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Multiple Restorations: German Political Traditions and the Interpretation of Nazism, 1945–1946

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Jeffrey Herf
School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University


In the longer continuity of German history, the year 1945 will always, in part, represent the “Stunde Null” (zero hour), of catastrophic military defeat and complete moral disgrace and bankruptcy following Nazism and the Holocaust.1 The term “Stunde Null” evokes the need for a new beginning, a moral and political break with disastrous and ultimately criminal national traditions. Yet, because the Third Reich lasted only twelve years, and because there were non- and anti-Nazi traditions and leaders that survived in inner and external emigration, the postwar rejection of Nazism took the form of multiple restorations of these still extant German political traditions. In the first postwar years, the turn away from Nazism in both Germanies, as well as the break with totalitarian dictatorship in general in Western Germany, was taken by political leaders who had been active in Weimar politics and who returned to take center stage in German politics after 1945.2 To be sure, they were all deeply affected in their lives and thinking by the Third Reich. But what changes it did bring about in their political views amounted to rearrangements and different emphases of long-held convictions rather than to wholly new beginnings.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1993

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1. Henry A. Turner, Jr., has recently restated this often-made point. See Turner, Henry A. Jr, The Two Germanies since 1945 (New Haven, CT, 1987), 78.Google Scholar

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11. Dirks, , “Der restaurative Charakter,” 80–81.Google Scholar

12. ibid., 83.

13. ibid., 85–86. Helmut Schelsky, who had been attracted to Nazism and then became a postwar conservative committed to liberal democracy, also wrote of the multiple aspects of the postwar restoration. See Helmut Schelsky, “Über das Restaurative in unserer Zeit,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 9 April 1955; also see his Auf der Suche nach Wirklichkeit (Düsseldorf and Cologne, 1955).Google Scholar

14. Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism, and authoritarian illiberal nationalism did not disappear immediately, although, for all the shortcomings of postwar efforts at reeducation, there was no Nazi restoration. The survey literature on the persistence of Nazism and anti-Semitism in the postwar West German zones and then in West Germany is extensive. See Merritt, Anna J. and Merritt, Richard L., Public Opinion in Occupied Germany: The OMGUS Surveys (Urbana, 1970);Google ScholarBergmann, Werner and Erb, Rainer, eds., Antisemitismus in der politischen Kultur nach 1945 (Opladen, 1990), esp.CrossRefGoogle Scholar the essays by Werner Bergmann and Frederick Weil; and Gabriel Almond and Verba, Sidney A., The Civic Culture (Princeton, 1963);Google Scholar and Weil, Frederick, “The Imperfectly Mastered Past: Anti-Semitism in West Germany Since the Holocaust,” New Geman Critique 20 (1980): 135–53;CrossRefGoogle ScholarNoelle, Elizabeth and Neumann, Erich Peter, eds., Jahrbuch der öffentlichen Meinung 1947–1955, (Allensbach, 1956).Google Scholar

15. The classic psychological, really psychoanalytic text concerning Vergangenheitsbewältigung was Alexander, and Mitscherlich, Margarete, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior (New York, 1975),Google Scholar originally published as Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern. Grundlagen kollektiven Verhaltens (Munich, 1967).Google Scholar

16. Nipperdey, Thomas, “1933 und die Kontinuität der deutschen Geschichte,” in his Nachdenken über die deutsche Geschichte (Munich, 1986), 186205.Google Scholar

17. Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Tribe, Keith, (Cambridge, MA, 1985);Google Scholar on the postwar intellectual world also see Bracher, The Age of Ideologies. On the impact of political language on political history, see Furet, François, Interpreting the French Revolution (New York, 1981);Google ScholarPocock, J. G. A., Politics, Language and Time (New York, 1973);Google Scholar and Baker, Keith Michael, “On the Problem of the Ideological Origins of the French Revolution,” in LaCapra, Dominick and Kaplan, Steven L., eds., Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals and New Perspectives (Ithaca, 1982), 197219.Google Scholar

18. In addition to Weber's and Tocqueville's classic texts, see Geertz, Clifford, “Ideology as a Cultural System,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973);Herf, Reactionary Modernism;Google Scholarand Shils, Edward, Tradition (Chicago, 1981).Google Scholar

19. Alongside the multiple restorations in political culture there were breaks. Nazism as a public, political force was crushed. The numbers of Jews in Germany following the Holocaust dropped from 600,000 to 30,000. Militarism and unquestioning acceptance of authority eroded. There was no second Dolchstosslegende, and the Prussian Junkers lost their power and influence. Patriarchy did not die in 1945 but bombastic, hypermasculinity fell into disrepute. Catholics and Protestants joined together in one political party for the first time in modern German history, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU-CSU). The divisive battle between social democracy and communism became the Cold War between West and East Germany, thus strengthening each as their primary competitor was eliminated, thereby enhancing the prospects for alternation of government and opposition in the West but strengthening dictatorship in the East. On these discontinuities see Kocka, Jürgen,“Zerstörung und Befreiung: Das Jahr 1945 als Wendepunkt deutscher Geschichte,” in Geschichte und Aufklärung (Göttingen, 1989), 120–39.Google Scholar The Eurocentric international system of 1648 to 1945 ended and gave way to an unprecedented postwar peace based on an enduring and novel Atlanticism. On foreign policy discontinuities, see Schwarz, Hans-Peter, Vom Reich zur Bundesrepublik: Deuschland im Widerstreit der aussenpolitischen Konzeptionen in den Jahren der Besatzungsherrschaft, 1945–1949, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, 1980). With the continued presence of the United States and the Soviet Union in the center of Europe, the two Germanies could submerge nationalist temptations in the larger identities of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, thus keeping in check a revival of nationalism. Yet, despite this impressive list of changes that so distinguished German history after 1945 from the period following World War I, it is the multiple restorations of Germany's non-Nazi political traditions after 1945 that is the dominant fact for a historian of twentieth century political culture.Google Scholar

20. This essay draws on a larger history of politics and memory in the two Germanies from 1945 to 1989, which includes significant material from the immediate postwar decade. In addition to Konrad Adenauer, Theodor Heuss, Kurt Schumacher, and Walter Ulbricht, the material from the postwar decade will also include how others who shaped postwar political culture examined German history and the Nazi past. These figures will include Theodor Adorno, Wilhelm Röpke, Ernst Reuter, and Karl Jaspers in the Federal Republic of Germany, and Otto Grotewohl, Wilhelm Pieck, Anton Ackermann, Alexander Abusch, and Paul Merker in the German Democratic Republic, as well as leading newspapers, parliamentary debates, national journals of intellectual and political opinion, and the constitutions of the two German states.Google Scholar

21. The Nazis arrested Kurt Schumacher in July 1933 and sent him to several prisons and concentration camps before placing him in Dachau in 1935, where he remained until he was released in March 1943. He was then sent to Hanover, where he lived with his sister, registered with the local police, and worked as an accountant. Though he was not involved in the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt, he was arrested in August 1944 with other prominent opposition politicians, and sent to the concentration camp in Neuengamme near Hamburg. There he met Social Democrats from Hanover. After his release from Neuengamme, he returned to his job as an accountant in Hanover.Google ScholarAlbrecht, Willy, ed., Kurt Schumacher: Reden—Schriften—Korrespondenzen 1945–1952 (Berlin and Bonn, 1985), 8788.Google Scholar

22. ibid., 204.

23. ibid., 205.

24. ibid., 205–6.

25. ibid., 206.

26. ibid., 207.

27. Schumacher wanted to restore the tradition of democratic socialism and stressed its links to democracy, pluralism, and methodological insight offered by Marx. For Schumacher's comments on Marx, “who lives in every German interested in politics,” see Schumacher, Kurt, “Karl Marx und die Deutschen,” in Schumacher, Kurt, Reden und Schriften (Berlin, 1962), 298300.Google Scholar

28. Albrecht, , ed., Kurt Schumacher, 209.Google Scholar

29. This shortcoming of the political traditions of the nineteenth century was one of the central and most important insights of Arendt's, HannahThe Origins of Totalitarianism, new ed. (New York and London, 1973 [orig. ed. 1951]); and Herf, Reactionary Modernism, “Conclusion.”Google Scholar

30. As I have argued previously, this rationalist contempt for Nazi ideology also characterized the major Marxist classic work on the subject. See Neumann, Franz, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944, rev. ed. (New York, 1944).Google Scholar For my criticisms see Herf, Reactionary Modernism, esp. chaps. 1 and 9. For a fascinating, still largely neglected contemporary Marxist analysis of the Third Reich that did pay great attention to the autonomous impact of Nazi ideology, see Merker, Paul, Deutschland—Sein oder Nichtsein?, vol. 2: Das Dritte Reich und sein Ende (Frankfurt a.M., 1972).Google ScholarMerker, , a left-wing German Communist who edited Freies Deutschland in Mexico City, published this work there in 1944. He fell victim to the Stalinist attacks on “cosmopolitanism” in the 1950s in East Germany, was expelled from the Socialist Unity party (SED) and imprisoned from 1953 to 1956.Google Scholar

31. Albrecht, ed., Kurt Schumacher, 211. For subsequent scholarship on this issue see Turner, Henry A. Jr, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (New York, 1985). For soldiers who died in battle and the victims of aerial bombing, Schumacher suggested the appropriate testament on their gravestones would be “misled and abandoned by reaction, murdered by the party of Adolf Hitler!”Google Scholar

32. ibid., 214–15.

33. ibid., 217.

34. ibid., 215. “Wenn diese Exmilitaristen nämlich vom Verschulden des ganzen deutschen Volkes sprechen, dann beginnt damit bereits die grosse Lüge und das unehrliche Verstecken hinter einem breiteren Rücken.”

35. ibid., 217.

36. ibid., 227.

37. ibid., 229.

38. ibid., 232.

39. Zentralkommitee, der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschlands, “Aufruf der Kommunistischen Partei,” Deutsche Volkszeitung, vol. 1, no. 1, 1306 1945, 12;Google Scholar reprinted in Ulbricht, Walter, Zur Geschichte der Neuesten Zeit: Die Niederlage Hitlerdeutschlands und die Schaffung der antifaschistisch-demokratischen Ordnung, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1955), 370–79. The members of the Central Committee were listed in the following order: Wilhelm Pieck, Walter Ulbricht, Franz Dahlem, Anton Ackermann, Gustav Sobottka, Ottomar Geschke, Johannes R. Becher, Edwin Hörnie, Hans Jendretzky, Michel Niederfrechner, Hermann Matern, Irene Gärtner, Bernhard Koenen, Martha Arendsee, Otto Winzer, and Hans Mahle;Google Scholar also see Weber, Hermann, Geschichte der DDR (Munich, 1985), 4754;Google Scholar and Leonhard, Wolfgang, Die Revolution entlässt ihre Kinder (Cologne and West Berlin, 1955).Google Scholar

40. On this theme see Meuschel, Sigrid, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft in der DDR (Frankfurt a.M., 1992), esp. 29101.Google Scholar On the link between authoritarian rule and a voluntaristic moralism see Marcuse, Herbert, Soviet Marxism: A Critical Analysis (New York, 1958).Google Scholar

41. Zentralkommittee, “Aufruf.”Google Scholar

42. ibid., 1–2.

43. ibid., 2.

44. Ulbricht, Walter, Der Faschistische Deutsche Imperialismus (1933–1945) (Die Legende vom ‘deutschen Sozialismus’), 4th ed.(Berlin, 1956).Google Scholar

45. The foreword to the 1956 edition stressed the importance of another edition of the work because, despite the military defeat and ideological collapse of Nazism, there were some Germans, especially in West Germany, who thought there was “much good” in National Socialism, and “because the reemergence of German militarism and imperialism in West Germany makes enlightenment about the essence of fascist, German imperialism and its demagogy, especially among the youth, an urgent task.” Moreover, the publishers indicated that Ulbricht stresses that it was “only the Communists, who told the truth to the Germans in Germany's darkest days, [who said] who the enemy and who the friends of the German people were, and who, with enormous sacrifices organized the battle for the destruction of fascism.” ibid., 5–6.

46. ibid., 8.

47. ibid., 11.

48. ibid., 107.

49. ibid., 24. Elsewhere, Ulbricht wrote that Hitler and his associates waged wars of annihilation in which foreign countries and the “German homeland” were destroyed. “Annihilation of human beings in hells of torture and gas wagons, through murder and rape, and in gas ovens—this characterized decaying German imperialism,” 110.

50. ibid., 109.

51. ibid., 98.

52. ibid., 99.

53. ibid., 100.

54. ibid., 98–101.

55. ibid., 105–6.

56. For a striking communist analysis of National Socialism that does lend considerable weight to Nazi racial ideology, see (note 30) Merker, Deutschland. On the fate of Merker and others in the campaigns against cosmopolitanism, see Meuschel, Legitimation, esp. 101–16. On the German Communists, including Merker, who spent World War II in Mexican exile, see Kiessling, Wolfgang, Alemania Libre in Mexiko, vol. 1: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des antifaschistischen Exils (1941–1946) (East Berlin, 1974).Google Scholar

57. See Schwarz, Hans-Peter, Adenauer: Der Aufstieg: 1876–1952 (Stuttgart, 1986), 425616.Google Scholar

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59. Adenauer, Konrad, “Ansprache des Oberbürgermeisters Adenauer vor der von der britischen Militärregierung ernannten Kölner Stadtverordneten-Versammlung,” in Schwarz, Hans-Peter, ed., Konrad Adenauer: Reden 1917–1967. Eine Auswahl (Stuttgart, 1975), 7981.Google Scholar In the spring and summer of 1945, he kept his distance from the formation of the Christian Democratic Union. He did not participate in the drafting of the CDU's “Ein Ruf zur Sammlung des deutschen Volkes” (Call for the Gathering of the German People), issued in June 1945. The CDU's “Ruf” is an interesting and important text but for reasons of space, and because Adenauer was not involved in the drafting, I am not discussing it in this paper. See “Ein Ruf zur Sammlung des deutschen Volkes. Vorläufiger Entwurf zu einem Programm der Christlichen Demokraten Deutschlands. Vorgelegt von den Christ-lichen Demokraten im Juni 1945,” in Stiftung, Konrad Adenauer, ed., Konrad Adenauer und die CDU der britischen Besatzungszone, 1946–1949 (Bonn, 1975).Google Scholar

60. For a discussion of the lessons Adenauer drew from German and European history, see Poppinga, Anneliese, Konrad Adenauer: Geschichtsverständnis, Weltanschauung, und politische Praxis (Stuttgart, 1975).Google Scholar

61. Adenauer, Konrad, “Grundsatzrede des 1. Vorsitzenden der Christlich-Demokratischen Union für die Britische Zone in der Aula der Kölner Universität,” in Schwarz, ed., Adenauer: Reden, 82–107.Google Scholar

62. ibid., 84.

63. ibid., 85.

64. ibid., 86.

65. ibid.

66. ibid., 87.

67. In a speech in Münster in September 1946, Adenauer referred to “two great fronts,” a “Christian” and a “non-Christian” front that stood opposed to one another. “National Socialism was only the last—and most criminal—consequence of the materialist world—view…Capitalism, exaggerated nationalism, Marxist socialism are all offshoots of the same root. They all grow out of the materialist worldview.” See Haus, Stiftung Bundeskanzler-Adenauer, Adenauer Reden, 1946, vol. 02.03.Google Scholar“Rede des Ersten Vorsitzenden der CDU für die britische Zone, Oberbürgermeister a. D. Dr. Konrad Adenauer auf einer Grosskundgebung der CDU in Münster, Westf., 8 Septemeber 1946,” 2. In 1950, speaking to the CDU national party conference, Adenauer said that “in times such as those in which we are living, it will be decided whether freedom, human dignity, and Christian-Western humanism will survive or whether the spirit of darkness and of slavery, of anti-Christian spirit, will force its chains on a humanity lying helpless on the ground.” See Adenauer, “20 October 1950, ‘Deutschlands Stellung und Aufgabe in der Welt,’ Rede aufdem 1. Bundesparteitag der CDU in Goslar,” in Schwarz, ed., Adenauer: Reden, 182.Google Scholar

68. The literature is vast. Recently see Langmuir, Gavin I., History, Religion and Antisemitism (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990)Google Scholar and his Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1990).Google Scholar

69. Schwarz, , ed., Adenauer: Reden, 88.Google Scholar

70. ibid., 92.

71. Documenting the involvement of the Wehrmacht in the racist character of the war against the Soviet Union, inhuman treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, knowledge and toleration of the activities of the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front, and of the Holocaust have been major contributions of West German historians working at the Office of Military History in Freiburg i. Breisgau. Their findings have been and are being published in the multivolume history of World War II, Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, esp. vol. 4: Der Angriff auf die Sowjetunion (Stuttgart, 1983).Google Scholar A summary of the findings has been published. See Michalka, Wolfgang, ed., Der Zweite Weltkrieg: Analysen, Grundzüge, Forschungsbilanz (Munich, 1989).Google Scholar In this volume, see Manfred Messerschmidt, “Wehrmacht, Ostfeldzug, und Tradition,” 314–28; Jürgen Forster, “Der Historsche Ort des Unternehmens ‘Barbarossa,’” 626–40; Christian Streit, “Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene—Massendeportationen—Zwangsarbeiter,” 747–60; Czeslaw Madajaczyk, “Besteht ein Synchronismus zwischen dem ‘Generalplan Ost’ und der Endlösung der Judenfrage?,” 844–57. The records of the Nuremberg trials remain an indispensable source. See Trial of The Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg: International Military Tribunal, 1948);Google Scholar and Taylor, Telford, The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir (New York, 1992), esp. chap. 10, “The SS and General Staff High Command,” 236–61.Google Scholar Two recent studies which examine common soldiers and mass murder are Bartov, Omer, Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich (New York, 1991);Google Scholar and Browning, Christopher, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1991).Google Scholar

72. For an interesting discussion of the issues of organizational versus individual guilt as they came up in preparations and prosecution of the Nuremberg defendants, see Taylor, Anatomy, esp. chaps. 2, 7, 10, and 18.Google Scholar

73. ibid., 93.

74. ibid., 98–99. On Adenauer's friendship with Dannie Heinemann, a Jewish banker and businessman who sent Adenauer crucial financial support during the Nazi years, see Schwarz, Adenauer: Der Aufstieg.

75. ibid., 99.

76. ibid., 101.

77. ibid., 102.

78. ibid., 104.

79. ibid., 105.

80. On these themes see Schwarz, Vom Reich zur Bundesrepublik and Poppinga, Konrad Adenauer, 157.Google Scholar

81. See the critical study by Stern, Frank, Im Anfang war Auschwitz: Antisemitismus und Philosemitismus im deutschen Nachkrieg (Gerlingen, 1991).Google Scholar

82. On Heuss in the Weimar years, see Hess, Jürgen, Theodor Heuss vor 1933. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des demokratischen Denkens in Deutschland (Stuttgart, 1973)Google Scholar and idem, “Das ganze Deutschland soll es sein”. Demokratischer Nationalismus in der Weimarer Republik am Beispiel der Deutschen Demokratischen Partei (Stuttgart, 1978).Google Scholar

83. Heuss, Theodor, Hitlers Weg (1932; rev. ed., Stuttgart, 1968).Google Scholar

84. For Heuss's subsequent reflections on that decision, see “Aussage vor dem Untersuchungsausschuss des Württemberg-Badischen Landtages über die Abstimmung für das Ermächtigungsgesetz am 23. März 1933,” given in 1947 (reprinted in Vogt, Martin, ed., Theodor Heuss: Politiker und Publizist. Aufsätze und Reden) (Tübingen, 1984, 316–21);Google Scholar and in memories of the Nazi period written in 1963, Heuss, Theodor, “Fragment von Erinnerungen aus der NS-Zeit,” Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte 15 (1967): 6.Google Scholar Both texts are partly reprinted in Morsey, Rudolf, ed., Das Ermächtingungsgesetz vom 24. März (Düsseldorf, 1992).Google Scholar

85. See Bracher, Karl Dietrich, The German Dictatorship, trans. Steinberg, Jean (New York, 1970);Google ScholarTheodor Heuss: Eine Ausstellung (Stuttgart: Theodor Heuss Archiv, 1967), 266–86.Google Scholar On Heuss and postwar politics, see Jürgen, Hess, “First Paths in the Field of Ruins’: Theodor Heuss and the Revival of Liberal Rhetoric in 1945–1946,” paper delivered at the conference on “The Spirit of Heidelberg and the Future of Germany in 1945,” Heidelberg, Germany, 5–8 May 1993;Google Scholar and Hein, Dieter, Zwischen liberaler Milieupartei und nationaler Sammlungsbewegung. Grundung, Entwicklung und Struktur der Freien Demokratischen Partei 1945–1949 (Düsseldorf, 1985), 3855;Google Scholar and Serfas, Günther, “Lieber Freiheit ohne Einheit als Einheit ohne Freiheit.” Der Neubeginn der Demokratischen Volkspartei in Wurttemberg-Baden 1945/46 (Heidelberg, 1986).Google Scholar

86. Heuss, Theodor, “Das Ende der deutschen Wehrmacht,” in Pikart, Eberhard, ed., Theodor Heuss: Aufzeichnungen 1945–1947 (Tübingen, 1966), 6566.Google Scholar

87. ibid., 84–85.

88. Heuss, Theodor, “In Memoriam: Ansprache im Landestheater Stuttgart, 25 November 1945,” in idem, An und Über Juden (Düsseldorf and Vienna, 1964), 94101.Google Scholar

89. ibid., 95.

90. ibid., 96–97.

91. ibid., 98.

92. ibid., 98–99.

93. ibid., 100–1.

94. As Bundespräsident, Heuss delivered several powerful speeches concerning the Nazi past. On 29 Novemeber 1952, he spoke at Bergen-Belsen, alongside Nahum Goldmann, about the Germans' “collective shame” over Nazi crimes, On 19 July 1954, at the Free University of Berlin, he offered gratitude and memory of the German resistance of 20 July 1944. The speeches are reprinted in Heuss, Theodor, Die Grossen Reden: Der Staatsmann (Tübingen, 1965), esp. “Das Mahnmal,” and “Vom Recht zum Widerstand—Dank und Bekenntnis,” 224–30, and 247–62.Google Scholar

95. Heuss, , “Um Deutschlands Zukunft,” l84–208.Google Scholar

96. ibid., 192.

97. ibid., 193.

98. For an important discussion of the intersection of indigenous German national consciousness with Marxist-Leninist theory in the DDR,Google Scholar see Meuschel, , Legitimation.Google Scholar

99. Arendt, , The Origins of Totalitarianism, esp. part 3;Google ScholarBracher, , The German Dictatorship and his “The Role of Hitler: The Problem of Underestimation,” in Laqueur, Walter, ed., Fascism: A Reader's Guide (Berkeley, 1976), 211–15.Google Scholar

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Multiple Restorations: German Political Traditions and the Interpretation of Nazism, 1945–1946
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Multiple Restorations: German Political Traditions and the Interpretation of Nazism, 1945–1946
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Multiple Restorations: German Political Traditions and the Interpretation of Nazism, 1945–1946
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