How much truth can we take? It depends on the individual. It depends on the circumstances. But probably none of us can take the pure, unvarnished truth (whatever that may be) on a permanent basis. And sometimes we can’t take very much of it at all. But we still need some explanation for our worst behaviour, and some means to sustain our futures. If the truthful explanation is too much to bear, we invent another one. The edifices of our personal lives, and the lives of our nations, rest upon such myths.
Seldom are nations in greater need of these myths than in the aftermath of war. And seldom was the need greater than after World War II. Then, three nations in particular found the truth too much to bear: Germany, France and Austria. Even at this distance from 1945, it is worth remembering what the collective consciousness of a nation is capable of believing, because it is terrifying.
There are good grounds for saying that Austria was as culpable as Germany for the atrocities of that war, and not only because Hitler was an Austrian. Many Austrians welcomed the Anschluss with Germany. Many were enthusiastic supporters of, and participants in, the Third Reich. Nor were Austrians any less virulent than Germans in their anti-Semitism. Yet after the war (in fact, before it had ended), Austria was accorded the status of ‘first victim of Nazism’ – something that suited it very well as it obviated the need for any critical examination of its own role in the war, let alone any feelings of guilt.
After the war, both of Austria’s main political parties felt compromised by their pre-war records. The centre-left party had opposed Nazism, but had supported Anschluss. The right-wing party had opposed Anschluss, but had helped to destroy democracy. Neither wished to be reminded of any of this. Victimhood was easier for everyone in Austria. So there were few investigations, few recriminations, and former fascists were free to resume their roles in public life. And even to become Secretary-General of the United Nations.
There is a general belief that, in contrast, the Germans were quick and courageous in facing up to what they had unleashed on the world. By comparison with the Austrians, they were, but that is not saying a great deal. West Germany’s post-war Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, grew increasingly impatient with the Allied insistence on investigating war crimes and wanted the whole process to be wrapped up quickly so that life could resume with as little inconvenience as possible. Well into the 1950s, opinion polls showed that a sizeable minority of Germans retained a fond opinion of Hitler. The Allies were thought to have grossly exaggerated Germany’s war crimes.
In East Germany, the sense of denial was even greater. As I mentioned in The Breaking of Eggs (from information provided by Anna Funder in her book Stasiland), in Dresden there is a bridge across the Elbe with a plaque on it commemorating the liberation of the East German people from their Nazi oppressors by their brothers the Russians. If Austria was the first ‘victim’ of Nazism then, according to the Communists, East Germany was the second.
There were certainly many people in West Germany who, as soon as the war was over and ever since, have confronted the Nazi past unflinchingly. However, there were many others – and even more of them, proportionately, in both Austria and East Germany – who, when they didn’t still silently applaud Hitler, preferred to think of the Nazis as some alien species that had regrettably chosen to make Germany its home.
If the German myth was founded on the need to mitigate responsibility, the French myth went one step further. Not only did France disown its collaborationist past and its role in anti-Semitic laws and persecution, both in Nazi-controlled France and in Vichy too, it had the gall (perhaps that should be gaulle) to claim a seat at the victors’ table. So it was accorded a place at the post-war conferences to settle the future of Europe, and conducted itself there as if it was due an equal share of influence to America, Russia or Britain. The very small number of French men and women who supported the Resistance, let alone actively participated in it, was thus magnified to become the entire nation.
The point is that all these myths were probably necessary at the time. Churchill was one of the first to give ‘first victim’ status to Austria. None of the allies believed that France was one of the war’s victors, but they saw that this myth was necessary for the reimagining of France, essential for the future, just as they saw that Germany should not be hounded indefinitely for her crimes – that the process of cleansing had to be completed as quickly and as completely as possible, and then had to stop.
For all the accusations that can be levelled at the process, the American-Russian-British decisions to allow the peoples of the defeated powers of 1945 some residual self-respect, and a continuing role in society, was essential to the reconstruction of Europe. Even if it also allowed powerful myths to take root. Sadly, this was not a lesson applied at the end of the Iraq War, when America resolved to strip the entire administration of Iraq of its Saddamist personnel. The effects were catastrophic, and Iraq (and Syria) are still living, or dying, with the consequences today.
As for nations, so for individuals. If the worst that any of us has said or done is held against us for eternity, if the punishment for it is never thought sufficient, there can be no renewal. That is possibly even more true for large crimes than for small ones. With or without a religion to urge it, there is always the need for forgiveness, and always the need to allow others to believe in their better selves. And this in turn can cause the original offence to be minimised, or even obliterated, in our own minds.
The niggling doubt concerns the myths, personal and national, that are created in the process. We proclaim them, but do we believe them in our hearts? And, if we do, what will prevent a recurrence of the behaviour that created the need for the myths in the first place? To that question, there never has been, and never will be, an answer.