Moving beyond the sphere of family and community, the reconstitution of society in postwar Germany also involved larger efforts to come to terms with the Nazi past. That these efforts differed greatly in East and West is attributable in no small measure to the Cold War. As a socialist state, East Germany regarded itself as inherently antifascist. As such – at least according to East German leaders – it could not be viewed as the successor state to Hitler’s German Reich. This title was eagerly ceded to West Germany. There, leaders took a different approach to coming to terms with the past and involved their state in efforts to “make good” [Wiedergutmachung]. For example, in the 1950s, West Germany agreed to pay reparations to Israel and also passed the “Federal Law for the Compensation of the Victims of National Socialist Persecution” [Bundesentschädigungsgesetz or BEG] on June 29, 1956. The law provided for restitution payments to residents of West Germany who had been victimized by the National Socialists on the grounds of race or political conviction. The implementation of these measures, however, was regularly hindered by bureaucratic inertia. Moreover, they failed to cover a whole range of people who had been persecuted or mistreated during the Third Reich, including foreign slave laborers, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and “asocials.”
In East Germany, collectivization and nationalization policies that claimed to root out National Socialism and achieve social justice were pursued first by Soviet occupiers and then by East German leaders. For its part, West Germany embarked on a controversial, decades-long policy of “equalizing burdens” [Lastenausgleich], aiming to create greater balance between those Germans who had retained their assets and those who had lost property as a result of the war, including expellees. Payments into the fund amounted to a long-term tax on these assets, and although these payments were initially perceived as burdensome, they were designed not to touch the principal. As critics pointed out, former Nazis could be among those to profit from the payments the government made to claimants who had lost property during the war.
In examining their society, contemporary West German sociologists such as Helmut Schelsky perceived a leveling of class differences, which was supposedly attributable to both wartime dislocation and postwar prosperity. Such assessments may seem overdrawn, particularly since considerable disparities in wealth and education levels continued to exist. Still, class definitions did indeed change in postwar Germany. For example, it became increasingly common for male workers to earn a “family wage” (i.e., one that allowed them to support a wife and children). With its Godesberg Program of 1959, the Social Democratic Party of Germany – the party most closely aligned with the trade unionists who had fought for the family wage in the early decades of the century – abandoned any notion of socializing of industry and accepted capitalism as the basic framework of the economy. As workers were allowed greater participation in consumer society, workers’ organizations became less important to them. Additionally, employment patterns began to shift away from blue-collar work and agriculture towards the service sector and government jobs. While many members of the bourgeoisie remained highly pessimistic about “mass society” and “mass culture,” business leaders followed the example of their American counterparts and became more accepting of competition as well as mass production and consumption.