Nazism and German Society was required reading for a course that I recently audited at the University of Florida: ‘Germany in the Twentieth Century,’ taught by Professor Michael Schuering. The book’s editor, David Crew, has included articles and book chapters that illuminate key historical debates about the nature of National Socialist Germany and written introductions to each. Published two decades ago, the book, nevertheless, raises issues of continuing interest.
Why did Germans respond so favorably to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSGWP)? It is often argued that the initial support for the Nazi Party was petit bourgeoisie: shopkeepers, artisans, prosperous farmers, and professionals. By 1939, however, Adolf Hitler had won over much of the working class. He had brought full employment with his program of rearmament. The Nazi party was given credit for better working conditions in German industry. It promised better things to come, consumer goods and the “Volkswagen.”
On the other hand Hitler also promised to factory owners, industrial peace. They were given greater control over the industrial floor and hence opportunity to “rationalize” production. The factory would be a place where the working man performed “national labor,” did his part for the greater good of the work force and the larger German Volksgemeinschaft or people’s community. German workers could experience the honor of quality work but within the existing capitalist economy and well short of socialism. During the war they would also enjoy a defacto position of privilege over foreign workers. (See Alf Lüdtke)
Foreign workers had long been important to the German economy. They became essential as Germans were drafted into the expanding Wehrmacht. Hitler’s aggressive dismantling of the “dictat”, the Treaty of Versailles which followed World War I, was broadly popular. To purse his objectives in the East, he would need an army and that made necessary the greater use of foreign workers. Had it not been for foreign workers, the Nazi war machine might have collapsed in 1943.
German science had participated in the remarkable effort to eradicate human diseases. Could there be an analogous triumph over the ills afflicting human society as a whole? The science of eugenics promised some insights into how that might occur. The positive process would involve institutions that selected for the “fittest.” But that process would take generations before beginning to make a difference.
The negative process was more easily implemented. At first that involved the separation and confinement of populations that were not considered “worthy of life,” with limited resources devoted to their care. By the late 1930s, those measures had morphed into euthanasia, racial hygiene: the destruction of those deemed unworthy of life. Early targeted were feeble-minded and handicapped children and the mentally ill. Then social undesirables: vagrants and the homeless, homosexuals. Then racial inferiors: blacks, gypsies, and Jews. There were forced abortions and sterilizations. Children who looked sufficiently Aryan were taken from their non-German mothers and placed in Aryan households. (See Detlav Peukert)
There was considerable bureaucratic infighting in National Socialist Germany. This is no better illustrated than the case of the Gestapo or secret police. Various Nazi bigwigs fought over the control of its operations. The Gestapo never was the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent organization that it claimed for itself and many historians of the period have claimed for it. Woefully short of staff, it had to rely on the German public to ferret out the disloyal and disobedient. Its ‘eyes’ were the many individuals who denounced their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Their acknowledged motive – patriotism – but more commonly greed, hate, and prejudice. (See Klaus-Michael Mallmann & Gerhard Paul)
The Gestapo found municipal police forces cooperative. Recent historians have pointed out that these regular police did much of the killing, particularly of Jews and Poles, in the last years of the war. A bullet in the head was more efficient than transporting to concentration camps. “One Day in Jozefow; Initiation to Mass Murder” is a specific case of a brutal killing of 1500 Jews, mostly women, children, and old people by policemen from Hamburg. (See Christopher Browning)
Finally the “Hitler Myth.” (See Ian Kershaw) There was much grumbling, but seldom did the German public voice any open opposition to Nazi rule. And Adolf Hitler’s aura of invincibility was not something that Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda machine did for him. Hitler ‘had a good track record’ with the German public. He seemed moderate in comparison with groups that had helped him gain political power. For example, storm troopers – members of the SA – and their leader, Ernst Röhm. Röhm continued to complain about an “unfulfilled socialist revolution.” The German public was impatient with the storm troopers’ continuing street violence. Military officialdom feared and despised them. Thus there was tacit support for the violence of the ‘Night of Long Knives’ in July 1934 when the Nazis executed the SA’s leadership, including Röhm. Hitler had acted in Germany’s best interest, protecting them against extremism.
Whether one believes Hitler to have been a charismatic leader or not, his ubiquitous presence was reassuring. Particularly that was true after the German defeat before Stalingrad and the Allied bombing of German cities had begun. But charismatic?