One of the most interesting tendencies in West German historiography in the last decade has been to turn away from the great themes of state policy, national and economic development, and theories of fascism and modernization, to a new emphasis upon everyday life and the experience of ordinary people in their family, occupational, and regional settings. The shift was not entirely unheralded, for German historians had been impressed by such classics in the depiction of the lives of the “little people” as E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou. But the sudden surge of enthusiasm for the new mode that began in the late Seventies was so pronounced and the claims of its advocates so vehement that it seemed to be more than a scholarly phenomenon. The Bielefeld University historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler was probably correct in suggesting that it had its roots in the general mood of uncertainty engendered by such events as the environmental crisis, the coming of massive unemployment, and the escalation of the arms race, and that, like the emergence of the Greens, with which it was not disconnected, it was characterized by a new skepticism, a new distrust of existing authorities and their theories and ideas, and a new insistence upon seeing things differently that grew out of that mood.

However valid that explanation may be, there is no doubt about the interest aroused by everyday history, which has led to a proliferation of studies of subjects ranging from mining communities in Upper Bavaria and the experience and thinking of workers and white-collar workers in specific industries to the life of outsiders in society, utopian communities, beggars and vagrants, and rebels of one stripe or another, but has at the same time aroused a good deal of concerned criticism among historians who fear that the new tendency will merely encourage imprecision and loose thinking about the past.

Thus, Jürgen Kocka, a leading social historian, has written of “the price that generally has to be paid for this kind of microhistory: the renunciation of a recognition of connections, the ignoring of the ‘big questions’ of state and class formation, of religion and churches, of industrialization and capitalism, of the basic causes and results of National Socialism, of the German peculiarities when compared with other countries.” It is essential, Kocka continues, not to ignore those things,

for, on the one hand, changing structures and experiences even in the smallest spaces are to a great degree the result of those great connections and processes and, therefore, cannot be understood without reference to them; and, on the other hand, a great part of our politics, and with it the setting of the trends that affect individual persons and the smallest of groups, necessarily takes place above the local and regional level…. Partiality in historical understanding,…an identification with the little space by means of blacking out the connections—that is not intellectually satisfying and in the long run is politically problematical.

Even its critics admitted, however, that everyday history could bring a concreteness and specificity to the description of the past that was absent from the description of long-term trends and analysis of structures and systems and that, in Wehler’s words, “a colorful, plastic history of individual and collective experiences, happenings, modes of perception, behavioral dispositions and actions broadens the understanding of the past and stimulates the fantasy as well as the intellect.” Moreover, as the great discussion about German identity began, and historians became increasingly concerned over the way in which the memory of National Socialism prevented an integrated view of the national past, it was inevitable that they should ask themselves whether studies of everyday life in the Third Reich might not help to break the blockade that Nazism had imposed upon the German historical consciousness and, by showing connections that were not ideologically determined between the Hitler period and the years that preceded and followed it, put that period back into the stream of German history.

The first work that showed the possibilities inherent in this approach was Detlev Peukert’s Volksgenossen und Gemeinschaftsfeinde, which appeared in 1982 and has now been published in English translation. Peukert was well aware of the danger of falling into pointillism and miniaturism if he did not keep his eyes on analytical goals, but he was confident that “the lives of simple ‘ordinary people’ [would] turn out to be far from simple and ordinary” and that studying them would invalidate the conventional view of the monolithic character of the Nazi regime by revealing, among other things, the extent of internal opposition to its declared objectives. He believed that these lives would also demonstrate that what has been called “Hitler’s social revolution” was in large part either inadvertent or the result of long-term trends interrupted by the world economic crisis and now reasserting themselves in ways that defied Nazi control.


In this confidence, Peukert has been largely justified, and his book is certainly the most informative and perceptive work that we possess on the responses of ordinary people to the Nazi experiment, not least because the evidence that he cites to support his conclusions shows how ambivalent those responses generally were. In his thorough treatment of the question of consent and opposition in the Third Reich, for example, the author relies heavily upon Gestapo reports on morale and public opinion in various localities, the “Reports from the Reich,” which were prepared by the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst) and intended only for the eyes of the top state and party leaders, and the “Reports on Germany,” which were produced by the Social Democratic Party in Exile (SOPADE) and contain an almost inexhaustible wealth of information about local affairs and opinion in Germany during the Nazi period.

Despite the deep ideological differences between the compilers of these reports, they were in general agreement that, while the regime professed to have created a closed, harmonious national community, there was from the very beginning deep dissatisfaction among the population of all parts of the country, caused by failings in the economy, government intrusions into private life, disruption of accepted tradition and custom, and police-state controls. This dissatisfaction took many forms, ranging from refusal to follow officially prescribed practices like the Eintopf (one-course) meal on Sundays to giving shelter and support to victims of persecution, and it varied in intensity over the course of the twelve years of Nazi rule. In general, however, it amounted to little more than a kind of persistent grumbling, which rarely (one must make an exception in the case of the Catholic Church’s successful opposition to the euthanasia program) took the form of open dissent and was always restrained by the Führer myth and by the deep-seated longing for normality and order.

Thus a SOPADE report of February 1938 could state:

To the extent that the attitude of a whole nation can ever be reduced to a formula, we can assert roughly the following three points:

  1. Hitler has got the approval of a majority of the nation on two vital questions: he has created work and he has made Germany strong.
  2. There is widespread dissatisfaction with prevailing conditions, but it affects only the worries of daily life and has not so far led to fundamental hostility to the regime as far as most people are concerned.
  3. Doubts about the continued survival of the regime are widespread, but so is the sense of helplessness as to what might replace it.

The third point seems to us to be the most significant, as far as the present situation in Germany is concerned…. Nor does it contradict our observations that the political indifference of the masses is on the increase.

As far as the regime was concerned, the strength of popular faith in the Führer made opposition tolerable as long as it did not assume overt or collective forms. It could also count on general approval of Nazi domestic policy, with its promise to restore order in the country, and because of this made little attempt to conceal its terrorist attacks against what were alleged to be political and social troublemakers. Mr. Peukert does not hesitate to speak of the complicity of the population in these campaigns; he recalls the sermon preached by Friedrich Dibelius, the general superintendent of the Protestant Church on the Day of Potsdam in 1933 (“A new beginning in the history of the state is always marked, in one or another way, by the use of force…. And if the life and death of the nation are at stake, then the power of the state must be employed effectively and with vigour, whether internally or externally”), and he cites documents to show the extent to which the general public approved of Hitler’s murder of his SA associates in June 1934 and, indeed, accorded him heroic stature for his defense of order and decency.

This complicity extended to all attacks upon dissidents and outsiders, although persecution of the churches in the name of the Volksgemeinschaft aroused vigorous dissent, and existing evidence has convinced Mr. Peukert that “the mass of the population was not induced into actively supporting the persecution of the Jews,” and that Reichskristallnacht met with “almost unanimous public obloquy and indignation.” On the other hand, no public or grass-roots attempts were made to criticize racial anti-Semitism in principle or to show solidarity with those being persecuted. The “most deep-lying reason for the consent given by the majority of the population to the Nazi regime” was, in Mr. Peukert’s view, “the longing for normality felt by a population which had been shaken by crisis and whose social reference points had been thrown into disarray.” Despite mounting evidence that the regime was incapable of creating that normality, most people were willing to accept its promises that it was coming closer every day, meanwhile enduring the regimentation and subservience and the overt use of force that characterized everyday life.

One might have thought that a time would come when disenchantment would set in and the dangers of the future become so palpable that passive opposition turned to active resistance on the popular level, as it did in the military and bureaucratic elites. But, as Mr. Peukert demonstrates in a series of chapters on the attitudes toward Nazism of the different social classes and the younger generation, there was never any strong inducement toward resistance among the Mittelstand, the most ambitious and successful members of which “accepted the regime’s challenge of differential rewards for higher efficiency, and…enjoyed the esteem that was accorded to the ‘productive classes’ in symbolism and propaganda,” while the working class, in which hatred of the regime never faltered, was handicapped by the Nazis’ success in shattering the political, formal organizations of everyday working-class culture, and was reduced to small-group actions of propaganda and sabotage (or, in the labor market, to opposition to Nazi wage policies, which was particularly successful in the munitions industry).


That conflict with the Nazi authorities did not remain entirely static is demonstrated by the revolt of young people against the party’s monopoly of youth culture, and Mr. Peukert describes with obvious relish the activities of the socalled Edelweiss Pirates of Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Essen, a subculture of mostly working-class youths who held anti-Nazi song fests, went on hiking and cycling trips, and engaged in open warfare with the Hitler Jugend; and the Meuten of Leipzig, a more politicized version of the Pirates, with Communist associations and a membership that reached 1,500 in the years between 1937 and 1939; and, most particularly, the swing movement, composed largely of middle-class youths who met in secret clubs in Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and Dresden and other large cities. They played American music and comported themselves in ways that so infuriated Heinrich Himmler that; in 1942, he ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Hamburg movement and had them sent to the Moringen concentration camp. On the whole, however, despite the defiance of these young rebels and the existence of an underground of thousands of people who sabotaged the regime as well as they could, the atomization of society effected by the Nazis and their ruthlessness in the use of force had the result of making active resistance, in Mr. Peukert’s words, “decentralised, disorientated and historically ineffectual.”

To the historical reconsideration of National Socialism, Mr. Peukert’s book makes a signal contribution by demonstrating the way in which a movement that came to power loudly proclaiming its intention to restore old ways and traditions advanced the cause of modernity almost against its will. On the one hand, with respect to the development of industrial class society in Germany, the regime adapted itself to long-term trends of modernization that were already perceptible before 1933, without any divergence or innovation of its own. On the other, its attempts to create an integrated Volksgemeinschaft by destroying family-centered education, creating a state-dominated youth culture, and dissolving traditional structures in the countryside and among the working class were generally self-defeating, producing not the disciplined conformity that was desired but a new individualism and skepticism. These attitudes, like the ethical stress on achievement that was encouraged by the regime’s economic practices, were to survive the war and the defeat and play their part in the Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s.

Mr. Peukert concludes his book with thirteen theses that not only summarize his findings but also advance an interpretation of National Socialism, namely, that it was “a symptom of the crisis of industrial class society in inter-war Germany, and that the pathologies and fractures of modernity were articulated in this crisis with particular force.” He does not give us much evidence to support this, and neither it nor his argument that the racial policy of Nazism was merely “a radicalised version of schemes of social policy that had been advocated, sometimes on optimistic, progressive grounds, since the turn of the century” is very convincing. Certainly his interpretation is no effective answer to the theory of the German Sonderweg (unique destiny), if that is what it is intended to be, and it makes no attempt to explain why England and the United States, which passed through the same crisis of industrialism, did not abandon democracy as Germany did in 1933.

Bernt Engelmann, sometime correspondent and editor of Der Spiegel and now a free-lance writer, was born in Berlin in 1921 of a middle-class family with such advanced political views that his grandfather, a solid bourgeois of the old school, advised him, when he was eleven years old, to join Red Falcon, the organization for the youngest members of the Socialist Workers’ Youth. His grandmother was the eldest daughter of Leopold Ullstein, the Jewish publisher who brought out Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front after it had been rejected by twelve other German publishing houses.

With this background, there was little likelihood that young Engelmann would succumb to the national enthusiasm that greeted Hitler’s accession to power in 1933. He explains engagingly that he was immunized by the books that his parents and grandparents had put into his hands:

With such guides as Jack London, B. Traven, Erich Kästner, Mark Twain, and Wilhelm Speyer for a start, and later on John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, Kurt Tucholsky (who became my favorite author), Robert Neumann (who wrote sparkling parodies of the Nazi writers’ bathos), and the anti-war writes Erich Maria Remarque, Romain Rolland, and Arnold Zweig—with these, it was impossible for me to become a Nazi, or even a militarist. And when the books of most of these writers were banned and burned by the Nazis, I knew beyond any doubt that Hitler and his henchmen were my enemies.

Even as a youth he was part of the resistance, carrying messages, protecting the hunted, and, when possible, helping them to escape; and he continued these activities after he volunteered for service in the Luftwaffe in 1938 (doing so partly to offset suspicion from his father, who had accepted a position in the London branch of a German export firm but was secretly planning to move the family abroad). During the war years he was involved in several major underground railway plans that saved the lives of hundreds of people. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 and imprisoned in Dachau, but was liberated by the British before the Nazis had discovered in any detail what he had been up to.

Englemann’s book is largely an account of his own clandestine activities and those of his associates, supplemented by some stories that other people told him about their experiences in the Nazi years. The focus is too narrow to justify the book’s subtitle. Indeed, we learn little more about everyday life in the Third Reich than that some people had the courage to resist the Nazis and some did not, that some adapted easily to the demands of the regime and later wished they hadn’t, and that some were true believers whose faith survived the collapse of the Third Reich. These are things we already knew in a general sort of way, and without some statistical and regional data and analysis they are not, at least to historians, very useful. This is not to say that this is not an interesting book. It contains a nasty story about Ernst Jünger in Paris supervising the execution of German soldiers who had been captured as deserters in order, as he explained, to satisfy “a higher form of curiosity.” It includes an eyewitness account of the outrages committed by Ukrainian volunteers in Lemberg in 1941; and in its description of the planning and execution of escapes it often reads like a spy novel. But it is not a good example of microhistory.

It is probably not entirely appropriate to place Claudia Koonz’s pathbreaking study in the category of everyday history, although it can at least be noted that the women she studies have been almost as completely ignored by German historians as gypsies and vagrants and other forgotten groups that everyday historians delight in discovering. Even Mr. Peukert, in his otherwise comprehensive study, finds little time for women and their experiences under the Nazis. Whatever historiographical label one may wish to paste on Professor Koonz’s book, its importance lies in the fact that it is the first work to undertake to study not only the women who said no to Hitler, and those who, like the Jews, were given no choice, but those who affirmed the Nazi experiment and sought to propagate its principles and bring its doctrines to bear upon the most private aspects of family life. In the history of women in general, the Nazi chapter is a particularly painful one, but it is written here with forthrightness and an authority based upon enormous work in the archives and in the field.

Midway in her book, Professor Koonz cites the British novelist H.G. Wells, who in 1934 expressed astonishment over the fact that there had been “no perceptible women’s movement to resist the practical obliteration of their freedom by Fascists or Nazis.” Wells was assuming that freedom was so highly prized by women that they would be willing to make great sacrifices for it. This may have been true of his own countrywomen; it was not so of many women in Germany, and perhaps even the majority of middle-class women, during the Weimar Republic. That unfortunate regime had greatly advanced the cause of women’s emancipation by giving them the vote and opening the universities and the professions to them, gains which, paradoxically, had frightened rather than gratified them. In their eyes, Professor Koonz writes,

new opportunities meant loss of protection. “Emancipation,” declared one woman, “threatens to emancipate our sons, daughters and even husbands from our control.” Women who conformed to traditional expectations demanded recognition in the motherly roles for which their childhood and education had prepared them. Viewing themselves as an endangered species in an abrasive modern world, they called for a virile patriarchy which, they believed, would protect them from emancipation. Democracy and choice had surrounded them with chaos, anomie and competition. Women demanded their right to withdraw from that world, to devote themselves to familial concerns, and to be economically secure. Authoritarian rule would, they hoped, impose order and health on the nation and tie fathers to their families. Such an inchoate longing did not necessarily impel women to vote for the Nazi Party before 1933, but it did prepare them to welcome the Nazi state.

Many women who shared such feelings belonged to middle-class organizations like the Federation of German Women’s Organizations (BDF), the Protestant Women’s League (Frauenbund), or the Catholic German Women’s League (KDF), but before the Twenties were far advanced, women were beginning to attend Nazi rallies, and soon some of these had decided to organize a parallel movement, separate from but supportive of the Nazi party. At both the local and the national level, women leaders arose, developed programs of their own and attracted followers, directing their attention not to politics but to women’s concerns, seeking to define a Lebensraum of their own against the time when the Nazis would control the state, a communal vision of motherhood, Professor Koonz writes, “that aimed at incorporating women into civic activities, welfare work, patriotic and folk organizations, and housewives’ associations.”

During the Weimar years these groups enjoyed great latitude, being allowed by the government to agitate against their favorite targets—the New Woman, sexual license, cultural decadence, and the like—and being virtually ignored by the leaders of the Nazi party, who had other things to do and, in any case, had such a low opinion of women’s intellect that they attributed no great importance to their activities. After Hitler came to power, however, the position of the Nazi women changed for the worse. The new masters abolished the socialist and communist women’s organizations at once and accepted the speedy capitulation of the BDF, a national federation of sixty member organizations and 500,000 members, most of whom welcomed Hitler’s nationalistic, antidemocratic, anticommunist stance. But they seemed to have no clear idea of what to do about their own women’s groups. If the women who had established these organizations expected any rewards for their efforts, they were soon disabused, most of them being eased out of their posts because they were suspected of being too independent or too ambitious.

The ensuing period was one of great confusion, with new aspirants to the leadership of a national Nazi women’s federation seeking to find male protectors in the party who might advance their cause, a chaotic condition that persisted until Gertrud Scholtz-Klink succeeded in outmaneuvering her rivals. Professor Koonz describes the tangled politics of these professedly unpolitical women with considerable skill.

Scholtz-Klink possessed all the qualities necessary for leadership of the Nazi women’s movement. She was the widow of a Nazi martyr (her husband had died of a heart attack during an SA rally) and the mother of four children; in appearance she was young, blond, and athletic; she had considerable bureaucratic talents; and she was prepared, in return for power over the women beneath her, to render complete obedience to the party hierarchy. She had none of the independence that had characterized the leaders of the 1920s, who had resisted party intrusions into the realm that they had defined as women’s space.

In contrast, Scholtz-Klink showed great skill in avoiding conflicts but an even greater readiness to concede to party wishes when they occurred. This became clear enough when Hitler’s assault on Christianity, his eugenic policies, and his shift to a wartime economy, which forced a reversal of the Nazi position on women in the workplace, showed how hypocritical the Nazi commitment to strong families and the revival of motherhood really was. The party’s religious policies in particular confronted Protestant women’s associations with a harsh dilemma, for which Scholtz-Klink, with her formless pantheistic faith in nature and the Germanic race, had little sympathy. During the period when Bishop Müller was attempting, with Hitler’s blessing, to impose a Germanic Christianity that placed obedience to the party above all other values, she gave no encouragement to loyal Nazi women who resented this attack upon their faith, going so far as to collaborate in their exclusion from the party.

Similarly, Scholtz-Klink’s national organization (Frauenwerk) spread propaganda for the forced sterilization of the “racially undesirable,” and when this and other Nazi eugenic policies encountered the stout opposition of Catholic women (who in other respects supported, or at least did not oppose, Nazi doctrine), she did her best to destroy the autonomy of their organizations, showing virtuosity and persistence in the process. In 1981, when Professor Koonz interviewed Frau Scholtz-Klink, she found her wholly unrepentant about her conduct and indeed her faith in Hitler, and Koonz concluded that “she remained as much a Nazi now as she had been in 1945 or 1933.”

The last third of Professor Koonz’s book deals with active resistance against the Nazi regime and with the Jewish question, themes that are familiar enough but have never been discussed, as here, with the focus upon women. Both chapters are more successful in portraying the chilling actualities of everyday life in the Third Reich than either Peukert or Engelmann, and the chapter on the resistance in particular will probably force some modification of conventional views about the roles of men and women in underground activities. Court records that reveal that about one in five persons arrested and convicted of political crimes was a woman should not, for instance, be used to support the argument that many more men than women were active in the underground. As Professor Koontz points out, “we cannot overlook the mentality of the police and judges, who were reluctant to damage morale by arresting women,” and sometimes excluded them as targets in nationwide dragnets. Moreover, the authorities were disarmed by their own ideological prejudices. Believing that women were incapable of political participation, they could hardly think of them as intelligent or independent enough to commit treason. One woman who was active in the resistance said afterward: “The image of women then helped us a lot. The Nazis regarded women as stupid—capable only of being good housewives and mothers.”

When war broke out in 1939, the dream of an integrated Volksgenossenschaft with a separate Lebensraum for women, in which motherhood would be protected and cultural and civic values preserved and nurtured, was already in pretty bad repair, thanks to Scholtz-Klink’s propensity for taking women from their homes and putting them at the disposal of whatever national priorities the Nazi leaders dictated. The Nazi women leaders of the 1920s had hoped for a partnership between man and woman, in which each would play his part in building the perfect society. The war, which soon revealed itself to be one for racial rather than military objectives, made it clear that this was not to be, as Rudolf Hess admitted when he wrote in a letter to an unmarried mother, “The new ideas born in the war must also hold sway after the war.” A Nazi victory would in all likelihood have brought a continuation of extermination and eugenic engineering and produced a world, Professor Koonz writes, “of absolute masculine superiority in which the largely middle-class membership of the Frauenwerk would breed racially pure stock, and poorer, working-class women would both work at low-level jobs and bear children.”

This Issue

July 16, 1987