What Turned Germans Into Nazis?

Andrew Stuttaford writes for the WSJ:

Mr. Fritzsche examines how, during the party’s years in opposition, the Nazis were able to broaden their support away from the original ideological core to voters who, for example, just thought that “something” had to be done to sort out a deeply unsettled country. And Mr. Fritzsche looks particularly closely at those who swung behind the party in early 1933 (an approach he also took in his 1998 book “Germans Into Nazis”).

What the author stresses is that, contrary to what is so often assumed, many Germans were seduced not by despair but by optimism. Mr. Fritzsche sets out the ways that the Nazis produced the impression that the party was creating a Volksgemeinschaft—a people’s community—through such methods as transforming the Left’s traditional celebration of the first of May into “The Day of National Labor,” a festival of national unity rather than class struggle. This appealed to a very human need to feel a sense of belonging, an inclusivity that was reinforced by exclusion: The people’s community was defined by a notion of nation as well as race. Germany’s Jews were not only ineligible to join the Volksgemeinschaft but were supposedly a threat to it. The myth of the enemy within impressed too many and bothered too few.

Mr. Fritzsche covers a longer period of time than his book’s title implies, but in the scholarly—and more comprehensive—“Hitler’s True Believers,” Robert Gellately, a distinguished historian of 20th-century totalitarianism, travels the whole length of the National Socialist arc—from grubby origins to miserable conclusion—in his attempt to explain how “ordinary people became Nazis.” Mr. Gellately differs from many in the weight he places on the appeal of the “socialist” element in an ideology that, almost from its earliest days, had combined nationalism and anti-Semitism with a distrust of capitalism. Crucially, however, this distrust did not entail the hostility to private property or the nationalizations that were central to the thinking of Hitler’s fellow totalitarians in the U.S.S.R. Quite what the Nazis meant by socialism was conveniently opaque, but it could clearly be differentiated from Soviet and other varieties.

In an intriguing passage, Mr. Gellately argues that the movement’s early followers were not “converted” by Hitler. Rather, his party was a vehicle for crystallizing what they, in large part, already thought. In many respects this anticipated the way that less politically conscious Germans would eventually succumb to Hitler. “He became a kind of representative figure for ideas, emotions, and aims that he shared with . . . millions of others, who were on the same wavelength,” Mr. Gellately writes, an incarnation made more credible by the vagueness of the Nazi platform. There were few specific policies, making it easier to tell different audiences what they wanted to hear…

That a “German” socialism could be fitted within the notion of the Volksgemeinschaft did the Nazis no harm, helping them first win power and then tighten their grip. The Nazis boasted, not inaccurately, of having “harnessed” capitalism. They made a show of breaking down class barriers and developed recreational, cultural, charitable and social programs for all—an approach that came, as Mr. Fritzsche points out, with the added advantage of squeezing out an older civil society. And so the Nazis secured the acquiescence and even the approval of some of their former opponents on the left. Economic recovery also helped.

It was probably the memory of that Volksgemeinschaft, however much it rested on illusion, that explains one of the most remarkable facts in Mr. Gellately’s book: When Germans in the country’s west and in West Berlin—a people still living amid the ruins of the Reich—were asked in 1948 whether National Socialism was a good idea, but poorly implemented, 57% of those polled replied “yes.”

National Socialism repels most Westerners today but the combination of nationalism and socialism is probably a winning electoral formula.

According to Wikipedia: “In the book Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933–1945, Gellately argues that the Gestapo were not in fact all-pervasive and intrusive as they have been described. The Gestapo only numbered 32,000 for the entire population of Germany, and this clearly limited their impact. In the city of Hanover there were only 42 officers. Instead, Gellately says that the atmosphere of terror and fear was maintained by ‘denunciations’ from ordinary Germans, whereby they would inform any suspicious ‘anti-Nazi’ activity to the local Nazi authority. According to Gellately, these denunciations were the cause of most prosecutions, as in Saarbrücken 87.5 per cent of cases of ‘slander against the regime’ came from denunciations. This diminished the Gestapo’s role in maintaining fear and terror throughout the Third Reich, however they still proved to be a powerful instrument for Hitler and continued to provide the security apparatus needed for the Nazi Regime.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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