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…
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.