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Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germanyby Robert Gellately
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The Nazis never won a majority in free elections, but soon after Hitler took power most people turned away from democracy and backed the Nazi regime. Hitler won growing support even as he established the secret police (Gestapo) and concentration camps. What has been in dispute for over fifty years is what the Germans knew about these camps, and in what ways were they involved in the persecution of 'race enemies', slave workers, and social outsiders. To answer these questions, and to explore the public sides of Nazi persecution, Robert Gellately has consulted an array of primary documents. He argues that the Nazis did not cloak their radical approaches to 'law and order' in utter secrecy, but played them up in the press and loudly proclaimed the superiority of their system over all others. They publicized their views by drawing on popular images, cherished German ideals, and long held phobias, and were able to win over converts to their cause. The author traces the story from 1933, and shows how war and especially the prospect of defeat radicalized Nazism. As the country spiralled toward defeat, Germans for the most part held on stubbornly. For anyone who contemplated surrender or resistance, terror became the order of the day.
Washington Post Book World
"Readers will notice that Gellately offers a far more sophisticated argument and more abundant evidence than Daniel Goldhagen's cause celebre, 'Hitler's Willing Executioners.' In truth, Gellately's work is what Goldhagen's book could have been, but wasn't; that is, a closely reasoned and tightly constructed analysis."Publishers Weekly
"In this original and outstanding book, Gellately uses a wealth of new source materials, including the daily press, to examine the public face of the Nazi 'law and order' dictatorship, in the process contributing much to our understanding of the extent to which it basked in social consensus.... This is a genuinely important book which deserves the widest possible readership."Michael Burleigh, Washington and Lee University
"Superbly researched and convincingly argued, this path breaking study demonstrates that most Germans supported Hitler throughout the Nazi regime.... A crucial contribution to our understanding of the relationship between consent and coercion in modern dictatorship."Omer Bartov, Brown University
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Turning Away from Weimar
The years leading up to 1933 were difficult ones for Germany. The Weimar Republic's parliament was divided into more than a dozen political parties, and from the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, German Chancellors had to rely increasingly on the President's emergency powers to pass legislation. At the end of 1932, when the crisis facing the country deepened and government ground to a standstill, a group of influential conservatives advised President Paul von Hindenburg that Adolf Hitler's leadership would be a way to deal with mounting social, economic, and political crisis. Hitler was appointed on 30 January 1933. At 43 years of age, he was relatively young for the post, and beyond leading his own party since 1920, had not previously held a position of political responsibility.
Those men around the President and the social elites with whom they had contact, favoured Hitler as an interim leader, or at least saw him as a necessary evil. They no doubt believed that, lacking political experience, he would not be able to assert himself too much, and that they would retain ultimate control. In fact, men like ex-Chancellor Franz yon Papen, considered that Hitler's limited background in politics, when combined with his unusual ability to connect with the masses, presented a unique opportunity. Hitler had other advantages, including a passion to revise the Peace Treaty of 1919 and to build up the military, and he was a staunch opponent of Communism, who could provide the government with the kind of popular backing it needed? By January 1933 even some of the more reserved big businessmen came to see wisdom in Papen's project of 'yoking the Nazis to a conservative-dominated government'. The well-connected and experienced non-Nazis with whom the President stacked Hitler's own cabinet, would supposedly ensure that he was more a figurehead than a real leader with effective ideas and a programme of his own. They badly misjudged the situation. In less than six months the Nazis undermined the parliamentary system and had begun the destruction of justice by suspending civil and legal rights, which in turn opened the way for the creation of the Gestapo (Secret State Police) and the establishment of the first concentration camps.
Signs of Crisis and Support for Hitler
Hitler was able to make the transition from rabble-rousing political speaker, into the deeply beloved Führer of the German people in a remarkably short time. He recognized that most men and women wanted radical steps taken to deal with the wide-ranging crisis facing the country, and even if not everyone yearned for a specifically Nazi leader, most were weary of the Weimar experiment in democracy, with the endless elections, the countless demonstrations and lawlessness in the streets, the long lines before the welfare offices, and the scale of the social chaos. The German people, despising Weimar politicians who had utterly failed to reach out to them, found themselves ready to place their trust and understanding in someone who could re-connect them to what they felt were the sounder elements of German traditions. Hitler was able to scheme behind the scenes, and to manoeuvre himself into that position of trust and understanding.
There was a sense of hopelessness in the country on the eve of Hitler's appointment, and it was reflected in suicide rates for 1932 that were more than four times higher than those in Britain at the time, and nearly double what they were in the United States. There was a broad perception that the country was experiencing a breakdown of cultural and moral values. Large families were becoming a thing of the past and more women were going to work; abortions were thought to be reaching alarming proportions; and prostitution, sexual deviancy, and venereal diseases were presumed to be spreading.
Women had the vote and equality in law since 1919, but once the Depression hit, the virtues of the modern 'new woman' and emancipation were questioned, especially when issues arose about abortion, working wives (the so-called double-earners), and the falling birth rate. Although historians do not agree that the 'new woman' really existed in Weimar and tend to think she was an alarming myth constructed in the mass media of the time, Cornelie Usborne, for one, shows convincingly that there were enough such people to cause anxieties among social conservatives, who worried about upholding traditional marriage, gender roles, and morality. Many contemporaries saw the young, mainly middle- and lower middle-class 'new women' as sexual anarchists out to destroy social order, and threatening nothing less than 'racial suicide' by refusing to perform what traditionalists regarded as their 'biological duty'.
Women on the left of the political spectrum no doubt were appalled at the prospect of a Hitler government, but there were many others, including even politically active women, who were not at all displeased. One of them remarked in mid-1932, that the social trend was 'away from liberalism, toward obligations; away from the career woman, toward the housewife and mother'. Conservative, Catholic, and even liberal women by and large shared the point of view advocated by the Nazis, as to a 'naturally' determined sexual division of labour, and that it was important to reconstruct a 'community of the people' in which they would be involved primarily as wives and mothers, and 'not be forced to compete with men for scarce jobs and political influence'. Not surprisingly, therefore, women voted almost at the same rate as men for Hitler and his party, and for its promise to restore some semblance of the 'normality' for which they longed.
The general sense of crisis was reinforced by massive unemployment, which in turn fuelled discontent in all social classes, even those not threatened directly. When Hitler came to power, six million were officially unemployed, but in addition as many as two million more were the 'hidden' unemployed, people who gave up even registering for a job. With a corrected total of up to eight million unemployed, nearly 40 per cent of Germany's blue- and white-collar workers were without work, and in addition, an estimated three million more were underemployed. In the face of these numbers, the state clawed back social welfare measures, like the unemployment insurance that was granted in July 1927 when Weimar was at the height of its 'stable' period. There were three categories of state assistance for the unemployed, and the trend was for them all to decline into the lowest level, where bare survival was an issue.
Political violence in the streets literally became an everyday experience in many parts of the country. Most of the fighting was among the paramilitary organizations associated with various political parties, and involving millions of men, but the Nazis and the Communists were the most active.' Pitched battles broke out and innocent passers-by were killed when caught in the cross fire, as happened when sixteen people were killed on 'Bloody Sunday' (17 July 1932) in Hamburg-Altona: two more died later. The police intervened to break up the fighting, but as often happened, they came down in favour of the Nazis. Although most fatalities were non-Nazis, apparently shot by the police and security forces, such events were given an anti-Red interpretation in official reports and in the press with claims that Communist snipers were on the roofs.
The anti-Communist tendencies of the German police were well known elsewhere. For example, eight days before Hitler was appointed, Berlin police shot several demonstrators and arrested nearly seventy more in the name of stopping a Communist demonstration against the Nazis.
What made the general situation grave in the eyes of many middle-class Germans, was that support for the Communist Party (KPD) grew once the Depression hit. Indeed, in all three of the elections before Hitler's appointment, the KPD invariably came third, and its vote kept on rising. The more moderate Social Democrats (SPD) usually came second, so that from a liberal or conservative perspective, a majority of people were voting for Marxist parties. Conservative newspapers asked: 'Who could effectively counter the Marxist threat?' Alongside other factors, the growing sympathy in the extensive right-wing press helped Hitler into power.
In the last elections before 1933, the Nazi vote also rose, but it dropped slightly in November 1932. However, there was no viable right-wing alternative to Hitler, with most middle-class parties already gone, so that for many property owners in Germany, the relentless rise of unemployment and the KPD would most likely have soon led them back to Hitler, even if he had not been appointed Chancellor in January 1933. By the time Hitler became Chancellor, his support was far from unravelling, because 'the Nazis were the only acceptable party for the non-Marxist and non-Catholic voters who constituted the majority of German voters'. There was no obvious alternative by 1933, and soon many Catholic voters would come into the fold.
Even at the time of Hitler's appointment, the Nazis were not doing as poorly in the elections as some historians have suggested. In the last two elections before 1933 they were denied a majority, but still won more votes than any party had received in any federal election since 1920. Hitler even challenged Hindenburg in the presidential elections of 1932, and though he did not win, this young 'corporal' took 37 per cent of the vote in the second round against the distinguished old Field Marshal's 53 per cent. The anti-democratic mood in the country can be gathered from the fact that the other candidate in the run-off presidential election was the Communist Ernst Thälmann, who won 10 per cent. The last pre-dictatorship elections showed that a majority of voters (men and women) supported the anti-Republican parties (namely, the Nazis, the Communists, and the Nationalists), all of whom wanted to get rid of parliamentary democracy.
Hitler's appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 was followed next day by the dissolution of the Reichstag. His slogan for the elections called for 5 March, 'Attack on Marxism', was bound to appeal to solid citizens and property owners. Hermann Göring, one of the few Nazis in Hitler's Cabinet, took immediate steps to introduce emergency police measures. Over the next weeks the Nazis did not need to use the kind of massive violence associated with modern takeovers like the Russian Revolution. There was little or no organized opposition, and historian Golo Mann said of those times that 'it was the feeling that Hitler was historically right which made a large part of the nation ignore the horrors of the Nazi takeover.... People were ready for it.' To the extent that terror was used, it was selective, and it was initially aimed mainly at Communists and other (loosely defined) opposition individuals who were portrayed as the 'enemies of the people'.
Hitler certainly was interested in more than just solving a momentary crisis, even one he could drag out as a continuing Communist plot. He wanted to formalize his position as law-giving dictator, and to outlaw all political parties but his own. During the stormy days of February and March 1933, a federal election campaign was under way in which the Nazis pulled out all the stops, trashed their opponents without mercy, and won tremendous support. For all that, in the elections of 11 March, Hitler was denied an outright majority. We should not exaggerate the significance of that fact, as he got the vote of just over seventeen million people (or 43.9 per cent of the votes cast). The outcome gave the Nazis a slim majority of seats in the Reichstag when combined with those of their Nationalist partners. Hitler proved a master of the situation, and just as importantly, over the next months, the majority of Germans quickly made clear that they supported him.
Hitler convened the newly elected Reichstag in the famous Potsdam Church on 21 March, the first day of Spring, to signal a new beginning. On 'Potsdam Day', several innovations were introduced on the initiative of the Justice Ministry to show that the courts and judges would play their part. The vain hope of some of the 'legalists' was that if new Special Courts and a new decree against 'malicious attacks' on the government, could protect the regime from any criticism, and judges would mete out swift justice, then the dictatorship would return to the rule of law. Hitler took these concessions, but wanted much more. He needed two-thirds of the Reichstag to vote for a constitutional change that would enable him to pass laws through the Cabinet, and not just through the Reichstag. Hitler got this constitutional change on 23 March, when the deputiesexcept for the Socialists (and Communists who were not allowed to take their seats)obliged him by voting for the so-called Enabling Law. Prior to the vote, Hitler gave a government declaration in which he signalled that he had a social and political agenda that went beyond suppressing Communism, getting people back to work, and restoring Germany's position in Europe. His stated goals now included creating a 'real community of the people' and he alluded to the need for 'the moral purification of the body politic'.
The combination of Reichstag Fire Decree and Enabling Act gave the Nazi Revolution a veneer of legality and made it easier for citizens to accept the dictatorship. Hitler could claim to be the lawful head of government (by mid-1934 he was also the head of state), and anyone who wanted to resist was in the difficult position of having to act illegally. Soon even verbal criticism of the government was criminalized.
Hitler's fate initially was tied to dealing with Communism and unemployment. The first part was easy, given the kinds of forces the Nazis could mobilize, the extent of popular anti-Communism, and the small numbers of militant Communists. But curing Germany's massive economic problems represented a formidable challenge. The 'Battle for Jobs' in time showed victories, and these were played up in the media for all they were worth. The 'war' on unemployment was hard-won, but even so, by 1936 reached a point where labour shortages were reported. The return to full employment was not the overnight 'miracle' some Germans remembered who lived through these times, but was more like a knock-down dragged-out struggle.
Jobs and incomes bounced back and hope was restored, especially among the young men and women, who were also offered shiny state-sponsored programmes (like 'Landhelp' 'Landyear' and 'Labour Service'), that provided work experience in the countryside. Such projects were also designed to cement the 'community of the people' by bringing together youths with diverse backgrounds. The reintroduction of conscription in 1935, drew off large numbers of working-age men from the labour market, and so helped reduce the unemployment rolls. Other government measures combined economics and ideology, like the introduction of marriage loans for medically fit and 'racially correct' couples. The loans were offered as part of a law on the reduction of unemployment (2 June 1933). Women were of central interest to the regime, not merely as potential mothers as they were in Fascist Italy, but as mothers of the race. Thus, not only was a fairly generous marriage loan provided on condition that the female spouse leave her job, but she also had to pass medical tests. To encourage her also to have children, the regime almost immediately decreed that repayments would be reduced by one-quarter on the birth of each new child.
In Alison Owings's oral history of women in the Third Reich, nearly all of them point to Hitler's success in curing unemployment. It does not matter that the work creation programmes were the initiatives of leaders out in the provinces. Even some opponents of Nazism remembered the sources of Hitler's popularity to be the work creation programme; getting the drunks off the street and the youth in order again; introducing a 'work duty' programme and new road construction. The daughter of a nobleman, who was anything but sympathetic to Nazism, remembered that even her father was impressed by the 'accomplishments' of the regime. 'He was satisfied that order reigned again, that people had work, that the economy was going forward, and that Germany again enjoyed a certain respect.'
Where persuasion failed, coercion was used to get the unwilling to take up low-paying jobs they did not want. Grumbling did not go away, of course, and working-class family consumption in 1937 was lower than it had been in 1927; they drank less than half as much beer as they had a decade earlier. They also ate less meat, fish, tropical fruit, bacon and eggs, and wheat bread.
Hitler also reached out to opponents, like the Catholics, by signing a Concordat with the Vatican on 8 July 1933. Until then, Catholic voters were loyal to their Centre Party, and it was they who were mainly responsible for denying the Nazis their electoral majorities. Catholics soon adjusted to the dictatorship. Protestants, however, were more sympathetic to Nazism all along. In their church elections of 1933, two-thirds of the voters supported the German Christian sect that wanted to integrate Nazism and Christianity, and to expel Jews who had converted to Protestantism. Hitler made a brief radio appeal to Protestants on the eve of these church elections, and asked them to show their support for Nazi policies. He could not have been disappointed by the pro-Nazi results.
Although the Communist and Socialist working class had been firmly against the Nazis up to 1933, in the Third Reich activists who were willing and able to resist were soon overwhelmed. The Communists were more active and held out longest, but even so, at the outside no more than 150,000 of them were touched directly by some form of persecution. If we presume they were all 'resisting; some more than others, we are left to conclude that Communist resisters, among a population of between sixty and seventy million, represented a small minority, and we know that even fewer members of the other working-class party were 'persecuted'. It is clear that large sections of the working class were won over, especially by the return of full employment, so that by the mid-1930s they, too, contributed to the formation of a 'pro-National Socialist consensus'. Even when workers were less than overwhelmed by appeals to become part of the 'community of the people; they nevertheless were impressed that the Nazis took seriously their everyday concerns on the shop floor. Workers 'did not keep their distance from the cheering masses' on occasions like the Nazi May Day of 'national labour', nor when Hitler spoke on the radio and especially when he gained one success after the next on the foreign policy front.
We are used to ignoring the subsequent elections and plebiscites under Hitler's dictatorship, but they tend to show that a pro-Nazi consensus formed and grew. In October 1933 Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and called a national plebiscite to ask Germans if they agreed. The results were 95 per cent in favour. Hardly less spectacular were the results of the election he called for November, held along with the plebiscite. The results were that Hitler and his party received almost forty million votes (92.2 per cent of the total). Hardly less remarkable was the turnout of 95.2 per cent of those eligible. We can hardly take the election at face value, because all other political parties were outlawed. Nearly three and a half million people spoiled their ballot, presumably to show their opposition. Still, the vast majority voted in favour of Nazism, and in spite of what they could read in the press and hear by word of mouth about the secret police, the concentration camps, official antisemitism, and so on. The plebiscite and election have rightly been called 'a genuine triumph for Hitler; and 'even allowing for manipulation and lack of freedom; there is no getting away from the fact that at that moment 'the vast majority of the German people backed him'.
Excerpted from BACKING HITLER by Robert Gellately. Copyright © 2001 by Robert Gellately. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Robert Gellately is Professor in Holocaust History at Clark University, Massacuhsetts, USA.
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