The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930-1935
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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.