According to rough estimates, the denazification policy of the three Western Allies during the postwar period cost nearly 870,000 people their jobs at least temporarily. In addition, about 230,000 persons were detained, some for several years. In the early 1950s, the all too recent memories of these purges were still causing feelings to run high.
Soon afterward, however, the humiliating process of denazification gradually faded from memory. Since the end of the 1960s, denazification has stood as “unfinished business,” a project sacrificed to the Cold War. Even the controversies about how to deal with personnel in the German Democratic Republic in the wake of German reunification were still influenced by the image of denazification in the West as having been nothing but a series of sins of omission.
Clichés of this sort do justice neither to the aims nor the implementation of denazification policy. There was no lack of serious intent about denazification in 1945, nor did it fail solely because of the Cold War. Naturally, the tendency to suppress those memories and the increasing tension between East and West in all the occupation zones helped to hasten the end of denazification and discredit it in the eyes of the German public. However, the failure of the American denazification plan had deeper roots than that. It resulted from the fact that the American guidelines for the purges were irreconcilable with the social reality of the Third Reich.