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How Willing Were They?


Almost as soon as the Nazis came to power in Germany, they made the greeting “Heil Hitler!” a compulsory part of national life. Civil servants were legally obliged to sign documents with it, and anybody writing a letter to officialdom would have been well advised to do the same. Schoolteachers had to greet their classes with a “Heil Hitler!,” raising their right arm stiffly in the “German greeting” as they did so; train conductors had to use the greeting when they entered a compartment to collect tickets from passengers.

Visiting his university in the summer of 1933, the Jewish literature professor and compulsive diarist Victor Klemperer began to see “employees constantly raising their arms to one another” in the corridors as they passed. Giving the salute instead of simply saying “good day” quickly became an outward, public sign of support for the regime, visible all over Germany as the Nazis were establishing the Third Reich. It was also an open, almost threatening gesture to those at whom it was addressed, implicitly admonishing them to conform by returning the salutation themselves. To a visitor from another country wandering the streets of German towns and cities in 1933 and seeing arms rising and falling on every sidewalk, it looked as though everyone was fully behind the new regime.

Yet nobody could be quite sure how genuine the gesture was. Were people doing it merely out of a wish to conform, or out of fear of the consequences if they did not? In September 1941, Klemperer noticed that a decline was occurring in the use of the “German greeting,” and with the pedantry that made him such a valuable diarist, he began to count. In one bakery where he went to shop, he noticed five customers saying “Good afternoon” and two “Heil Hitler”; but in a grocery store he visited, all the customers said “Heil Hitler.” “Whom do I see,” he asked himself, “to whom do I listen?”

Klemperer’s question neatly encapsulates a debate that has continued among historians ever since the collapse of the Third Reich in May 1945. How far did ordinary Germans support Hitler’s regime? If they were not behind it, then why did they not rise up against it? Why did they carry on fighting until the bitter end? What was, in general, the relationship between “Germans” and “Nazis”? Were they one and the same by 1945? What difference did the persecution and extermination of the Jews make to their attitude toward the regime? If they knew about it, how far did they approve? Did they carry on fighting to the end despite their knowledge of Nazism’s crimes or because of it?

Few historians would now accept the claim made by the overwhelming majority of Germans in the late 1940s and 1950s that they had remained unaware of the crimes committed in their name under the Nazi regime. The Security Service of the SS was already reporting in March 1942 that soldiers returning from Poland were talking openly about how Jews were being killed there in large numbers. The Nazi Party Chancellery complained on October 9, 1942, that rumors about “very harsh measures” against the Jews were “being spread by men on leave from the various forces units deployed in the East, who have themselves had the opportunity to observe such measures.” With two thirds or more of the 13 million German men under arms engaged on the eastern front, reports spread rapidly, and before the end of the year, most Germans knew full well what was going on there.

Debate still rages, however, around the extent to which ordinary Germans gave their approval to the genocide. Recent years have seen historians downgrade ideological factors in favor of practical ones. Many studies have shown how citizens participated in the Nazi project for reasons that had little or nothing to do with ideology: because they wanted jobs and homes, because they wanted a better life, later on because they simply wanted to survive. Few people ever had cause to fear a visit from the Gestapo or imprisonment in a concentration camp, it has been pointed out, so fear, it is concluded, did not play much of a role. All of this had little to do with ideology. But the practical support Germans gave to the regime constituted, in the end, an implicit approval of what it did.

Arguments such as these represent what has been called the “voluntarist turn” in the historical appraisal of National Socialism.1 The choices Germans made, it is widely accepted, were effectively free and unfettered; otherwise how could they subsequently be held responsible for them? In his new book, Life and Death in the Third Reich, a sequel to his earlier volume Germans into Nazis, Peter Fritzsche announces his intention, in the spirit of the “voluntarist turn,” of analyzing “the effort that Germans made to become Nazis” and “the extent to which Germans made deliberate, self-conscious, and knowledgeable political choices in the Third Reich.”

Fritzsche writes with his customary flair and verve, and packs an enormous amount into a relatively short volume. He is particularly good on the detailed analysis of small but revealing aspects of Nazi culture, for example the Hitler greeting discussed above, or the “Ancestral Certificate” that all Germans had to carry to demonstrate their racial purity. His immensely readable and intelligent book makes superb use of letters and diaries to communicate the experience of ordinary people under Nazism in a way that few other historians have been able to do.

Fritzsche is too knowledgeable and subtle a historian to follow the “voluntarist turn” all the way. He convincingly explores the limitations of Nazification as well as its successes. He is surely right to argue that while Nazis and Germans were never identical, the relationship between the two was never static either. He cites telling examples to show how the “conversion process” of Nazis into Germans was “riddled with doubt.” By 1942, Germans still loved the Third Reich, which had given them order, security, and economic stability after the chaos of the Weimar years, but they had come to despise the Nazis, who were now destroying all of this by their refusal to admit defeat:

In this way, the idea of Germany had been covertly Nazified as well as Aryanized. The majority of Germans preferred to win the war and keep the Nazis than to lose both the war and the Nazis. Very few hoped for Germany’s defeat.

Two dates, Fritzsche notes, dominated almost everything the Nazis did: 1914 and 1918: the positive myth of national unity at the outbreak of the First World War, which they sought to recreate in the much-vaunted “people’s community” of all Germans; and the negative myth of the “stab-in-the-back,” in which the Nazis imagined Jewish subversives at home to have undermined and then destroyed the cohesion and fighting spirit of the army at the front. Hitler was determined to ensure that there would be no stab-in-the-back in the Second World War.

Fritzsche is well aware that in many respects the Nazi project of creating a new national and racial consciousness among Germans failed to reach its objectives. The regime devoted huge efforts to instilling in Germans a belief in the virtue and desirability of war, yet the vast majority of Germans remained immune, demonstrating widespread anxiety as armed conflict loomed during the Munich crisis of 1938 and arrived for real in September 1939, and showing a corresponding degree of euphoria as the first crisis was resolved without bloodshed and the latter ended, as they thought, within a few months in a series of cheap and rapid victories. There was, he claims, a similar atmosphere of gloom and apprehension among ordinary people when the invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941.

All the same, Fritzsche suggests, even on the very day of the invasion, “Germans worked to calibrate themselves to the new aims of National Socialism” after hearing of the invasion, just as they had on previous occasions. There was, he claims, a general feeling of pride in the war and optimism about its outcome. Unfortunately, however, Fritzsche never actually supplies any concrete evidence to show that Germans were actively working to accommodate themselves to the purposes of the regime. Not even the diaries and letters he cites show such a process of self-propelled efforts by their authors to become Nazis. All he can offer is assertion. And this problem is compounded by a serious underestimation of the coercive and terroristic aspects of the Third Reich.

Unlike some of the more extreme exponents of the “voluntarist turn,” Fritzsche is aware of the enormous extent of the violence and intimidation meted out by the Nazis to real and potential opponents during the “seizure of power” in the first six months of 1933. But like them, he goes on to claim that there was little overt violence or coercion thereafter. Even on his own evidence, however, people were coerced into donating money to the “Winter Aid” program, they witnessed continuing anti-Semitic violence on the streets for most of the 1930s, and they were disciplined in a variety of residential camps, through which millions of Germans had passed by 1939. But there were other aspects of coercion and intimidation that he fails to mention.

Thus for example Fritzsche alludes, like other exponents of the “voluntarist turn,” to the fact that only three thousand or so prisoners remained in the concentration camps by the mid-1930s. But like them he fails to realize that a major reason for the low number was the fact that the task of repression had been taken over by the regular courts and judicial system, which had put more than 23,000 political prisoners behind bars in Germany’s state prisons and penitentiaries by this time. His claim that the police left former Communists and Social Democrats alone after 1933 can be disproved by countless local examples: many were rounded up and incarcerated during the rigged plebiscites and elections that the Nazis organized from time to time. Such people were under constant surveillance and were liable to be hauled off to a concentration camp as potential “subversives” once the war broke out. He does not note the huge expansion of coercive legislation during the war, which led to the prison population virtually doubling, and the number of executions reaching four to five thousand a year at home. And a major reason why the troops kept on fighting lay in the fact that coercion reached similar dimensions in the armed forces, where some 30,000 troops were put before firing squads during the war for a variety of offenses including cowardice, desertion, disobeying orders, self-mutilation, and undermining morale (compared to a mere forty-eight during World War I).

Most important of all, Fritzsche ignores the enormous range of lesser sanctions threatened and often used by the regime to enforce at least an outward show of conformity, from the deprivation of welfare benefits to the assignment of grumblers and dissenters to difficult and dangerous jobs far away from their family and home. Diaries and letters may not have mentioned fear of reprisal or punishment, as Fritzsche points out, but then their authors were habitually cautious about saying anything that might get them into trouble if their diaries should be discovered or their letters opened by the police or the military censors. Fear was all-pervasive in the Third Reich.

  1. 1

    See Neil Gregor, “Nazism—A Political Religion? Rethinking the Voluntarist Turn,” in Nazism, War and Genocide: Essays in Honour of Jeremy Noakes (University of Exeter Press, 2005), criticizing (among others) Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (Hill and Wang, 2000), and Robert Gellately, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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