"Antisemitism is a barometer of democracy": confronting the Nazi past in the west German 'swastika epidemic', 1959-1960

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University of New Brunswick


The vandalism of a synagogue in Cologne, West Germany on Christmas Day 1959 by two men in their mid-twenties sparked a wave of Antisemitic and Nazi vandalism across West Germany and the Western world. The “swastika epidemic,” as it came to be known, ignited serious debates surrounding public memory of the Second World War in Germany, and the extent to which West Germany had dealt with its Nazi past. The swastika epidemic became a powerful example of what critics at the time argued was the failure of West Germany to properly confront its Nazi past through the reconstruction policies of Konrad Adenauer. This thesis examines the reactions of West Germany’s government, led by Konrad Adenauer, to the swastika epidemic and its place in the shifting narratives of memory in the postwar era. Adenauer’s reactions to the epidemic were steeped in the status quo memory narratives of the preceding decade which would be increasingly challenged throughout the 1960s.