of a “restorative” mood in the founding years.

One commonly cited example in this context is the draft of a law to “defend the Bavarian state” that was penned by the social democrat Wilhelm Hoegner, Bavarian minister-president and constitutional father. The proposed law, modeled on the Law for the Defense of the Republic from 1922, would have allowed preemptive indefinite detention of people without occupations, restrictions on freedom of expression, and many other measures in the event of a threat to the Bavarian state. Attempting to intimidate the Bavarian minister-president or any other minister or to prevent them from exercising their authority would have become punishable by death or life imprisonment. The American military government was swift to block any such proposals, which was a definite help in attaining the goal of democracy.24 The father of Rhineland-Palatinate’s constitution, Adolf Süsterhenn, also held some misguided views incompatible with a democratically constituted society: In 1952, he attempted to have the film Die Sünderin banned in Rhineland-Palatinate because he considered it immoral. Later, in the mid-1960s, he called for changes to article 5, paragraph 3 of German Basic Law, which declares that “art and scholarship, research, and teaching shall be free.”25 Süsterhenn wanted to confine this freedom to the bounds of the “general moral order” so as to ensure “decency in German cultural life.”26 This proposal did not win majority support in parliament.

It would be wrong, however, to allow these misguided views to discredit these men in general or suggest a weakness in the political systems they helped to create. Hoegner’s aim, against the backdrop of the experience of National Socialism, was to protect the new democratic order by all available means. He did not want to see German democracy threatened a second time and did all he could to protect it—including attempting to have three defendants who had been acquitted at the Nuremberg trials, Franz von Papen, Hjalmar Schacht, and Hans Fritzsche, rearrested by the Bavarian police.27 Süsterhenn’s ideas, meanwhile, were rooted in the ideological concept of a “Christian Occident” [christliches Abendland]; proponents of this notion—quite popular in the wake of the Second World War and National Socialism—sought to initiate a spiritual and moral revival based on Christian tradition. It was committed to reconciliation between peoples and rejected all nationalism and chauvinism.28

This fact alone suggests that, from a regional perspective, the history of the founding of the German states may perhaps not be adequately classified as what Schildt calls a “history of Westernization” in his list of five possible historical narratives for postwar Germany.29 Despite the occasional misguided step, the founding fathers of these German states made a genuine and constructive contribution to democratic development in their own right; this development cannot be attributed solely to the influence of the occupying powers.

It would be entirely mistaken to take such opinions to mean that the founding fathers’ ultimate goal was authoritarianism or even “renazification.” Hoegner was one of the National Socialists’ fiercest opponents during the Weimar period and later fled to Switzerland to escape the Gestapo. During his exile, he was influenced by Swiss direct democracy.30 Süsterhenn also became an opponent of the Nazis, serving as a lawyer to persecuted individuals in the courts of the Third Reich.31 Many of those who now assumed positions of responsibility had similar biographies. In Bavaria, the old elites were comprehensively ousted at the level of local governments. Around a third of representatives in the first Bavarian Landtag had been imprisoned or interred in concentration camps during the Nazi period,32 and recent studies of the political backgrounds of Landtag representatives overwhelmingly refute the thesis of renazification within the two states under consideration here. Of the 559 members of the Rhineland-Palatinate advisory state assembly of 1946 and the Landtag from 1947 to 1987, only 15 percent were former members of the NSDAP, of whom the vast majority had demonstrably not been actively involved in the party’s work.33 On the other hand, among the sixty-eight members of that initial advisory state assembly, fifteen members had lost their jobs during the Nazi period for political reasons, twenty-five had been detained as political prisoners, and six had been forced into exile.34 However, these figures are not representative of all the German states; in Schleswig-Holstein, over 50 percent of those serving in the Landtag between 1954 and 1967 were former NSDAP members, and the proportion of parliamentarians who had faced persecution by the Nazi regime dropped off dramatically after 1947.35 The figure for Hesse lies somewhere in between, with a total of ninety-two former NSDAP members out of 403 Landtag representatives in the postwar period or 22.8 percent.36 The situation in Lower Saxony was similar, with 27 percent of state parliamentarians between 1946 and 1994 having been NSDAP members prior to the end of the war.37

Schildt’s “history of failure,” which is based largely on the charge that the founding years of the Federal Republic had a “restorative” character, thus becomes relativized when differences between the individual German states are taken into account. Elements of this history are also captured in Christoph Kleßmann’s notion of “modernization under conservative auspices.”38 For despite all the “retarding” or retrogressive aspects, the social dynamism unleashed by the new statehood was so great that it ultimately resulted in a pluralist democracy—a remarkable turn of events, and one worthy of commemoration.


In depicting the early years of the Federal Republic and the individual German states as a “history of modernization,” there is no doubt a risk of “nostalgic retrospectives on the heroic phase of reconstruction” that can easily be mistaken for the “apologetic” variant of the history of success.39 But this should not lead us to overlook the enormous accomplishments by the architects of the country’s reconstruction, despite the occasional misstep or failure.

Their first, overriding priority was to ensure that the population was fed and housed (many people did not even have a roof over their heads) and to rebuild essential economic infrastructure. The now-published minutes of the early meetings of Bavaria’s and Rhineland-Palatinate’s councils of ministers vividly illustrate the highly practical nature of the issues that politicians had to grapple with in this period, such as the supply of coal or the potato harvest—topics that could sometimes provoke intense debate. If we fully acknowledge what the business of reconstruction involved in practice—working day and night, dealing with everything from the small necessities of life to major economic problems, rebuilding out of virtually nothing—it cannot help but command astonishment and respect even today.40 As Anton Pfeiffer, state secretary at the Bavarian State Chancellery, summed up the prevailing situation in summer 1945: “The situation is more or less like that after the Thirty Years’ War. If we lose these chances now, people in Bavaria will have to bear it for centuries. There are tremendous opportunities to shape the future.”41

The very different starting conditions and options open to the states in 1945 is once again evident in a comparison. Rhineland-Palatinate, founded in 1947, was pieced together from former border regions that had historically been economically weak, and was administered by France, which, due to its own economic problems, was not only unable to provide economic assistance, but intended to use the occupation zone to bolster its own reconstruction, and hence was planning to dismantle the state’s already minimal industrial capability. Moreover, Rhineland-Palatinate had suffered heavy damage to infrastructure even in rural regions, necessitating extensive rebuilding.42

In Bavaria, the overall situation was more favorable. Although it had some of the same problems as Rhineland-Palatinate—a large number of traditionally agricultural regions that represented economic problem zones, mass devastation from the war, the threat of destruction of industrial capability—research by Stefan Grüner found that more industrial assets remained intact and that the American military administration was better able to provide assistance.43 However, Bavaria had to deal with the mass influx of over 1.9 million refugees, since for a long time the French simply refused to allow them into their zone. Refugees and displaced persons were only admitted into Rhineland-Palatinate in the early 1950s following protracted negotiations over how to share the burden more equally between the zones. Despite the far lower numbers involved, in Rhineland-Palatinate, too, feeding and housing the new arrivals posed an enormous challenge.44 Immigration had a substantial impact on Bavaria’s demographic structure, especially the arrival of Sudeten Germans, who were soon dubbed the fourth Bavarian tribe and made up well over 20 percent of Bavaria’s population by 1949. Like the evacuees who were sent to live in the Bavarian countryside (the “air raid shelter of the Reich,” as it came to be known) during the war, the refugees were also mostly placed in smaller towns and villages, drastically altering the existing social structures. This fostered hostility toward these fellow German citizens, who had lost everything, and led to the founding of parties and groups opposed to accepting refugees. This was, to be sure, a dark chapter in the history of postwar reconstruction,45 particularly given that the refugees ultimately (albeit a few years down the line) proved to be a boon to Bavaria’s economic growth and helped bring about positive changes in their host society. The Bavarian Refugee Act of 1947 and the churches’ pastoral care for displaced persons played a key role, as did initiatives by the refugees themselves and a broad spectrum of cultural policy measures. The result was that, by the 1950s, the first signs of successful integration were already in evidence.46

The question of how a successful new start was possible in the face of this dire economic situation has been better researched in relation to Bavaria than Rhineland-Palatinate. What politicians were able to do in the structurally weak Rhineland-Palatinate, which had practically no large-scale industry other than the chemical plants in Ludwigshafen, was to pass laws designed to stimulate the economy, to actively seek economic assistance from external sources such as the federal government and the Marshall Plan, and—above all—to rebuild the transportation infrastructure, which was essential for recovery. A lot of money went into rebuilding the dominant agricultural sector. This included investment in wine production: the new state contained around 70 percent of Germany’s vineyards, but vast sums of state aid were needed to make the wine crops phylloxera-resistant before the opportunities this offered could be harnessed. Rhineland-Palatinate probably pumped too much money into agriculture at first without taking advantage of the (albeit limited) opportunities to catch up in terms of industrialization. This was due in part to the state’s financial weakness: in the early 1950s, it struggled to provide a mere 58 million Deutschmarks [DM] in economic assistance. Moreover, NATO’s defense strategy saw eight new airbases being created in the region on the left bank of the Rhine, transforming it (in the words of Minister-President Bernhard Vogel) into “NATO’s aircraft carrier.” Although this helped in the economically weak areas, it prevented modern industries from becoming established in the region and meant that, when the NATO forces withdrew after 1990, the old problems returned. Solving these problems requires a process of structural transformation that is still ongoing to this day.47

Things developed very differently in Bavaria, which also started out with a dominant agricultural sector and economically weaker border regions to the east. Despite all the political debates about whether or not the state should intervene in the economy, the first structural funding measures began in 1946/47, and in the early 1950s, Bavaria became the first state after North Rhine-Westphalia to introduce a state development plan. Bavaria’s selling points were its business-friendly labor laws, cheap commercial building land, and prestigious, long-established educational institutions. There was also a huge housebuilding program, with 350,000 new homes constructed between 1950 and 1954. The amount of state assistance on offer was in an entirely different league than Rhineland-Palatinate: by 1954, Bavaria had issued DM 700 million of indemnity bonds, for example to support the founding of new companies that were low on capital. Further assistance was available from the Bavarian State Institute for Development Financing (LfA), which was given DM 40 million of initial capital by the state.48 There was also investment in research, despite Bavaria being branded at the time as a not very research-friendly state: the Fraunhofer Society, founded in 1949, soon shook off its reputation as a product of Bavarian exceptionalism and established a respected place for itself in the German research landscape—something that also benefited the Bavarian economy. Later, the “Rucker Plan,” a program launched by Wilhelm Hoegner to promote research in Bavaria in 1956, helped to revolutionize the state’s research sector.49

With its strategy to modernize industry, Bavaria avoided the mistakes made in other German regions. In particular, the state made attractive offers to industries fleeing the Soviet occupation zone and former German territories, and became home to modern, large-scale industries with promising future prospects: for example, Auto Union/Audi relocated to Ingolstadt in 1949.50 Schott, the glassmaking company from Jena in East Germany, was one of the rare cases where Rhineland-Palatinate managed to hold its own in the face of competition from Bavaria, with the company choosing Mainz as the site for its new West German headquarters, which opened in 1952.51

In summary: although by the mid-1950s Bavaria was still below average national GDP per capita,52 its economy was gradually recovering. Rhineland-Palatinate’s recovery was slower, not taking off until the early 1960s, when it was able to take advantage of opportunities opened up by the EEC. Relative to the point they started out from, both cases—each with its own peculiarities and limitations—represent remarkable histories of success and modernization, the crucial foundations for which were laid down during the period under consideration here.53 Why this should not have been commemorated in the anniversary celebrations is unclear.


It is sometimes argued that this unparalleled growth in prosperity was accompanied by collective amnesia and suppression of the Germans’ guilt for the crimes of the Nazi era, resulting in what Ralph Giordano provocatively termed a “second guilt”;54 this (disputed) claim lies at the heart of accounts that present the founding of the Federal Republic and/or the individual states as a “burdened history.”55 It is not hard to find evidence of such suppression at the state level, either: at a meeting of Rhineland-Palatinate’s advisory state assembly in Koblenz on December 6, 1946, Peter Altmeier (later minister-president) offered up an idiosyncratic interpretation of history that went on to enjoy great popularity in the state: “The political emphasis and the leading cultural center of future German state life must lie here on the Rhine, where the nationalistic and centralistic authoritarian state thinking never could take root, where militarism never had a home, [where] on the contrary—during the Nazi era as well—democratic, federalistic and peace-loving thinking always remained alive.”56 Although these words were clearly pandering to the political views of the French military administration, and were intended to somehow bring unity to the disparate state of Rhineland-Palatinate, it is difficult to read them without a sense of incredulity.

Turning now to an example from Bavaria: at a Dachau Symposium in 2013, Sybille Steinbacher57 described the difficulties survivors of the Dachau concentration camp encountered when trying to build new lives after liberation. Some sections of the population united against them, taking the side of those who had perpetrated the crimes in Dachau and Landsberg.58 Steinbacher’s findings form part of a vast body of research showing that the Germans failed for decades to adequately confront their guilt, that German politicians and judges were too reluctant to punish the crimes of the Nazi era, and that German society was prevented from coming to terms with its past by a host of myths and legends that only gradually dissipated.

A finer-grained examination of the histories and local situations of individual German states, however, brings the mechanisms and determinants of this development into sharper relief and helps to prevent overhasty generalizations of the historical findings.

For example, a study by Edith Raim, based on an extensive analysis of thousands of German judicial proceedings against Nazi criminals, begins by noting the many different things that had to be done all at once and under the most difficult of conditions in the first ten years or so after 1945: the international war crimes tribunal took place in Nuremberg; other military tribunals and German courts also heard cases concerning Nazi war crimes; the entire population was subjected to an unprecedented political screening program known as “denazification”; reparations had to be made for damage inflicted in other countries; and compensation and restitution had to be arranged for victims. One American observer described it as the “largest judicial enterprise recorded in the history of mankind.”59

If we focus our attention on the punishment of Nazi crimes, the surviving case files give an idea of the scale of the task that had to be accomplished: in Bavaria, for example, a total of 4,932 proceedings were instituted over the course of the years, while 2,374 such cases were brought in Rhineland-Palatinate. North Rhine-Westphalia bore the heaviest brunt, with 8,674 proceedings.60 Ultimately, judges handed down sentences against some 30,000 Nazi perpetrators. To take a specific example, the Würzburg district attorney’s office instituted 218 proceedings in the period that we are interested in here, 1945–1949. By no means did all of these proceedings result in the defendants’ prosecution, but some did end with severe punishments. In 1953, for instance, a Rapportführer [report leader] from the Groß-Rosen concentration camp was sentenced to life imprisonment.61 According to Raim’s research, never again were so many proceedings initiated against Nazi perpetrators than during this period from 1945 to 1950. She believes these public trials also had great educational value, since they gave people a concrete, up-close insight into the full reprehensibility of the National Socialist regime. She concludes: “One cannot help but respect the Justice Administration for its efforts to combat forgetfulness and seek justice despite the prevailing hardship of the early postwar years.”62

The major war crimes trials conducted by the Allies—in Bavaria most notably, of course, the Nuremberg trials, though there were also other trials held before American military tribunals—are now widely regarded, after years of research, as a key milestone in the history of bringing those complicit in the crimes of dictatorial regimes to justice; these trials have served as a reference point for all subsequent attempts to undertake similar proceedings in other countries.63 To give one example, Eugen Kogon described the Nuremberg trials as “a crucial step in world history toward using justice to tame violence.”64

Comparable, though far less well-known, trials also took place in Rhineland-Palatinate, namely, the Rastatt war crimes trials, which were conducted by the French military administration and resulted in several death penalties.65 Following these trials and the manhunts for German war criminals carried out by the French authorities in Germany and France, several hundred prisoners had to serve time at the war criminal prison in Wittlich, Rhineland-Palatinate—perpetrators who have long disappeared from public consciousness, but should nonetheless be included in a full account of efforts to address the crimes of the Nazi era.66

Recent regional and local studies have likewise resulted in a more nuanced assessment of the process of denazification. Instead of simply being sweepingly disparaged as a Mitläuferfabrik (a factory turning perpetrators into “fellow travelers”), more attention is now given to the individual phases of denazification and the problems that led to an unsatisfactory overall result. In Rhineland-Palatinate, for example, the first stage of denazification—the “Auto-Épuration” of 1945/46, overseen by the French with German involvement—was anything but lenient; while it did achieve remarkable results, it quickly became politically controversial. It was only when the French proceedings were replaced by the American Spruchkammer tribunals that political guilt began to be squeezed into overly rigid categories, resulting in the well-known homogenizing effect.67 As regards Bavaria, meanwhile, a recent study on denazification in Nuremberg, the city of the Nazi rallies, refutes any suggestion that the old Nazi elites were let off lightly there; instead, surviving Nazi leaders were rigorously brought to account for their crimes.68 This contrasts with research on Augsburg, where this was found at least in some instances not to be the case.69

The intensely debated topic of reparations (Wiedergutmachung, lit. “making good” [e.g., an injustice]) for the crimes of the National Socialists has also been analyzed with specific reference to Bavaria. On the one hand, the analysis confirms the much-discussed weaknesses of the process, which required victims to provide an unreasonable level of proof of the injustices done to them; this study found greater reluctance in Bavaria to pay reparations than in other states, such as Hesse. On the other hand, it also showed that Bavaria did undertake substantial efforts to make reparation right from an early stage: for example, by October 1945, a state commission for the care of Jewish people had already been set up under the auspices of the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior. Intended to alleviate the pressing everyday hardship of the victims of persecution, this commission provided some three million Reichsmarks of immediate aid in the first three months of 1946. As ambivalent and unsatisfactory for many victims as the overall result was, the reparation process did make those whom persecution had deprived of rights into “legitimate claimants,” and “changed the present” for all parties by addressing the injustices of the recent past.70

Another key aspect of addressing this legacy was public, societal confrontation with the National Socialist era. The Institute of Contemporary History (IFZ) played a key role here. The institute, which was given its present name in 1952, was founded in Munich in 1949 with the task of studying the National Socialist period. By actively supporting and funding the institute, “Bavaria proved to be a driving force in critical engagement with the National Socialist dictatorship,”71 according to Edgar Wolfrum. Informed by their own painful experiences in the Dachau concentration camp, Bavarian CSU politicians such as Alois Hundhammer championed a rigorously anti-totalitarian attitude in the political sphere too, and in the 1950s were early proponents of plans for a Dachau memorial.72

Although there was no institution comparable to the IFZ in Rhineland-Palatinate, the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz—a “reform” university founded by the French military administration in 1946—was able to at least partially fill the gap with its broad-ranging studium generale (“general studies”; the s.g. typically takes the form of a series of interdisciplinary talks around a particular theme open to all students and the general public). Very early on, the university hosted well-attended discussion evenings run by Karl Holzamer (later director general of the television station ZDF), featuring guests such as the émigré Carl Zuckmayer, which compensated to some extent for lack of institutions of political education.73

None of this amounted to a process of confronting the legacy of the past of the scale and quality we are familiar with today—but it did provide an important impetus with lasting effects. It shows that the early years were not yet marked by the general mentality of suppression that Hermann Lübbe called “collective silence”74—a term others have challenged—and that there were at least some efforts to face up to the legacy of the National Socialist era.

Politically, probably the most critical issue for this process of coming to terms with the past was whether it would be possible to win over German society as a whole, and the many individual citizens with varying degrees of complicity in the Nazi crimes, to the new democratic and political system. Scholars of contemporary regional history have largely neglected the question of how this was achieved among the old, mainly Protestant, national conservative elites, whose political views were especially problematic. As the example of the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Dr. Ernst Boehringer from Rhineland-Palatinate shows, this process could take over a decade. A staunch national conservative and militarist, after 1945 Boehringer continued to cleave to the ideas of a group of like-minded national conservatives whose attitude toward German guilt was at the very least problematic or ambivalent. Its members included men such as the authors Ernst Jünger and Gerhard Nebel, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the later NATO general Hans Speidel. However, between 1945 and 1955, Boehringer became an increasingly ardent supporter of the new German state, of the CDU (the governing party both in Rhineland-Palatinate and at federal level), and the policy of reconciliation with France, as practiced at the regional level by Minister-President Peter Altmeier and at the national level in the economic policies of Ludwig Erhard. In the last ten years before his death in 1965, Boehringer even became a committed advocate for the cause of greater international understanding. This would not have been possible without the foundations laid down in the preceding years by the founding fathers and mothers of the German states and the confrontation with the past their efforts enabled.75


Taken together, these findings from recent research about the end of the war and the years that followed make clear that the establishment of a new concept of statehood and democracy that emerged out of the founding of the German states is no cause for unqualified jubilation. Neither the post-1945 history of the individual states nor that of Germany as a whole is a simple, linear success story. Forward steps and new democratic beginnings were often counteracted and reversed by retrogressive developments, before the pendulum swung back once again toward progress.

The history of the founding of the German states can therefore probably be best described as a “history of development”: a history with numerous regional and sectoral differences, a history that it is as crucial to scrutinize as it is to commemorate, so as to avoid descending into apologetics. That the states are where they are today is, in any case, not a product of mere chance, but rather of the foundations that were laid down in the postwar years. Hence, alongside the various defects, we can also highlight the considerable achievements of this experiment (whose success was anything but assured back in 1946/47) and commemorate them at anniversary celebrations—for doing so will help us to build what Thomas Hertfelder called a “republican legitimacy sui generis76 that is capable of counteracting an overwhelmingly negative, antidemocratic populism.



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Originally published as

Michael Kißener: “Zukunft in der Katastrophe. Die deutschen Länder nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg” in Zeitschrift für bayerische Landesgeschichte (2018), 625-647.