Katharina Hausmann. "Die Chance, BÃ¼rger zu werden": Deutsche Politik unter amerikanischer Besatzung: Die Heidelberger Aktionsgruppe 1946-1947. Heidelberg: Verlag Regionalkultur, 2006. 128 pp. EUR 14.90 (paper), ISBN 978-3-89735-446-3.
Reviewed by Warren Rosenblum (Webster University)
Published on H-German (September, 2007)
Civil Society after Hitler
The post-World War II era in Germany is not generally considered a time of great civic initiative. After visiting her former homeland, Hannah Arendt described the Germans as passive, cynical, and wallowing in self-pity--an assessment that subsequent historians have frequently echoed. Katharina Hausmann's short book on a political forum in 1946-47 Heidelberg, however, demonstrates that some West German intellectuals immediately seized the "opportunity to become citizens" (p. 14) and carve out a democratic and socialist vision of Germany's future. The Heidelberg Action Group brought together academics, journalists, and politicians to debate the pressing political questions of the time. The group's pronouncements on denazification, the East-West divide, and economic inequality reverberated widely. Its most important contribution, according to Hausmann, was to an open, democratic public sphere in West Germany outside the context of party politics.
The leaders of the Heidelberg Action Group included both prominent figures from earlier eras and up-and-coming intellectuals. Dolf Sternberger, a principal organizer of the forum, was just twenty-six years old when the Nazis came to power. During the Third Reich, he wrote articles for Die Frankfurter Zeitung coded with anti-Nazi messages. After the war, Sternberger was editor of Die Wandlung, an American-sponsored magazine, and wrote a series of once-famous essays on the language of Nazism. He later became one of West Germany's leading political scientists. Alfred Weber and Marie Baum, two other key participants in the Action Group, were already prominent, politically engaged academics in the decade before World War I. Both helped found the liberal Deutsche Demokratische Partei after 1919, retired from public life in 1933, and quickly resurfaced in 1945. Weber played an important role in the reestablishment of the University of Heidelberg and developed strong ties with the American occupation authorities. Other participants in the group included young Heidelberg psychiatrist Alexander Mitscherlich, SPD politicians Karl Geiler and Carlo Schmid, and publisher Lambert Schneider. Women were strongly represented as were, according to Hausmann, a large number of participants who, like Weber and Baum, had been "on the periphery of the [anti-Nazi] resistance" (p. 122).
Weber and Mitscherlich helped set an agenda for the Action Group in a co-written manifesto called Freie Sozialismus (1946). The book challenged socialist ideologies that stressed the role of a strong state and the primacy of national interest. They envisioned a form of socialism focused upon the realization of individual freedom and the creation of autonomous and self-reliant persons. Weber and Mitscherlich proposed that the courts, rather than state bureaucracies, should be the guarantors of equality and fairness. They advocated the transformation of large industrial companies into nonprofit "foundations" overseen by the courts and administered largely by worker committees.
The Heidelberg Action Group endorsed many of Weber's and Mitscherlich's ideas, including their assertion that the first step in building democracy and socialism was to acknowledge the German people's responsibility for National Socialist crimes. At a conference in April 1947, participants argued over how best to purge Nazi influence from German society. It was resolved that "the true sponsors and beneficiaries of National Socialist oppression must be excluded from all influential positions in private and public life" (p. 68). At the same time, participants criticized the occupying powers for their punitive approach to Nazi "fellow travelers." Ultimately, they argued, denazification must aim to integrate the great mass of Nazi collaborators into the new state and educate them as "good democrats."
In contrast to many postwar discussion societies, the Heidelberg Action Group did not shy away from controversial issues. Its members debated Germany's borders and the fate of expellees from the East, reparations, and the Cold War. The group repeatedly endorsed the concept of Germany as a neutral, pacifist mediator between East and West. In fall 1947, the group's leaders planned a conference in Berlin that would include prominent participants from the Soviet Zone. The goal of the conference was to press the upcoming meeting of foreign ministers in London to support German unity. This initiative infuriated SPD leader Kurt Schumacher, who organized intense pressure to stop SPD members from participating. Two crucial participants, Carlo Schmid and Paul Loebe, eventually reneged, and the conference collapsed.
The failure of the Berlin conference was a harbinger of future difficulties for the Heidelberg Action Group. As Germany was pulled into two opposing blocs and the legal and institutional structures of West Germany took shape, these debates among visionary reformers became increasingly irrelevant. While the meetings and conferences continued, the group lost its ability to attract intellectual stars and international attention. Alexander Mitscherlich, who later emerged as one of Germany's most well-known intellectuals, barely mentioned the group in his memoir of 1980.
Katharina Hausmann argues convincingly, however, for the group's lasting importance. It provided a model of vigorous political debate that cut across party lines and transcended ideological barriers. The leaders of the group used their moral authority and experience as opponents of the Third Reich to carve out a distinctly German and distinctly democratic position in public affairs. Even if their policy prescriptions were rarely followed, their numerous publications and the accounts of their contentious but civil discussions helped restore democratic discourse in postwar Germany.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Warren Rosenblum. Review of Hausmann, Katharina, "Die Chance, BÃ¼rger zu werden": Deutsche Politik unter amerikanischer Besatzung: Die Heidelberger Aktionsgruppe 1946-1947.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2007 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.