The Price of Reconciliation: West Germany, France and the Arc of Postwar Justice for the Crimes of Nazi Germany, 1944-1963

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My dissertation links the arc of war crimes justice with the arc of reconciliation in Franco-German relations from 1944 to 1963. I argue that France initially created a retributive justice which aggressively targeted crimes committed by the German occupant from 1940 to 1944. By examining the internal debates within the French government and parliament regarding the legal foundation of Nazi war crimes trials in France, I show that the French polity dispensed with and even violated the French republican tradition in its effort to reckon with the Nazi past. In the second part, I demonstrate that the process of European integration and Franco-German reconciliation offered those in West Germany who resented the retributive justice in France the opportunity to influence, even manipulate the French government by initiating and sustaining a trajectory which bound reconciliation ever more tightly to the retreat from the goals of postwar justice.

I contend that once French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman initiated the path towards reconciliation with Adenauer’s West Germany, a broad coalition centrally coordinated from Bonn utilized the desire for rapprochement to undermine French war crimes justice. By attacking French justice as a sign of its unforgiveness and its resolve to continue with the so-called “arch-enmity,” the West German diplomats and government officials argued that the war crimes trials were regarded as a symbol of a period of humiliation and injustice which needed to be eradicated in order to achieve a “veritable reconciliation.”

I show how the reconciliation narrative shaped the transition from a French system of justice which was one of the most extensive and consequential ones in Western Europe in the late 1940s to the complete and premature release of all remaining war criminals in French custody. The West German view prevailed and imprinted on the landmark achievement of Franco-German reconciliation the stain of privileging the perpetrators over the victims of Nazi Germany in France.