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ISR Issue 46, March–April 2006

The U.S. occupation of Germany

We come as conquerors, but not as oppressors.… We shall overthrow the Nazi rule, dissolve the Nazi party, abolish the cruel, oppressive, and discriminatory laws and institutions which the Party has created. We shall eradicate the German militarism which has so often disrupted the peace of the world.

—General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the U.S. Army in Europe during the Second World War1

SCATTERED THROUGHOUT the headlines for the last several months has been a series of articles documenting the extent of corruption in the first years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq: bribing officials for reconstruction contracts; the discovery of occupation officials with safes full of cash intended for the “New Iraq;” the damning reports that document how after three years of occupation, the lights are still not on, roads are not yet rebuilt, schools are not reopened, etc. Most of the articles of late have raised the same question: What happened to the Marshall Plan for Iraq? The question is a loaded one. By referencing the massive U.S. economic intervention into the German economy during its occupation after the Second World War, the question rests on the assumption that the U.S. occupation of Germany can and should serve as a model for Iraq.

A direct comparison of the U.S. occupations of Germany and Iraq, however, is a false one. Germany was a major economic power waging an expansionist war to build an empire, whose plans came into direct military conflict with other powers, principally the U.S., that were also seeking world hegemony. While Iraq in the past had developed into a modern, industrial society with regional aspirations, after more than fifteen years of both formal and informal war waged by the U.S. and its allies, it became a weak, impoverished nation with an economy that was a tiny fraction of the size of the economy of the United States. The occupation of Germany was that of one imperial power over another. The occupation of Iraq is that of a superpower over a destroyed nation, of an oppressor nation over an oppressed nation.

Still, the Bush administration has relied at various times on the myth of the occupation of Germany to bolster its project in Iraq. Bush played up the aftermath of the war during his brief tour of Central Europe last summer to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. His argument was that there has been a direct line of prosperity and democracy since the Allies put Germany back together again, one that leads straight to Baghdad today. Condoleezza Rice has tried to cloak the crisis of their current occupation by recalling that things in Germany were not always perfect. In the summer of 2003, when it became immediately clear that the U.S. was not, in fact, being greeted by Iraqis with flowers and hugs, Rice reasoned: “There is an understandable tendency to look back on America’s experience in postwar Germany and see only the successes, but…the road we traveled was very difficult…. Germany was not immediately stable or prosperous.”2 Certainly, Rice is not trying to clarify the true nature of what the U.S. and its allies did in Germany while traveling that “difficult road.” Instead, to all those who are troubled by journalists being shot down at U.S. checkpoints, by endless U.S. raids into innocent Iraqis’ homes, by watching month after month as Iraqis go without basics like electricity, water, and jobs, Rice offers this salve: “Worry not. Germany came out alright. Iraq will too.”

Such references to the Second World War, of course, are nothing new. In fact, the legacy of that war has proven quite useful to the ruling class in this country in justifying each new escapade of U.S. imperialism. Because the myths around that war—that it was the last good war, a victory of good over evil, in which the Allies beat back fascism, saved the Jews, and liberated Europe—are so deeply entrenched in this country, the warmongers have a powerful tool at their disposal. Whenever a client state or thug falls out of favor with Washington, they simply decry this “new Hitler” who must be stopped at any cost. As Tariq Ali pointed out at a meeting in response to the bombings in London last summer, “Whenever there’s a crisis, it’s back to the Second World War.”3

This article is an attempt to clarify the history of what the U.S. and its allies really did in occupied Germany.4 Far from beating back fascism, the U.S. employed and empowered many elements of the fascist regime in order to stabilize a war-torn Germany, and to rebuild it as a bulwark against communism in general, and the USSR in particular. After a brief review of the war, this article will address: 1) what the aims of the U.S. were—both in word and in deed—for its participation in the war against and occupation of Germany; 2) what the actual record of the U.S. was in terms of democratizing and denazifying German society; 3) and finally, the real alternatives that ordinary Germans themselves posed in the immediate aftermath of war.

The Second World War

The Second World War was a horribly destructive war. Its most tragic consequence, of course, was the Holocaust, in which the Nazis murdered six million Jews and millions of other “enemies of the state.” The war itself was a genuinely world war, touching almost every continent on the globe. More civilians died in this war than did military personnel. Over fifty-five million people were killed, twenty million of them Soviet citizens. All across Germany and Japan, the Allies consciously bombed out civilian sectors in large cities in acts of collective punishment, leaving major population centers like Tokyo, Dresden, and Cologne in ruins.

The war was a second and far more brutal ending to the dynamics unleashed by the First World War. Economic competition among the major world players over the spoils of the colonized world led to the worst military conflict seen up to that point. The First World War was ended by workers and soldiers all across Europe rising up in resistance and revolution. But the economic contradictions—and the military conflict they provoked—were left unresolved. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described it like this:

The present war—the second imperialist war—is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradiction of international capitalist interests…. The world is divided? It must be re-divided. For Germany it was a question of “organizing Europe.” The U.S. must “organize” the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American Imperialism.5

War and occupation: What are they good for?

Much ink has been spilled in histories of the Second World War about the deep political divisions in the Roosevelt administration. While these tensions did in fact exist, they did not prevent the U.S. from imposing itself decisively as the new world power. Economically, the U.S. was already a powerhouse, but it sought greater access to the world’s markets. In the first instance it was concerned about how to work with its allies to beat back German and Japanese expansion into those markets. At the same time, however, the U.S. was intent on pushing aside its allies to take its place as the dominant world power. This explains why the U.S. was so late in entering the war at all. By letting its allies do most of the fighting, the U.S. ensured they would be significantly weaker and easier to manipulate at war’s end. Roosevelt put it like this:

As you know, the British need money in this war. They own lots of things all over the world, such as tramways and electric light companies. Well, in carrying on this war, the British may have to part with the control and we, perhaps, can step in or arrange—make the financial arrangements for eventual ownership. It is a terribly interesting thing and one of the most important things for our future trade is to study it in this light.6

His secretary of state at the time, Cordell Hull, was even clearer:

Leadership toward a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs will devolve very largely upon the United States because of our great economic strength. We should assume this leadership, and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure national self-interest.7

It is no accident that Germany was seen as an instrumental partner in expanding U.S. power. While it was a latecomer on the scene, German capitalism quickly became the strongest economy on the continent. The U.S., itself a new power on the world stage, long had connections to the German ruling class. In fact, many of the key U.S. political and diplomatic players in postwar Europe—men like the Dulles brothers and George Kennan, who would later circumvent or simply rewrite the initial U.S. policy of denazification and decartelization of German society—got their start in various New York law firms, banks, and brokerage houses that specialized in German investments. By the start of the war, the U.S. had more capital invested in Nazi Germany than in any other European country;8 these ruling elite helped engineer the deals. Christopher Simpson, author of two of the principal exposés of U.S. dealings with the Nazis, explains:

Despite their differences, [this economic elite] shared common convictions that were to them far more fundamental: the central importance of maintaining the viability of capitalism as a national and world economic system, and the key role of U.S. and German productive capacity and markets within that effort. Measured against these more basic values, the Nazis and their whole brutal apparatus were seen by much of the elite as transitory, at least during the 1920s and 1930s.9

Irrespective of whatever connections existed between the ruling elites in the U.S. and Germany, once it became clear that Hitler intended to do more than tame the German working class, namely that he intended to tame the rest of Europe under German imperialism, the U.S. and its allies would stop at nothing to remove this new threat to their interests. It is worth quoting a key source on postwar Germany to convey the extent of destruction by war’s end:

Berlin was a “wasteland of crumbled brick and stone, whole blocks of apartment houses and factories having been toppled into the streets.” The Ruhr area, the industrial arsenal for the Nazi war machine, was described by one British observer as “the greatest heap of rubble the world had ever seen….” As a result of Allied carpet bombing, [many cities, like Koblenz, Würzburg, and Dresden] were virtually obliterated, meaning more than 75 percent destroyed…. Of the 770,000 inhabitants of Cologne (72 percent destroyed), only around 40,000 remained behind in cellars and ruins. Altogether half a million people perished in the inferno of the burning cities. To this figure one has to add two million soldiers, dead and missing, and approximately two million people who died during the great exodus from the Eastern territories.10

Of course, what the U.S. later intended in its occupation of Germany mirrored the priorities it set for itself in the war overall. The U.S. had not objected to Nazism per se, but to an unchecked German imperialism that could challenge an ascendant U.S. and its own plans for power. Thus, the first priority for the occupation was dismantling the German empire—not as a threat to the “people of Europe” but as a threat to U.S. interests and its claim to European markets. The second priority, however, proved to be much more important than—and ultimately trumped—the first. The U.S. needed to rebuild Germany, but not just as a tamed economic powerhouse firmly within the orbit of the United States. Instead, a stable Germany was of critical importance to the U.S. as the primary European bulwark against potential social upheavals and the spread of communism in general, and the USSR in particular. Gabriel Kolko, in his classic left-wing history of the war, The Politics of War, captures the main dynamic: “American power existed, and the issue was less the basic role of the U.S. in the world than the conditions under which it would employ its power.”11

The policy of occupation

The dynamics of the Allied occupation of Germany were established in the mad rush at the end of the war to seize as much German territory as possible. The British and the U.S. raced in from the west, the Soviets from the east, each trying to be the first to reach Berlin. Of course, while the Allies staked out territory, they also engaged in collective punishment of Germans for the crimes of the Nazi regime, such as the U.S./UK firebombing of Dresden—a major population center, a cultural goldmine, but militarily insignificant.

The official details of the occupation were worked out over the final two years of the war at successive Allied conferences in Tehran, Yalta, and Potsdam. It was at Potsdam in the spring of 1945 that the major allies agreed in general to divide Germany into four sectors, each to be occupied by Britain in the north/northwest, France in the southwest, the U.S. in the south and southwest, and the USSR in the east. The Allied Control Council would be the representative body of the occupying powers to work out policy matters and settle disputes. To govern specifically in the U.S. sector, joint chiefs of staff directive number 1067 (JCS 1067) acted as the official statement of intent and policy for the U.S. military government.

In reading JCS 1067, it seems that all the myths about the role of the U.S. in the Second World War are confirmed. Known as the “4-D policy,” JCS 1067 laid out the alleged goals of U.S. military rule: to denazify, decartelize, demilitarize, and democratize German society. Yet, as we will see, the ink had hardly dried on this much-debated document before the practice of the U.S. in Germany changed dramatically. Still, the policy did fit with the initial goal in occupying Germany, namely dismantling the Nazi regime and German militarism.

It would be wrong simply to dismiss JCS 1067 as nothing more than a PR stunt to bolster the U.S. occupation—even though virtually everything the U.S. did in practice on the ground in Germany violated its own policy. Certainly, the U.S. was partly responding to the real disgust ordinary people, especially Europeans, directed at the old order that had produced two world wars. Consequently, policies like JCS 1067 gave the U.S. and its allies some political cover as they pretended to do something to support democracy and prevent further war.

More substantively, JCS 1067 allowed the U.S. to fulfill its first goal in occupied Germany of removing German militarism as a threat to its interests in Europe. The Nazi regime was fully disarmed and, even after the founding of West Germany four years later, the German army was recast as a national guard, prohibited by the German constitution from foreign interventions. Thus, the U.S. and its allies were able quickly to disarm the German regime and thereby remove it as a future military threat. In its place, however, were a quarter-million U.S. soldiers facing off from fourteen U.S.-owned bases in the West against upwards of 400,000 Soviet troops in what would become the front line of the Cold War for the next forty years.

The practice of occupation

But even as the U.S. was quick to meet its first goal of removing the threat of German militarism, it would soon reverse all of its stated policies—in practice first, in law second—in order to meet its much more urgent goal of building a bulwark against communism. The situation was not necessarily one of chronological order, that is, the U.S. first was harsh against the Nazi regime and then abandoned denazification and bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. Instead, containing German imperialism while using Germany to bolster U.S. imperialism represented parallel, if at times contradictory interests, each represented by different camps in the Roosevelt administration (and within the U.S. ruling class as a whole). Nevertheless, as soon as the Soviet Union was decried as the new “evil empire,” U.S. interests quickly prioritized a strong yet subordinate Germany over any misty-eyed sentiments of justice or democracy. Thus, not even two months after the end of the war, the official discussion at the top of the U.S. military government was of abandoning the policy of denazification. This shift had already occurred in practice, however, as evidenced by the first city the U.S. occupied: Aachen, in southwest Germany.

The “prototype” for occupation

U.S. forces entered and occupied Aachen as early as fall, 1944. Saul Padover, an American sociologist, led a research team to Aachen and reported some revealing developments. Within days of the U.S. rolling into town, “an elite made up of technicians, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, manufacturers, and churchmen” had aggressively sought and filled every important job in town. Most had held senior positions at Veltrup, Aachen’s main munitions plant. All were thirty-five to fifty years old, which meant they rose to social and economic prominence largely during the Hitler years. Padover writes about their overall anti-democratic vision of an authoritarian corporate state. They were “violently opposed to popular elections, political parties, and trade unions.” Simpson adds: “the postwar leaders who emerged at Aachen were not ideological Nazis from the mold of Himmler or Hitler. They were instead the political, economic, and social technocrats who had actually run Germany during Hitler’s regime.”12 And now they were indispensable.

Under the U.S. military government in Aachen, for example, the town’s largest contractor during the Nazi regime, who had made extensive use of forced labor throughout the Third Reich, was appointed as the director of the Industrial Bureau. Further, the former Gestapo liaison to the Veltrup factory, Opt de Hipt, became the city’s new executive officer and personnel director.

What makes the installation of such officials even more outrageous is that there were real alternatives in Aachen. For most of the interwar years, Aachen had been run by a coalition government of social democrats in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and communists in the German Communist Party (KPD). Moreover, one of the first public opinion surveys conducted by U.S. forces after the war found that 70 percent of women and 84 percent of men would have voted for SPD or KPD candidates. Says Simpson: “Theoretically, at least, the citizens of Aachen would have elected a more democratic and anti-Nazi administration had the military government permitted elections to be held.” Of course, no elections were held.

This first adventure of occupation would come to be seen as a prototype for the U.S. as a formal military government was established. Clive Ponting documents the extent to which re-established police forces in towns across Germany were made up of large percentages of former Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht officers (the Nazi elite armed squadron and German army, respectively). He writes: “The United States imposed an arbitrary quota according to which not more than half of the [government] posts were to be filled by ex-Nazis and sympathizers, but this quota was not adhered to. By 1948, three quarters of the state prosecutors [for example] in Bavaria were former Nazis, some of them ex-members of the SS.”13

Injustice at Nuremberg

By the summer of 1945, the shift in U.S. practice was nearly complete—even if unstated in any official policy or law. In deciding on the one hand that an unstable Germany could lead to an unstable Europe, and on the other that the USSR was now the greatest threat to its interests, the U.S. effectively ruled out any efforts to bring the Nazi regime to justice. Shockingly, this is true even of the very process whose entire purpose was to hold Nazi war criminals accountable: the Nuremberg trials.

Although we will see shortly how the Nuremburg trials failed to live up even to their own stated logic and goals, it is critical to stress that the very idea of the Allies putting Nazis on trial for war crimes was itself a farce. In fact, the legal definition of “war crimes” employed at Nuremberg meant that U.S. officials and generals belonged in the defendant’s box just as much as any German. After all, they were responsible for, among many other atrocities during the war, the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the mutilation of prisoners of war (POWs) for “souvenir” body parts, the conscious starvation of German POWs after the war leading to one million deaths,14 and the internment of Japanese Americans at home during the war.

Still, because the Allies exploited the trials politically as among the most recognized symbol of their commitment to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, it’s important to understand how the U.S. and its allies quickly abandoned this alleged commitment. Martin Lee writes: “The Nuremberg verdicts reinforced what most Americans believed—that WWII was a good fight for a noble cause, and those who had committed heinous acts would get the punishment they deserved.”15 The facts tell a different story.

The first case was filed at the International Military Tribunal on October 18, 1945. Almost immediately, the Nuremberg trials became a flashpoint of the growing antagonism between the U.S. and USSR.16 Specifically, U.S. officials were steadfast in refusing to allow the Soviets to interrogate or cross-examine German bankers and industrialists, “in view of the many connections between the German and American economies before the war.”17 In fact, Robert Jackson, former chief justice of the Supreme Court and the lead U.S. judge at Nuremberg, protested to Washington within weeks of the first trial that the U.S. should not cooperate in any further joint trials of Nazis, specifically because he believed the Soviets would exploit the hearings as a forum to score political points.18

While the first trial resulted in the hanging of half a dozen Nazis, no more than 190 Nazis would stand trial in a mere twelve more cases. By 1948, the U.S. had withdrawn all funding for the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, resulting in a rapid halt to the proceedings. Less than two and a half years later, John McCloy, U.S. high commissioner (the top U.S. political post in Germany), granted clemency to every single industrialist who had been convicted at Nuremberg.19 Simpson writes: “Amazingly, the legal precedent left by this series of trials seems to be that a nineteen-year-old draftee accused of war crimes cannot successfully plead that he was acting under orders, but the owners and directors of multibillion dollar companies can.”20

Corporate welfare by any other name

By this point, the unofficial policy of the U.S. to restore and rebuild Germany as a central pillar in the burgeoning Cold War was becoming more and more official. The righteous calls to denazify—and especially to decartelize—the Nazi regime quickly faded into memory. This shift wasn’t just in the negative, that is, in not prosecuting or trying Nazis and their henchmen as outlined above. Increasingly, it was an affirmative process of restoring Nazi ideologues, officers, and industrialists to positions of power. In fact, the most powerful vehicle for restoration on the economic front was also one of the best-known policies in postwar Germany: the Marshall Plan.

The Marshall Plan is most often credited for the German Wirtschaftswunder, the economic “miracle” of rapid expansion and rising living standards that characterized not just Germany but all of Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Its official name was the European Recovery Plan, but it is better known by the name of its creator, George C. Marshall. By 1947, the British and U.S. occupation zones had merged into what (in creative bureaucratese) was now called Bizonia, and Marshall, by then President Truman’s secretary of state, had a plan.

The Marshall Plan was essentially a massive government intervention into the world economy. In its four years from 1948 to 1952, the plan spent over $13 billion on reconstruction in fifteen European countries (this would amount to over $640 billion today, in terms of percent of Gross National Product21). While the Marshall Plan appeased public anxiety about the future of Europe, in practice it represented one of the great moments of corporate welfare. The plan earmarked billions of dollars for infrastructure redevelopment, which is to say, the money was handed over to big U.S. and German corporations.

The argument here is not simply that massive corporations raked in billions of dollars while ordinary Germans fought to piece their lives back together. Instead, it is a question of what these corporations were before and during the Third Reich and the role they played in bankrolling the Nazi regime. IG Farben, for example, was (and continues to be) a major German chemical concern. It was also the primary manufacturer of the Zyklon-B gas that was used in the extermination of six million Jews and millions of others during the war. On top of their complicity in the Holocaust, IG Farben—along with many other powerhouses of German capitalism, such as Volkswagen, Siemens, AEG (then a subsidiary of General Electric), Krupps (a major steel manufacturer known to many in the U.S. as a kitchen electronics brand)—set up major production operations right next to (or even part of) the concentration camp system to exploit the slave labor provided by the camps. The Marshall Plan did not just ignore this history; it played the central role in rehabilitating the very men who profited—literally—from the Nazi regime.

One shocking case is of the principal man in charge of disbursing Marshall Plan funds in Germany, Hermann Abs. He had been the director of Deutsche Bank, the main financial institution to bankroll Nazi Germany. By the time of the Marshall Plan, however, Abs was standing trial in Nuremberg for his complicity with the Nazi regime. The U.S. military government, however, decided that his “expertise” was more important. Instead, they put him in charge of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the agency of the Allied Control Council tasked with doling out Marshall Plan monies. Thus, Hermann Abs literally went from the hot seat at Nuremberg, on trial as the head of a Nazi-funding bank, to the driver’s seat of the primary agency in occupied Germany responsible for handing out billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money. Martin Lee spells out the consequences clearly:

Germany’s much-ballyhooed postwar “economic miracle” was largely the result of American largesse. But the rehab program also had a distinct downside: by concentrating wealth among the few, it accentuated the antidemocratic and inegalitarian trends in German society that favored ex-Nazis with chummy connections to Wall Street.22

An economic war on Germans

U.S. occupation policy was by this time crystal clear: dismiss calls for denazification and turn a blind eye to Nazi atrocities in order to rebuild Germany as the front line in the new war against communism and its standard bearer, the Soviet Union. On the one hand, this meant rehabilitating German bosses, irrespective of their actions during the Third Reich. On the other, it meant a conscious economic war against ordinary Germans. For example, it is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. consciously used food as a weapon. At war’s end—with fifty-five million dead, and millions more displaced by the new borders mandated at Potsdam; with cities throughout Europe burned and bombed out; and on the heels of several years of food rationing at home—the main U.S. concern about food was that there was too much of it.23 This was indeed perplexing for the United States. If food surpluses were allowed to continue, then farm prices might fall and create Depression-like conditions again. Further, if the U.S. military government actually used all the food to feed the hungry across Europe, farm profits would likely also collapse. Yet, if Germans and the rest of Europe starved too much, then surely the continent would again fall into revolutionary upheavals, similar to those that heralded the end of the First World War.

As deeply as this point contradicts the myths about American generosity in the rebuilding of Germany, U.S. officials at the time were, in fact, quite open about their self-serving concerns. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson openly warned of:

the probability of pestilence and famine in central Europe next winter [1945–1946]. This is likely to be followed by political revolution and Communistic infiltration…. It is vital to keep these countries from being driven to revolution or Communism by famine…. If we could turn in to those countries 2 million tons of wheat per month for June, July and August, you could take the bread ration off that entire area. That would be good for psychology.24

Kolko writes: “In this context, the question was how to reconcile the anxiety over surplus with the dread of the Left and revolution, and also how to administer the existing food program to maximize the political results for American interests.”25

The U.S. had just the man for the job. His name was William Draper and the U.S. military government quickly installed him as the economic division chief of the joint Allied Control Council. Draper saw that Germans were starving. But he also knew that getting the coalfields back online was of primary importance to economic stability in postwar Germany. Thus, he ignored the U.S. military government’s ration of a 1,560 calories per day diet and arranged it so that the miners would get 4,000 calories of food each day to ensure that they would be in better condition to work the coalfields. When Draper learned that the miners were sharing their rations with the rest of their starving families, he had this to say: “Well, from the humanitarian point of view that’s fine, but it couldn’t work, and so we had to strip [the relatives] of food and [the miners] had to eat it themselves.”26

The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that upwards of ten million ethnic Germans were expelled from their homelands across central and Eastern Europe as the victors redrew the map at the war’s end. As part of the collective punishment of all Germans for Nazi crimes, millions were uprooted from vast areas of Poland, the Sudetenland in what is now the Czech Republic, in parts of the Soviet Union, and elsewhere and forced to move within the new German borders. Having created a monster, the U.S. simply threw many of these German refugees into their POW camps until they could figure out what to do with them. Not having planned for the influx of millions of people into their occupied zones, General Eisenhower, who then ran the army in Germany and would later become president of the U.S., tacitly approved of creative bookkeeping practices that hid the mass starvation of these prisoners. This prototype of “fuzzy math” meant that at least 700,000 German prisoners, but perhaps as many a one million, were simply refused shelter and food in U.S.-run POW camps, where they were left to die.27


The record of the U.S.—both in terms of rehabilitating German industrialists entwined with the Nazi regime as well as its postwar assault on ordinary Germans—deeply contradicts its claims to have fought the Second World War to liberate Europe and reestablish democracy. Its interests as a newly dominant world power in a new Cold War against the Soviet Union meant that the U.S. would do anything in the name of defeating communism—up to and including employing Nazis themselves. Neither Truman officials in Washington nor intelligence and military government operatives in Germany hesitated to use the very criminals they had supposedly gone to war to rid the world of.

In fact, the officials whom the U.S. had dispatched to Germany and Central Europe after the war were strikingly honest about their new best friends. State Department diplomat and Soviet affairs “expert” George F. Kennan reasoned that purging Nazis and even the real war criminals from Germany was “undesirable…. Whether we like it or not, nine-tenths of what is strong, able and respected in Germany has been poured into those very categories which we have in mind…[i.e.] those who had been more than nominal members of the Nazi party.” Rather than remove the “present ruling class of Germany” as he put it, it would be better to “hold it strictly to its task and teach it lessons we wish it to learn.”28 Gene Bramel, a young agent with the Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) brushed aside doubts of employing Nazis in the remaking of postwar Germany:

They say, “[Why] did you use Nazis?” That is a stupid question. It would have been impossible for us to operate in southern Germany without using Nazis.… [W]ho knew Germany better than anyone else? Who were the most organized? Who were the most anti-Communist? Former Nazis. Not to use them would mean complete emasculation.29

Finally, Harry Rositzke, the CIA’s former head of secret operations inside the USSR bragged: “We knew what we were doing. It was a visceral business of using any bastard as long as he was anti-Communist…[and] the eagerness or desire to enlist collaborators meant that, sure, you didn’t look at their credentials too closely.”30

Who then were these people the U.S. recruited so eagerly? In the main, they fell into three categories: industrialists, scientists, and SS war criminals. We discussed earlier the degree to which Nazi-sympathizing industrialists were rehabilitated primarily with Marshall Plan money after the war. Let’s turn then to the scientists, for it was the scientists whom the U.S. most eagerly sought out after the war.

In high demand were Hitler’s top experts in chemical warfare, submarines, and rocketry. Not surprisingly, these very scientists were to be found nestled in the concentration camp system that the Allies had just liberated. The U.S. simply rewrote its immigration laws, creating shady programs with names like Operation Overcast, to bring hundreds of these Nazi scientists into the country.

Once in the U.S., these men were hardly shunned. One in particular stands out. His name was Arthur Rudolph. He had worked in the rocketry program hidden at the Nordhausen camp, and was brought to the U.S. through Operation Overcast. However, Rudolph quietly returned to West Germany in 1984 when the U.S. Justice Department “discovered” his role in the persecution of Nordhausen prisoners. Rudolph was allowed to remain below the U.S. radar screen until 1984 for one simple reason: he had been instrumental in organizing the construction of the massive Saturn V rockets that launched the first U.S. astronauts to the moon.31

Even this pales in comparison to the other murderers and thugs the U.S. employed—all in the name of the growing conflict between the U.S. and the USSR. By 1947, in fact, the United States had established at least six major programs, such as Operation Apple Pie, for recruiting and employing former SS and German intelligence officers.32 We can get a sense of how far the U.S. would go by looking at its most infamous Nazi recruit. His name was Reinhard Gehlen and he was hardly a nominal party member. Both his detractors and defenders freely admit that he was deeply tied up with, if not directly responsible for, one of the worst atrocities of the war, namely the torture, interrogation, and murder by starvation of some four million Soviet POWs.

Gehlen had been Hitler’s most senior military intelligence officer on the Eastern Front. And he was no fool. Foreseeing the coming defeat of the Nazi regime, he began to plot his surrender to the U.S. as early as the fall of 1944. In March of 1945, Gehlen and his inner circle microfilmed all of the German files on the USSR. They buried the film in canisters throughout the Alps in Austria, Gehlen’s homeland. They promptly surrendered to the Army CIC on May 22, 1945. Using the buried microfilms as his leverage, Gehlen cut a deal with the U.S. to establish an intelligence group, later called the Gehlen Org. He was released from U.S. custody and then set up where he would surely feel at home—a former Waffen-SS training facility near Pullach—which remained the group’s headquarters up to the 1980s.

Gehlen promised “on principle” not to employ former SS or Gestapo men. He then promptly hired the following principled men for his first staff: SS Obersturmführer Hans Sommer (who torched seven Paris synagogues in October 1941), SS Standartenführer Willi Kirchbaum (senior Gestapo leader in southeastern Europe), and SS Sturmbannführer Fritz Schmidt (Gestapo chief in Kiel, Germany). Some of his most infamous staff, like Franz Six, had actually received clemency directly from U.S. High Commissioner John J. McCloy specifically so they could go to work for Gehlen. Six was an SS Brigadeführer, a professor at the University of Berlin, and described by none other than Adolf Eichmann as a Streber [an overachiever] on the “Jewish question.”

There has been much debate as to how much Truman knew of such men and their work. Ultimately, though, it did not matter: Truman’s top intelligence operatives in Germany not only knew of, but actively sought out and supported Gehlen’s group. Allen Dulles, head of European operations for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner organization to the CIA) was, in fact, quite clear about his support for Gehlen. “He’s on our side,” Dulles said, “and that’s all that matters.” And for being on “our side,” the Gehlen Org received some $200 million from the U.S. and employed over 4,000 people full-time between 1945 and 1955.

It is critical to understand that Gehlen and his henchmen were not an aberration that military government and Truman officials quietly tolerated. Instead, their handling quickly became the rule for how the U.S. would deal with the Nazis’ top intelligence men. In short order, these Nazis became one of the central means of “arming” the U.S. with intelligence on the USSR at the dawn of the Cold War. Heinz Höhne, historian and former senior editor of Der Spiegel (a leading German newsmagazine), estimated that “70 percent of all the U.S. government’s information on Soviet forces and armaments came from the Gehlen Org.” Former chief analyst for the CIA on Soviet capabilities, Victor Marchetti, explained why the U.S. supported Gehlen so much:

The agency loved Gehlen because he fed us what we wanted to hear…. We used his stuff constantly, and we fed it to everybody else: the Pentagon; the White House; the newspapers. They loved it, too. But it was hyped up Russian boogeyman junk and it did a lot of damage to this country.33

The rehabilitation of former Nazis did not stop, in fact, even after the U.S. ended its formal occupation of the country. In May 1949, the three Western occupation zones formally merged and founded themselves as the Federal Republic of Germany (known in the U.S. as West Germany) by establishing a new constitution. Even though formally independent, the U.S. high commissioner and the remnants of the military government still held a great deal of power over West Germany straight through until 1951 and the advent of the Korean War. And during this time of quasi-independent rule, the West German government continued with the wholesale rehabilitation of huge numbers of Nazis.

Ponting estimates that about 250,000 Germans were directly involved in war crimes, but that of them, only 36,000 were convicted of any crimes. The vast majority of those convictions, some 30,0000, were carried out in the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, and East Germany (after its founding in October of 1949). Among the Allies, on the other hand, some 5,000 of those convictions took place in France. In West Germany, by contrast, only 800 Nazis were convicted of having committed any crimes during the war.34

Moreover, the West German government did not just fail to prosecute Nazis in its early days when still under the thumb of U.S. occupation.35 Instead, it also took measures to actively reinstate wide sections of the Nazi Party’s membership. In 1951, the ranks of civil servants who had been removed by the Allies were reinstated to their old positions, and where provided for by civil service regulations, were promoted to higher positions as if there had been no break in their service. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the first leader of West Germany, had an administration filled with ex-Nazis, and his government, now centered in the sleepy enclave of Bonn, paid generous pensions to former SS members and their widows for years.

Alternatives: the Antifas and revolt from below

It is clear that the occupation of Germany had nothing to do with liberating Europe or restoring democracy. Instead, the U.S. did what it needed and with whom it needed to do it in order to impose its interests, at once against its former allies as well as against its newest foe, the Soviet Union. In this context, it is easy to look at the “Russian bogeymen” junk that the new Nazi friends of the U.S. were serving up to discredit the U.S., as if to say they were only chasing after straw men. In fact, this is precisely the tone of several of the liberal histories of the U.S. occupation in Germany. Their argument is essentially that the U.S. made a deal with the devil, and all for nothing. On the one hand, this lets the U.S. off the hook by implying that if the Soviet Union really had been a viable foe, then the U.S. would have been justified in derailing denazification, rehabilitating the German economic elite, and cutting deals with Nazi henchmen. On the other, there was a counterpart to U.S. fears about Soviet expansion that is far less studied or understood: the fact that the masses were fed up with an old order that had inflicted two world wars on the people of Europe. And the U.S. was absolutely right to fear the potential power they represented.36

Tony Cliff describes in vivid terms the alternatives German workers were creating at the war’s end. He writes: “At the end of the Second World War, the heavy lid of repression was lifted off German workers and they were given a real chance to express themselves. What was revealed was amazing.”37 Almost overnight, a wave of anti-fascist activism spread across Germany. Well over 500 anti-fascist committees, called Antifas, were established, made up primarily of working-class Germans. Cliff captures the mood: “For a brief time, between the overthrow of the Nazi regime and the re-imposition of ‘order’ by the occupying Allied forces, workers were free in a double sense.”38

The Antifas grew by leaps and bounds, especially in areas with the highest level of industrialization and the strongest labor traditions.39 Indeed, many were established well before the war ended. In Düsseldorf, the Antifako, as it was called there, was founded as early as 1943 and spent the final two years of war defacing Nazi propaganda throughout the city. In Bremen, in the north, well over one-half of the housing had been left uninhabitable. Yet, fourteen committees were established with 6,500 members.40

Leipzig, in the east, was home to by far the strongest Antifas. Thirty-eight local committees were set up with 4,500 members and another 150,000 supporters. Despite the devastation of that city (e.g., the population fell by almost 30 percent during the war, down to 500,000), well over 100,000 people marched on May Day in Leipzig in 1945. So thoroughly had the local Antifas in Leipzig beaten back the Nazis that, when U.S. troops arrived to take the city on the morning of April 18, 1945, white flags were already flying. There was little Nazi resistance and almost no casualties. The local Antifas had already pasted placards all over town calling for a ten-point program that included denazification, complete cooperation with the occupying powers, and abolition of the black market. The Leipzig committees were made up, for example, of church leaders, unionists, members of the SPD and KPD, and former concentration camp prisoners. Yet they were met by one military government major, who declared, “I wish we had fought for this city. We would have shot you people along with the SS. You bastards are no better than the Nazis.” The Leipzig Antifas were quickly dissolved.41

In Wuppertal, home to Friedrich Engels, the local Antifa battled the Nazis directly, long before the war ended. Consequently, at the war’s end 7,000 residents from Wuppertal were being held in concentration camps for anti-Nazi activity. Furthermore, the anti-fascist activists who remained took the lead in forming an anti-Nazi town council and establishing an anti-Nazi police force, and waited with great anticipation for the approaching U.S. soldiers. In fact, as the GIs marched into town, they initially welcomed such activity from Wuppertal’s anti-fascist activists. Opinions would soon change, as they had in Leipzig.

Arthur Kahn was the chief editor of intelligence at the Office of the Director of Information Control, part of the military government in postwar Germany. That is, he was no radical. But he spent most of his time in Germany traveling and gathering information on events like those in Wuppertal. His book Betrayal: Our Occupation of Germany is a shocking read for its honesty about the record of the United States. He continues about Wuppertal:

After the combat troops [though] came the Military Government. “We do the appointing and administering here.” The officers promptly announced the disarming of the [antifascist] police and dissolved the Antifa. They didn’t want “Bolsheviks” thinking they could take over now that the Nazis had been kicked out. Instead, they appointed the “Aachen type” of officials.42

In spite of immediate U.S. hostility, some Antifas went on to set up Betriebsräte, or work councils, that literally took over management of hundreds of companies, especially in the major factories. They fired Nazi-collaborating managers and cleared out the boards of directors. Members of the Nazi trade union were run out, as were workers who had spied for the Gestapo. Additionally, they reappropriated Nazi property in order to house prisoners returning from the concentration camps. In Stuttgart, they actually set up their own revolutionary tribunal. The work councils led many strikes, as well. In one, at the Prince Regent coalmine near Bochum, workers went on a political strike under the slogan, “Long Live the Red Army!” Importantly, the reference here was not to the USSR’s army stationed on the other side of the country, but instead to the insurrectionary force in the German Revolution of 1918–1923. One strike leader proclaimed: “In the future state, there will be no more employers as before. We must all arrange it and work as if the enterprise is ours!”43 Of course, the devastating objective conditions of a war-torn environment coupled with the historic weaknesses of the German Left made the Allied project of snuffing out such resistance much more easily accomplished.

The quick application of U.S. suppression did not just apply to Antifas and the radicals that formed their core. Two examples underscore the degree of repression under U.S. rule. As concentration camps were “liberated” by the Allies, prisoners were directed to return to their homes. KPD members and activists represented large groups of prisoners who were still alive at the end of the war. Far from acting out of compassion for these survivors, the U.S. ensured that none returned to any elected offices or other positions of leadership upon return. Furthermore, the U.S. kept many Nazi laws on the books, especially the ones that most suited U.S. needs. Most outrageous was the U.S. maintenance of Paragraph 175, the Nazi-era law that criminalized homosexuality and was used to send around 15,000 gays to the concentration camps. One-third of these prisoners managed to survive the war. Yet many were transferred directly from Nazi death camps to military government jails, where they remained through the 1960s, when Paragraph 175 was finally stricken from the books.44


The actions of ordinary Germans at the end of the war and in the first days of occupation are nothing short of extraordinary. In the worst imaginable objective circumstances, a significant minority was able to see through the haze, break through the rubble, and impose a radically different vision for the world. Sadly, the real devastation of war and historical divisions on the German Left intersected to allow the Allies to quickly blot that vision out in order to impose their own agenda. It is worth quoting Kahn here at length, not only because he captures the legacy of the U.S. occupation vividly, but also because he was one of the key officials in the occupation, horrified by the work of his own master:

[By the summer of 1947] the transformation of the occupation was completed from an occupation devoted to accomplishing the stated aims of the war and for eliminating forever the German war potential, to an occupation concerned with the establishment of American control of German industry and with the building of a military buffer against the Soviet Union. The occupation was bankrupt. It could continue only with the vast economic support of the U.S. and with the maintenance of an ever intensifying anti-Soviet, anti-Communist hysteria.45

One could certainly take issue with Kahn’s naïveté in believing that the U.S. actually entered the war to fight fascism and yet somehow went astray. Such a misplaced assumption that U.S. imperialism is capable of fighting evil is just as inaccurate today as it was sixty years ago.

Jeff Bale is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Phoenix.

1 Arthur D. Kahn, Betrayal: Our Occupation of Germany (Warsaw: Book and Knowledge, 1950), 2.

2 Quoted in Werther, “The poison well: What the C.I.A.’s Nazi files can tell us about Iraq” Counterpunch, February 23, 2005.

3 Quoted in Socialist Worker (UK), July 16, 2005, at http://www.

4 It is far beyond the scope of this article to go through the history of the Second World War. For more background, see Ashley Smith, “World War II: The good war?” International Socialist Review 10, Winter 2000.

5 Quoted in Smith, 53.

6 Quoted in Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003), 311.

7 Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy 1943–1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 251.

8 Christopher Simpson, The Splendid Blonde Beast: Money, Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995), 11.

9 Simpson, The Splended Blond Beast, 56.

10 Lothar Kettenacker, Germany Since 1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5–7.

11 Kolko, 245.

12 Simpson,The Splended Blond Beast, 186.

13 Clive Ponting, Armageddon: The Reality Behind the Distortions, Myths, Lies and Illusions of World War II (New York: Random House, 1995), 336.

14 James Bacque, Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans After World War II. (Toronto: Stoddart, 1989). Bacque’s book was deeply controversial at its publication—so much so that two other books and an entire academic conference (sponsored by the Eisenhower Center at University of Lousiana) have dedicated themselves to refuting it.

15 Martin Lee, The Beast Reawakens (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1997), 31.

16 Ponting, 325.

17 Lee, 31.

18 Simpson, The Splended Blond Beast, 237.

19 Ibid., 271.

20 Ibid.

21 This amount is calculated using the calculator found on the Economic History Resources Web site at

22 Lee, 31.

23 Kolko, 487.

24 Ibid., 497–98.

25 Ibid., 496.

26 Simpson, The Splended Blond Beast, 249.

27 Bacque, 25–51.

28 Christopher Simpson, Blowback (New York: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1988), 88.

29 Ibid., 70.

30 Ibid., 159.

31 Ibid., 30–39.

32 Ponting, 347.

33 See Simpson, Blowback, 40–65 for a more detailed discussion of Gehlen’s work for the United States.

34 Ponting, 341.

35 Ponting, 342

36 Tony Cliff, Trotskyism after Trotsky (London: Bookmarks, 1999), 71.

37 Ibid., 75.

38 Ibid.

39 Kahn, 42.

40 Cliff, 76.

41 Kahn, 46-47.

42 Ibid., 42.

43 Cliff, 76.

44 Sherry Wolf, “The Roots of Gay Oppression,” International Socialist Review, 37 September–October 2004.

45 Kahn, 212.

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