HOW should societies moving away from dictatorship deal with the supporters of the previous regime who engaged in criminal behavior? Should accountability be emphasized, with the guilty punished and the new system purged of supporters of the old? Or is it more expedient to forgive, bury the past and move on?
As Norbert Frei, a respected member of Germany's younger generation of historians, makes abundantly clear in ''Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past,'' post-World War II Germany followed the second path. Frei's study, published in Germany in 1996 (this overly literal translation unfortunately fails to do justice to the original), draws upon an impressive array of archives and personal papers to document the political steps by which postwar West Germany ''pardoned . . . itself'' at the cost of ''living memory.''
The climate of historical amnesia Frei describes does not, to be sure, reflect the image many people now have of Germany, nor was it the original aim of the victorious Allies. In the early postwar years, the Americans in particular instituted a program of trials, purges and re-education that would, it was hoped, transform Germans into democrats. Top Nazi political and military leaders were tried by the Allies for war crimes. Former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, including teachers, judges and bureaucrats as well as soldiers and secret police officers, faced denazification proceedings in which, depending on their implication in Nazi crimes, they had their property confiscated, were dismissed from their posts or were fined or imprisoned.
But this program encountered resistance almost from the beginning. Digging themselves out of the ruins, most Germans disclaimed any personal responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis, if they acknowledged them at all. Indeed, they viewed themselves as victims and their treatment by the Allies as unjust. As Frei notes, ''the overwhelming majority of West Germans were clearly in favor of . . . forgetting everything having to do with Nazism.''
Frei begins with the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, when Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's new government almost immediately set about dismantling the Allied program for dealing with the past. It quickly adopted amnesty laws that absolved even many of those guilty of serious Nazi-era crimes, and a restitution law that mandated reintegrating hundreds of thousands of former Nazi sympathizers dismissed by the Allies -- including members of the Gestapo and Waffen SS -- into their old positions throughout the government and professions.
The government also took up the cause of war criminals held by the Allies. Wehrmacht officers, indignant at being ''dishonored,'' refused to support rearmament and integration into the Western alliance as long as soldiers remained in Allied prisons, and they enjoyed the overwhelming backing of the Protestant and Catholic churches, lawyers and much of the population. The Western alliance, eager to court Germany as the cold war developed, reluctantly gave in to their demands. By 1958, except for a handful of the original Nuremberg defendants, most war criminals had been pardoned and freed.
Frei delineates the considerations behind these policies from the perspective of the government and the political parties. Excluding hundreds of thousands of former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers would have deprived the new state of necessary skills and produced potentially dangerous levels of discontent. Offering people the chance to wipe out the past and start anew was a way of gaining their allegiance to the new system. International realities also motivated Adenauer; he faced public resistance to the treaties with the Western allies at a time when the Soviets still held out hope of reunification in exchange for German neutrality.
But Frei also makes it quite clear that more was at work here than the exigencies of realpolitik. The amnesty and reintegration programs went well beyond what would have been necessary to co-opt the far right. Politicians and church leaders went out of their way to intercede for people convicted of atrocities; the government paid for their legal defense. In their very unwillingness to allocate individual responsibility for Nazi crimes, Frei suggests, Germans were in fact indirectly acknowledging their ''entire society's entanglement in the Nazi enterprise.'' In absolving others of complicity, they also absolved themselves.
Nevertheless, West Germany succeeded in integrating disaffected supporters of the former regime, enjoyed phenomenal economic success, became a stable democracy and a reliable member of the Western alliance; and Germany today is one of the most introspective of nations, almost obsessively preoccupied with its past. Frei's narrative leads one to ask whether Adenauer's policies were perhaps a good thing for Germany after all, and worth emulating by other countries in similar situations: to forget for a time, freeing the population to concentrate on the needs of the moment and creating the stability in which unsettling questions about guilt and responsibility can later be considered without shaking the country's foundations.
Yet silence and denial are not without consequences. They cause particular suffering to the victims, who in Germany were once again subject to the authority of their former tormentors as police officers, doctors, judges and bureaucrats. For the country as a whole, permitting former Nazi sympathizers to return seamlessly to responsible positions tainted German society with the authoritarian, racist characteristics of the Nazi worldview; it also set the scene for the wrenching, sometimes violent, confrontation between the generations that would begin in the 1960's. Frei himself calls the postwar exculpations ''a policy for the past whose failings would stamp the new state's spirit over many decades.''
It remains an open question whether delaying the confrontation with history was the best approach for German society, let alone a model for other societies undergoing similar processes. Although it does not pretend to answer this question, Norbert Frei's detailed and objective account powerfully illuminates an important chapter of German history.
Belinda Cooper, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, recently completed a semester at the American Academy in Berlin.