Nazis at the Watercooler


Nazis at the Watercooler

War Criminals in Postwar German Government Agencies

Terrence C. Petty

304 pages
6 photographs, 9 illustrations, index


November 2024


$34.95 Pre-order

About the Book

After World War II, when a new German democracy was born in the western region of the vanquished Third Reich, tens of thousands of civil servants were hired to work for newly formed government agencies to get the new republic quickly on its feet. But there was an enormous flaw in the plan: no serious vetting system was put in place to keep war criminals out of government positions.

Ex-Nazis—people who had been involved in mass murder, drafting antisemitic laws, and the persecution of Hitler’s opponents, as well as other depravities—resumed their careers without consequence in the newly created Federal Republic of Germany. Former Nazis who had established an early foothold in postwar government agencies helped each other get government work by writing letters of recommendation called Persilscheine. These “Persil Certificates,” named after a popular detergent, made an ex-Nazi’s recorded past just as clean as fresh laundry, and a whole generation of German government officials with Nazi pasts was never brought to account.

Ex-Nazis were given preference for government jobs even over victims of Nazi policies and anti-Hitler resisters. They swapped Nazi uniforms for suits, Hitler salutes for handshakes. And with help from the highest levels of West German government and even the CIA, they swept their crimes under the carpet and resurrected their careers. Nazis at the Watercooler illuminates the network of ex–Third Reich loyalists and the U.S. government’s complicity that enabled this mass impunity.

Author Bio

Terrence C. Petty is a writer and retired journalist. He worked for the Associated Press for thirty-five years. Based in Bonn, Germany, from 1987 to 1997, he covered German and European affairs, the pro-democracy movement that toppled the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, neo-Nazi violence, and the fiftieth-anniversary ceremonies at Dachau, Buchenwald, and other former concentration camps. From 1999 to 2017 he managed the AP’s news operation in Oregon. He is the author of Enemy of the People: The Munich Post and the Journalists Who Opposed Hitler.


“A vivid, engaging, and well-researched exposé of the pervasive presence of former Nazis in the postwar administration of West Germany, especially its police and intelligence branches. Petty shows that the implicit conspiracy that implicated much of German society in Nazi crimes had a very long tail.”—Peter Hayes, professor emeritus of history and Holocaust studies, Northwestern University

Nazis at the Watercooler is a book long overdue to shed some light on how Third Reich killers and their accomplices blended into the emerging postwar society of (West) Germany. It’s a well-seasoned mix of personal histories and historical facts. . . . Petty’s flowing narrative style makes intricate facts easy to comprehend and guides [the reader] through a maze of bureaucratic and legal interactions between German and American operatives.”—Peter M. Gehrig, retired chief editor of the German Service of the Associated Press

“In the decades after 1945, many former Nazis worked for West German government ministries and agencies, including the diplomatic corps, the police, and the intelligence service. Drawing on recent investigations, Terrence Petty has written a highly readable account of how that regrettable situation came to be. This book helps readers understand the ethical compromises that German society deemed acceptable as it attempted to move into a post-Nazi future in an environment shaped by the politics of the Cold War.”—Alan E. Steinweis, Raul Hilberg Distinguished Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont

“Former Associated Press foreign correspondent Terrence Petty developed a keen understanding of the Nazi era and its impact on contemporary Germany, becoming a kind of William Shirer of his generation during many years of tenacious and dogged reporting there. In this book, written with anger but also love, he has pieced together a disturbing chronicle of Germany’s postwar security apparatus, which was seeded with, and at times led by, Nazis guilty of the most appalling wartime actions.”—Arthur Allen, senior correspondent of KFF Health News

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Part 1. American Culpability
1. Beginnings
2. The Chameleon
3. Gold Watch for a War Criminal
4. Fickle Friends
5. Secret Agent 9610
6. A Talk on the Terrace
Part 2. Second Guilt
7. Toppling the Wall of Silence
8. The Reckoning
9. Elusive Perpetrators
10. Killers Welcome
11. The Rosenburg File
12. A Burial in Chile
13. A Tainted Democracy?
14. Redemption
15. Squandered Opportunities

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