In the introduction to his book about the popular appeal of National Socialism, Peter Fritzsche tells how in 1930, in a café in Munich, the photographer Heinrich Hoffmann showed Adolf Hitler the pictures he had taken of the excited crowd that had assembled before the Feldherrnhalle on the first day of mobilization for war in 1914. Hitler leafed through them and then said abruptly, “I, too, stood in this crowd.” An ardent Nazi himself, Hoffmann was excited by the thought of the political advantage that might be made of this if it could be proved and subjected his prints to painstaking examination, finally discovering the face of his Führer, disheveled and intensely excited, near the bottom edge of the last photo.
“This fortuitously discovered shot,” Fritzsche writes, “caught the precise moment when the Third Reich became possible.” That is perhaps too sweeping a statement, but it is not entirely wrong. Hoffmann’s photograph documents in a remarkable way the sense of national solidarity that marked the August Days of 1914, a feeling that persisted later through the long years of defeat, revolution, and political frustration as a memory and a felt need. As we look at it, we are reminded also that the unkempt young man in the corner of Hoffmann’s photograph would become the leader of the political movement that was to respond most effectively to that longing and, because it did, to win the mass political support that was not the least important factor in bringing him to power in January 1933. Why this was true is the subject of Fritzsche’s book.
Even if the war had not ended in military defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser, it would have changed the political culture of Germany profoundly. The bitterness of the conflict and the sacrifices it demanded strengthened the feeling of national identity, while defining it in increasingly populist and racist terms. The ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft was a product of the war, and the rhetoric that accompanied it encouraged Germans to think of themselves as citizens rather than subjects, inspired by an equal temper of heroic hearts, and as members of a compact that depended for its existence upon the achievements and self-reliance of ordinary Germans. During the war these ideas inspired a degree of voluntarism and civic activism that was unknown before 1914, when such initiatives were left to constituted authorities. They found expression also in the rising expectations of ordinary citizens and the widely held belief that the war would do away with traditional inequalities and forms of subordination.
During the revolution of 1918, these ideas persisted, and they did not disappear after Germany moved by way of anti-republican coups and the trauma of the inflation to the relative stability of the mid-Twenties. They animated in particular the mass of non-Socialist, Protestant voters in the small towns and rural areas of the country who in the end constituted the primary dynamic of German politics in the last days of the Weimar Republic …