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Looking For The Good Germans

July 2024
14min read

The victors divided the Germans into three groups: black (Nazi), white (innocent), and gray—that vast, vast area in between

I was one of these moralists in khaki. A newspaperman and radio writer in civil life, only a few days after the German surrender in May, 1945,1 took my place behind a battered pine desk in a bomb-cracked building in Munich that originally had served as an old-folks home and later as headquarters for the German army service of supply.

An hour earlier, having driven in from Paris over a poppy-carpeted landscape, I had been confronted with a perfect, up-to-date expression of the ancient German conflict of “two souls in one breast.” Across the façade of the Rathaus, or city hall, somebody had chalked, “Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen—I am ashamed to be a German!” Directly below, another hand had scrawled, “Beethoven, Schiller, Goethe—I am proud to be a German!”

In the city of putsch and pact, where in 1923 Hitler launched an abortive uprising and in 1938 ensnared Neville Chamberlain, German work crews were still digging up corpses from ruins estimated to cover 60 per cent of the town. But on Renatastrasse, at my second-story window, still hung with ragged chintz from the old-folks era, I looked out on eye level at pretty girls in Bavarian dirndls standing on ladders to pick the surviving blossoms from half-charred trees to make linden tea.

Below, at a narrow side door, a sign explained that here was the headquarters of 6870 DISCC, a unit of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. Translated, this was District Information Services Control Command, a part of the Information Control Division (ICD), which later became an arm of American Military Government.

My unit, in which I was assigned to the press section, covered Bavaria. A similar outfit operated out of Frankfurt, to the west.

Our mission, as the military called any operation from taking Iwo Jima to obtaining a new batch of paper clips, was to suspend immediately every activity in public communications—press, book, and magazine publishing, radio, theater, opera, and even the circus—and root out all practitioners tainted with Nazism. Next we would search out, investigate, and license provably anti-Nazi Germans to build up a whole new democratic establishment of communications over which there would be no need to exercise censorship.

At the start it was a matter of conducting merciless interrogations and investigations of all who came to apply for licenses—editors, publishers, actors, musicians—and making determinations of how they had behaved under Hitler. (To permit a soprano who had been a particular favorite of Hitler’s to give a lieder recital would be taken by the Germans, in our estimation, as signifying we were not at all serious in our condemnation of Nazism.)

The procession of Germans who came before us were, by our rough-and-ready rule of thumb, soon classified as falling into one of three categories: black, white, or gray.

Black denoted applicants with an out-and-out Nazi background and on whom little time need be wasted except for a few calculated insults to themselves and their fallen F’fchrer. White denoted “good Germans,” those who had never given in to Nazism during the Hitler era.

Gray was the tragic group, consisting of good Germans who had gone bad under pressure; people of decent antiNazi convictions who, because of the necessities of making a living, pursuing a career, or even staying out of the Gestapo dungeons, had finally caved in to one degree or another. They had written pro-Nazi articles they didn’t believe and had joined organizations such as the Nazi auto club, contributed to Nazi charity funds, or even, a last resort, joined the Nazi party.


Interrogating the grays was always the most painful—for the interrogator as well as for the applicant. To the grays we represented the conscience they had betrayed. And the consequences of these interrogations could be painfully dramatic. One applicant, after being faced with the record of his concessions to Nazism, killed himself.

In my case, an applicant whom I had accused of fighting Hitler “with your fist in your pocket” turned on me and shot a barbed question that stings to this day: “How do you think you would have behaved under Hitler?”

On the average I conducted ten interrogations a day. Often I felt so emotionally exhausted that I would have to knock off by 4:00 P.M. and hoist three or four stiff drinks to relax. Always there was the odd sensation of sitting on a stage as a character in a play under the spotlight of history.

Our basic aim was to limit operations in all media for the first years to proven anti-Nazis and thus give them a solid head start against the day when the Germans would resume self-government and open the field to all comers.

Our occupation of Germany was certainly the first broad experience for Americans as conquerors of a foreign power. At the end of World War I, a token force of U.S. troops had occupied the Rhine city of Koblenz, but since that war had stopped short of the German borders, few doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force even set foot inside the country. And in spite of all the wartime cries about German atrocities and the threats to “hang the Kaiser” and punish the Huns, there were no serious efforts at holding any kind of trials.

Now, in dealing with the remains of Hitler’s empire, our attitudes were sharpened by the discovery of gas chambers and piles of corpses as Allied troops took the concentration camps.

But, in fact, the blueprint for Information Control was drawn long before V-E Day. It was the product of a team of political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists under the command of Colonel William Paley, who had taken leave from his radio empire of Columbia Broadcasting System to go to war with the Psychological Warfare Division, the predecessor of Information Control.


Our mission—to “re-educate the Germans and save the peace”—was described by our top military command as “of the highest priority” and “second to none.” We were given authority to travel anywhere to carry out our orders, were permitted to meet with any and all Germans at a time when fraternization was forbidden to the rest of the Army, and were empowered to requisition any property, including printing presses, radio stations, and theaters, necessary “to carry out the mission.”

The manual assembled by the Paley team for the indoctrination and guidance of Information Control officers, of whom I was one, proved remarkably realistic for our dealings with the German applicants, serving as a combination book of etiquette and Geiger counter for detecting Nazism.

For instance, we were instructed to speak only German during interrogations and to resist all attempts to draw us into English. This was for two reasons: to demonstrate our know-how on the job and to keep a cool, censorious distance from the applicant until he was proven to be anti-Nazi.

Before each interrogation, the applicant was required to fill out a formidable Fragebogen , or questionnaire, of 131 piercing questions about his politics, education, employment, affiliations, and general social outlook.

The manual also told us to look for giveaways such as dueling scars on the face, betokening membership in the university student “corporations,” centers of political reaction from the mid-ninteenth century; filling out the application in gothic script, commanded by Hitler as a badge of true Germanism, as against roman script; the use of Nazi-favored expressions such as Gefolgschaft (”crew” or “staff”) and Begegnungsgefecht , the characteristic supposedly reserved for Germans of fighting spirit and initiative.

It was an almost unvarying rule that the less subservient the applicant was, the less likely he was to have been tainted with Nazism.

Another symptom was the sycophantic custom of knocking not only on the outside of the office door when seeking entrance but, once in, of knocking again on the inside, which was always followed by excessive bowing from the waist, making the applicant look like a wind-up toy.

It was an almost unvarying rule that the less polite, less subservient, and more badly dressed the applicant was, the less likely he was to have a Nazi taint.

In search, like Diogenes with his lamp, of honest men, during my twelve months with Information Control I traveled twenty-five thousand miles around Bavaria by jeep and a commandeered Mercedes and interrogated twenty-five hundred Germans. In that period I lost one pound of weight for each hundred Germans and each thousand miles, shrinking from 175 pounds to 150. Partly this was because of the grueling travel over washboard back roads, bombed-out highways, and manure-heap barnyards following even the faintest clue to the whereabouts of reputedly anti-Nazi editors and publishers. And partly it was because of the wearing intensity of feeling in my outfit that if only we succeeded in finding the right people, we would “save the peace.”

There were a couple hundred of us in the Bavarian division—officers, enlisted men, civilian specialists, and German employees—and by the end of the first year a considerable amount of work had been accomplished. The press section established amid the ruins twenty-one newspapers with a total circulation of 2,000,000 to serve a population of some 10,000,000 Bavarians and refugees from other areas of Germany.

The book section launched a program equivalent in output to a major U.S. publishing house. The theater section opened as many legitimate theaters as in the largest American chain. As many movie houses were licensed as there were in Manhattan, and more musicians were cleared to perform than were under contract to Columbia Artists and the Metropolitan Opera.

My own job was to serve—first as co-chief with Joseph Dunner, a brilliant political science professor from Grinnell College, and then as sole director—on a Munich-centered press detachment of ten American and Germans, which eventually set up and supervised six new German newspapers in southern Bavaria. Their combined circulation was over a million.

Our jewel was the Süddeutsche Zeitung of Munich, in which we first made a bold experiment. German journalism had always been strictly oriented to political parties and had angled the news coverage accordingly; but here we proposed a mixed editor-publisher team of a Social Democrat, a member of the Bavarian Peasant party, and someone from the Catholic Center party.

We put them together in a room, asked them to decide whether they could work with each other to put out a newspaper dedicated to objective news coverage, and locked the door.

An hour later they came out and began publishing a newspaper that very soon became and remains to this day the “ New York Times of Germany.”

It was not easy finding these men. Immediately upon Hitler’s accession, they had left journalism rather than make any compromise with Nazism. August Schwingenstein, the Peasant party man who became publisher, had created for himself during the Hitler era a weird business of attending funerals, taking down the eulogy in shorthand, then printing it up as a handsomely designed plaque and selling copies to the family of the departed. Edmund Goldschagg, Social Democrat and managing editor, had lost himself in the far reaches of the Black Forest, working variously as a dairyman and printer. Dr. Franz Josef Schoeningh, cultural editor, had drifted into the haven of church publications.


The day they came in for interrogation, each at once displayed the right political symptoms. Each wore shoes that were down at the heels and suits that were frayed. Goldschag was missing several front teeth and could not afford to replace them. All were underweight. All had been picked up for questioning at one time or another by Hitler’s police. The Fragebogen of each read Nein! up and down the columns of questions about Nazi affiliations.

Once publishing teams had been selected and licensed, I began to take on a host of new duties.

I would confiscate printing plants that had belonged to the Nazi party and individual Nazis and lease them to the new publishers, search out supplies of newsprint and ink, arrange for the salvage of bombed presses, supervise a swap of wheels of Bavarian cheese for British-zone zinc needed for making photographic plates, wake up the Munich publisher in the middle of the night and authorize an extra edition of a million copies on the Nuremberg trial, scrutinize each issue of every licensed newspaper and make suggestions about brightening up the contents and format, and—of prime importance—protect the publishers when their zeal for free and critical expression, even of the conquerors, brought them into conflict with the Army occupation command.

My military status was an ambiguous but highly desirable one as a civilian specialist with the “assimilated,” or honorary, rank of major. Such specialists constituted almost half the executive personnel of ICD because of three stiff requirements that made it difficult for the military to fill the tables of organization from its own commissioned ranks. These requirements were an ability to speak German fairly fluently, a knowledge of German politics, and professional experience in at least one medium of communication.

The great advantage of my status, as I soon learned, was that civilians with the Army could not be court-martialed- for disobeying orders, insubordination, disrespect, or anything else. In consequence, the real military among us, nearly all combat veterans, soon learned to make cunning use of me. Whenever they found themselves at odds with the top brass, they would send me in to do battle, as, for instance, when the whole outfit was ordered to move to a fairyland castle forty miles away from Munich, where we could not possibly have functioned. And, when other officers in Military Government began jeering at us because one of our top people had taken as his mistress the widow of an SS general, I was delegated to take this up with the offending leader.

In good military style I drew up a memo in which I recounted the “surely unfounded gossip,” expressed the loyal conviction that the offender could not be guilty of such conduct, and proposed that he avail himself of the white lists of potential German mistresses that our intelligence section had prepared for the use of the outfit.

On the day before I left Bavaria for home, the offender called me in for a red-faced, stuttering apology, but whether this changed the contents of his bed I never was able to find out.

If my status often puzzled the military, it absolutely bewildered my German interviewees. In accord with their national habit they would try to pile rank on me, with no clue to guide them, because we civilian specialists did not wear any insignia. Thus I would be addressed by such obscene exaggerations as “Colonel-Director-Commander,” upon which I would frown darkly and declare this was not enough.

“Your Honor … Your Excellency … ?”

“Still not enough. Remember that as far as you are concerned, I sit here representing the United States of America. Therefore you must address me by the same title you would address the President of the United States. ”

“Your Eminence … Your Worship …?”

“No! As ‘mister.’ Just plain ‘mister/ The same title as the President of the United States of America.”

Another linguistic curio was my discovery, after the first dozen interrogations, of a phenomenon with which I am still able to surprise professional philologists: namely, that the German language has no words for “fair” and “gentleman.” Again and again I would find interviewees, especially those with bad conscience, declaring hopefully that I would be “fair” in my treatment of them because I was assuredly a “gentleman.”

Why, I inquired finally, keep using the English words instead of German?

Because, it turned out, the nearest German word to “fair” was gerecht , meaning “just, granting the exact letter of the law,” something very different from the relaxed, compassionate con- cept of fairness. And the nearest German word for “gentleman” was Herr , connoting merely a man of noble birth or elevated social position.

In these daily confrontations one never knew when to expect extremes of drama. In our music section, Captain Edward Kilenyi, an international concert pianist in civil life, found himself facing a pre-war colleague who had given in totally to the Nazis. Kilenyi, now in uniform with a Colt .45 on his hip, told the man he could not possibly grant him clearance to perform in the U.S. zone but suggested that he might do better among the French, known to be cynical in these matters, or the British, who were tired and indifferent, or the Russians, who would probably clear him for the price of joining the Communist party.

Instead, the man went home and hanged himself.

I had a similar experience upon being informed by our intelligence section that one of our approved editors had in fact knuckled under during the Hitler era, writing numerous unsigned pro-Nazi editorials. With a thought for his wife and large brood of children, we permitted him simply to transfer to a modest church weekly.

One applicant turned on me and shot a barbed question that stings to this day: “How do you think you would have behaved under Hitler?”

One of Military Government’s major problems in this area was none other than Richard Strauss. The great musician had let himself be made the figurehead chief of the Nazi Culture Chamber. Loving the comforts of home, he simply could not pick himself up to go into exile as had Thomas Mann and other of his peers. Week after week, Strauss’s do-nothing son would descend

One Military Government headquarters in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to demand extra rations of coal and roast beef in the name of his father. “Do you want to be responsible for the death of the greatest genius of the twentieth century?” he would declaim. We solved the problem very neatly by obtaining for Strauss the first exit permit for a German from the American zone. Once he was safely on his way to Switzerland, the gloves were off, and the next time Strauss Junior went to Military Government to make demands, he was booted out of the building.

In the course of my interrogations, even in that stern soul-searching atmosphere, there was a host of weird conversations that I came to catalogue as “Dialogues from Walpurgisnacht,” the German equivalent of Halloween. One day a German newspaperman, whom I still identify in my mind as “Camel Face,” entered my office. He duly doubled-knocked on the door, then turned to me to utter his first, truly astonishing, words: “My mother was a bastard.”

“Very sad,” I said, “but wherein is that relevant?”

He proceeded to explain a closely guarded family secret. His mother had been fathered by a Jewish traveling salesman, which made her half-Jewish and Camel Face himself one-quarter Jewish, a horrendous infirmity in the Nazi era. But one day, alas, a homely female cousin whom Camel Face jilted after a long engagement gave away the secret to the authorities.

“At once,” said Camel Face, “I was made to suffer.”

“In what regard?” I asked.

“Immediately,” said Camel Face, “I was expelled from the SS.”

There was an inevitable answer. “In your family,” I said, showing him the door, “there are two bastards.”

As a companion piece to this, a woman interviewee one day told me how the Nazis had discriminated against her family. “My mother,” she said, “bore eight children for the F’fchrer, but he never sent her the Mother’s Medal to which she was entitled.”

Another bizarre tale, but a sunnier one, developed when I glanced through the Fragebogen of a very blond young German, the very model of the super-Aryan, who was applying for a job as a driver with our outfit. His record was absolutely flawless; he had not even been enrolled in a Nazi kindergarten.


“Wonderful, I said, “but now is this possible?”

“Ach,” he said, “didn’t you notice my given name?”

I looked more closely this time. Bizarre, in so perfect a Teutonic type. The name was Isidor. Yes, Isidor.

“My father,” the young man went on, “being a farmer and a devout Catholic, named me for the patron saint of the peasant, Saint Isidor. But every time I was enrolled in some organization, the Nazis expelled me. ‘Send him home, the Jew Isidor. ‘So I stayed on the farm all through the war and dug potatoes, and my father couldn’t have been happier. ”

But for me the most dramatic confrontation, one which became a turning point in my professional life, occurred with my very first interrogation. I had just set down my duffel bag on arriving from Paris when I was told to talk with a noted German travel writer, Kasimir Edschmid, who had published abroad in a dozen countries but had chosen to remain in Hitler’s Germany. He had engaged, he said, in an “inner emigration,” keeping his thoughts and soul apart from the Nazi regime.

(Later, when Edschmid published an apologia under this title, he was jeered by critics throughout the two Germanys, East and West.)

It was Edschmid who, when I chided him, flung at me the shattering question, “How do you think you would have behaved under Hitler?”

It was a question I could not shake off. It troubled quite a few of my fellow Americans, to a greater or lesser degree, who had to judge the Germans. In an attempt to answer it, I found myself latching on to the dossier of a young German newspaperman, exactly my own age and with a similar history as a journalist, who was described by informants as having been a fervent antiNazi and a gadfly to Nazi big shots in Bavaria before Hitler’s accession. But now he had been swallowed up somewhere in a French POW camp.

For the next year, in every moment I could steal from my assigned duties, and often going AWOL with self-forged orders, I tried to locate him and to learn how he had behaved under Hitler. He had become my alter ego. His story had become my story. When I learned how he had conducted himself under Nazism, I would find out how I myself would have stood up, or failed to.

Bit by bit, even before I finally located him, I uncovered his record in the Nazi era. It was a story of daring underground activities and practical compromises, of rough handling by the Gestapo and occasional capitulation, presumably for tactical reasons.

Finally, on the eve of my leaving the Army and Germany, he came before me. To my surprise, he bore not the slightest physical resemblance to myself. After a hearty handshake and exchange of pleasantries, he told me something that made my heart sink—for both of us. He told me that after an unbearable accumulation of pressures on himself and his new young wife, he had agreed to fill out an application for membership in the Nazi party. Before this could be acted upon, war broke out and he was drafted into the army.

Would that have been my own fate as a German? Would they have worn me down too in the end?

In my self-decreed identification with this German, I was forced to accept that as the judgment on myself. In practical terms, the ICD rules made it impossible for me to clear the man (or myself) immediately for a top editor’s job, as I had hoped, but I did manage to obtain enough of a dispensation for him to start work again as a reporter.

Altogether it was year of intense feeling and being. But, of course, the role also brought with it all sorts of compensations: easy living, inexpensive booze, cut-rate merchandise at the PX, good company, and the shelter of authority. For instance, at the last moment, as I was saying good-by to my German (and provenly anti-Nazi) secretary, she told me it had been most interesting to work with me, especially because of the dozen new German words I had created during my speeches at the opening of various newspapers.

“I made a lot of mistakes in German?”

“Well,” she said, “those were words that didn’t exist before you came to Germany, but I found them very interesting and even useful.”

“Why,” I demanded, “didn’t you tell me I was making mistakes?”

Her answer went to the heart of the whole matter. “What,” she said, “tell a conqueror … ?”

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