Allies did not punish Nazi Germany enough

Hitler said getting rid of the Jews would lead to prosperity and the West fulfilled that promise

February 09, 2023 12:34

The successful emergence of Germany from the horrors it inflicted during WWII cannot be denied. But neither should the moral costs of that success be denied. The Marshall Plan, which rebuilt and enriched West Germany, helped it become the showcase of capitalism in the face of the Eastern communism of the Soviet Union and the countries it controlled, including East Germany. Part of the reason why the Berlin Wall came down and Russian communism ended was the more affluent lives being lived by the citizens of those nations that were not under Soviet control. The Marshall Plan worked as it was intended to.

But what about the moral costs of enriching West Germany and its people so soon after the Holocaust? Hitler told the Germans that if they got rid of the Jews, they would prosper. The Marshall Plan made that lethal prediction come true for West Germans (and for East Germans as well, following the unification). Perhaps it was a moral cost worth incurring, in light of the positive outcome for democracy. But it was a significant, indeed incalculable, cost that has rarely been acknowledged.

Immanuel Kant would have recognised the moral cost of rewarding Germany, and so many of its hands-on Nazi mass murderers, in order to achieve the important goal of winning the Cold War. Kant famously argued that punishment for past serious crimes like murder must be deemed an end unto itself, not a means of achieving future benefits. To illustrate the absoluteness of this categoric imperative, he devised the following hypothetical: “Even if a civil society were to dissolve itself by common agreement, the last murderer remaining in prison must first be executed.”

Most people would agree that this extreme example takes the principle too far. There must be room for compassion, rehabilitation and important future considerations. But many would also agree that the imperative of punishing serious crimes must be given considerable weight in any moral calculus. Even those who would give it less weight should be troubled by any result that rewards, rather than punishes, past criminality in order to promote future goals.

A balance must be struck between the moral imperative of punishing (and not rewarding) past crimes and the pragmatic needs of promoting future benefits, such as defeating totalitarianism. The critical question, therefore, is whether the post-war response to Nazi atrocities — the Marshall Plan coupled with the trials of individual Nazi war criminals — struck the proper balance. I think it did not. Too many Nazis and collaborators lived too good lives, unrepentant for their horrible crimes. Too few were punished or even condemned. Too many companies that worked slaves to their deaths were back in business too quickly and too profitably.

The so-called Morgenthau Plan, which would have denied Germany the resources to once again become an industrial power, was opposed by many as too harsh. Some thought it wasn’t harsh enough. The ageing President Roosevelt put it this way: “There are two schools of thought — those who would be altruistic in regard to the Germans, hoping by lovingkindness to make them Christians again, and those who would adopt a much tougher attitude. Most decidedly, I belong to the latter school, for though I am not bloodthirsty, I want the Germans to know that this time at least, they have definitely lost the war.”After Roosevelt died, the tide shifted toward strengthening West Germany. Hence, the Marshall Plan.

I recall a class I taught in the late 1960s that included several McCloy fellows who were from German universities. (Ironically, John McCloy was America’s high commissioner to occupied West Germany who pardoned many war criminals and returned assets to criminal companies.) I asked whether knowing everything they now know about Germany between 1933 and the late 1960s, would they have joined the Nazi party in 1933? Most said no. I then asked them to put aside moral considerations and do a simple cost-benefit calculation based only on pragmatic considerations. The students were split down the middle. I wonder how many citizens of West Germany would honestly admit that knowledge of the future Marshall Plan would have influenced their decision whether to vote for Hitler in 1933.

The Marshall Plan is merely a powerful example of the larger philosophical question debated by Kant, Bentham and their followers: how much weight to accord the moral imperatives of punishing past criminality and how much to accord the pragmatic claims of the future. These issues were front and centre following the Rwandan genocide and South African apartheid. They are part of an even broader debate between the absolute moral imperatives of the Kantian schools that include Jesuit and other religious thinkers on the one hand, and the alleged moral relativism of the pragmatic utilitarian schools of Bentham, Mill and Dewey, on the other. This debate is most consequential when it involves issues of life and death, as it surely does in the context of the Holocaust and “never again”.

February 09, 2023 12:34

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