Ilse Aichinger, 1948
Lilly Axster
Katherine Klinger
Hannah Arendt, 1950
Hannah Fröhlich
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Reference text Arendt
Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Dagmar Fink
Tom Holert
Billie Holiday, 1939
Jamika Ajalon
Rúbia Salgado
Adrian Piper, 1983
Belinda Kazeem
Anna Kowalska
Yvonne Rainer, 1990
Monika Bernold
Shirley Tate
The Aftermath of Nazi Rule
Report from Germany

Hannah Arendt, 1950

Amid the ruins, Germans mail each other picture postcards still showing the cathedrals and market places, the public buildings and bridges that no longer exist. And the indifference with which they walk through the rubble has its exact counterpart in the absence of mourning for the dead, or in the apathy with which they react, or rather fail to react, to the fate of the refugees in their midst. This general lack of emotion, at any rate this apparent heartlessness, sometimes covered over with cheap sentimentality, is only the most conspicuous outward symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened.

Indifference, and the irritation that comes when indifference is challenged, can be tested on many intellectual levels. The most obvious experiment is to state expressis verbis what the other fellow has noticed from the beginning of the conversation, namely, that you are a Jew. This is usually followed by a little embarrassed pause; and then comes—not a personal question, such as “Where did you go after you left Germany?”; no sign of sympathy, such as “What happened to your family?”—but a deluge of stories about how Germans have suffered […]; and if the object of this little experiment happens to be educated and intelligent, he will proceed to draw up a balance between German suffering and the suffering of others, the implication being that one side cancels the other and we may as well proceed to a more promising topic of conversation. Similarly evasive is the standard reaction to the ruins. […] The average German looks for the causes of the last war not in the acts of the Nazi regime, but in the events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Such an escape from reality is also, of course, an escape from responsibility.

But perhaps the most striking and frightening aspect of the German flight from reality is the habit of treating facts as though they were mere opinions. […] In all fields there is a kind of gentlemen’s agreement by which everyone has a right to his ignorance under the pretext that everyone has a right to his opinion—and behind this is the tacit assumption that opinions really do not matter. This is a very serious thing, not only because it often makes discussion so hopeless (one does not ordinarily carry a reference library along everywhere), but primarily because the average German honestly believes this free-for-all, this nihilistic relativity about facts, to be the essence of democracy. In fact, of course, it is a legacy of the Nazi regime.

There is an almost instinctive urge to take refuge in the thoughts and ideas one held before anything compromising had happened. […] The intellectual atmosphere is clouded with vague pointless generalities, with opinions formed long before the events they are supposed to fit actually happened; one is oppressed by a kind of pervasive public stupidity which cannot be trusted to judge correctly the most elementary events.

The rapidity with which […] everyday life in Germany returned to normal and reconstruction began in all fields, has become the talk of Europe. […] It is a well-known fact that Germans have for generations been overfond of working. […] Beneath the surface, the German attitude to work has undergone a deep change […], has yielded to a mere blind need to keep busy, a greedy craving for something to do every moment of the day. Watching the Germans busily stumble through the ruins of a thousand years of their own history, shrugging their shoulders at the destroyed landmarks or resentful when reminded of the deeds of horror that haunt the whole surrounding world, one comes to realize that busyness has become their chief defense against reality.

The reality of the destruction that surrounds every German is dissolved into a reflective but not very deep-rooted self-pity, easily dissipated […]. The boastful hope is expressed in Germany that the country will become the “most modern” in Europe; yet it is mere talk, and some person who has just voiced that hope will insist a few minutes later, at another turn in the conversation, that the next war will do to all European cities what this one did to Germany’s […]. The undertone of satisfaction that one often detects in the Germans’ talk about the next war expresses no sinister renewal of German plans of conquest, as so many observers have maintained, but is only another device for escaping reality: in an eventual equality of destruction, the German situation would lose its acuteness.

The only conceivable alternative to the denazification program would have been a revolution. […] But the revolution did not come to pass, and not primarily because it was difficult to organize under the eyes of four foreign armies. It is only too likely that not a single soldier, German or foreign, would have been needed to shield the real culprits from the wrath of the people. This wrath does not exist today, and apparently it has never existed.


„Besuch in Deutschland. Die Nachwirkungen des Naziregimes“ by Hannah Arendt was published in German in: Marie Luise Knott (ed.), Zur Zeit. Politische Essays, Rotbuch Verlag, Hamburg 1999 (1986). Quotes on pages 44, 47, 49, 50, 46 and 59. Arendt wrote the text on behalf of the American Jewish Committee, after returning from a trip to Germany (November 1949 to March 1950) as part of their work for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. The English original of “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule. Report from Germany“ was published in October 1950 in the magazine Commentary, and can be found at: