Over the summer, I took HIST 441 - History of German, 1871-1945, with Professor Zajicek at Towson University. Our term paper assignment was pretty broad, but I chose to focus on how the average German citizen viewed the ascendancy of the Nazi party. I included my Bibliography at the end, but the footnotes were removed when I copied this over.
I have edited the text to fix some grammatical errors and unclear statements, and I added illustrations and links to Wikipedia articles to make up for referring to material covered in the course that the average reader might not be as familiar with. The original version received an A. -T
What did the rise of the Nazi state look like to the ordinary German citizen? How did the people at the center of extreme events view themselves, and what did they see in the Nazis that made them accept or ignore the direction the party was taking the country? Average citizens had no privileged insight into what modern historians know now about the weak leadership and chaotic condition of the German government under the Nazi leadership, but there were critics of the regime and an active resistance at work to expose their misdeeds. What factors made it possible for Germans to ignore those warning signs and choose to put the Nazi Party in charge of their government?
Richard Hamilton’s 2003 case study of the electoral results and newspaper content in the Schleswig-Holstein capital of Kiel leading up to Hitler’s electoral victory offers an indirect view of what the German voters saw during the rise in Nazi power. That city’s three newspapers consisted of a Socialist paper with low circulation, and two other papers which were both owned by the same person: one which took generally centrist positions and one which openly supported the Nazis. The trends suggest that weak circulation and a tepid defense of what were seen as establishment liberal policies from the socialist paper could not address the full-throated attacks on socialism from the Nazi paper, or even from the right-leaning centrist paper. The results of the election demonstrate an electorate divided sharply between left and right positions, however, with Protestant farmers showing the strongest support of the Nazis in that area.
Electoral behavior does not suggest active party membership, however. Just as universal suffrage does not equate with universal participation, the reasons people have for voting the way they do are not necessarily harnessed to logic or an informed viewpoint; as Hamilton points out, most people learn their political tendencies from family, and those tendencies “are reinforced by relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others in the local community.” People not directly associated with the government or the military did not see themselves as “political,” and as studies conducted immediately after World War II demonstrated, average Germans did not feel personally responsible for atrocities which they blamed on the Nazi party or the SS.
While a correlation existed between higher levels of support for the Nazi party in more heavily Protestant areas and lower support in Catholic areas, the Catholics were not necessarily motivated to outright political opposition. Menke explains how the doctrine of “accidentalism” played a part in suppressing a more assertive resistance from Catholic Germans. The pope redefined church doctrine on the rise of secular governments in the 1880s, asserting that secular governments arose to meet the needs of their citizens (in other words, they were “accidents of history”) and that the Catholic church would show no preference for one form of government over another so long as the practice of religion was unaffected. Despite this doctrine, the Center Party had formed in response to what were perceived as anti-Catholic policies during the reign of King Frederick William, and they had acted since their inception to influence government policies in Germany. When the Enabling Act of 1933, which effectively gave Hitler absolute powers, came before the Reichstag, Center Party votes were needed if it was to pass, and even though most German Catholics did not support the Nazi party, accidentalism seemed to inform their decision to allow the secular state to choose this new, dictatorial form of government.
Without the benefit of historical hindsight to balance the general enthusiasm of the crowds, the appeal of “National Community” (Volksgemeinschaft) to the German populace seems clear. The upheaval and revolution of the previous decade and a half created an appetite for unity and a sense of national purpose. For Melita Maschmann, her sense of “National Community” was something that could only be brought about by “declaring war on the class prejudices of the social stratum from which I came and that it must, above all, give protection and justice to the weak.” The official emphasis that Nazis placed on promoting health, good values, and community, with an emphasis on defending against outside influences that sought to weaken all three, made it easy for the average, non-political person to take the Nazi position at face value and to excuse the violence they saw. In those early years, it would have been nearly impossible for that average person to see anything sinister behind those wholesome values, or in the building enthusiasm for the Fuhrer responsible for defending them. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed in 1942, “The fact that evil can take on the appearance of light, benevolence, historical necessity and social justice is simply bewildering.” But nine years earlier, people like Melita Maschmann did not think they were bewildered in any way.
|You might recognize the KdF-wagon from this late 1930s|
Social Democratic Party leaders in exile were also in a position to receive reports on how the infamous Night of Long Knives was viewed by the population. On June 30, 1934, Hitler’s SS troops murdered Sturmabteilung (SA) leader Ernst Rohm and his followers, earning Hitler approval and sympathy from his supporters. To justify the slaughter, Hitler slandered the victims as homosexuals who were living high on their government salaries, and those who supported Hitler saw the event as proof that he wanted order and decency, and was willing to sacrifice his “best friends” for the good of the country. As shocking as the act was, it was easier for the average person to make these kinds of excuses in those early years.
A significant change took place over the decade that followed, as the promise of a party struggling against the establishment gave way to the reality of a party that represented the establishment. Reports on the attitudes of youths joining the party shifted drastically from exuberant enthusiasm in the early years to a cynical sense of necessity. One report quoted an initiate as saying, "I don't care in the least whether I'm admitted to the Party or not; it's all rubbish"'. By 1943, the SS had to recognize that public trust in German leadership had begun to erode, admitting that “The attempt from time to time to disguise the true picture when the situation was serious or to play down ominous military developments…have [sic] largely undermined trust in the press and radio which previously existed.”
These attitudes reflect a belated realization among average people that they had been misled, but at what point could they have made a different choice? They chose leaders who promised to restore their dignity, to defend their personal economic interests, and to wipe away the depressing events of the previous generation. They saw the alternatives as weak, venal politicians, monarchs, and menacing revolutionaries and they weren’t wrong about that. Perhaps they should have recognized the threat to their power over their government presented by the Enabling Act, or by the trend towards authoritarianism championed by President von Hindenburg in the early 1930s. There is an undeniable appeal in the idea that more informed or more principled people would make better choices in a given situation, or that events drive people towards inevitable conclusions. But the choices made by German citizens during the rise of the Nazi party seemed reasonable to them at the time. The majority did not support the Nazis early on, and behavior that seems drastic and violent to modern people was either rationalized as necessary or was attributed to others.
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. "“Who Can Resist Temptation?” (December 1942)." In Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II. , edited by Jeremy Noakes, 594-96. Exeter: German History in Documents & Images, 1998.
- Detlev, J. K. Peukert. "Reports on the Sources of Workin-Class Support for the Nazis and the Limits to Opposition, 1935-1939." In The Nazi State and German Society: A Brief History with Documents, by Robert Moeller, 53-56. Bedford St. Martins, 1987.
- Hamilton, Richard F. "The Rise of Nazism: A Case Study and Review of Interpretations: Kiel, 1928-1933." German Studies Review 26, no. 1, 2003: 43-62. Janowitz, Morris. "German Reactions to Nazi Atrocities." American Journal of Sociology 52, no. 2, 1946: 141-46.
- Maschmann, Melita. "A German Teenager's Response to the Nazi Takeover in January 1933." In The Nazi State and German Society: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Robert Moeller, translated by Geoffrey Strachan, 47-48. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1963.
- Menke, Martin R. "Misunderstood Civic Duty: The Center Party and the Enabling Act." Journal of Church and State 51 (2), 2009: 236-64.
- Security Service (SS). "SD Report on the Attitude of Young People towards the Nazi Party (August 12, 1943)." In Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II., edited by Jeremy Noakes. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1998.
- Security Service (SS). "SD Report to the Party Chancellery on “Basic Questions Regarding the Mood and Attitude of the German People” (November 29, 1943)." In Nazism, 1919-1945, Vol. 4: The German Home Front in World War II., edited by Jeremy Noakes. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 1998.
- Shirer, William. "Description of the Nazi Party Rally in Nuremburg, September 4-5, 1934." In The Nazi State and German Society, by Robert Moeller, 59-61. Boston: Little Brown, 1941.
- Sinclair, Upton. I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. University of California Press, 1994.
- SOPADE. "Reports on Working-Class Attitudes toward the Murder of SA Leader Ernst Rohm 1934-1935." In The Nazi State: A Brief History with Documents, by Robert Moeller, 78-79. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.