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.

One obvious example could be found in the precautions people took during the war against being found listening to a foreign radio station, an offense punishable by imprisonment or even by death. It did not matter in the end that there were relatively few prosecutions. The possibility of being discovered or denounced led people to hide themselves and their radio under a blanket when listening, or post a lookout at the apartment door, or lock themselves in the bathroom with their wireless set. The widely publicized cases of listeners being prosecuted and sentenced to a spell in a state penitentiary were not enough to deter people —the BBC reckoned that up to 15 million Germans a day were listening to its broadcasts by 1944—but they were enough to make them afraid.

Unless one realizes the true dimensions of the terror exercised by the regime, which increased greatly as the war went on and reached extraordinary heights toward its end, it is difficult if not impossible to understand the reaction of ordinary Germans to the deportation and murder of the Jews. In a fascinating chapter on this crucial topic, Fritzsche goes through the evidence carefully and concludes that while Germans knew about the mass shootings of Jews carried out by the SS in the East almost as soon as they began, they did not know about the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the other death camps.

To be sure, the sources he uses—SS Security Service reports, private correspondence, diaries, and so on—lend plausibility to this claim. But he does not give adequate attention to the broadcasts on the German-language service of the BBC, which featured the gas chambers repeatedly and intensively in December 1942 and mentioned them again on other occasions later on. Fritzsche underestimates their impact when he claims they only mentioned mass gassing twice. Nor does he mention the millions of leaflets dropped by Allied airplanes over Germany in 1944 describing in detail the gas chambers of Majdanek and other killing centers.2

By early 1943, the great majority of Germans were disinclined to accept Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’s assurances that the war would be won. They fought on not because they believed in victory but because they saw no alternative. Although Fritzsche suggests that there was a positive response to Goebbels’s exhortation to the German people to mobilize for “total war” following the German army’s catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad early in February 1943, the evidence of SS Security Service reports on popular morale suggests otherwise. And the more it became clear that Germany was going to lose, the more ordinary Germans began to fear Allied retribution, which they thought would be driven—and here Goebbels’s propaganda does seem to have borne some fruit—by a thirst for revenge by the Jews.

Fritzsche claims that “most…Germans…thought of themselves as innocent victims of Allied air attacks,” but as he himself shows in some detail in another part of the book, one common reaction was very different: guilt at what they had allowed to be done to the Jews. “Have we not murdered thousands of Jews?”—as the SS Security Service reported “numerous people from all classes of the population” saying in Stuttgart in 1944:

Don’t soldiers again and again report that Jews in Poland have had to dig their own graves?… Jews are human beings too. By doing all this we have shown the enemy what they can do to us if they win.

Thus Germans began to keep silent about the Jews, preparing to deny all knowledge of what had happened to them when the Allies eventually came to exact their retribution. Fear of the enemy—and not just of the Red Army, though that was paramount and to a large extent, indeed, justified—was thus another factor in keeping Germans going to the end.

Fritzsche frequently fails to recognize the artifice and calculation behind many apparently spontaneous outbursts of popular acclamation for the regime, from the demonstrations that attended Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor on January 30, 1933, to the mass rallies held to celebrate Hitler’s survival of Colonel von Stauffenberg’s attempt to blow him up on July 20, 1944. Both were orchestrated by Goebbels, who was always concerned to generate images of popular enthusiasm for the Third Reich.


In 1945, Fritzsche notes, Goebbels called upon Germans to star, as it were, in their own movie, allowing his roving newsreel crews to put onto celluloid for posterity an inspiring image of their willingness to sacrifice themselves in the German cause. In many ways, indeed, Goebbels sought to portray the whole of the Third Reich as a kind of motion-picture drama. Earlier in the war, in 1941, a camera crew from the Propaganda Ministry visited the recently conquered Polish city of Lodz, now incorporated into Germany and renamed Litzmannstadt, to film for the consumption of German cinemagoers the creation of a model new German town. It toured local parks and squares, building sites, renovation projects, hospitals, and utilities, and made a particular point of focusing on the redevelopment of a grassy area on the banks of the river Ner, where it widened into a small lake. Here trees were being transplanted, stones put into the riverbed, and new streets laid, with fanciful names derived from German fairytales, including Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.

Litzmannstadt, City of the Future,” was designated by Hitler as a special center of urban development. As resources were poured in from the Reich, it would, declared its new German mayor, become a magnet for German immigrants from the East. And yet, as Gordon J. Horwitz points out in Ghettostadt, his brilliantly readable book on the city during World War II, there was a dark side to this glowing picture, a side barely mentioned at all by the mayor and his cohorts. For the process of becoming German also involved ridding the city of its Jews. It is this process that forms the central focus of Horwitz’s study.

The task facing the new German authorities in the city in achieving this purpose was a daunting one. About a third of its 600,000 inhabitants were Jews; fewer than 10 percent were German. Horwitz’s vivid narrative makes effective use of unpublished sources in German, Yiddish, and Polish to paint a detailed picture of how the German population was strengthened by more than 20,000 ethnic German immigrants from Galicia, Volhynia, and further afield, within a few months of the German conquest. The Jews were removed from their sight by being forced into a ghetto. By the time it was sealed off, at the end of April 1940, many of Lodz’s Jews had fled. But this still left 162,000 crammed into an area previously inhabited by only a fraction of that number.

The relocation of the majority of Jews who remained in the town was accompanied by scenes of horrifying violence meted out by the German authorities, leaving hundreds of Jews dead. Disease and malnutrition began to affect the lives of the ghetto’s inhabitants, with the hygiene and sanitation facilities of the area hopelessly inadequate for the numbers they now had to accommodate.

The dirt, destitution, and disease created by the Germans turned the Jews of Lodz into a living confirmation of every prejudice the Nazis held about them. “These are no longer people,” Goebbels already remarked after visiting Lodz at the beginning of November 1939, “these are animals.” Goebbels sent a camera team in to take pictures for the weekly newsreel show in German movie theaters, and Jewish congregations and rabbis were forced to stage special religious services for the German film crew, who also went into Jewish slaughterhouses to get pictures of the ritual slaughter of cattle. All of this material was collected under Goebbels’s personal direction for a feature-length documentary entitled The Eternal Jew, screened in German movie theaters a year later.

With few means of supporting themselves, the ghetto’s inhabitants faced starvation and death. Yet this did not happen immediately. The delay can be attributed to one man above all: the German-appointed “Jewish elder” and chairman of the Jewish Council, or Judenrat, charged by the Germans with running the ghetto in their interests, Chaim Rumkowski, a welfare administrator in his sixties who quickly assumed virtually dictatorial powers in the ghetto.

Rumkowski soon came to behave like a petty medieval tyrant; on one occasion, indeed, he and his retinue even went about the streets scattering sweets among the ghetto’s starving children. Yet by persuading the Germans that the Jews of the ghetto could perform useful work for the war economy, he preserved the lives of many of them for longer than at least some of the German administrators wanted. Later on, however, he offered no resistance when the Germans ordered him to start delivering up thousands of Jews for transportation to the gas chambers.

While not concealing the man’s odious self-importance or dictatorial tendencies, Horwitz defends Rumkowski eloquently against critics who think he should have defied the Germans, or, like his counterpart in the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam Czerniaków, killed himself rather than carry out the Germans’ requests to start singling out children, the old, the sick, and all those who could not work for deportation to the death camps. “All my work here is to save as many as possible,” he quotes Rumkowski as saying shortly before he himself was taken away in one of the final transports to Auschwitz as the ghetto was finally “liquidated” in 1944.

Many readers may not be persuaded by Horwitz’s defense. However, Horwitz recognizes the excruciating dilemmas faced by Rumkowski, and does not take the easy route of applying an abstract and ultimately unrealistic standard of retrospective moral judgment from the comfort of the historian’s study. Here at least there can be little doubt that the “voluntarist turn” has little to offer in the way of understanding.

As Horwitz points out, the ultimate responsibility for the suffering and the death of the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto belonged not with Rumkowski but with the Germans. Yet in his book, “the Germans” remain largely anonymous, their motivations opaque, their personalities, views, ambitions, histories uncharted. The Gauleiter of the Wartheland, in which Lodz was situated, the mayor of the town, the military and SS commanders, all of these are no more than names here. The many sources explored by Horwitz do not include the German materials that could easily have enabled him to give these men a face. He notes SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s decision to close the ghetto, but does not say why he took it. He considers that the disappearance of the Jews was, for the Nazis, a confirmation of the “power and righteousness” of “the regime,” without recognizing that it was a product of fear as well: the paranoid, irrational fear that the Jews everywhere were conspiring against Germany to bring about a repeat of the “stab-in-the-back” of 1918.

Even more of a problem is the almost complete absence of the city’s and the region’s Polish population from this book. Although Poles occasionally get a mention, the overwhelming impression left on the reader is that there were only two peoples involved here: Germans and Jews. On occasion, this can be directly misleading, as when the author refers to the “Head Office of the Trustees of the East” (Haupttreuhandstelle Ost) as having been created by the Germans to bring about “the liquidation of Jewish factories and commercial enterprises.” In fact, although it did do this, its main purpose was to expropriate Polish factories and properties. Horwitz gives no sense that Poles too were maltreated, looted, forced to work, or murdered, as they were in their hundreds of thousands.

The Jewish population of Lodz declined, we are told, the German increased: What happened to the Poles? Fritzsche notes that the Germans set up camps in Lodz in which Poles were imprisoned before being deported; they receive no mention in Horowitz’s book. There are good studies of the multifarious interactions of Poles in Warsaw with the Jews of the city’s Nazi-created ghetto, which varied from looting and murder on the one hand to concealment and assistance on the other, but there is no mention in this book of similar relations in Lodz. Key parts of the historical context are thus missing from Horwitz’s otherwise outstanding account.

This is a pity. Both of the books under review are excellent works, well written, deeply researched, compulsively readable, based on rigorous academic principles yet addressing themselves successfully to a wide readership. Yet each of them tells only part of the story —Fritzsche the German part, Horwitz the Jewish part. To understand life and death in the Third Reich we need both, and we need them to be set firmly in their European and international setting as well.

  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).

  2. 2

    See Eric A. Johnson, Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, the Jews, and Ordinary Germans (Basic Books, 1999), pp. 435–436, and David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion Under Nazism (Blackwell, 1992), p. 113.