Hitler’s True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis

Here are some highlights from this 2020 book by professor Robert Gellately:

* Hitler said of the NSDAP in the 1920s that “90 ninety percent of it was made up by left-wing people.” He also thought it was “decisive” that he had recognized early in his career that solving the social question was essential, and he insisted that he hated the closed world in which he grew up, where social origins determined a person’s chances in life.

A sense of the persistent appeals of both nationalism and socialism after 1918 was that many of the new or renamed political parties in the Weimar Republic, including the German Catholic Center Party, either possessed or adopted some form of socialist, nationalist, or racialist signifier in their new or modified names. Even the stodgy old conservatives had to change themselves into the cumbersome German National People’s Party (DNVP). 3 The political Left in 1918 and 1919 soon fractured into the moderate Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and a breakaway from it in the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). It is worth noting the obvious, that both felt they still needed “Germany” in their titles, if only as a continuing nod to nationalism. The (renamed) liberals and conservatives went their own way.

That Germany on the eve of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January 1933 continued to have a socialist-oriented political culture can be illustrated by pointing to the last free elections of the Weimar Republic the previous November. No less than 71.6 percent of the vote went to parties with “socialist” or “communist” in their titles. It is true that these parties were bitter enemies, though they still shared widespread socialist attitudes and expectations. On top of that, a hypothetical survey of German public opinion at the same time likely would have shown that the overwhelming majority—cutting across all party lines—would have resolutely rejected thehumiliating Versailles Treaty of 1919 that blamed Germany for the Great War, forced it to pay reparations, limited its armed forces, and reduced its territory. No genius leader was needed to figure out that combining nationalism, socialism, and a hefty dose of militarism might produce a socially dynamic movement that could mobilize the entire nation.

When Hitler returned to Munich in late 1918 it would have been impossible for him to overlook the antisemitism that was endemic in the city and much of the country, as it had been since well before the Great War. To some extent, he must have been steeped in an atmosphere hostile to Jews during his prewar years in Vienna. However, there is no reliable evidence that he had given expression to any race hatred before 1919, and in fact he had gotten along quite well with the Jews in his immediate environment. He remembered that, when his mother was suffering a lingering, painful death, Dr. Eduard Bloch, a Jew, did his best to help, and decades later Hitler saw to it that the doctor obtained safe passage out of the country. 4 It was all the more appalling that from 1919 Hitler made radical and “rational” (as opposed to merely emotional) antisemitism a foundational part of his political “philosophy.”

Unsurprisingly, therefore, during his search for a political credo after 1918 he latched on to conspiracy theories that circulated in great abundance, by which he could explain the complexities of his world, as well as the lost war, the “disgraceful” Versailles Treaty, and the Red revolutions across the land. According to such beliefs, the nation’s setbacks in foreign policy, and the discord in social life, all became explicable as the result of visible and omnipotent international wire pullers. Such conspiracy theories were so prominent at the time of the Nazi Party’s creation that it was unnecessary for Hitler to convince the first cohorts of true believers of “his” ideas, which were anything but unique, original, or restricted to Nazism.

In due course, Hitler worked out a more complete political doctrine, cobbled together from nationalism, socialism, and antisemitism. Between 1920 and 1945, he outlined often how this theory would be used to revolutionize German society. In a September 1933 speech, for example, he observed that the Nazi Party had already secured “an absolute takeover of political power.”

Merely to regard such a victory as the achievement of their goal, however, would be a grave mistake, he boasted proudly, because National Socialism was far more than a conventional political belief; it was a Weltanschauung or worldview. Getting power, therefore, was “simply the prerequisite to begin the quest for the real mission,” one that necessarily would entail a “transformation in almost all aspects of völkisch [racial] life.” There would be “ideological rejuvenation and the attendant racial cleansing,” as well as sweeping spiritual-mental and cultural change, by which Germany would prove to the world its authority to lead and to dominate. 5 The “racial cleansing,” we should note, pertained to finding a solution to the Jewish question, as well as getting Germany’s eugenic house in order through a thoroughgoing sterilization program.

National Socialism sought more than to mobilize the politically homeless, because it aimed for the broadest possible constituency, and to do so by offering the “big Idea” to all “racially fit” Germans. To the true believers, this doctrine explained all that was wrong in their world and how to put it right. There would be a new order, a harmonious “community of the people,” or Volksgemeinschaft, as an alternative to their politically riven and class-torn society. Together they would strive to overcome the defeat in the war and its attendant demoralization by cleaning up society, rejuvenating the militarist spirit, and restoring hope. This quest for renewal and redemption would rekindle German values into an “Aufbruchsstimmung,” a sense of euphoric “awakening,” that would sweep through the country and inevitably spill over the borders into vast stretches of Europe. 6 Needless to say, there remained millions of people for whom everything about Nazism was unattractive, and as though he were admitting precisely that, Hitler said that it would take generations to create the kind of social world he desired. Although the true believers even disagreed vehemently among themselves on vital issues, and did not necessarily accept every aspect of National Socialist doctrine, such as how far and fast to push the socialist planks inthe Nazi Party platform, each in their way committed exuberantly to the faith.

Right after Hitler’s appointment, the dictatorship familiarized the nation of just over 65 million with its agenda, by attacking political opponents and using public violence against “race enemies” such as the Jews. 7 Indeed, broadly defined race thinking became part of the dominant ideology and rapidly made its way into everyday life, such as through the innocuous-sounding law on the “restoration” of the civil service in April 1933. Although primarily aimed at Jews and political enemies, this law required all civil servants to fill out ancestral questionnaires and to prove their Aryan ancestry. 8 The implications of this measure were vast precisely because of the size and scope of the bloated German bureaucracy, which included state employees from professors and teachers to railway employees, to those working for various authorities in Berlin, as well as in regional, local, and municipal government. In May 1939 this corps of civil servants grew to 4.7 million strong, so that forcing them to confront questions about racial ancestry immediately brought prejudicial ideas to their families, friends, and neighborhoods. 9

Here was a reminder about the existential implications of National Socialism as the state’s ruling code. A similar racial “awakening” was in store for the millions more who joined the military, as they also had to show that their family tree had no Jewish branches. It went without saying that the SS needed to provide still more detailed proof. Even schoolchildren wishing to join the Hitler Youth were asked whether or not their parents and grandparents were Aryans, as were newlyweds hoping to take advantage of marriage loan schemes. A freshly ordained Reich Genealogical Authority gave its stamp of approval for the official-looking Ancestry Passes (Ahnenpässe), which sold in the tens of millions as race consciousness pervaded social life from cradle to grave. Little wonder that genealogical research became a thriving cottage industry. 10 With remarkable suddenness National Socialism came to influence social, cultural, and political life in Germany from top to bottom, including the style of both the monumental buildings, as well as the social and racial concerns embodied in new “green” settlements that soon dotted the rural
landscape. By no means were all these ideas derived from Hitler, for they reflected certain trends in Germany that existed already before 1933. Nor were people simply manipulated from “above,” and passive recipients of the messages from headquarters; they also could leverage the new teachings to attain their own ends or to settle scores with others, to capitalize on stigmatized enemies, especially the Jews, or to express their fanaticism and hatred.

* The first serious German study of National Socialism as a political doctrine appeared in 1964, when Ernst Nolte, at the time a respected intellectual historian, challenged the established narrative, which held that Hitler’s ideology, if not meaningless, merely performed the function of helping to mobilize the masses and to exercise power. Nolte focused on the historic roots of the ideas in a widely acclaimed book, which provided a comparative history of European fascist movements. Little can be gleaned from his book as to who made up the legions of true believers.

He brushed aside much of the “Nordic [aka Aryan] nonsense”—as if this had not been taken seriously by many millions—to suggest instead the alluringly simple thesis that the essence of the ideology was contained in the first four points of the Party’s 1920 program. These demanded self determination for all Germans, rejection of the Versailles Treaty (1919), “land and soil” (colonies) for settlement of excess population, and restriction of civil rights to those of German blood. For Nolte, as for numerous other writers, the doctrine changed little after 1924, that is, after Hitler wrote some of the first part of Mein Kampf. The basic trends of subsequent National Socialist rule, Nolte opined somewhat airily, were “national restitution, conquest of living space, and world salvation.” In fact, he said relatively little about Hitler in power, and gave a low profile to important components of Nazism, such as claiming that there was no need to discuss the socialist-sounding aspects of the program, which Hitler supposedly had included for “purely demagogic” reasons, that is, to gain power. 17 In this book, I revisit these contentions and reach quite different conclusions. 18

Nolte was not alone in dismissing the “socialism” of National Socialism, which others have characterized as either “fake” or the enemy of the socialist idea. 19 German writers commonly identify “genuine socialism” with the established left-wing parties of those times and today. Yet it is worth recalling that socialism came in infinite varieties that stretched back into the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, numerous parties around the globe declared that they were the “real” socialists, and they damned all the others.

One contemporary Austrian writer who was quite insistent about what he called “Nazi socialism” was the controversial liberal economist F. A. Hayek. As an émigré in London during the 1920s, he saw National Socialism as part of a broader collectivist movement in many parts of Europe, including in his adopted British home. His 1944 book The Road to Serfdom looked only briefly and selectively at the intellectual roots of National Socialism and said little about either its rise to power from 1920 or its manifestation in the Third Reich. Hayek used the charge of “socialism” as a kind of libertarian indictment against Nazism, and by extension all forms of government economic control.

* Analyzing Hitler soberly and critically, it is more reasonable to suggest that he became a kind of representative figure for ideas, emotions, and aims that he shared with thousands of true believers, and eventually millions of others who were on the same wavelength. Even so, many who became important leaders, and those in the ranks, were committed to National Socialism or variations of it long before laying eyes on that man or reading his work. They projected onto him the properties of the necessary leader, a commanding figure with a military style at the head of a uniformed corps with which they would rally the masses, storm the barricades, and take power. He performed the essential task of bringing them together and providing a focal point for their energies. He became the Nazi Party’s main attraction in the early 1920s, and made it stand out from its competitors.

What remains stunning and in need of exploration was how and why millions of people, never all of them, in such an educated and cultured nation eventually came to accept or accommodate themselves to the tenets of an extremist doctrine laced with hatred, and laden with such obvious murderous implications.

* The first thirty years of Adolf Hitler’s life gave not the slightest hint of any leadership qualities, inclination to politics as a career, or abilities as a public speaker.

* Later in life Hitler recalled studying racial theory (Rassenkunde), as well as in the area of the military, without mentioning any authors. 10 He came to possess many volumes, including numerous ones inscribed to him by their authors, though exactly which he took to heart remains uncertain. Thus, caution is advised in deducing how the 1,200 or so books that happened to survive from Hitler’s private library might have shaped his life. 11 Tracing intellectual influences behind anyone’s later behavior is notoriously difficult. He admitted to reading Chamberlain at some point, a book that was laced with long anti-Jewish sections. It adopted an anti-Darwinian tone, though Chamberlain used phrases of the moment, such as struggle for existence and racial
struggle.

* Adolf: “To be social means to construct the state and community of the people in such a way that each individual deed is in the interest of the community of the people.”

* When Hitler’s big trial began on February 26, 1924, he took full advantage of the sympathetic judges. In the course of days of long testimony, he constructed a narrative of how and why he had gotten involved with the DAP because it recognized that Germany’s future had to mean the “extermination of Marxism. Either this racial poison spreads, this mass tuberculosis in our people, and Germany dies on its sick lung, or it is cut out, then Germany can thrive again, but not before.” The court blithely tolerated his merging of Marxism, racism, and the Jews. In a short essay Hitler claimed again that “The international Jews, the racial tuberculous of nations, with the help of Marxist teachings slowly but surely destroys the cornerstone of our people, its race and culture.” He also asserted that he was the Führer (leader) of the Nazi movement and no longer merely the drummer out to win support. He would have the public believe that there could be no compromises, no coalitions, no middle way, because there could be no peace with the Marxist worldview, and failure to understand that had led to the catastrophe of the revolution in 1918. 94

Although on April 1, 1924, the court sentenced him to five years, during the trial he managed to project himself to the country as a popular political figure. 95 The authorities released him on December 20, having served less than a year, even when there was no doubt that Hitler would take up the fight again “to awaken the national movement and unite it organizationally.” 96
The obvious follow-up to the failed revolt and sensational court appearance would be a book he could write in the Landsberg am Lech prison. The book’s advertised title in June 1924 was the awkward 41⁄2 Years Struggle against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice. A Settling of Accounts. 97 His delicate legal position, however, advised toning that down, and in May 1925 he and the publisher agreed to change it to Mein Kampf (My Struggle).

* An examination of the parts of the book that pertain to his political doctrine shows that instead of focusing on the three fixed points that he had often mentioned, namely, nationalism, socialism, and antisemitism, as well as the underlying racial-biological struggle for existence, his remarks on these topics are scattered throughout. The first volume dealt mainly with his biography and how he became involved in politics. Apart from showing him as “fated” to be the nation’s leader, he underlined how the loss in the Great War could be traced to “inner decay.” To overcome it the country needed a wide-ranging eugenic program, including sterilizing the incurables, fighting venereal disease, and so on. The deepest cause—a point he mentioned more than once—was the
failure to recognize the racial problem, namely the “menace of the Jews.”

* He did not mention Darwin or his leading German champion, Ernst Haeckel, in the book. Nevertheless, like others focused on race questions, Hitler accepted that there was a hierarchy among races, as well as that nature’s laws and eternal struggle also applied to human society, and for him it was axiomatic that if a higher race fused with a lower, the result would inevitably be regression or degeneration. Hence his imperative was to demand “racial purity.” His combative language and sense of endless race struggles gave the impression he was a social Darwinist, though some historians reject that conclusion. 109 He appears to have drawn from a wide assortment of thinkers and popularizers as a self-styled autodidact out to revolutionize his world.

When he wrote about the future options open to Germany given its limited space and growing population, he dismissed birth control, internal colonization, or increasing trade. His reason for doing so was that ultimately these options would weaken or diminish the race, as would the overseas emigration of Germans. The way out was to acquire more soil, which would mean a veritable fight for existence at some point. Germany, he wrote, had recognized before 1914 that the land it needed was in the east and had failed to get it, and he conveyed the strong impression of wanting to make good on that mistake. It was obvious to his way of thinking that in the future Germany would have to be aggressive and expansive, or die.

* In one of the rare occasions that he praised a racial theorist, he mentioned briefly in a June 1925 speech that he hoped eventually to get experts, like Hans F. K. Günther, as professors of racial hygiene at the universities. 111 Günther was a trained linguist and self-styled social anthropologist, well known in völkisch circles for his far-reaching claims. He synthesized the classical racist canon based on such factors as skull and face shapes, skeletal features, the role of heredity, and additional historical data.

* In a similar vein, Georg Schott, one of his sympathetic early biographers, quoted from their personal conversation in 1924 as saying that the physical annihilation of the Jews was on Hitler’s agenda. Schott himself thought some readers might conclude from his “revelations” that the Jews had so much power that it would be useless to try reversing it. Hitler, however, reassuringly said, “We want to do it and we will do it.” Schott intimated that killing a few thousand Jews would not really “solve the question,” and he recalled Hitler as saying that if one day they faced the question of “cleansing” the Volk, “ ‘we’ll have the heart for it,’ ruthlessly strike and take matters to their logical conclusion.” 131 Moreover, on several other occasions in the early 1920s, Hitler confessed privately his all-consuming antisemitism, and that as soon as he would get into power, his “first
and most important task would be the extermination of the Jews.”

* In the summer of 1928 Hitler took time off after a disappointing election to work on what would have become a follow-up to Mein Kampf, this time devoting far more attention to foreign policy. He abandoned the project for reasons unknown, and only after 1945 did historian Gerhard L. Weinberg discover the manuscript and publish it as Hitler’s Second Book. 136 It is filled with far more social Darwinian language than his first book, and he deliberately uses the phrase “struggle for survival” in many senses, including how the German state had to find enough Lebensraum (living space) to obtain the food for its growing population. The territory would be in the Soviet Union, and for that reason he would not hear of alliances with a country allegedly controlled by “Jewish-capitalist Bolsheviks.” Behind such terms lurked in his way of thinking the equally far fetched and ever-present international conspiracy of capitalism and communism. He detected these machinations in England, and though he wanted to reach an agreement with this “natural ally,” he worried about how “World Jewry” also exerted “controlling influences” there. 137 At the Nuremberg party rally in August 1927, likely before Hitler finished that second book, he said the nation was not producing enough brilliant minds, so it was unable to win the competitive struggles in the world. 138 That November, speaking to the National Socialist University Students’ Association (NSDStB), he concluded that the fault could be traced to the three “vices”: democracy, pacifism, and internationalism, all linked to the teachings of Marxism. We see there, he asserted, “the international Jews at work, making the nations completely faceless, enervating them and slowly bringing them to collapse.”

* For all his blustering bravado, Hitler’s early career shows evidence of several fundamental intellectual weaknesses, beginning with his penchant for conspiracy thinking, by which he could link the same shadowy figures behind what appeared to the uninitiated to be opposing forces, such as capitalism and communism. A related problem was his reliance on either/or propositions, such as we either win or die, which is a logical fallacy when an obvious alternative would be to reach an agreement. These two habits of thinking marked the remainder of his career. When he got around to party activities again after his imprisonment, the challenges of putting the NSDAP together were considerable, particularly because the sense of emergency and conditions favoring extremist politics had faded for the time being. Nevertheless, just as he had discovered his version of National Socialism, others found their own way to similar beliefs.

* Neither peasant organizations nor outsiders were needed to whip up the hostile mood, for the resentment of the Jews already existed and was a pronounced feature in postwar politics. 19 What was still missing was a nationwide coordinating organization that could mobilize the backlash. This was the context in which the men who became prominent in the National Socialist Party found themselves.

* For the time being, in the summer of 1924 it looked like the tide had gone out on the Nazi movement. Eckart had already died, Hitler was in prison, and Himmler took on the more mundane task of working as second in charge to Gregor Strasser, the Nazi leader in Landshut. In October 1924, in one of the first articles Himmler wrote as an official party worker, he indicated how his hatred of the Jews had emerged. Labeled “The Jew and Science,” the short piece claimed that Germany’s entire culture was in the hands of Jews, “serving nothing but a completely Jewish effort to dominate the world.” 78 Perhaps under the tutelage of the more socialistically inclined Strasser, Himmler also cultivated an anti-capitalist streak and mixed socialism with antisemitism. As he said in a speech in April 1927, the Jews had learned how to use capitalism and to play off nations against each other in the name of internationalism. The only way to avoid that fate was “To unite all the German workers on the basis of nationalism in order to introduce a socialist regime.”

* What comes through from an examination of how some of the main political leaders found their way to the cluster of beliefs that became National Socialism is that all of them were out of joint with the times, many had served in the war or wanted to, and all vehemently rejected the disastrous outcome. With their lives and careers thrown into question, they were ill at ease with the new Republic’s democratic order and became participants in the broad racist-nationalist and antisemitic backlash across the country. Indeed, radical antisemitism to a considerable extent informed their entire Weltanschauung. While they did not usually threaten the Jews with death, what they said and wrote was laden with deadly implications. They accepted the need for “cleaning up society,” variously interpreted to mean the end of pluralism and tolerance, and thus a crackdown on law and order. On the foreign policy front, opinions were mixed, though they all passionately wanted to break out of the constraints imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, to restore the military and take back the lands Germany had lost.

Nearly all of these fixations existed in the minds of these men before they met Hitler, as did their various efforts to find German socialism, which was often identified with creating a conflict-free Volksgemeinschaft or community of the people. That concept was not new, and it proved to be malleable enough so that various early party leaders could interpret its meaning, including its socialist dimensions, quite differently. Even so, historians tend to dismiss all Nazi claims to being socialist because of their persistent belief in private property and limited nationalization schemes, when in fact most of the socialist parties in German history to this day have upheld these principles as well. 100 Nevertheless, even as the NSDAP was trying to get off the ground again in 1925, an internal controversy simmered precisely about the “Left” or socialist aspect of National Socialism.

* There was urgency in resolving any internal divisions, because already in 1924, the disruptive social conditions that once encouraged new joiners began to abate. Ordinary people do not look to extremist parties like the NSDAP when social and economic conditions return to some kind of normality. In such times, how could the party make a mark on the political landscape outside
Bavaria without tearing itself apart?

* Goebbels admitted that “Hitler is the idea and the idea is Hitler.”

* Whereas Otto [Strasser] wanted the Party to oppose capitalism with the same vehemence that it attacked Marxism, Hitler would not hear of such a thing, because that would ruin the economy. Of course, if an industry contravened national interests, then the strong state might expropriate it. He could not agree either that management should always have to consult the workers, or that they should have profit-sharing rights.

* Strasser quoted Hitler as saying that “the mass of the working classes wants nothing but bread and games. They will never understand the meaning of an ideal, and we cannot hope to win them over to one.”

* Why do ordinary people join extremist parties, often making considerable personal sacrifices? The main approach historians have adopted in dealing with the rank-and-file activists of the Nazi Party, SA, or SS has been to study their social background. 1 Although less has been written about motivations for joining, it is common to assume that Hitler used his considerable political skills to convert his early followers, and then much of Germany. Indeed, some historians embrace the view that the rise to power of the NSDAP can be traced overwhelmingly to Hitler’s rhetorical skills and charisma. 2 Yet few if any of the early leaders needed conversion, because they shared many of the same ideas, before they saw or heard the man.

* Given the shortage of funds, the party had to be self-financing, and at a time of high unemployment the burden often fell on the wives. One man said his spouse worked hard at sewing, and scrimped to feed him and the family so that he could pay his party dues. Frequently, he returned late at night from a meeting or other party activity, to find her “bent over her work, happy to see me come home unharmed. This went on for weeks, months, and years.”

* By and large, the Catholics followed their clergy’s warnings, such as one issued by the bishops oMainz, Freiburg, and Rottenburg in early 1931, that National Socialism “was not in accord with Catholic teachings.”

* Where did big capitalists stand? The Nazi breakthrough at the polls beginning in 1930 had shocked the business community, all the more when in the new Reichstag, the NSDAP floated a whole raft of bills with an unmistakable socialist ring to them, including proposals to nationalize the big banks, to confiscate what the Nazis deemed to be ill-gotten profits, and in effect to outlaw the stock market.

* When he touched on the women’s question, he favored the woman’s role as man’s comrade and above all as a mother.

* During this [1932] election, Hitler did not mention the Jews at all, assuming it would lose him more support than pushing antisemitism would gain… The single most important ideological point Hitler made during the 1932 political campaigns—and there were no fewer than fifteen national and state elections that year—was his emphasis on bringing the nation together into a community of the people, a Volksgemeinschaft.

* Religion was a key factor, with Catholics much underrepresented as Nazi voters and Protestants overrepresented, and the party did better in rural areas than in the big cities.

* The new government, [Hitler] pronounced firmly, would be grounded in Christianity, as the foundation of its morals, and based on the family as the germ cell of the body politic.

* Why was democracy impossible? Because it left Germany divided, with one half positively disposed toward National Socialism and the other half wanting to repress it; one half hated such treason, the other believed treason to be its duty. Therefore, Hitler saw his first duty as the conquest of power, “to repress sharply” every corrosive opinion. Marxism had to be “exterminated,” and he estimated that would take six to eight years.

* If the Great Depression readied millions of ordinary people to see hope for a way out in Nazism, then this latest emergency [Reichstag fire] prepared them to accept even curtailment of their basic legal rights to stave off an alleged Communist revolution.

* Centralizing the country accelerated quickly, for almost immediately Hitler and Göring began the process dubbed at the time as “coordination” (Gleichschaltung). What that meant, according to the Reichstag-fire decree, was that Berlin could temporarily assume the powers of the individual states “insofar as necessary to restore public security and order.” Germany would become more centralized using an orchestrated tactic, whereby regional Nazi organizations would provoke conflicts with local authorities, and then Minister of the Interior Frick would send in Special Reich Commissioners with police powers.

* Here was one of the ways ordinary people “consumed” Hitler’s doctrine as he applied it to vital political issues. Some denouncers who ran to the authorities may have been motivated by sincere belief, though such laws provided possibilities for people to make use of official ideology for individual self-empowerment at the expense of others.95 Citizen participation assisted the exclusionary process, for without it the secret police would not have been able to nip “subversive” opinions, in the bud nor intrude into the intimate sphere of family and sexual life. In fact, being able to control who could have sex and with whom was a key item in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In order to enforce that intention, the police or various branches of the Nazi Party relied on denunciations from citizens, or professionals such as doctors. No secret police could ever have enough of its own officials to accomplish such a mission, and as it happens, the Gestapo was far smaller than contemporaries supposed or feared. Would-be offenders could be silenced, mostly because their friends, neighbors, or just strangers in a bar knew what was forbidden, and they usually found police or Party officials with a willingness to take even outlandish statements seriously.96

The evil twin of the Gestapo was the concentration camp.

* When Himmler became chief of the German Police on June 18, 1936, he summarized the ideological justification for the new, increasingly invasive powers. Germany was in the heart of Europe and under assault by Bolshevism, which itself was being dominated by the Jews. The battle ahead, so he liked to claim, would take generations, as it was supposedly “the age-old struggle between humans and subhumans in its new phase of the struggle between the Aryan peoples and Jewry.” The new police, along with the SS, so he swore, would protect the home front, just as the Wehrmacht would fight against threats from abroad.124

Out of this mythical thinking, the legal minds behind the Gestapo, including Werner Best, soon developed a Fascist or völkisch theory of the police that it publicized. Although the Gestapo originally obtained its extraordinary powers to deal with communism, by 1936 Best said that the new police regarded “every attempt to realize or even maintain any political theory” other than National Socialism “as a symptom of sickness, which threatens the healthy unity of the indivisible Volk organism.” The new police watched over the “health of the German body politic,” and destroyed all “symptoms of sickness.” The night-watchman state was gone, so that henceforth the political police would no longer be subject to any restrictions in carrying out its mission.

* It turned out that anchoring National Socialism as the dominant ideology and consolidating political control over Germany proved surprisingly easy, primarily because the great majority of ordinary people apparently had already given up on the failed Weimar Republic and were ready for change. Several key emergencies allowed the regime to curtail legal rights in the name of stopping communism. The new chancellor was ably assisted by his conservative allies, the president, and the military. Together they created the kind of “unshakable authority” Hitler wanted. At the same time, to secure the Nazi revolution, the regime did not shrink from an all-out assault on its real or imagined enemies. On the other hand, Hitler did not set out to coerce Germany into a sullen, beaten nation, as much as to encourage and awaken an active, enthusiastic one.128 He rejected from the outset the idea that the millions who voted for the KPD or the SPD could simply be “forbidden,” and he was fully aware that the process of getting them integrated in the community could take years.129 Nevertheless, the Third Reich had been born and established itself on a firm institutional basis within a shockingly short span of time. In the face of these enormous changes, the true believers were generally overjoyed, and there was a rush to join the Nazi Party. At the same time, there were few signs of organized resistance and not a great deal of dissent. The big question going forward was how to build on the early euphoria and to win over the beaten socialist and communist working-class movements.

* HOW DID ORDINARY PEOPLE respond as the regime introduced the first taste of Hitler’s authoritarian doctrine? Many in the crowds that streamed by the Reich Chancellery on the evening of Hitler’s appointment were already in tune with National Socialism. One such person was the teenager Melita Maschmann, who went to the big event with her parents and her twin brother, even though neither mother nor father approved of the NSDAP and instead were Nationalists (DNVP). What attracted the young girl that cool winter Monday of January 30, 1933? She later recalled finding the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft “fascinating.” Though this word was new to her, she identified it with “the hope that somehow conditions could be created in which the people of all classes could live together as brothers and sisters.”

* By no means did the regime restrict its violence to political parties, trade unions, and clerics. For example, on May 6, 1933, students invaded Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research looking for Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, its Jewish leader, who had dared to declare his homosexuality in public. This institute had championed “the principle that science rather than religious morality ought to dictate how state and society responded to sexuality.” That was surely the antithesis of every syllable that Hitler ever said on the subject. Since his days in Vienna he had looked down on homosexuality, which in Germany had been prosecuted as early as the nineteenth century. According to old friends, Hitler turned “against [homosexuality] and other sexual perversions in the big city with nausea and disgust.”

* One DAF theorist said that National Socialism sought to create socialism, not so much in terms of a specific economic form as by way of changed attitudes. There was no fixed socialist blueprint, and that was an advantage, even a guarantee that the German economy would not get bogged down in dogmatism. Far from rejecting private property, the state would protect it. That did not mean, as in a liberalistic order, individuals would be free to do with their property as they wished. Here National Socialism’s fundamental principle was: “Property means duties.” It had to serve the community, and in that sense, it was “socialist property.” Yet there would be no Soviet-style confiscations and definitely no collective farms.

* Joachim Fest, also born in 1926 but into a better-off family ill-disposed to Nazism, remembered that by 1936 the neighbors began casting aside their last reservations, and “not only formally, but with increasing conviction” defected to Nazism when won over by the regime’s accomplishments.

* The larger picture people faced from 1933 onward was the shocking suddenness with which Hitler, the National Socialists, and their allies changed a parliamentary democracy into a one-party dictatorship, and an open civil society into one that became increasingly closed. At the same time, the regime began to work on building the Volksgemeinschaft and to introduce some aspects of the promised German Socialism. These achievements exercised increasing appeal, likely more than the intangible “Hitler myth” or his supposed charismatic speeches. Concrete positive changes in everyday life and a more socialist atmosphere almost certainly had a greater effect in winning over people than did propaganda and terror.

* LIKE OTHER AUTOCRATS IN history, Hitler lusted for the people’s unanimous agreement with everything he did, and from that perspective much always remained to be done.

* Once the Volk was racially cleansed, so that its unique art and genius could flow freely, Hitler anticipated or at least hoped that “a new artistic renaissance of the Aryan people” would be under way. He claimed that Germans admired the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome because they shared a common Aryan racial root, and now the Nordic spirit would have to take on its own cultural tasks and find its own way, as had its racial predecessors. What was needed was some state-sponsored ideological rejuvenation, while shaking off decadent or racially foreign elements.

* Victor Klemperer, a philology professor in Dresden and Jewish, noted that a circular from Berlin to all universities declared that “When the Jew writes in German, he lies,” so that henceforth Jews would only be allowed to write in Hebrew…

* Hitler offered the slogan, “To be German means to be clear,” by which he meant that art had to be conscious of its political purpose, which was to educate the people in National Socialism, and anything that deflected from its political program had to be repressed.

* The writer Erich Ebermayer wondered how artists of any kind could ever thrive in the Third Reich. “Art is freedom,” he said, and “Dictatorship cannot, however, tolerate freedom, otherwise it surrenders itself. Hence art and dictatorship are mutually exclusive.”101 It was easy to pillory art designated as harmful, and quite another to call forth genius artists. For good reason, the regime did not repeat the 1937 exhibition shaming “degenerate art,” because as Hitler observed the following year at Nuremberg: “The greatness of a cultural age cannot be measured by the extent to which it rejects previous cultural productions, but instead by the measure of its own cultural contributions.”102 Yet the Nazis discredited their entire cultural heritage, even the building accomplishments of the Third Reich, because they became captivated by an all-pervasive racist and expansionist ideology, and they persecuted millions in its name, while calmly contemplating ever greater foreign conquests and wholesale mass murder.

* In traditionally Protestant Kassel, a city of 180,000 in 1933, among whom there were 3,200 Jews, roughly 2 percent of the population, the anti-Jewish events exploded on March 9. Violence reached a high point on March 24 and 25, when the SA captured several prominent Jewish merchants and lawyers, brought them to a beating cellar, put them on a phony trial, and sentenced them to lashings with a rubber truncheon.10 One of the lawyers was Max Plaut, who had turned away from the religion of his elders to assimilate, and who had earlier acted as a defense attorney in trials against National Socialists. Now they led him through the streets to the SA tavern, while forcing him to scream out “Heil Hitler!” They outlandishly “sentenced” him to 200 lashes with the truncheon. What was left of the man, they dragged to his home, where after a week of terrible suffering he died. In addition to such acts, the SA set up a symbolic concentration camp in the town square, with a donkey inside. The sign on the camp wall read: “concentration camp for unruly citizens who do their shopping at the Jews.”11

By attacking these lawyers and judges, the thugs also struck at the heart of the legal protections in the constitution. Jews made up an estimated one-quarter of the legal profession, many working in desirable urban centers, and there was already tension with antisemitic members of the bar before 1933. Indeed, there was a veritable panic of overcrowding among the professions during the depression years, so that it became easy for the avaricious to embrace or accept the new exclusionary policies.

* Victor Klemperer managed to keep his job as a professor of Romance languages at the Technical University in Dresden, because he was a war veteran—a concession Hitler made to placate President Hindenburg—though on April 30, 1935, Klemperer was unceremoniously dismissed. He was fortunate to be living in what was called a “mixed marriage,” and he survived the war in Germany thanks to his wife’s indefatigable resistance and moral courage in not taking the easy way out by divorcing him.

* During the first years of the dictatorship, “race defilement” cases often began with a denunciation from a citizen or passerby in the street and seemed to end blithely with the Gestapo putting an accused person in “protective custody.” In fact, the victims could be sent off to a concentration camp where cruelties could be inflicted for months.

* [Hitler] recalled that Napoleon had succeeded not merely because he was a brilliant strategist and leader on the battlefield, but also in that he had reaped the ideas sown by the French Revolution. Similarly, the object of the moment was to convince the German people of the National Socialist idea; it did not matter if he believed it, but it was crucial that they did. What was necessary was “that behind me I have strong believers, a decided, self-secure, confident German Volk.” Hence it was his duty—and that of the press—to awaken that strength for the mission ahead. Historians who insist that once Hitler had the instruments of power in his hands, he could have cared less about public opinion should look more closely at this speech, as it conveyed his notion of a dictatorship whose ideas and actions had to be rooted in popular support.

* What was the great mission for which the people should be prepared? Even what had been far-fetched fantasies were now were becoming feasible, Hitler stated matter-of-factly, because their “racial value” was beyond all others. What about their numbers? Contrary to what pessimists were claiming, Germany was rising, he said and when he looked at the United States’ 126 or 127 million people (his figures) he blithely discounted on racial grounds all except the 60 million or so Anglo-Saxons. The Soviet Union possessed not even 55 million Great Russians, with the remainder of poor racial stock. Britain had a mere 46 million living in the Motherland. His listeners must have pricked up their ears when he told them that by 1940 Germany would be able to boast of “80 million of a single race, and around it almost another 8 million” closely related by race.

* Back in the 1920s, he recalled, it seemed to him that only two ideas mobilized people, for which they would willingly die: nationalism and socialism. Instead of watching them fight each other, he had united those ideas, hence the National Socialist Party. During the past six years, he conceded that the legislation of his government had only begun to create a Volksgemeinschaft, and it would take generations to complete.

* What he wanted was for state and society to be organized like an army…

* By 1945, there were between 7.7 and 7.9 million foreign workers in Germany.

* Looking back on what had happened in Germany since 1933, the records show that during the years of peace, the Third Reich went on a spending spree, and Hitler frankly admitted that it had run up against economic problems that, in August 1939, he decided to resolve by an improvised “lightning war.” Swift successes followed, so much so that by early winter 1941, he came to be viewed as perhaps the most powerful man in the world. He often traced this success to his own abilities and to his National Socialist doctrine, which was broadly acclaimed at home and even in parts of Europe outside Germany. The tides of war inexorably began to change in October–November 1941, with the ensuing decline and fall that followed in less than three and a half years.

* Only gradually did more true-believing activists join the struggle [in the 1920s], and they did so less because they fell victim to Hitler’s charisma than because they found in National Socialism a doctrine that was akin to their own rough-and-ready thinking. This cluster of ideas proved to be successful precisely because they were unoriginal and were already embedded in Germany’s political culture.

The first cohorts to join Nazism brought with them a sense of outraged nationalism, even victimhood, and a particularly deep emotional commitment to the cause that was sparked by the lost war and the Versailles Treaty, which the nation was forced to sign, against its will, in 1919.

* Wrapped together, nationalism, socialism, and antisemitism, along with the quest for “living space,” though twisted over time to fit the needs of the movement, constituted the essential core of Hitler’s doctrine. Yet no matter how powerful each of these ideas was on its own, and how explosive they became when combined with ready violence, in all likelihood Nazism would not have succeeded without the twin economic disasters of the inflation in 1923 and the Great Depression beginning in 1929. It was these economic and social calamities, and their fateful consequences, that led so many ordinary people to become Nazis. They were hardly alone, for in the last elections of 1932, a majority of people voted for parties that rejected the constitution of the Weimar Republic, and hoped instead for some kind of authoritarian dictatorship. A majority of the voters also wanted parties favoring “socialism” in one form or another. To a great extent, therefore, Hitler and the Nazis were part of an even larger anti-democratic, socialist, and antisemitic movement in the country.

* To the consternation of German Jews, popular reaction varied about antisemitism, and a certain consensus developed down to 1939: most people were not displeased at the exclusion of the Jews from the “community of the people.”2

During that time, the eye-catching support the dictatorship mobilized in the successive plebiscites and elections was impressive, though it cannot be taken at face value or as an accurate measure of how the electorate consumed or identified with Hitler’s ideology. No doubt those exercises provided additional clues of an unquestionably building consensus that by the end of the peacetime years would include a healthy majority. Another sign of those times was the army of people who enlisted in various Nazi organizations, and who at the very least familiarized themselves with the movement’s ideology. These self-mobilized, dedicated, and enthusiastic volunteers toiled long hours at welfare and socially caring activities. Such true believers appear to have embraced the National Socialist doctrine in varying degrees of excitement and self-sacrifice.

* Nationalism and visions of a return to national glory contributed greatly to winning over people to National Socialism, even those unmoved by its other appeals. Few people withheld their applause when the regime introduced conscription and recouped the territorial losses imposed by the Versailles Treaty. At the same time, Hitler’s sixth sense, for knowing what he could get away with, seemed validated as he gained bloodless victories into the late 1930s. During the years of victory in the war, the majority of patriotic Germans were enthusiastically behind it.

* Römer concludes that entering the Wehrmacht solidified Hitler’s vaunted “community of the people,” and yet he notes that soldiers rarely embraced Nazism fully, but rather in diverse shadings, stages, and not without inconsistencies. If most POWs were not prone to philosophize about National Socialism, all the same, ideological convictions were integral to their world, and part of an unspoken consensus.26 Social groups like the working class, thought to be immune to the appeals of National Socialism up to 1933 and even beyond, tended to have a change of heart once they joined the military, where they served with loyalty and never threatened anything like a mutinous repeat of November 1918.

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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