Germans as victims of the war

ben.wilko1 By ben.wilko1, 10th Feb 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

An essay exploring how ordinary German people felt like victims in the post war era.


As a key issue surrounding the Second World War, the Holocaust is described by historian Moses as a phenomenon carried out by “perhaps a hundred thousand Germans or more, and with the approval of the rest of the population” (Moses, 1998), however not all Germans shared this belief.
In the early post war years many West German’s saw themselves as the overall victims of the war which had just passed. This idea appears to have stemmed from several factors as well as the results of the war from which a strong public opinion emerged.
It is viewed by some contemporary historians that the general public in the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany had the opinion that the German people were as equal victims of the war as the Jews and other persecuted groups were.
But what kind of person took this moral high ground and believed that they had particularly suffered throughout the war? What reasons could they have to adopt this attitude? In this essay I aim to discuss these ideas and the reasons why the West German population could have seen themselves as victims after the war and to the extent that this victimhood can be morally or logically justified. I will also attempt to gain an insight into how the post war occupation and the subsequent separation of Germany into two states. As a contrast I will look at how the West Germans adopted a collective apathy towards the war which has just ended.

Germans as victims

Where did this idea of German victimhood come from? There were several groups across the country who believed that they were the main victims of the war, and this belief stemmed from several factors. After the fall of the Third Reich, Germany, as with much of Europe, was left in ruins.
Hundreds of thousands of families were torn apart throughout and after the war, many wives lost their husbands or had husbands help captive abroad (mainly in the Soviet Union where millions of Prisoners Of War were imprisoned) their families did not know if they were dead or alive. When the last of the prisoners of war were returned to West Germany from the Soviet Union in 1955 they were considered victims of the war as they were traumatised by their time under Soviet Captivity
Many women were raped and people were killed by the Soviet Union. It is described in the final episode of the TV documentary Hitler’s War that “Berlin hospitals estimated that a hundred and thirty thousand women were victims of rape. At least ten thousand died of the consequences.” (Müllner & Greulich, 2005 )These experiences are recalled by German women in the documentary, including those from Berlin in the final days of the war were extremely traumatic and showed a non discriminatory range of victims regardless of age. In the post war years victims recounted what they had gone through by the hands of the Soviets as invaders and occupiers.
The bombardment and destruction of many German cities (not only Dresden in the East, but also important Western cities such as Hamburg and Frankfurt), this led to the deaths of thousands of German civilians during the war. However this is a view which is utilised even today by post-war right wing extremists, who use such civilian deaths in order to gain support from similar thinking groups of people.
Some West Germans, as with many East Germans, believed that they were innocent of the crimes their people were being accused of and that they were merely oppressed by the fascist regime Imprisonment and murder of enemies of the state (including incarcerated communists – a stance which is taken in a much more open sense in East Germany rather than in the West-
Loss of family and friends during the war, both through death on the various battle fronts and in concentration camps left many families broken, as is the case with any war. The period of the Third Reich also saw the emergence of cruel and ethically void movements such as the Nazi eugenics and euthanasia programs. Families of the “seventy thousand mentally ill people were murdered in the gas chambers of various centres established for this purpose,“ (Brayard, 2008) were able to mourn for their lost loved ones in the years after the fall of the Third Reich, losses of such family members and friends would be at the centrefold of post war German victimhood, at least for those who would equate the suffering of holocaust victims to the suffering of their own.
In the years after the war, German women- as with many other German males, “emphasized their sufferings and losses and downplayed their contributions to and rewards from the Nazi regime.” (Heineman, 1996, 359) This was a key issue in occupied Germany as it became more and more difficult to determine who was would be seen as guilt for the atrocities and failings of the previous government under the NSDAP.
As Moeller states, stories of the experiences of German prisoners of war held by the Soviet Union years after the end of the war “were crafted into rhetorics of victimisation in the arena of public policy” ( 1996, p1013). From such ideas developed a new way of German thinking which would hinder the cause of Germans mourning for their loss and moving on after the war, as the humiliation and anger the German people were left with could not easily be solved.

Germany divided

Issues such as the occupation of Germany immediately after the end of the war and the resulting split of Germany into 2 states were seen as an injustice by those in the West, far more so than those in the Eastern territory.
Due to the advance of the Soviet Union and the loss of German territory in the east, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans were displaced. As a result people lost their homeland, the West German government. “kept on its long-term agenda the aim of reuniting the German territories within the borders of 31 December 1937.”(Brinks, 2000, p.3) this included territories ceded as reparations to other countries (particularly in the East) which the CDU government believed should be included in a unified Germany.
The divide also saw the separation of not only extended family, but also immediate family members when the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961, although the country was already formally divided into two separate states, the symbolism of the Berlin Wall acted as a constant and concrete reminder of how separate the two states were becoming.
The West German populace had to deal with the “division of their country with all the resulting problems as well as the guilt and shame imposed on them by world opinion (Markovits, Hayden, 1980, p56) Although the allies were quick in their attempts to highlight the atrocities that the German people as a whole had either caused, assisted with or completely ignored. The guilt of the Germans for their role in the war and the Holocaust would arguably become less important in post war political and social life.

Public Apathy

It could also be argued that the West Germans, if not seeing themselves as the victims of the war, had little or no interest in facing the atrocities of the war that had just passed. Janowitz suggests that “the suffering and destruction wrought as a result of air warfare were clearly the prime factors in developing this ethical indifference” (1946, p145), this came about within a short period of political and social chaos, in which West Germans were attempting to salvage and rebuild their recently decimated homeland. There were those who would not be able to grieve for their loved ones or for their lost countrymen out of a necessity to carry on and try to avoid repeating past mistakes which led to the rise of the Nazi party.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) and the attempts at prosecuting former Nazi criminals would become particularly difficult due to “a general unwillingness on the part of the state authorities and judiciary to deal with such matters.” (Wolf, 2006, 742) The West German government gave a greater focus to the new democratic state being a buffer against communism, therefore in terms of importance, rebuilding West Germany with a strong economy was of higher priority than facing the recent past. This was reflected in such movements as the Hallstein doctrine, which emphasised a harsh policy towards the east, such policies took precedence above issues involving post war denazification.
This said, not all West Germans followed this trend, Vees-Gulani states that among intellectuals, “a discussion of German guilt and responsibility did start to take place very soon after the Nazi regime had fallen.” (2003, p41) This shows a definite divide in not only how the two Germanys saw the Second World War, but it also highlights disagreements within those two competing ideologies causing difficulties in coming to terms with the past which would not begin to be properly solved until many years later.


This essay has discussed reasons why West German’s saw themselves as victims, how the division of Germany and loss of territory affected this view and also how necessity led to widespread public apathy about the war. With this in mind, it is not surprising that many West Germans came to briefly identify themselves as the main victims of the war or even hold an apathetic view of the war due to a need to carry on and rebuild. To conclude, the ideas discussed in this essay and what they imply are not particularly simple, as not every West German considered themselves a victim of the war, as well as this, the whole population did not consider themselves to be innocent of the crimes committed during the war, regardless of their role played.
Although historian Daniel Goldhagen believes that the atrocities of the Nazis, including the holocaust were carried out “with the connivance of perhaps a hundred thousand Germans or more, and with the approval of the rest of the population”(Goldhagen, 1996), strong counterarguments for this idea highlight the importance of the vast amount of resistance against Hitler’s totalitarian regime. Goldhagen’s concept outlines the collective guilt of all German people, this is not a guilt which all West Germans at that time would willingly accept.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung and the widespread acceptance of German guilt for what occurred throughout the Third Reich would have to wait until such a time when the Federal Republic was in a more stable position, allowing many years to pass as the war and its events slowly sank into the memories of the West Germans.


Goldhagen, Daniel. J (1996) Hitler’s Willing Executioners, London: Little Brown Book Group

Heineman, E. (1996). The Hour of the Woman: Memories of Germany's "Crisis Years" and West German National Identity. The American Historical Review, 101(2), 354-395.

Herman, J B. (2000). Children of a New Fatherland : Germany's Post-War Right-Wing Politics. . London: I.B. Tauris.

Janowitz, M. (1946). German Reactions to Nazi Atrocities. The American Journal of Sociology, 52(2), 141-146.

Markovits, A S. & Hayden, R S. (1980). "Holocaust" before and after the Event: Reactions in West Germany and Austria. New German Critique, 19(1), 53-80.

Moeller, R G. (1996). The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. The American Historical Review, 101(4), 1008-1048.

Moses, A.D. (1925). Structure and Agency in the Holocaust: Daniel J. Goldhagen and His Critics.History and theory, Vol. 37 (No. 2) pp. 194-219

Müllner, J. & Greulich, A (Writers and Directors). (2005). The End in Berlin . In K. Mclennan (Producer), Hitler’s War. London: History Channel.
Vees-Gulani, S. (2003). Trauma and Guilt : Literature of Wartime Bombing in Germany. . Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. KG Publishers.
Wolf, R. (2006). 'Mass Deception without Deceivers'? The Holocaust on East and West German Radio in the 1960s. Journal of Contemporary History, 41(4), 741-755.


Cold War, Destruction, German Reunification, Germany, History, Holocaust, Post-War, Victim, Victims, World War 2

Meet the author

author avatar ben.wilko1
Student of German studies with a passion for languages

Share this page

moderator johnnydod moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Lady Aiyanna
10th Feb 2013 (#)

It all began with the First World War wherein the German had Airplanes and U-Boats known as the modern day submarines to combat te enemies like never before.
This resulted in the League of Nationss who slapped wthem with a reparation charge which would hae lasted them till the mid 1960's wherein they paid other developed economiees of that time while detrimenting their own.
It was the advent of Hitler who created their economy of today by stopping the reparation charges and reolting against the Jews who were gaining in their economy.
No doubt his rise stemed from the fact that he was rejected from becoming an architect but he created the power with his oratory concepts that brought the Leagguue of Natons to the end and gave rise to the Scientists developing even more superior gadgets of defence which are in use to this date.
The scientists predominantly Polish were rounded and taken in by the Americans who used them to develop the NASA space centre.
The Germans are renouned for precision and this reflected in Music which has predominanttly Germans, Austrians and other surrounding nations lendng hhand to ccreate the music we know of today.
Even to this day, many people look and blame thee Germans for the wars forgetting that without them we would never have the comforts of life, whch were crippled because of the war austerities and seggregation due to the jaded beliefs that they were wanting to ruin the world but in fact, they ae the singlemost reason for oour progress because all the electronics annd vehicles were first created by them and then copied cheaply by the Japanese who used various concepts like TQM and the Fishbone theory ffor assembly lines to produce things onassembly lines leading to further detriment to the German economy.
Although ssssad to say, fast buiids sometimes have fast ends, many of the German artifacts last for time and memorial because they build everything brick my brick to show a clearer and firmer foundation of things that forms as the guideline foorr future learning.
I have high regards for the Germans because of this and I hhave personally seen the precision when I am hovering over Germany before touchdown and this is something I haven't seen in any other landing around as I like definitive characteristics of a place when I am either landing or taking off from there.
It is sad that maany have jaded beliefs about the Germans buut as they say there are always two sides of the coin- the cause and the effect and of course the collatteral damage which were the numerous deaths that resulted from the gasing, the endless mile and of course dogs set on men and women as sport.These are no doubt torturous but more the military fun and games just like the Abu Garib prison atrocities which was taken very lightly by the world leaving the Germans stark naked for what they did because of everything that took place back then.
Again, it was the Americans who stopped the war and stole their brains of their economiesto further their own country's interests at cost of the other nations development.
While I love every nation, I personally don't support excessive brain drain that could detriment a nation as a whole jusst like the German who are still struggling to come up with a proper tool of English Language communication due to excessiive dependency on the native language resulting in many not learning the wealth they have within their economy.
I am a musician and I learnt a little bit of German because of this and it helped me see the wealth hidden within this nation thaat brought me high reverence for what they have to share with the world.

By Anisha Achankunju (C) Lady Aiyanna 10th February 2013

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?