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Seduced by HitlerThe Choices of a Nation and the Ethics of Survival
By Adam Lebor
SourcebooksCopyright © 2004 Adam Lebor
All right reserved.
From Cradle to Grave
"The only people who still have a private life in Germany are those who are asleep."
--Robert Ley, director of the German Labor Front
"A stranger passes through a village and sees the weathervane being taken down from the church steeple. He asks the workmen, 'Are you putting a new one up?' 'Oh no,' the workman replies. 'We're replacing it with a civil servant. No one knows better which way the wind is blowing and how to turn.'"
--Popular joke told during the Third Reich
The secretaire was a fine piece of furniture, tall and handsome with a roll top and walnut inlays. It was only after a year or so that we found the hidden compartment--opened by placing pressure on both sides of a flat surface and then tipping it up. In it we found an old letter written in spidery Polish. Why it should have been concealed was not clear from the contents--a rather dry communication from a clothing manufacture in Litzmannstadt, Lodz as it is now known--but the date was interesting: 1940. That was after the German invasion of Poland, before the setting up of the ghetto. We had little doubt that the recipient of the letter, Nathan Majman, was Jewish--his name and the context of the letter made it plain enough--and that he was the owner of the secretaire. It was also a safe assumption that he lost his furniture soon after storing the letter. We had bought it in a Dusseldorf antique shop and tried to retrace the route of the secretaire. There was nothing very remarkable about the search; the 1990s was the decade when the wartime dispossessed attempted to find and reclaim their paintings, their gold, their houses, and their pasts.
Throughout Germany and central Europe, newly opened up by the fall of communism, search teams were at work, trawling through archives and property registers. Antiquarians were on their guard. Ours too. At first, he claimed to have bought the piece from a Rhineland widow. Later he admitted it came from a North German dealer. We followed the paper trail from shop to dealer from dealer to shop. It seemed like a small but significant victory when we managed to travel in time to 1947. A Hamburg "collector"--in fact another dealer--had bought the secretaire from a formerly well-to-do coffee importer living in the suburb of Blankenese.
That is when the trail ran cold. We never did find Mr. Majman. The leap from postwar to wartime desperation had to be made intuitively. Long-standing Hamburg residents told us how furniture, furs, and valuables from "the East"--that is, for the most part stolen from Jews--ended up in the port. The resulting picture brought us only a little closer to Mr. Majman, but it did reveal something about the corruptibility of ordinary Germans in the Third Reich, their readiness to profit from misfortune.
Public auctioning of Jewish goods in Hamburg began during 1941--between three and four thousand giant containers of furniture and clothes abandoned by those Jews lucky enough to emigrate. Hamburg was Germany's main embarkation point for America and Britain. Priority was given to bidders who were young, unmarried couples, or Germans who were likely to return to the Fatherland. Public institutions also benefited; the local tax authorities bought office furniture, the Hamburg library bought up the abandoned private book collections, the city art gallery bought paintings. The profits landed in a Gestapo account held with the Deutsche Bank.
Public auctions of Jewish goods were held on every working day between February 1941 and April 1945. Forty-five cargo ships full of belongings stolen from deported Dutch Jews provided rich pickings for the bidders who soon extended well beyond the original qualifying groups. The goods poured in from all corners of the expanding Reich. There would be complaints if there were not sufficient possessions formerly owned by Jews to pick over and select. The contents of 72,000 apartments in the East--Jews sent to Auschwitz--were loaded onto trains and sent to central collection points in German cities. Jewish slave laborers sorted through the property and then sent it for auction around the country. Essen received 1,928 freight wagons, Cologne 1,457, Rostock 1,023, Hamburg 2,699. Mr. Majman's secretaire, we believe, became German property at one of those auctions.
Frank Bajohr, who has researched the "Aryanization" of Hamburg, calculates that more than a hundred thousand people in the city alone, "ordinary Germans," directly profited from the Holocaust. The Hamburg librarian Gertrud Seydelmann remembers how Germans felt as if they had won the lottery: ration cards were still being honored, there were no serious shortages, husbands were returning from the East laden with meat, wine, and clothes, and then luxury goods were offered at basement prices. "Simple housewives were suddenly wearing fur coats, dealing in coffee and jewelry, had fine old furniture," recalls Seydelmann. "It was the stolen property of Dutch Jews who, as I found out after the war, were already on their way to the gas chambers. I didn't want anything to do with it."
A process that had begun in 1933 with individual purchases of Jewish property snowballed into what Bajohr calls, "one of the biggest changes of ownership in modern history, a massive robbery in which ever more sections of the German population participated." A systematic ransacking of Jewish homes began in 1938 and stretched well beyond Hamburg. Tax officers were declared responsible for deducting a 20 percent wealth tax on Jewish families. "Tax officers are now in the front line of the battle of the National Socialist empire against Jewry," said the Steuerzeitung (the "tax newspaper," required reading for Hider era accountants) bursting with pride. As the ghettos took shape in the East and the deportation gathered pace, so the furniture trade flourished. Removal companies--such as Kuhne und Nagel, now an international moving firm--profited from the so-called "M-Aktion" (M, for Mobel, meaning "furniture" and Aktion, or "operation"). Nazi institutions claimed first right to the furniture. Alfred Rosenberg, minister for civil administration in the East, made the first bid in December 1941 for desks and office equipment for his bureaucrats. Some of the biggest furniture transports came from Belgium and Holland, especially from Antwerp where many Jews had stored their belongings.
After the war, Jewish restitution claims were rejected. The documentation was said to fall under the realm of tax secrecy. Under the German archive law, these documents have to be sealed for eighty years. Only a few tax offices such as the Oberfinanzamt in Cologne have started to cooperate. Many Third Reich tax officials continued to work in the same capacity in postwar Germany, and so there was no rush to open the files. The inventories that have been released are comprehensive, itemizing every last spoon and kettle. The auctions announced in the newspapers drew large crowds in the exhibition halls of Cologne and the central slaughterhouse in Dusseldorf. As the war drew to a close, perhaps three out of every ten German households had at least one stolen item.
There were explanations for this--German cities, including Hamburg, were heavily bombed, and households needed to replenish their stocks--but no excuses. What had happened to a nation once proud of its civil service, its rectitude? The Germans--and we use the term carefully to incorporate the Prussians, the Bavarians, the Swabians, the Hanseatic, and all the tribes of the still young nation-state--looked down on others, the French, the Italians, the Poles for their corruption and their perceived lack of moral fiber.
The Allied bombing of German civilians provides a clue, but no more. The worse the bombing, the more likely Germans were to see themselves as victims. In war, there are informal hierarchies of victimhood; stronger, or better-off, victims feel no solidarity, only distaste, for weaker victims. Moral categories are blurred--the highest good is survival on the best possible terms.
This evolution in attitudes began far earlier than the bombing or indeed the outbreak of war. It was the very essence of the totalitarian system, the key seduction technique of the Nazis--to fudge the issue of personal responsibility to make everyone accountable to the Fuhrer and no one accountable to himself. The oddity of the Nazi dictatorship was its recognition of consumer demands. This does not tally with any familiar definition of a totalitarian state. Yet stimulating consumer demand was an important component of early Nazi economic policies. German citizens were also consumers who had to be satisfied. The middle class had increased their savings by the mid-1930s--recovering from the desperate times of the hyperinflation--and were given opportunity to spend on cars (whose output tripled between 1933 and 1938) and other consumer durables.
There is still a heated discussion among economic historians as to whether the economic recovery was spontaneous, the result of a predictable cyclical shift, or induced by Nazi policies. Structural changes were on their way throughout Europe and in Germany too. Low-paid and unskilled jobs were giving way to white-collar employment, and joblessness was dropping. The result was that there was more money to spend, more consumer choices.
The Nazi economists shaped these choices. Tax breaks allowed Germans to buy their cars; they received grants to repair the roofs of their houses and to buy household goods. Those who got married under Nazi rule were offered loans of up to one thousand reichsmarks (RM) to buy furniture. By the end of 1933, 183,000 loans had been taken up. It would be, however, an exaggeration to say that the Nazis invented a form of consumer fascism. Hitler's Germans were never offered a grand choice between products; they had far less influence over competing policies. But the early Nazi focus on consumer demand ensured that the government's ability to meet popular expectations became a measure of the regime's legitimacy.
That created a special dynamic within Nazi society. It meant that a citizen-as-consumer had a degree of bargaining power with the authorities, a potential platform for protest. And it meant that the leadership was obliged to be alert to all fluctuation in the popular mood when consumer shortages began to set in.
The American political sociologist Ted Gurr answered the question, "Why do men rebel?" by developing the concept of Relative Deprivation. The dirt poor, he argued, rarely rebel. Populations in political turmoil are usually those who previously enjoyed a substantial period of prosperity. When that prosperity tapered off, expectations continued to rise. The gap between these rising expectations and deteriorating living standards was (and is) a cause of domestic political violence.
The Nazis understood this danger, and the latent fear of the regime can be found reflected in its policy toward women, food, and consumer products. Hitler, it is fair to say, did not think like an American sociologist. He could compare for himself the mood in August 1914--a grainy photograph shows him in Munich as war is announced--and the sour, revolutionary mood of November 1918. An increasingly prosperous, self-confident state felt truly united in August 1914, perhaps for the first time. Four years of war--not only the bitter, pointless trench warfare, but also the long queues and hunger at home--set Germans at each other's throats. Hitler's analysis--as a former soldier in the trenches--was that World War I had been lost on the homefront. In order to be successful, the Nazi movement had to woo the German consumer in a way that he (and, in particular, she) wasn't during the First World War.
The queues, high prices, and poor harvest created a surliness that rapidly turned the population against the government and the war. "The war events are being followed with only passing interest because of the food shortages," said a Berlin police report in 1915. "The position of women in relation to the war is 'peace at any price.'" In 1914-15, the potato steadily replaced bread, or war-bread (kriegsbrot), as the staple. By 1916-17, potatoes, too, had become scarce, and the turnip, the steckrube, became the basis for soup, coffee, and many other normal foodstuffs. It served as main dish, vegetable, and even dessert. In 1917, a Hamburg woman wrote to her son on the front: "It is sad here, no potatoes, flour, or bread for five weeks.... [O]ne goes hungry to bed and wakes up hungry." By February 1917, even the steckruben were rationed.
Since there was a massive exchange of information between the war zones and the homefront--29 billion letters and parcels were sent over four years, and every day ten million letters were dispatched to the front--the anger of the wives infected the soldiers. Nothing sapped military morale quite as much as grumbling and the rise of the black market at home. Society collapsed at all levels. Schools had to be shut because of the cold--only the rich had sufficient coal--and, in any case, children played truant in order to stand in the lines. Illness spread: 175,000 died of influenza in 1918. But it was food that stirred passion, that dictated the rhythm of everyday life: the ban on baking cake, the orders to butchers to sell only to people from the neighborhood, the rationing of milk for infants.
Hitler was determined that the German people should not suffer again in the same way. A sense of prosperity at home had to be linked to perceived success on the battlefield. Better than most of the Nazi leadership, Hitler knew how uneasy Germans were about a new war. The buoyant spirit of August 1914 was missing. As long as a war signified hunger for Germans, wars could not be won. Blitzkrieg was popular because it seemed to bring early and low-cost success. It broadened rather than narrowed the base of prosperity. Conquests abroad translated quickly into better living standards.
"The formula reduced to its simplest expression was Loyalty is bought through a Full Stomach," writes historian Birthe Kundrus. "[T]he National Socialist leadership was determined to spare the 'German,' 'Aryan,' 'racially pure' members of society every hardship and to reduce to a minimum unavoidable restriction.... [F]oodstuffs and raw materials were drawn from the occupied countries."
The connection between occupation abroad and consumption at home comes through clearly in a letter of a director of IG Farben in Kirovgrad in occupied Ukraine. "We are sending to Reich wheat, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil, and eggs. My wife writes to me that sunflower seed oil is available again on the ration cards. I can say with some pride that I was substantially involved in that."
The preparation for war naturally entailed sacrifices for the consumer. Civil production had to be switched to military production, consumption and buying power curbed in order to keep inflation under control. Rationing was the best method available to the Nazis, and ration cards were issued right at the beginning of the war for food, clothing, coal, and shoes. But the popular memory of World War I was that rationing made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Cards were not honored and goods were swept under the counter to reappear on the black market.
Hitler was determined that this time rationing should be perceived as equitable and efficient. Workers in heavy industry or performing heavy physical labor were awarded an additional ration--a move that brought approval from the working class. Prices and wages were put under comprehensive state control--there was to be no repeat of World War I inflation. Black-marketeering was subject to draconian punishment, which kept it more or less under control until the final year of war, when the state distribution channels buckled.
The Sopped reports from 1939-40 suggest that public opinion accepted the slight drop in living standards associated with rationing. Just as Ted Gurr speaks of relative deprivation, so we can use the term "relative satisfaction" for the German mood. War made everyday life more difficult, but it also held out the prospect--as long as the Wehrmacht could report victories abroad--of greater prosperity.
The non-Jewish Germans were infinitely better off than German Jews, and they felt that the so-called volksgemeinschaft, the racially based community of "true" Germans, would thus enjoy indefinitely privileges and protection from the Nazi leadership. Jews were given only restricted rations, and meat, fish, white bread, unskimmed milk, butter, fats, chocolate, cake, coffee, and tea steadily slipped off their list of entitlements. There was no economic rationale for this discrimination (immaculately chronicled in the diaries of Victor Klemperer). The point was to make the Jews feel worse and the non-Jewish Germans feel better. On the whole, this worked; such anti-Semitic policies were designed not to stir up ancient hatreds of the Jew (as Goldhagen would have it) but to make the average German feel superior at a time when, objectively, his life was getting worse.
In the same spirit, recycling measures were introduced, ostensibly to push Germany along the road to economic self-sufficiency. This device, adopted in World War I, as well as World War II, certainly had no particular economic impact. Its real purpose was psychological: to create a sense of community of shared participation in the war effort. Even today, elderly Germans, some of whom stuff their cupboards with old string as they were told to do in the Third Reich, still remember warmly the recycling, fuel-saving, and housekeeping aspects of the Nazi era. It was one of the hidden links that subtly connected the regime with its citizens. The volksgemeinschaft was substantially better off in World War II than in World War I. Only in the winter of 1944-45 did the average German diet fall below the nutritional minimum of 1,800 calories a day. By then, of course, the seductive appeal of Hider had almost evaporated. Shortages of coal and wood, price increases, uncovered ration cards, the dislocation caused by the bombing raids: all this demonstrated to Germans that the regime had failed as a material supplier.
It is possible then to chart the satisfaction levels of the Third Reich and to see how, at each stage, the relationship shifted between leader and led. Each shift brought new choices, new possibilities to influence the regime, but also risks and danger. In January 1933, when Hider became Reichskanzler, there were six million unemployed. By 1936, there was full employment. "Crying need and mass hardship had generally turned into modest but comfortable prosperity," is how the shrewd historian and journalist Sebastian Haffner sums up those three years.
The fact is, people had expected worse of Hider. Even the most enthusiastic supporter was rational enough to distinguish between Hitler the brilliant demagogue of the Depression and a potential leader making complex decisions. And the lukewarm followers, the nervous middle class, had expected terror on a dramatic scale when Hitler came to power. Instead, the bloodbath promised by the SA (Sturmabteilung, Hitler's brownshirted "army" of thugs who helped him rise to power through violence and intimidation) and the Night of the Long Knives (in which Hitler disposed of his political enemies in one bloody weekend in 1934, including the leadership of the SA, which was effectively replaced by its own more ruthless faction, the SS) did not take place. Prominent politicians of the Weimar republic were locked up in camps and brutally beaten--but sooner or later most of them were released.
"In short," concludes Haffner, "everything was very bad but nevertheless a little less bad than anticipated. Those who, rightly as it would turn out, were saying, 'All this is only the beginning,' were apparently proved wrong when during 1933 and 1934 the terror slowly died down to give way, during 1935-37, to the 'good' Nazi years, to almost normal conditions, only slightly disturbed by the continued existence of the now less-crowded concentration camps."
German workers shifted their allegiance in huge numbers from the Social Democrats and the Communists to Hitler after 1933. "This grateful amazement entirely dominated the mood of the German masses during the 1936 to 1938 period and made anyone who still rejected Hitler seem a querulous fault finder." By April 1939, Hitler was able to tell the Germans: "I overcame chaos in Germany, restored order, enormously raised production in all fields of our national economy.... I succeeded in completely resettling in useful production the seven million unemployed who so touched all our hearts.... I have not only politically united the German nation but also rearmed it militarily...."
It was easy to accept such a speech at face value. There was no need to suspend disbelief because the facts, broadly speaking, were correct. The price of that "restored order"--the labor and concentration camps, the almost total marginalization of Jews, the steady brutalization of society--was secondary. War stirred apprehension. But as we have seen, Hitler remained master of the popular mood, adept at purchasing loyalty.
Excerpted from Seduced by Hitler by Adam Lebor Copyright © 2004 by Adam Lebor. Excerpted by permission.
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