Middletown, Germany

The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930-1935

by William Sheridan Allen
Quadrangle Books, 345 pp., $6.95

Mr. William Sheridan Allen, a student of history from Evanston, Illinois, went in the early 1950s to a small town in the former kingdom of Hanover to write about its history during the fateful years 1930-1935. I happen to know from experience that authors are not always responsible for what is printed on the dust jackets of their books; this one claims that the German townspeople revealed their innermost thoughts to Mr. William Sheridan Allen. Few people are willing to share with strangers their innermost thoughts on any subject; it is hard to imagine small-town Germans being frank and open when asked by an American student in search of material to reminiscence about their own and their neighbor’s doings under the Nazis.

In these circumstances, interviews in depth or other such techniques will be of little help. The citizens of Thalburg (as Mr. Allen calls his Middletown) may be narrow minded, but they are no fools. In his preface, Mr. Allen also says that he attempted in his study to contribute to the understanding of one of the central political and moral problems of the twentieth century. This is a formidable claim. Can one really study the central political and moral issues of our time on the basis of the gossip of the good citizens of Thalburg? I was about to dismiss Mr. Allen’s book as yet another dissertation which by mistake had found its way into print. This would have been a great mistake, for Mr. Allen, as I soon came to realize, has written a first-rate study of absorbing interest. It shows how accurately and how vividly a knowledgeable and intelligent observer can retrace the events of those years in a predominantly Protestant little middle-class town. Above all, I had clearly underrated the enterprise and diligence of Mr. Allen, who has not only read every single issue of the Thalburger Beobachter, the Graefische Hofscurier, and similar local newspapers (there were surprisingly many of them); he has studied with equal attention the annual reports published by the local secondary school and the museum, the town budgets and the mimeographed sheets reporting the work of the municipal departments; he has also looked into local crime statistics and court cases. Nothing that was published in or about Thalburg between 1930 and 1935 seems to have escaped the attention of this formidable researcher. Out of this mass of revealing material (which seems more reliable than the uncertain memory of the dramatis personae) Mr. Allen has woven an account that is both convincing and surprisingly well written.

He describes the whole climate of those days—the effect of mass unemployment in 1931/32, the demonstrations and clashes, the general feeling of helplessness and of impending disaster which so decisively helped the Nazis in their quest for power. He relates how the center parties simply melted away and how the Social Democrats, led by decent but uninspired and ineffectual people, gave up one position after another. January 30, 1933, came and passed almost imperceptibly in Thalburg. The leader of the local Nazis, Kurt Aergeyz, the owner of a hardware shop, an indifferent businessman and alcoholic, became the head of the city administration and provided surprisingly effective government. In July 1933 there were no longer any unemployed in the city, by 1935 all external signs of the Depression had vanished, construction was booming, the city looked much better, the streets were cleaner, a “green belt” had been developed, the houses had been repainted. There was even a new open-air theater set in a natural declivity in the Thalburg forest. At what price was all this achieved? Mr. Allen provides the answer in sections headed “The Terror System” and “The Atomization of Society.” I think he tries to prove too much on the basis of the experiences of a little town—typical perhaps for other small towns but not for Germany as a whole. There was intimidation in Thalburg, but not that much terror. In fact no one came to serious grief; three Social Democrats were sent to a concentration camp—but this was in the middle of the war, many years later. No one was beaten to pulp in the street, no one sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. There was hardly any resistance and there was no need in Thalburg for terror on a grand scale. “The resistance clique…showed its defiance by singing in the church choir”—this about sums it up.

There also were limits to the “atomization of society” in a small town, where, unlike a big city, everyone knew everyone else. True enough, the club for mixed choral singing, the Retail Merchants’ Association, the Common Good Construction Club, not to mention the rifle societies, were gleichgeschaltet, i.e., they received a Nazi leadership. Some organizations were dissolved but the beer and card evening circles and other such groups continued to exist; I strongly doubt whether it is true that “people often simply stopped coming together,” whether society in fact “had been destroyed.” True, one had to be careful about what one said but this did not mean “that to a great extent the individual was atomized.” I suspect there was not that much difference between the quality of life in Thalburg in 1932 and 1935, and I think Mr. Allen is wrong in his assumption that, by 1935, in the eyes of most Thalburgers the bad of the new system outweighed the good and that consequently free elections might have resulted in a defeat of Nazism. Two-thirds of the voters, considerably more than the German average, had supported the Nazi party before January 30, 1933. There was no earthly reason for them to change their views three years later, since the Nazis on the whole kept their promises. Mr. Allen makes the important point that “Thalburg Nazis created their own image by their own initiative, vigor, and propaganda. They knew exactly what needed to be done to effect the transfer of power to themselves in the spring of 1933 and they did it apparently without more than generalized directives from above.” Hitler did not seize power single-handed.

What were the mainsprings of this massive support for Nazism in Thalburg? Mr. Allen refers to the middle class’s paranoid fears of the local Social Democrats; “they were determined to put the clock back to a period when the organized working class was forcibly kept from exerting influence.” This is very true, but there were other equally valid motives: the impoverishment of the middle class through inflation and the world economic crisis, the general feeling that strong leadership was needed to overcome the Depression and the deep attachment to extreme nationalism. But whosoever views Nazism exclusively in terms of a middle-class movement misses a vital clue: Nazism was such a great success precisely because its influence, unlike that of the traditional right-wing parties, extended much beyond the middle class.

Then came the war; eventually the Allied armies arrived after Mr. Aergeyz had departed in a Mercedes with (Mr. Allen reports) two blondes and several cases of Schnapps. Later the refugees from the East arrived; by 1950 the population had doubled, today it is probably even larger than that. Thalburg is, I imagine, a hardworking town, enjoying the fruits of the Wirtschaftswunder. It is also still, I suspect, quite reactionary; all the big towns in Germany now have a social democratic majority, while most small towns, especially in North Germany, are right wing. It would be interesting to know more about the recent past of this German Middletown. To find out, a student of history will be needed as informed and as indefatigable as Mr. Allen, who has shown us how much of interest can be extricated from the most unlikely places.