While the systematic Gleichschaltung of the nation’s political institutions was unfolding, another process, simultaneous and sinister, was under way in the everyday life of the Third Reich. The regime’s goal, stated openly and acted upon with unflagging zeal, was nothing less than a complete transformation of German politics, culture, and society, coordinating not only governmental institutions but the media, the churches, schools, social clubs, youth organizations, athletic leagues, and cultural institutions of all sorts. The regime sought to mobilize all elements of society, creating National Socialist organizations for women, girls, boys, teachers, students, lawyers, physicians, craftsmen, workers, each with its own uniform, flag, party badges, and slogans (“Barbers, too, Face Great Tasks!”). No one in the “people’s community” was overlooked, and no one could stand outside. Everyone was called on not simply to obey but to believe, to participate.
Hitler had offered a preview of his vision for the Third Reich in his Reichstag speech on March 23, 1933. In pressing for the passage of the Enabling Act, he explained that along with the “political purification of our public life, the Reich Government intends to undertake a thorough moral purging of the body of the people [Volkskörper]. The entire system of education, the theater, the cinema, literature, the press, and radio—they will be used as a means to this end and valued accordingly. They must all work to preserve the eternal values residing in the essential character of our people.” Art, in all its forms, was of crucial importance in this endeavor. Art “will always remain the expression and mirror of the yearning and the reality of an era. The cosmopolitan contemplative attitude is rapidly disappearing. Heroism is arising passionately as the future shaper and leader of political destinies. The task of art is to give expression to this determining spirit of the age. Blood and Race will once more become the source of artistic intuition.”
Many found it striking that in making a speech that would establish the legal foundation of the Third Reich Hitler chose to address the role of art, but over the next six years of peace Hitler repeatedly emphasized art’s crucial mission in constructing a new National Socialist society. In fact, no other government in the interwar years was more obsessed with art and culture than the Nazi regime. In an “Address on Art and Politics” delivered at the 1935 Nuremberg party rally, Hitler remarked proudly that “at some future date people will be astonished to find that at the very time when National Socialism and its leaders were fighting to finish a heroic struggle for existence—a life and death struggle—the first impulses were given towards a revival and resurrection of German art.” For the Nazis, art was power; it defined the National Socialist vision of the future, and the Nazis were determined to extract the maximum value from it.
The vibrant, edgy cultural flourishing of the Weimar era, the Nazis were convinced, was a force to be reckoned with. For Hitler and the Nazis, everything that emerged in German cultural life after the revolution of 1918—experimental art, jazz and atonal music, literary and architectural modernism, avant-garde theater, and Expressionist film, most of which had their origins in the prewar Empire—was corrupt, degenerate, and foreign. The Nazis reviled it as “cultural Bolshevism,” a creation of leftists and Jews that had saturated the country with a spirit fundamentally alien to the German people. The eruption of artistic innovation that had made Berlin an exciting international center of postwar culture was responsible not only for degenerate art but for the collapse of all notions of traditional morality and taste. Everywhere they turned the Nazis found ample evidence of the nation’s slide into decadence and decay—rampant sexual promiscuity and perversion—on the stage, in film, in countless nightclubs and cabarets, in prostitution, homosexuality, and the open flouting of traditional mores.
The purification commenced immediately. In the spring of 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service led to the immediate dismissal of all “non-Aryans” from state-subsidized theaters, orchestras, museums, schools, and research institutions. Jews, at whom the law was aimed, were immediately purged, but even those artists and teachers not directly affected by the Civil Service Law felt the prevailing chill. Many cultural institutions did not wait for the regime to institute changes; they rushed to “coordinate” themselves, voluntarily expelling anyone the Nazis might consider politically undesirable. Newspaper chiefs and magazine editors, reporters, illustrators, musicians, actors, critics, even librarians were sacked. Ufa, the largest studio in the German motion picture industry, dismissed Jews and other politically undesirable actors, directors, film editors, cameramen, screenwriters, stage managers, and others. Innovative stage directors Erwin Piscator and Max Reinhardt, filmmakers Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, all emigrated. Wilder was Jewish, and Lang, whose films both Hitler and Goebbels admired, had a Jewish mother. He had to go.
The paintings of modernist artists Otto Dix, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Gerhard Marcks, Oscar Kokoschka, Käthe Kollwitz, and dozens of others gradually disappeared from galleries. The works of Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, Alfred Döblin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arnold Zweig, Franz Werfel, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and many others tainted with “alien Jewish views” vanished from bookshops and library shelves, and publishers quickly dropped them from their lists. By the close of 1934, some four thousand works had been banned in that year alone. The modernist music of composers Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, and Arnold Schönberg disappeared from the repertoires of the country’s orchestras; and famed Jewish conductors Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, and Erich Kleiber were dismissed from their positions and fled the country. The music of Jewish classical composers Mendelssohn, Mahler, Meyerbeer, and Offenbach was no longer performed, and works with Jewish associations such as Handel’s Old Testament oratorios underwent title changes. The Nazis even insisted that Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Cosi fan tutte be translated into German because Mozart’s Italian librettist was of Jewish origin.
An exodus of actors, authors, musicians, and painters, most of them Jewish, began and gathered momentum. The Prussian Academy of Letters purged novelist Heinrich Mann (a well-known anti-Nazi), and his brother Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, Germany’s most distinguished literary figure, resigned and emigrated, as did playwrights Georg Kaiser, Carl Zuckmayer, and Bertolt Brecht. After the absorption of Austria in 1938, they were joined, among others, by Jewish novelists Hermann Broch, Joseph Roth, and Arnold Zweig.
Most artists and writers, however, chose to stay; they adapted and continued their careers. Popular novelists Hans Fallada and Erich Kästner continued to write, but produced innocuous, politically safe work. Ernst Barlach went on sculpting but was prohibited from exhibiting his work. Some who stayed were forbidden to write or paint at all. Others flourished. The aged Nobel laureate Gerhart Hauptmann, musicians Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss, popular actors Emil Jannings, Werner Kraus, and actress/filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, to name only a few, easily adjusted to the new regime. Even leading lights of the modern dance movement such as Rudolf von Laban accommodated themselves to the new rulers. “Dance,” as Fritz Böhme, Germany’s most influential dance critic, put it, “is a racial question. There is no international, trans-racial form of dance.”
Inspired by the Nazis, some gallery directors began mounting special exhibitions of “degenerate art” under such titles as “Chamber of Art Horrors” and “Images of Cultural Bolshevism” or “The Spirit of November: Art in the Service of Decay.” By the mid-1930s, exhibitions of this type had been mounted in sixteen different cities. In 1936 Goebbels received Hitler’s backing to confiscate examples of forbidden art from German museums and galleries, which he intended to display in a show of “German Degenerate Art Since 1910.” He dispatched a small team headed by the artist Adolf Ziegler, a Nazi favorite, to scour the museums for representative artworks from the Weimar period. By fall 1937 more than five thousand paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures had been seized. The confiscations would continue into 1939, by which time the team had seized seventeen thousand pieces of forbidden art.
Goebbels could always count on Hitler’s absolute abhorrence of Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, in fact, anything that smacked of modernism. “The artist Hitler,” as he was frequently described in the Nazi press, preferred nineteenth-century realism, especially pastoral landscapes, bucolic scenes of peasant life, nursing mothers, sturdy bare-breasted peasant women, and square-jawed men. These paintings were aesthetically banal, trending into kitsch, but that was not the standard by which the Nazis judged them. They were powerful ideological expressions of the National Socialist “Blood and Soil” ethos, subtly blurring the line between the overtly political and the artistic. While in painting Hitler favored the quotidian, in sculpture, as in architecture, his taste ran to the monumental, preferring Arno Breker and Josef Thorak, who carved colossal supermen that guarded the many mammoth structures created by Hitler’s favorite architects, Paul Ludwig Troost and Albert Speer. Needless to say, the Bauhaus, the center of modernist architecture and design, closed in 1933 under pressure from the regime.
The climax of the campaign against “cultural bolshevism” came in the form of a major exhibition Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) that opened in Munich in July 1937. Six hundred fifty paintings and sculptures, all forbidden since 1933, were hauled from the storage vaults of German museums and collected for the show—Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Chagall, Cézanne, van Gogh, and the usual German suspects were all there. The exhibit was mounted in a gallery on the Hofgarten arcade, a short distance from the monumental House of German Art, where a much larger exhibition of state-approved “Great German Art” opened the day before. The motivation behind the Degenerate Art show, as a guide to the exhibition made clear, was “to display the common roots of cultural anarchy and political anarchy and reveal the perversion of art as cultural bolshevism.” The public was invited to see for themselves “what museums from all over Germany had purchased with taxpayers’ hard-earned money and displayed as art.”
The Nazi press was aflame with lurid descriptions of the perversions the public could view—dismembered front soldiers, pimps, whores, dope fiends, alcoholics, starving children, grotesquely fat, cigar-chomping capitalists. The exhibition was divided into nine stations, among them “Shameless Mockery of Every Religious Sensibility,” “The Political Background of Degenerate Art,” “Bordellos, Whores, Pimps,” and “Idiots, Cretins, and the Deformed” (an underlying theme of the exhibition was a putative link between mental derangement and the distortions of the art on display). The title of one section was simply “Jews,” featuring Jewish artists (there were only five in the exhibit) and their un-German work. The paintings were crowded together, hung at odd angles in poor lighting, and staggered like a twisted lattice from floor to ceiling—as if, ironically, Expressionist artists had planned the display themselves. On the walls were scribbled captions in bold black letters that ridiculed the featured artists and their works. It was, in Nazi parlance, a freak show.
Predictably the exhibition drew savage reviews in the Nazi-dominated press but also long lines, attracting more than two million visitors in Munich before it went on the road in November. The New York Times reported that the show had drawn three times as many visitors as the officially approved German art exhibit just down the street. “Many were foreign tourists, especially American and English, but also many German art students, for whom the show was perhaps their last opportunity to see modern art.” Attendance was not hurt by the fact that admission to the museum was free, and “the common Volk,” people who had probably never ventured into an art gallery and were not in tune with the latest artistic trends, were much in evidence.
In the fall, the Degenerate Art exhibit began a tour of twelve German cities that extended into 1939, always accompanied by withering commentary by local Nazi reviewers and ordinary visitors. “The artists ought to be tied up next to their pictures so that every German can spit in their face,” one visitor to the Munich exhibit angrily grumbled, “but not only the artists, also the museum directors who, at a time of mass unemployment, poured vast sums into the ever-open jaws of the perpetrators of these atrocities.” After inspecting the confiscated works, Goebbels was filled with contempt. It was “the sort of garbage that after a three hour inspection makes one want to vomit.” He was proud that he had “cleansed the museums.” He had performed a service for the Reich.
And yet, as in Munich, the show attracted unprecedented crowds in Münster, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Cologne, Kiel, Bonn, and Essen, as thousands flocked to the galleries to see the forbidden paintings. More people visited the Degenerate Art exhibition than any other in history. Everywhere the reviews were blistering—the works on display were the rotten fruit of the November Republic, pacifist, sexually degenerate, Jewish, and Bolshevik, but as one newspaper reported, “the rush to see the exhibition [in Berlin] is extraordinary. One has to find a special way over backstairs and through a courtyard to avoid the crush of the exiting masses colliding with the new arrivals.” Whether the visitors were drawn by prurient curiosity or a desire to get a final glimpse of modern art that was bound for extinction is impossible to know. But when the traveling exhibition finally closed in early 1939, Time magazine estimated that at least three million Germans had viewed it. Goebbels considered it a great success. When the show’s national tour finally closed, many of the nearly priceless works slipped into the private collections of prominent Nazis; more than nine hundred were sold abroad, the proceeds going to the Reich government; and more than four thousand were burned in the courtyard of a Berlin fire station.
Given the resounding success of the Degenerate Art exhibition, a show of degenerate music inevitably followed. Initiated in Düsseldorf, the program showcased and reviled atonal symphonic music. The Nazis were also appalled by American imports such as blues, jazz, and swing, which were especially popular with younger Germans, and condemned them as “Negro music.” As one SA publication commented, “We, the younger German generation, are . . . aware of the fact that the legacy of a great past in the field of music places a special obligation on us. We, the people of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Handel, cannot and will not any longer allow one of the noblest blooms of cultural life to fall increasingly victim to degeneration and to ultimate degradation to satisfy the demands of big-city night clubs and international bordellos.”
Speaking to representatives of German theater in May 1933, Goebbels had laid out the Nazi vision of the role of culture in the Third Reich. The National Socialist revolution, he proclaimed, was introducing a new spirit into German life, and it was the task of the artist community to infuse society with this new spirit. “Individualism will be conquered and in place of the individual and its deification, the Volk will emerge. The Volk stands in the center of all things. The revolution is conquering the Volk and public life, imprinting its stamp on culture, economy, politics and private life. It would be naïve to believe that art could remain exempt from this.” Art could no longer “claim to be apolitical or nonpartisan. It could not claim to have loftier goals than politics.” In an earlier time when politics was “nothing more than the battle of parliamentary parties screaming at one another,” artists “might claim the right to ignore politics, but not at this historic moment.” The goal of the regime, and with it Germany’s artists, must be nothing less than to “conquer the soul of the nation.”
While culture set the tone and symbolic content for the regime, the educational system was a critical target in the transformation of German sensibilities. The control and coordination (Gleichschaltung) of the university proceeded quickly and with precious little opposition. In a toxic brew of ideological zeal, petty jealousy, and personal ambition, colleagues betrayed one another, denouncing current behavior as well as actions from the pre-Nazi past. There were few genuine Nazis among the professoriate before 1933, but the Nazis could count on widespread sympathy for their vigorous nationalism, their rejection of Versailles, and their contempt for the parties that had signed the hated document. As a result, the Nazis found many fellow travelers among the academics. Opposition to the regime among the professoriate was almost unheard of, and when dissent was voiced, it invariably focused on specific policies that directly affected professional standing or practices and did not question the nature of the regime or Nazism’s core values.
However much the regime might count on sympathy from conservative academics, it also sought compliance in other more draconian ways. No one could assume an academic position without first attending a six-week course conducted by the National Socialist Lecturers Association, a course that included not only political indoctrination but military drill and physical training. All schools in Germany were public institutions and hence all faculty and staff were subject to the Aryan Paragraph of the Civil Service Law of April 7, 1933, which expelled social or racial undesirables from teaching posts in primary and secondary schools as well as in universities. Despite the personal pain and despair that accompanied the expulsions, the action provoked virtually no resistance. Jews, who made up just over one percent of the population, made up 12 percent of all professors and a quarter of Germany’s Nobel laureates, most in physics and mathematics. Luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Max Born, Fritz Haber, James Franck, and Hans Krebs, all of whom were or would become Nobel Prize winners, were unceremoniously pushed out of their positions or resigned under pressure. In all, some 15 percent of all university professors were dismissed; by 1934 some 1,600 out of 5,000 university faculty had been forced out, roughly one third of whom were Jews or were married to Jews. The number of dismissals in physics and chemistry was particularly high, including eleven Nobel laureates. When Bernhard Rust, the Nazi minister of education, asked the director of the prestigious Göttingen Institute for Quantum Physics if his institute had suffered as a result of the dismissal of the Jews, he responded: “Suffered? No, it hasn’t suffered, Herr Minister, it just doesn’t exist anymore.”
While the professoriate had been lukewarm toward the Nazis before Hitler’s assumption of power, university students had been among the most ardent supporters of the NSDAP. The economic woes of the 1920s had created a large academic proletariat, and the Depression worsened that situation. Each year 25,000 students graduated from the universities, most with little hope for employment, in part a result of the draconian cuts in the civil service from the Brüning and Papen austerity programs. Those hoping for a position in teaching discovered that one in three academics was unemployed, and even recent graduates in medicine and law encountered problems finding positions. A sense of gloom settled over the student body of the universities, and the Nazis were the clear beneficiaries. Already in 1931, 60 percent of all university students supported the National Socialist Students Association in nationwide student elections. Nazi-inspired anti-Semitic demonstrations took place at the universities all across the Reich as students demanded a quota for Jews in the student body. Students also found the Nazis’ rabid nationalism appealing, as well as the party’s unrelenting assault on “the Weimar system.”
On April 12, 1933, the Nazi German Students Association’s Office for Press and Propaganda announced a nationwide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” which was to climax in a literary purge, a “cleansing” by fire. The students presented their action as a response to a worldwide Jewish “smear campaign” against Germany and “an affirmation of traditional German values.” They published a blacklist of “un-German” authors, including Freud, Kästner, Remarque, Heine, Heinrich Mann, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Emil Ludwig, and dozens of others. Local chapters were to pepper the press with news releases, sponsor well-known Nazi figures to speak at public gatherings, and negotiate for radio airtime.
The NS Student Association also drafted “Twelve Theses Against the Un-German Spirit,” a manifesto that deliberately evoked Martin Luther’s rebellious 95 Theses of 1517 and his burning of the Papal Bull that excommunicated him and his followers. Three hundred years later in 1817, German students, embittered by Prussia’s refusal to lead a movement for national unification, reenacted Luther’s act of defiance by torching, among other things, Prussian military manuals and other symbols of Prussian authoritarianism. For the students, the tradition of book burning was associated not with reactionary impulses but with defiance against authority and with strong nationalist sentiments. Placards publicized the Twelve Theses, which attacked “Jewish intellectualism,” asserted the need to “purify” German language and literature, and demanded that universities be centers of German nationalism. “Germany’s most dangerous adversary is the Jew,” the document read. “If a Jew writes in German, he is lying. The German who writes in German but thinks in an un-German way is a traitor. We want to eliminate the lie; we want to brand the treason. . . . We demand from the German student the will and ability to overcome Jewish intellectualism and all the liberal manifestations of decay associated with it. Students and professors should be selected on the basis of their thinking in the German spirit.” This month-long campaign culminated in a coordinated wave of book burnings in Munich, Dresden, Breslau, Frankfurt, Kiel, and other cities, but the dramatic torch-lit demonstration on Berlin’s Opera Plaza attracted by far the most attention, both in Germany and abroad. For weeks, students had been removing “un-German” books from libraries and universities and storing them in their headquarters in the Oranienburgstrasse. After hearing a rousing speech by the new Nazi professor of political pedagogy Alfred Bäumler, hundreds of students, many wearing SA uniforms, others in their purple and green fraternity caps, gathered at the Oranienburgstrasse and piled hundreds of books into vans and private automobiles.
At just past eleven, the students began marching toward the government quarter, picking up more students along the way. Carrying torches and singing nationalist songs, they swept through the rain-slick streets toward the Opernplatz, where the cars and vans, filled with “un-German” books, parked at the edge of the wide plaza. While an SA band blared out marches and rousing Nazi songs, the students formed a human chain, passing the books hand to hand from the cars and vans to a pyre of wooden beams in the center of plaza. There a tepid fire struggled against an intermittent drizzle, and the students heaved armloads of discredited books into the flames. Speaking one after another, nine students solemnly read out their lines for the event: “Against class warfare and materialism! For the people’s community and idealist way of life! I consign to the flames the writings of Marx and Kautsky. Against decadence and moral decay! For discipline and virtue in the family and the state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser and Erich Kästner.” On and on as the works of Toller, Tucholsky, Ossietzky, Preuss, Rathenau, and dozens of others disappeared into the bonfire.
At the height of the event and with cameras rolling, Goebbels addressed the crowd, urging the students on. “The age of an exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is now at an end,” he declaimed into a radio microphone. “The breakthrough of the German revolution has cleared the way for the true German spirit.” The students had their role to play. “When you students claim the right to throw into the flames the rotten fruit . . . then you must also see it as your duty to replace this garbage with genuine German values.” The effect was not quite the dramatic conflagration that the student organizers wanted; it had rained throughout the afternoon and early evening and for a considerable period of time the great heap of books simply smoldered in the damp air, but the book burnings of May sent shockwaves around the world. In Germany, a country renowned for its learning, its education, its books, it had come to this.
By the mid-1930s there was an air of stagnation and depression in the academy, affecting both faculty and students. In 1932 university enrollment stood at roughly 118,000, approximately 20 percent of whom were women. By 1938, enrollment dropped to 51,000, only 6,300 of whom were women. Although enrollment at technical high schools rose in 1939, the regime had deprived itself of a cohort of gifted scientists and engineers. This fact would have crucial implications for the war effort. It was typical of a self-destructive streak in Nazi ideology that infected the party and the regime it controlled. Standards plummeted, and by 1939 complaints were increasingly voiced about the poor quality of university students, who in turn complained that their work suffered because of lack of time to study. After 1935 many were siphoned off to the army, whose officers complained about the low quality of their educational preparedness.
Especially debilitating to faculty and students alike was the plague of political denunciations that swept through Germany’s schools. As early as February 1933 a delegation of university professors felt compelled to make a formal complaint to Vice Chancellor Papen, warning that “denunciations, lack of discipline, and slavish conformity” to political currents represented “a danger not only for the schools but the nation as a whole.” Papen listened but could do little, and the situation did not improve. Denunciations became so numerous that in 1936 Education Minister Bernhard Rust was moved to warn students to relax their vigilance and not subject their professors to political reliability tests. For the most part, the record of the students and their professors was one of accommodation and support. There was occasional carping, to be sure, but the complaints tended to be minor and were not directed against the nature of the National Socialist regime.
Nazi infiltration of society was not limited to Germany’s cultural and educational elites. The Nazis sought to mobilize Germans of all ages and in all walks of life, organizing retreats, excursions, and training sessions in various occupational fields, but the young were the primary targets for indoctrination. The Hitler Youth (HJ) had been founded in the early 1920s and was treated as a sub-formation of the SA. Throughout the party’s rise to power, the HJ remained a small but active organization with little funding and few followers. In 1932, at the height of Nazi popularity, it counted only 35,000 members, and had little influence in the party leadership. That changed in 1933 when membership began to climb, soaring to more than five million by the close of 1934.
“My program for educating youth is hard,” Hitler declared in 1933. “Weakness must be hammered away. I want a youth before which the world will tremble . . . a brutal, domineering, fearless, cruel youth. . . . The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from its eyes. . . . That is how I will eradicate thousands of years of human domestication. . . . That is how I will create the New Order.” Boys marched from the Young Volk (JV), ages ten to fourteen, to the Hitler Youth or HJ, ages fourteen to eighteen, where they received training with weapons, orienteering, and camping, all with a strong military flavor. Militarism, nationalism, racism, and Führer worship, along with the martial virtues of duty, obedience, honor, courage, physical strength, and ruthlessness, were the virtues they wished to inculcate in the young. “I swear to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler” read the pledge of ten-year-old boys entering the Jungvolk. “I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help me God. . . . We are born to die for Germany.”
Speaking to the Reichstag in November 1938, Hitler proudly described the trajectory of Nazi indoctrination:
This youth does not learn anything else other than to think German, to act German and when those boys at the age of ten come into our organization and there for the first time begin to breathe fresh air, four years later they move from the JV to the HJ, and there we keep them for another four years and then we do not return them into the hands of our old originators of classes and estates but take them immediately into the party, into the Labor Front, into the SA or the SS . . . and so forth. And if they have been there for two years or a year and a half and they still have not become thorough National Socialists, then we put them in the labor service and for six or seven months they work at square bashing, all with one symbol, the German spade. And any class-consciousness and pride in one’s social position still remaining after six or seven months will be taken over for further treatment by the army for two years, and when they come back after two, three, or four years then we take them immediately back into the SA, SS, and so on to prevent relapse and they will never be free for the rest of their lives.
Membership in the Hitler Youth was not compulsory until 1936, but it was wise to join. Wearing their brown shirts, black shorts, and white knee socks, they organized camping trips, hiked in the mountains, sang folk songs around the campfire, embracing many of the traditions of the German youth movement from the early twentieth century. This mobilization of school-age boys produced a series of unintended consequences. School discipline deteriorated as uniformed HJ bullied other students and disobeyed their teachers. Teachers—and parents—found maintaining order increasingly difficult, and academic performance declined as HJ and Labor Front activities cut into study time.
The HJ was also inculcating a new set of values, and young Germans increasingly looked to the HJ leaders instead of the teacher or the church or parents as role models. “We are the happy Hitler Youth,” one typical HJ song of 1935 declared. “We need no Christian virtues for our Führer Adolf Hitler is always our guide. . . . We do not follow Christ but Horst Wessel. . . . I can do without the church, the Swastika is redemption on earth.” Another went: “Pope and rabbi shall yield, we want to be pagans again. . . . Out with the Jews, and with the pope from the German home.” Given this powerful propaganda message, it is hardly surprising that young Germans were encouraged to inform on any teacher or parent or clergy who displayed “unsocial” attitudes. By 1935 the party had managed to insert itself into the family, driving a wedge between parent and child, teacher and student, priest and young parishioner. “The totalitarian demands of the Hitler Youth, the sense of authority and self-confidence, rebellious spirit, and fanaticism of these youths, have added so much to this problem that it approaches an unbearable intensity,” a report from the Social Democratic underground stated. (The Socialist underground organization smuggled reports on life inside Nazi Germany to the SPD’s exiled leadership in Prague and later Paris.) The Nazis tried to reassure parents, but “all these reassurances have not changed the fact that parental influence over youth continues to diminish, and that relationships within families grow more and more tense and hostile. . . . Children denounce their parents—whereupon they lose jobs, positions, and are threatened with the loss of parental rights and personal freedom.” It was probably too much to say that “those with children began to envy the childless,” but there was no small amount of truth in it.
Girls, too, were mobilized, entering the Jungmädel (Young Girls, ages ten to fourteen), then the League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel or BdM, ages fourteen to eighteen), where they received training in physical fitness, first aid, and domestic skills. At eighteen, they, too, began six months’ service in the Labor Front, where most were sent to work on farms. The goal was to prepare young women for their ultimate role in the Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community): to become wives, homemakers, and healthy mothers. Despite the party’s official prudishness, its insistence on modest dress and decorous behavior for young women, its equally relentless emphasis on the body and procreation tended to sexualize the message. Given the regime’s unrelenting grooming of young women for racial breeding and the organization’s many unchaperoned activities, BdM soon acquired a reputation for looseness. In 1935 a Labor Front camp for girls in Breslau was rumored to have closed because so many of the young women became pregnant. That reputation, whether deserved or not, seemed sealed when in 1936 approximately 100,000 members of the HJ and BdM attended the annual party rally at Nuremberg, and nine hundred girls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen returned home pregnant. Such stories gave rise to numerous jokes—the Bund deutscher Mädel being referred to as Bald deutscher Mütter (Soon German Mothers) or Bund deutscher Matrozen (League of German Mattresses), or “Baldur, drück mich” (“Baldur, squeeze me”).
The Nazis also made a serious effort to mobilize adult women. It was only in the last years of the Weimar Republic that the Nazis had made a sustained effort to win over women, who had previously been reluctant to associate with the party. The Nazi program was essentially a promise to return women to the family and home, relieving them of the double burden of household duties and employment, allowing them to realize every woman’s most cherished wish: to marry and have a family. Well known for their swaggering machismo, violence, misogyny, and paganism, the Nazis rejected women’s participation in politics and opposed women in the workplace, holding generally retrograde positions on all gender issues. Women’s “liberation” of the Weimar era, the Nazis maintained, had been a swindle, in which women were free to work long hours for lower pay than men, and were denied the opportunity to fulfill their biological and societal destiny: to become wives and mothers. “ ‘Women’s Liberation’ is merely a phrase invented by the Jewish intellect,” Hitler declared in 1934. In the Third Reich, women did not need emancipation. National Socialism had “liberated women from liberation,” restoring respect for motherhood and honoring women and the German family. The regime offered equality of the sexes, Hitler maintained, each with its own sphere. “Man’s world is the state.” His “world is his struggle, his willingness to devote himself to the community. . . . One might perhaps say that a woman’s world is a smaller one. For her world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home. . . . Providence assigned to woman the care of this, her own world, and it is only on this foundation that the man’s world can be formed and can grow.”
To give symbolic weight to their celebration of German motherhood, the Nazis made Mother’s Day, which had first been observed in Germany in 1923, an official national holiday. They did, however, change the date to Hitler’s mother’s birthday. Families were given favorable loans and tax breaks for children—women with more than six children paid no income tax at all. At the same time women continued to suffer discrimination in the labor market—they were forbidden from serving as judges, public prosecutors, or lawyers, and no women were promoted to positions of high rank in the civil service. Women teachers were also confronted by a glass ceiling, being excluded or removed from higher administrative posts in education.
Mothers were not, however, simply to stay at home knitting by the fire but were to be mobilized for active public service to the Volk. They were encouraged to pursue careers in fields that were “compatible with their nature”—domestic, clerical, and agricultural work. Women were also prodded to take up social work, and the Nazis established a series of women’s organizations for that purpose—the National Socialist Women’s Association (NS-F), headed since 1934 by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the German Women’s Welfare (NS Frauenwerk), The National Socialist People’s Welfare, and the Labor Front. This was to be the extent of their political involvement, and no woman, even Scholtz-Klink, the most prominent figure in the Nazi women’s movement, was allowed to participate in decisions affecting policy toward women and the family.
Women should be content within their domestic sphere, Hitler declared to the NS Women’s Congress in 1935, and
the so-called granting of equal rights to women, which Marxism demands, in reality does not grant equal rights but constitutes a deprivation of rights, since it draws the woman into an area in which she will necessarily be inferior. It places the woman in situations that cannot strengthen her position—vis-à-vis both man and society—but only can weaken it. . . . The woman has her own battlefield. With every child she brings into the world, she fights her battle for the nation. The man stands up for the Volk, exactly as the woman stands up for the family.
And “the family,” as one SA official explained, “is the most important cell of the state . . . and National Socialism has restored the family to its rightful place.” But the regime did “not want any petit bourgeois ideal in the family, with its plush sofa psychology and walking mannequins, with its contempt for and degradation of the woman.” For the Nazis, “the wife is a comrade, a fellow combatant.” To underscore the regime’s commitment to women and mothers, it provided state subsidies for mothers, offered them leisure activities, sports, courses in “feminine” subjects, degrees in home economics, and public ceremonies honoring mothers, all, of course, infused with the values of National Socialism. Scholtz-Klink and her organizations also emphasized proper hygiene and physical fitness, which were deemed essential for the health of the Volk. “Germany does not need women who can dance beautifully at five o’clock teas,” an SS official remarked at a party meeting in 1937, “but women who have given proof of their health through accomplishments in the field of sport.” The Reich Sports Medal would do. After all, “the javelin and springboard,” he informed the crowd, “are more useful than lipstick in promoting health.”
Beginning in 1935 and accelerating in the following years, two developments began to reshape the regime’s approach to women. In 1935–36 the Nazis embarked on a major rearmament program, introducing conscription into a 500,000-man army, creating a modern air force and a new battle fleet, all blatant violations of the Versailles Treaty, and announcing an ambitious plan to make Germany economically self-sufficient within four years. With stepped-up production schedules in key war industries, more women were needed in the workplace, freeing men for service in the newly expanded armed forces. The regime began to expect women to find employment—and not only in occupations traditionally associated with women’s work. Women were now required to juggle two sets of responsibilities—in the home and in the workplace, exactly the double burden the Nazis had so vehemently condemned in the first years of the Third Reich. Despite the regime’s hortatory pledge to return women to the home and family, by the outbreak of war in 1939, two million more married women were working outside the home than in 1933.
Women were also expected to maintain an attractive appearance and behave in a modest, traditional way. Cosmetics, provocative dress, bobbed hair, and other fashions of the Weimar era were out, especially in the workplace. As Nazi factory officials in Lower Franconia declared, it was “a privilege to hold a job and women should be proud to have the opportunity.” But it was also a woman’s “duty to conduct [herself] in a true National Socialist manner.” The Nazi Factory Organization (NSBO) would not tolerate “painted and powdered women,” and “women who smoke in public—in hotels, in cafés, on the street, and so forth” were not welcome in Nazi factory gatherings.
After 1935 what had been at first a celebration of the mother’s special role in Nazi society shifted subtly toward a more strictly biological function. Mothers were to be honored for fulfilling their biological duty by producing progeny for the people’s community. Homage to the traditional family, so prominent in Nazi social policy before 1935, gradually receded almost imperceptibly into the background, and women were encouraged to have children, whether married or not. Unmarried pregnancy no longer constituted grounds for dismissal from the civil service, including for teachers, and Nazi propaganda began lauding the heroic “racially pure” unmarried mother’s commitment to the Führer. Birth control was outlawed, abortion banned. Whereas motherhood and the family had been honored in the first years of the Third Reich, the Nazis increasingly dealt with mothers as baby-producing instruments of racial policy, a policy vividly displayed when, beginning in 1938, mothers with four children received a Mother’s Cross of Honor third class; women with six offspring were awarded the Mother’s Cross second class; and a mother with eight or more children was given the gold first class medal, a practice that continued until the collapse of the Third Reich.
The Nazis had proclaimed their determination to save the German family, the nucleus of the people’s community, but gradually infiltrated it so thoroughly that loyalty to the myriad National Socialist organizations sundered the family, atomizing its members, inserting the party between parents and children, between husband and wife. So thoroughly Nazified was society that it gave rise to many of the “whispered jokes” that circulated during the Third Reich. “My father is in the SA,” a girl explains to her friend in one such joke, “my oldest brother in the SS, my little brother in the Hitler Youth, my mother is part of the NS women’s organization, and I’m in the League of German Girls.” “Do you ever get to see each other?” asks the girl’s friend. “Oh, yes, we meet every year at the party rally in Nürnberg!”
In addition to the welter of party organizations for every segment of the population, the Nazis were determined to bring their message directly into every German home. To do this, they turned to technology. For Goebbels, radio was a revolutionary means of mass communication that had the potential to bring the regime into the home of every German Volksgenosse (people’s comrade). The radio was to so saturate the public “with the spiritual content of our time that no one can break away from it.” He was determined to ensure that all German households should have a radio, and a new cheap set, the Volksempfänger (people’s radio), began production in 1933. When Hitler came to power in 1933, only 4.3 million households possessed a radio out of a population of 66 million, far fewer than in the United States or Britain. A radio set in 1933 Germany was a rarity, a luxury item that cost approximately 100 marks, a price most German families could not afford.
In May 1933 Goebbels pressed a group of radio manufacturers to undertake mass production of a standard radio that would be significantly cheaper than any currently on the market. At the radio exhibition in Berlin in August, Goebbels introduced the set, the People’s Receiver 301 (the numerical suffix referring to the date of Hitler’s assumption of power on January 30), and it was an immediate hit. The supply of sets available at the exhibition sold out in one day, and manufacturers received 650,000 orders for the new set over the next twelve months. The Propaganda Ministry and private companies introduced a variety of payment schemes to help make a purchase possible. By the close of 1935, the number of sets sold had soared to one and a half million. By 1937, radios in large cities had reached 70 percent of all households, though sales still lagged in the countryside. In 1939 a smaller, cheaper set was introduced, so that at the outset of the war an even greater penetration of the population was achieved. In 1933 only one in four households had a radio; by 1939 it was one in two.
During his first year in power Hitler delivered some fifty radio addresses. His speeches were often transmitted during working hours, and factories, offices, and commercial businesses were required to suspend work so that the workers could hear the Führer’s voice as it blared from a loudspeaker to the shop floor. All restaurants and cafés had to be equipped with radios for communal listening, and six thousand loudspeaker pillars were erected on street corners so that Hitler’s voice would resound through the streets. Pedestrians were expected to stop in place and listen. This communal listening, the Nazis believed, contributed to a sense of shared experience, of community essential in the realization of the people’s community.
The radio was an important entryway into the family and workplace, but it was not enough. The regime simultaneously sought to organize leisure, leaving the individual no activity beyond the reach of the party and state. The Nazis began by virtually doubling the number of paid holidays, from three to eight days under Weimar to between six and fifteen days. By far the most popular of the Nazi programs to dominate leisure activities and, in the process, integrate working-class Germans into the people’s community, was the Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude or KdF) program. Created in November 1933 as part of the German Labor Front (DAF) and funded by deductions from pay, this ambitious program was an attempt to court blue-collar Germans, linking work and leisure—and controlling both. It established sections for each area of leisure activity: vacations, instruction and education, travel and hiking, sports, and “the Beauty of Labor,” which was devoted to creating hospitable conditions at work sites. Beauty of Labor, which was directed by Albert Speer, came in for a good deal of mockery because of its name (as did Strength Through Joy), but by 1939 the Beauty of Labor section had seen to the creation of over thirteen thousand green spaces, fifteen thousand canteens and recreation rooms, more than forty thousand workrooms, washrooms, and changing rooms in factories and plants, some two thousand “comradeship houses,” and sports facilities, including swimming pools.
KdF also organized a wide variety of leisure activities—adult education classes, music lessons and recitals, traveling art exhibits, gymnastics, as well as instruction in tennis, sailing, and physical fitness. It operated more than three hundred adult education centers and thirty music schools. It bought blocks of tickets for the theater, for opera, for concerts, giving ordinary Germans who had never experienced a live stage performance the opportunity to attend. Most popular, and certainly the most highly publicized of the KdF’s activities, were the subsidized vacation trips. On offer were holidays on the North Sea, in the Black Forest, Berlin, the Bavarian Alps, and the Harz Mountains. The majority of the tours consisted of excursions of up to three days, but the real showpiece of the KdF’s vacation trips were excursions of two or even three weeks on one of the twelve cruise ships owned or leased by the program. These trips carried passengers in glittering white cruise ships to the fjords of Norway, to the Spanish coast, and to Italy. For many it was their first experience beyond the borders of the Reich. Between 1934 and 1939 approximately 43 million Germans—two thirds of the population—availed themselves of KdF trips.
The regime presented the KdF and its popular programs as evidence of the National Socialist people’s community in operation, providing leisure opportunities for every German, regardless of class or income. “The worker sees that we are serious about raising his social position,” Robert Ley proudly declared. “It is not the so-called educated classes whom we send out as representatives of the new Germany, but himself, the German worker whom we show to the world.” Newspapers printed photographs of passengers waving happily from the decks; postcards and brochures featuring pictures of cruise destinations and testimonials of satisfied travelers could be found at every newsstand.
Hitler, himself a car enthusiast, also believed that every German should have an automobile to travel the new Autobahns being built throughout the country, and the plans for a “people’s car,” a Volkswagen, were begun. The original draft design sprang from Hitler, and the manufacturer Porsche was to produce the automobile. The program was launched with great fanfare in 1938, its loudly trumpeted goal to produce a cheap people’s car for the common man. “For a large number of Germans,” Social Democratic agents reported, “the announcement of the KdF car came as a pleasant surprise. There developed a real KdF-Car psychosis,” becoming a big talking point among all classes of population. This obsession with the car, “which was cleverly stimulated by the Propaganda Ministry,” was proving an effective diversionary tactic keeping “the masses from becoming preoccupied with a depressing [economic] situation.” Citizens could place orders through the Labor Front, have payments deducted from wages and await delivery. They would have a long wait—no Volkswagen was produced for private use until after the Second World War, and the first delivery for those who had paid into the system during the Third Reich was made in 1960.
The regime also called on all Germans to participate in a series of public rituals that were designed to intensify their participation in the people’s community and make an open display of their commitment to National Socialism. The German greeting—“Heil Hitler”—and Nazi salute became ubiquitous in everyday life. Postal clerks were required to give the Hitler greeting to patrons at the office; students at school to their teachers and one another, shopkeepers to their customers, and pedestrians on the street were expected to offer up a “Heil Hitler” instead of the traditional “guten Tag” (good day). The perpetual “Heils” inspired many jokes: An incredulous Göring arrives at Goebbels’s office and tells him that on his way there he had heard one “good day” after another. If no one was going to use “Heil Hitler,” maybe the regime should simply consider returning to “good day.” Out of the question, Goebbels snaps, “as long as our beloved Führer lives, there will be no more ‘good days’ in Germany.”
Flags, banners, and standards were everywhere, as were uniforms, armbands, and insignia. Swastikas adorned stamps, walls, billboards, stationery, and jewelry. It was everywhere one looked; no object, no matter how inconsequential, was too small to bear one. Victor Klemperer recorded his dismay when he discovered “toothpaste with the swastika” in his local pharmacy and shock a few days later when he spied “a children’s ball with the swastika” in a toy shop. Seeing day in and day out these ubiquitous expressions of apparent support for the Nazis added to the more overt forms of pressure to conform, to accept the Nazi claim to have created a new people’s community supported by all.
The Nazis filled the calendar with an endless series of charity drives, parades, rallies of different groups—the wounded veterans, teachers, women, youth. There was always a cause to mobilize the emotions of the public—the Winter Relief for the unemployed, homeless, and hungry, for disabled war veterans, for German minorities abroad. The Hitler Youth or SA man with cup in hand became a ubiquitous feature of daily life in the Third Reich. They collected not only on the streets, buses, and trolleys but went door-to-door in apartment blocks and in the countryside. Records were kept of who gave and who did not, with more than a little hint of retribution. One couldn’t afford not to give. In some communities the names of those who were stingy or contributed nothing were posted in the newspaper; in some small villages the party erected “Boards of Shame,” listing those who “despite financial ability refuse to make donations.” In one village a banner was strung across the main street with the message “Take Note. In this village reside thirty-three traitors to their country. Anyone interested in their names need only inquire at the local party office.”
While these activities put pressure on the individual to conform, the regime staged a succession of meticulously orchestrated mass spectacles that were intended to demonstrate the power and popularity of the regime. The calendar year began with festivities marking the anniversary of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, followed by a celebration of the party’s founding on February 24. In March the National Hero’s Day dedicated to the fallen heroes of Germany’s wars was expanded to include the “martyrs of the National Socialist movement,” a fusion of the nationalist past with the Nazi present. On the last Sunday in March the new members of the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were sworn in, kicking off a day of speeches and parades as young Germans officially took up their duties in the Volksgemeinschaft. April 20, the Führer’s birthday, was celebrated across the country in euphoric, quasi-religious displays of devotion to Germany’s savior, and on May Day the Nazis observed a national holiday to celebrate not only the working class—the “Day of National Labor”—but all productive Germans. No longer a day devoted to a particular segment of the population, it was transformed into the “National Festival of the German People,” transcending the now irrelevant boundaries of class.
Fall brought the three most hallowed events on the Nazi calendar: the party rally in Nuremberg, the Harvest Festival at the Bückeburg outside Hameln, and the reenactment of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Of these, the Nuremberg rally in early September was by far the most awe-inspiring and the most theatrical in its staging. The Nazis had held their first national rally in Munich in 1923, a smallish affair that lasted barely three days; the second, in 1926, made hardly a blip on the radar screen of Weimar politics. It was poorly attended and lasted but two days. In the following year, the party gathered for the first time in Nuremberg but no national rally was held again until 1933 when Hitler declared that the annual Reich Party Rally would be held there in perpetuity.
The city recommended itself for a variety of reasons. Nuremberg, where Julius Streicher was in command, had been a hotbed of Nazi support throughout “the years of the struggle,” and it was, in addition, the historic site where for centuries the diet of the Holy Roman Empire had convened. With its timbered houses, winding canals, medieval turrets, towering church spires, and cobblestone byways, the city offered the very essence of the Nazi vision of a romantic, mythical German past. And now, all through the narrow city streets, brown-shirted troops marched; Nazi flags fluttered from the mullioned windows; giant banners, three stories high, streamed down the facades of ancient buildings. Beginning in 1933, these weeklong rallies took on colossal proportions, attracting hundreds of thousands of participants—SA and SS troops; HJ and BdM; uniformed workers of the Labor Front; the Nazi Motor Corps; and the NS League of German Women—all in their distinctive uniforms and carrying different flags and standards. Alternating with the march of Storm Troopers and black-shirted SS came a parade of peasants from the different regions of the Reich, all dressed in colorful, traditional costume, fusing the traditional with the revolutionary.
The rally engulfed the entire city, but the main events were staged on the sprawling rally grounds situated on the outskirts of town. In early 1934 Hitler commissioned Albert Speer with the task of creating a vast party complex for the rallies, which would ultimately include several large arenas and parade grounds, a congress hall, a stadium, a war memorial, and, most impressive, a monumental stone structure on the Zeppelin Field. The Zeppelin Field arena was built to hold 90,000 participants on the field proper, 60,000 on the grand tribunal, and another 64,000 on the earthen embankments that formed the semicircular periphery of the arena. The tribunal and review stand made of white stone rose eighty feet high and consisted of a massive central block containing the speaker’s rostrum and on either side a long colonnade that stretched 1,300 feet. Speer modeled the tribunal on the Pergamon Altar, an ancient Greek structure that was housed in a Berlin museum, but with a monumental coldness that lacked any semblance of elegance or humanity. Its message was power. Like a guiding star hovering above the tribunal, a giant swastika looked down on the assembled masses. The Luitpold Arena, built as a park and war memorial during the Weimar Republic, was expanded to hold 200,000. Its speaker’s tribunal and grandstand were flanked by two gargantuan golden eagles with wings spread, fierce birds of prey perched upon giant swastikas. The sheer magnitude of these sites, especially when filled with hundreds of thousands of Storm Troopers, Hitler Youth, and SS, was awe-inspiring, just as intended.
Dozens of special trains and chartered buses delivered the multitudes to the grounds of the rally, where they were settled in vast tent encampments—acres of tents aligned in perfect military order that held field kitchens, hygienic facilities, and recreation areas. Speer created a variety of spectacular effects, the most striking of which was “the dome of light,” produced by 130 giant spotlights spaced at ten-meter intervals around the periphery of the Zeppelin Field, where the main nighttime events were held. Each spotlight beamed a shaft of brilliant white light 25,000 feet into the night sky, encasing the Zeppelin Field in what British ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson called a “cathedral of ice.” A mixture of awe-inspiring pageantry, mysticism, and color dominated the scene as hundreds of brilliant red swastika banners, their gold trim glittering in the dazzling light, rose over a sea of Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth.
The annual Nuremberg rally lasted five days to a week, with speeches, parades, mass gymnastics exhibitions, and, beginning in 1935, military demonstrations. Every party dignitary attended and spoke; every Nazi organization had its special role to play, its own event—the day of German youth, the day of the Labor Front, and so on. Beginning in 1933 each rally was filmed to be shown around the country—and the world—and each was given a theme reflecting momentous events of the past year. Nineteen thirty-three brought the “Victory of Faith”; the 1934 rally, captured in an extraordinary film by Leni Riefenstahl, proclaimed the “Triumph of the Will” and was held in the nervous aftermath of the Röhm purge. It emphasized the unbroken unity of the party and the loyalty of the SA to Hitler. In 1935 the “Party Rally of Freedom” marked the return of the Saar region to Germany and the emancipation of the Reich from the armaments clauses of Versailles. The last of the rallies—the “Rally of Greater Germany”—was held in 1938 after the German absorption of Austria in the spring and in the midst of the international crisis over the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.
The daily events unfolded with military precision and virtually operatic theatricality, each providing the assembled multitude a visual spectacle—hundreds of thousands of SA men and Hitler Youth with their standards, more thousands of white-clad young women performing synchronized gymnastics, uniformed workers of the Labor Front performing the manual of arms with glistening spades, and Wehrmacht (the new name of the Reichswehr after 1933) troops parading before the grand tribunal on the Zeppelin Field. Peering majestically down from a raised speaker’s platform of white stone, Hitler presided over it all, a solitary, heroic, all-mighty figure. He was omnipresent in every assembly, on every parade ground, his position—his pedestal—raised architecturally, the visual focal point of the proceedings. After all the awesome pageantry of the marches, assemblies, the torchlight parades, the climax of each rally was Hitler’s address on the final day, delivered to a packed house in the old Congress Hall.
In the fall the Nazis mounted a harvest festival outside the village of Bückeburg in Hanover. Unlike the Nuremberg rallies, Bückeburg was not strictly a party event but a Volksfest, a people’s festival to give thanks for the harvest. Exuberant peasants in traditional costume lined a broad stone pathway that split the massive crowd; ordinary Germans stood and sat in the fields; many brought picnics and sat on blankets.
The atmosphere at Bückeburg was different, more informal, more populist than other Nazi events. Crowds covered the hillside and the surrounding fields—a “living mountain,” as Goebbels described it. Eight temporary railway stations were constructed to handle the fleet of special trains that carried hundreds of thousands to the area. In 1934, five hundred thousand spectators filled the festival grounds; three years later the crowd was estimated at more than a million. The people were not there to be propagandized—assembled en masse in their hundreds of thousands, they werethe propaganda.
Finally, every November 8–9, veterans of the Beer Hall Putsch gathered at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich to reenact the ill-fated but “heroic” march of 1923. Led by Julius Streicher, the procession followed the route of the Putschists across the Ludwig Bridge, to the Marienplatz, and finally to the Feldherrnhalle. Throngs lined the flag-draped streets; giant red pylons marked their path, one spaced every ten meters or so. Each was topped by an enormous cauldron from which an eternal flame flickered. On the side of each was inscribed in gold letters the name of a party martyr. At the Feldherrnhalle, where the fatal shots had been fired, the procession halted, and Hitler, standing on the top step of the monument’s arcade, addressed the uniformed legions gathered below on the Odeonsplatz. Behind him, lined against the back wall of the monument, stood the iron sarcophagi of the sixteen Nazi martyrs killed on that day in 1923. In later years the sarcophagi were moved to two open “Temples of Honor” constructed on the Königsplatz, built adjacent to the Führer Building, which held Hitler’s Munich office. There an even larger ceremony was staged on the broad square. The nation was invited to listen to the live broadcast of these proceedings and watch them in newsreels shown at theaters across the country. November 9 was a solemn party ritual, an integral component of the Nazi myth, and was reenacted every year down to the outbreak of the war.
These public spectacles were intended to demonstrate the irresistible psychological pull of National Socialism and to overwhelm any onlookers who still harbored reservations about the regime. They also contributed to the ever-deepening cult of the Führer and the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft.Historians have often been quick to dismiss this National Socialist “people’s community” as mere public relations, a cover for the Nazi coordination of all social, economic, and political relations in the new dictatorship. That it served that purpose is indisputable, but the power of its appeal should not be underestimated. To a country humiliated by defeat, torn by class antagonisms, and divided by religious affiliation and regional loyalties, the Nazi motifs of racial strength and internal harmony in the face of a hostile world were enormously appealing. The relentless drumbeat of social solidarity, unity in a people’s community where coal miners, peasants, shopkeepers, clerks, engineers, corporate executives, Protestants, and Catholics would stand on equal footing as Germans found considerable popular resonance. The Nazis were promoting social equality, and Hitler rarely let an opportunity pass to invoke his humble origins, his lack of formal education, his struggle up from want, and praise for the solidarity and national idealism he found in the trenches, where Germans of all backgrounds were thrown together to fight for the common cause of German survival. Re-creating and perpetuating that solidarity of the trenches constituted the basic social imperative of the Volksgemeinschaft.
Traditionally, German politicians and statesmen were distant, formal figures—one only had to glance at the austere Brüning or aristocratic Papen or Hindenburg’s towering aloofness to get the picture; they did not plunge into crowds to shake hands with their countrymen. They could not play politics in a populist key. Hitler was different. A peripatetic Hitler was photographed with laboring men on factory floors, cutting ribbons for the launch of ships, shoveling the first—and second and third—spade of earth for Autobahn construction, walking amongst the peasants at the Bückeburg harvest festival. These were elaborate photo ops, carefully staged for the cameras, and played an important role in shaping both the “Führer cult” and the Volksgemeinschaft. Goebbels’s propaganda machine trumpeted Hitler as a tribune of the people, the embodiment of the egalitarian spirit of the new Germany. Although he was at the same time portrayed as a sophisticated man of the world, at home in top hat and tails at the opera, greeting foreign heads of state, assessing trends in the art world, he was still at heart the common soldier of the Great War, a folksy south German who loved the Alps and relaxed in lederhosen, a man with common tastes. He was pictured in the Reich Chancellery with top party officials eating from a large steaming pot of stew—Eintopfessen, a simple one-pot peasant’s meal. The image caught on, and every German family was encouraged to have a one-pot meal on the first Sunday of every month. The money saved was to be contributed to the Winter Relief. Even restaurants participated. All people’s comrades were doing their part for the Volksgemeinschaft, where the distinctions of class and region had disappeared.
The power of this populist imagery was reinforced by a number of developments that the regime could point to as triumphs of Nazi policy. From the earliest days of Nazi rule, the regime threw itself into highly publicized public works projects that signaled a single-minded determination to put the country back to work. Using uniformed men of the Labor Front, a National Socialist organization that conscripted the unemployed off the streets, the regime constructed bridges and roads, drained swamps and constructed dams—the highlight of which was the construction of the great Autobahn network, a project that was actually conceived under the last Weimar governments. Unemployment in 1932 stood at six million; in 1934 at 2.6 million; by 1937, spurred by the massive rearmament program begun in 1935, the figure had plunged to 500,000.
The regime also pointed to the new sense of social harmony, the absence of political strife, and the restoration of law and order as signs of the new national solidarity. With the Nazis entrenched in power, there were no more clashes in the streets, no bloody class conflict. For all the brutality of the SA and the looming menace of the SS, after the first months of the Nazi rule, peace and public order seemed to have been established. Gestapo arrests usually occurred at night, out of sight. People simply disappeared. Whispered rumors abounded, but it was not prudent to ask questions. Yet if Germans didn’t see the brutality, it is because they didn’t want to or were afraid to. After the first great wave of arrests, murders, and beatings in 1933, when more than 100,000 Social Democrats and Communists, recalcitrant clergy, obstreperous conservatives, and other suspected opponents were rounded up, public violence was rare. After years of political and social turmoil, stability and apparent social solidarity had been achieved—or, perhaps more accurately, imposed. Still, there could be no denying that the economic recovery that had eluded the star-crossed Weimar Republic had, thanks largely to rearmament, been achieved by the mid-1930s, and the dramatic successes of Hitler’s foreign policy had expunged the humiliation of Versailles and rekindled a sense of national pride and purpose.
But behind the elaborately constructed facade of social solidarity and enthusiastic support for the regime there lurked a more complicated—and uglier—reality. With each passing year, the sinister reach of the Gestapo extended deeper and deeper into the private lives of the population. The Gestapo seemed to be everywhere, always listening, always watching. One might be arrested for “subjective crime,” what one thought, in addition to “objective crime,” public actions, or for being “anti-community-minded.” A prisoner might be released after an hour or so, but the effect was chilling. Since arrests often occurred in the dark early-morning hours when, the Gestapo understood, people were at their most psychologically vulnerable, rumor and fear mounted. It didn’t take many of these nighttime arrests to convince the public that the Gestapo had eyes and ears in every house, every apartment, in every bar and public place.
One didn’t dare ask too many questions or express disappointment, not to mention disapproval, too openly. Neighbors and family members were prodded to inform on one another; each building, each city block had its Blockwart (monitor) who made sure that residents of his assigned area put out the flag on the Führer’s birthday, contributed to the Nazi charities, and listened to the Führer’s speeches on the radio. Children were encouraged to report on their parents—had they heard anything subversive at home, anything disrespectful of the regime, its policies or its leaders? A torrent of anonymous denunciations flooded Gestapo offices, as people quickly learned how to instrumentalize the system, settling old grudges by denouncing a rival in love or at work or a troublesome neighbor. The Gestapo, in fact, was quite small—much smaller than the East German Stasi of postwar years—and relied heavily on such denunciations.
For those who were not intimidated or were simply incautious, there were the camps. During the early years of the Third Reich, there was no concentration camp system. Camps sprang up across the country, some run by the SA, some by local Nazi governments, some by the regional police, some by the Gestapo. Each camp operated according to its own procedures, its own administration. These camps were not intended to be permanent installations. No long-range plans were made; no thought given as to whether they would continue to operate once the wave of mass arrests of Socialists, Communists, and other outright opponents had passed in 1933. Their purpose was to incarcerate political prisoners; they were not intended to hold Jews unless they were engaged in resistance or anti-Nazi activities.
Göring, as head of the Gestapo in 1933, began closing many of the smaller, unregulated camps, and Himmler continued the process in 1934. While expanding his control of the Gestapo to all of Germany, Himmler sought to bring all the camps under SS direction. Backed by Hitler, he established a Concentration Camp Inspectorate in the summer of 1934 and named Theodor Eicke, the brutal commandant of Dachau, to lead the organization. Eicke was an old Nazi, fanatically loyal to Himmler, and he was renowned for the iron discipline and ruthless cruelty with which he ran Dachau. Eicke’s task was to bring order to the camps, which effectively meant to bring them firmly under SS control. Only installations organized by the Inspectorate were henceforth to be granted the official designation Konzentrationslager (KZ), concentration camp.
Armed with Himmler’s authority and Hitler’s support, Eicke worked assiduously to accomplish that mission. He closed some camps, expanded others, and created new ones. Using his harsh regime at Dachau as his model, he imposed uniform regulations on the operation of the camps, and he trained special units to run them. He introduced a standard uniform for the prisoners, who were no longer to wear their own clothes but were issued the coarse blue and white striped pajamas that would become symbols of Nazi slavery and oppression throughout Europe. The camps acquired paved roads, electrified wire fences, guard towers, row upon row of barracks. These were permanent facilities intended to operate in a formal concentration camp system.
But the future existence of camps was still uncertain. With camps closing and the number of prisoners falling, the SS system was a rather small-scale operation. Only five camps were still operating in the summer of 1935, and the number of their prisoners had dropped to 4,000. They were dwarfed by the official prison system, which held more than 100,000 inmates, 23,000 of them political prisoners. At this time Hitler even considered closing the camps. Were they really still necessary? Himmler talked him out of it. In 1936 Hitler appointed Himmler Reichsführer-SS and head of all German police forces, merging both state and party positions and vastly extending Himmler’s power. In November 1937 Himmler told SS officers that he wanted a total of at least 20,000 prisoners for the camps. Using these powers, Himmler initiated a series of sweeps, ordering police and SS to round up beggars, pimps, prostitutes, drunks, the “work shy,” and “social misfits,” individuals who did not conform to the National Socialist conception of a meaningful contributor to the Volksgemeinschaft. The concentration camp population began to rise, and new camps were established at Sachsenhausen near Berlin in 1936, Buchenwald near Weimar in 1937, Flossenbürg on the Czech border, and Mauthausen in just annexed Austria, in 1938. Ravensbrück, a camp for women, was established in 1939. These were permanent installations, the foundation of the Nazi system of terror.
The existence of the camps cast a dark shadow over the Reich, a sinister reflection of a regime that harped incessantly on its overwhelming popularity with the German people. The American novelist Thomas Wolfe, who had traveled widely in Germany during the Weimar years, was shocked on a return trip in the mid-1930s by the dramatic changes that Hitler had wrought. He could hardly recognize the country he thought he knew. “Here was an entire nation,” he wrote, “. . . infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear. It was a kind of creeping paralysis which twisted and blighted all human relations.” Yet, thinking back on day-to-day life in the Third Reich, most Germans did not recall being consciously afraid. Instead they lived with a subliminal fear; developing a sixth sense for survival; learning what to say, when, and to whom was essential in daily life. A quick, almost reflexive glance over the shoulder to see who might be watching or listening nearby was dubbed the “deutscher Blick,” the German glance. Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador, recalled that “whenever we wanted to talk, we had to look around corners and behind doors, watch for the telephone and speak in whispers.” Many were convinced that their telephone receivers were rigged to act as transmitters so that private conservations at home could be listened to by the authorities. One defense was to place a tea cozy over the telephone to muffle conversations. Berlin merchants couldn’t keep them on the shelves.
Behind the elaborately constructed facade of social solidarity and support for the regime, pockets of dissent or nonconformity persisted. By the late 1930s, the Gestapo was registering increasing incidents of young people, especially but not exclusively working-class teens and young adults, who were involved in informal underground “bands, cliques, and gangs.” Groups such as the Edelweiss Pirates and the Kittelsbach Pirates in the Rhineland, the Navajos from Cologne, the Pack in Leipzig, the Swing Kids in Hamburg, and others sprang up in reaction to the authoritarian character of the Hitler Youth and the stultifying conformity imposed by the Third Reich. At gatherings in pubs, amusement parks, pool halls, and private homes, they wore eccentric, nonconformist clothing and long hair; they were sexually promiscuous, and danced to American jazz, all strictly forbidden as decadent by the Nazis. They also occasionally clashed with members of the Hitler Youth, who were their sworn enemies. “Beat the HJ wherever you come across them!” was the slogan of one group.
Some were involved in petty crimes—theft, assault, breaking and entering, particularly during the war. Most of their activities were apolitical in any larger sense. Their dissent was not so much against Nazi ideology as such—its racism, anti-Semitism, and aggressive xenophobia—as an expression of rebellious nonconformity and opposition to the oppressiveness of the Nazi regime. Their opposition hardened during the war years. “Hitler’s Power may lay us low,” went one song, “and keep us locked in chains, But we will smash the chains one day, We’ll be free again. We’ve got the fists and we can fight, We’ve got knives, and we’ll get them out. We want freedom, don’t we, boys? We’re the fighting Navajos.”
These groups, which were located primarily in urban areas, were not a direct threat to the regime; yet, in a context where the state’s claim to the individual was total, their very existence, outside Nazi control, was viewed by the regime as a serious provocation. And, for these discontented youths, many of whom were fourteen to seventeen years of age, their involvement was an act of courage. HJ patrols tracked them and reported them to the authorities; the Gestapo made arrests. Ignored by the Nazi press but captured in the secret Gestapo reports, a current of juvenile delinquency flowed beneath the smooth surface of the Third Reich, escalating dramatically during the war. As the alarmed Reich Youth Leadership declared in 1942, “the forming of cliques . . . of young people outside the HJ before the war, but especially during the war, has increased to such a degree that one can now speak of a serious danger of a political, moral, and criminal disintegration of the youth.”
More troublesome for the Nazis were the regime’s relations with the Christian churches. Both Protestant and Catholic churches had proven remarkably pliable in the first stages of the dictatorship. The Concordat with the papacy and the takeover of the Protestant leadership by the radical German Christians in 1933 seemed to indicate smooth sailing for the regime. But the honeymoon was short lived. The Nazis had pledged that the Catholic Church and its lay organizations would remain untouched by the regime so long as the Church did not engage in politics. But almost immediately Himmler’s SS began surveillance and harassment of Catholic lay organizations, which intensified as the year progressed. Mounting pressure was applied to Catholic youth organizations, when HJ leader Baldur von Schirach accused them of encouraging divisions within the Volk.By 1934 Catholic publications were compelled to drop “Catholic” from their mastheads, replacing it with “German.” The following year, the regime began banning Catholic magazines and newspapers until by 1939 all were “brought into line.”
Himmler also moved against the Church itself. Gestapo agents monitored sermons and infiltrated Catholic organizations. Priests were arrested, charged with engaging in political activity for reading from the Old Testament, for reminding their parishioners that Jesus was a Jew, and other acts of blasphemy against Nazi ideology. The party outlawed Nativity plays and other Catholic theatricals, claiming that they were ideological and hence political statements that were against the law. Some monasteries and convents were closed; some churches were shuttered, Catholic teachers furloughed, priests harassed. In 1935 the Nazi minister of education in Oldenburg decreed that all religious statuary, including crucifixes, were to be removed from all schools, parishes, and other public buildings. Not only did the local clergy protest, but the largely rural population reacted with outrage. They staged protests, circulated petitions, and created such a disruptive atmosphere that the Nazi regional governor felt compelled to retract the order. A similar incident, with the same results, occurred in Bavaria in 1937 when a local Nazi official ordered the crucifixes removed from public schools. Such civil disobedience was unheard of in the Third Reich, and it reminded the regime of the need for caution when dealing with the Church.
Alfred Rosenberg, the self-proclaimed interpreter of Nazi philosophy and author of the pagan, anti-Christian The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), could always be counted on to inflame relations between the party and the Church. An implacable enemy of Christianity, Rosenberg was at his most venomous when dealing with the Catholic Church. It had snuffed out the “Nordic Christianity” of the Early Middle Ages and allowed Jewish influence to permeate Christianity, leading to its degeneration over the centuries. He advocated a “positive Christianity” liberated from the Judaized Christianity of the Church. Despite widespread denunciations from the Catholic clergy, Rosenberg doggedly pressed his idea of merging Nazi racial ideology with a “renewed Christianity,” calling for a revival of the Nordic “blood soul.”
In 1935 Cardinal Clemens von Galen responded to Rosenberg in a pamphlet entitled “Studies on The Myth of the Twentieth Century,” eviscerating Rosenberg’s ideas. In a pastoral letter of the Catholic Bishops Conference at Fulda, he continued his assault, writing that “Religion cannot be based on blood, race or other dogmas of human creation, but only on divine revelation.” Following his lead, parish priests then read out a stern condemnation of Rosenberg’s work and the actions of the German Faith Movement. The Gestapo threatened Galen and banned the pastoral letter, but it was widely circulated nonetheless.
In this poisoned atmosphere, Goebbels launched a major propaganda offensive against Catholic institutions, charging them with financial corruption and rampant sexual abuse of children by predatory priests. Coverage of alleged sex scandals within the Church became a staple of the Nazi press. Anti-Catholic incidents multiplied; Hitler Youth disrupted church services, priests were taunted in the streets, Catholic youth groups assaulted. Himmler was relentless, applying ever-increasing pressure on Church organizations, restricting public meetings, censoring then banning Catholic publications, and arresting recalcitrant priests. Anticlericalism moved into elementary and middle schools, with Hitler Youth singing songs that ridiculed the Church and its teachings. “Their time has passed,” went one such song, “but the priests remain to rob the people of their soul, and whether it is Rome or Luther they are peddling, it’s all Jewish thinking. The time for the cross is now over.” Finally, the Catholic hierarchy in Germany had had enough. In January 1937 a delegation of senior German bishops and cardinals, including Cardinals Michael von Faulhaber of Munich and Clemens Galen of Münster, traveled to Rome. Their mission was to deliver a scathing indictment of the Third Reich and its war against the Church. After meeting with the pope, Faulhaber was asked to draft a papal encyclical enumerating the many Nazi breaches of the Concordat and condemning its escalating persecution of the Church. Pius XI approved the draft, and the document, written in German and entitled “With Burning Concern,” was smuggled into Germany. Some 300,000 copies were printed clandestinely in shops around the country and then surreptitiously passed to parish priests, who read it from pulpits all across Germany on Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937.
The papal encyclical’s open condemnation of the Third Reich hit like a bombshell. “With Burning Concern” blasted the regime for its “aggressive paganism,” its “secret and open measures of intimidation, the threat of economic and civic consequences, its campaign against the Church.” It denounced the regime’s closing of confessional schools, in flagrant disregard of the Concordat of 1933. “Catholics have a right to their children’s Catholic education,” as promised in the Concordat. On a more fundamental level, the document took aim at Nazi ideology. “None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race.” Catholics could be certain that “the enemies of the Church who think that their time has come, will see that their joy was premature, and they may close the grave they had dug. The day will come when the Te Deum of liberation will succeed to the premature hymns of the enemies of Christ.”
Publicly Hitler sought to reassure the Holy See and German Catholics by repeating that the regime’s goal was the extirpation of Marxism, and in that life-and-death struggle the unity of the German people was essential. In private, he was outraged. The encyclical came as a complete surprise to the regime. As disturbing to Hitler as the content of the document was the uncomfortable realization that the Church had been able to produce and distribute the encyclical without being detected by the regime’s security forces. It was an embarrassment for the SS and Gestapo, and it was a warning signal of what the Catholic Church was still capable of doing.
Hardly intimidated by papal intervention, the Nazis struck back with their usual fury, sharply escalating their offensive against the Church and its organizations. The Nazi press did not report the story at all, but on the day after Palm Sunday the Gestapo descended on the companies that printed the encyclical and seized all remaining copies. They also closed and sealed the firms responsible. The Church, Goebbels yammered, was a sinkhole of fiscal and sexual corruption not to be trusted with Germany’s youth or money. Ordinary Catholics were being swindled by a corrupt Church and its organizations. Throughout the rest of 1937, a flood of alleged incidents of pederasty and financial misconduct rippled through the Nazi press. Priests, monks, and friars were arrested—over a thousand, it was said—and awaiting trial. “Houses of God Degraded into Brothels and Dens of Vice” was a typical headline, and the trials that occurred throughout the year were given maximum coverage. Nazi tabloids wallowed in every lurid detail provided by the Propaganda Ministry. Germany, Goebbels asserted in a national radio address in May, was confronting a systematic effort to undermine the morality of the German people. The Church, he warned, should remember, “it is not the law of the Vatican that rules here but the law of the German people.”
Throughout 1938 and into 1939 the regime, having already eliminated religious instruction in public schools, moved decisively against church schools, converting them into “community schools.” It was for many Catholics the last battleground. Although the party had not managed to close all church schools by the outbreak of the war, they were making steady headway. Their sustained campaign against the Church had its effect, sobering the Catholic public and weakening any inclination toward opposition to the regime. Goebbels’s hope of driving a wedge between the Church and its flock seemed to be working. Despite the regime’s heathenism and its actions against the Church, Hitler remained popular with German Catholics, and opposition, both from ordinary Catholics and their leadership, remained focused narrowly on specific religious matters. There was little criticism of the Nazi racial policy or its totalitarian ambitions or its oppressive intervention in everyday life. In the last years of peace the “Church struggle,” as it came to be called, continued but at a lower pitch. By the outbreak of war in 1939, Catholic cultural organizations had been smashed, its Youth League disbanded, its publications banned, and yet, for all that, the Church remained a potential source of trouble to the regime, and Gestapo surveillance remained vigilant.
The Protestant church also represented a potential problem for the Nazis, albeit of a different nature. Hitler’s attempt to build a united national church led by the German Christians ran into trouble almost immediately. Ludwig Müller, Hitler’s choice for bishop of the new Reich Church, failed to create the unified Protestant church the Führer wanted, and Hitler’s appointment of Hanns Kerrl as head of the newly founded Reich Ministry of Church Affairs in 1935 was no more successful. The eager subservience of the new, coordinated Reich Church to the Nazi state, its willingness to allow the regime to intervene and direct its affairs, and the ham-fisted efforts of Müller and Kerrl to impose the pagan, anti-Semitic doctrine of the German Christians provoked an immediate reaction in 1933 and grew progressively stronger in 1934.
Adding to Müller’s difficulties was the Church Law, enacted on September 6, 1933, which required all pastors to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler and the National Socialist state. Among the clauses of that law was the introduction of the Aryan Paragraph of the Civil Service Law into the Church. Alarmed at the law and the direction of the new church, many pastors refused to take the oath. They also explicitly rejected the incorporation of the Aryan Paragraph into Church affairs. Among the most vocal opponents of the law was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a bright twenty-seven-year-old pastor and university lecturer. On September 27 he issued a declaration denouncing the Aryan Paragraph and Nazi racial policy more broadly, which found resonance with other dissident pastors. Especially disturbing to them was the Reich Church’s racial orientation, which, in their view, made race the key element of a new Nazified theology. These pastors, with Martin Niemöller’s leadership, began to organize in regional groups around the country to express their disaffection.
Niemöller was pastor of the Lutheran church in the posh Dahlem section of Berlin. He was no liberal. He had served as a submarine captain during the war, and like many Protestant pastors was a nationalist conservative. He fought in the Free Corps in the immediate postwar years and was an opponent of the Weimar Republic, which he considered too weak to represent Germany’s interests abroad and too fractured and disorganized to meet the Communist threat at home. For a time he was attracted to Hitler for his staunch anti-Communism and his promise of a revivified Germany, but in the course of 1933 he became disillusioned by the regime’s naked attempt to coordinate and control all the churches, Protestant as well as Catholic.
In September 1933 he joined with other recalcitrant pastors to create the Pastors’ Emergency League. In the following months they met in various cities, and in May 1934 at a meeting in Barmen, attended by some three thousand pastors, they issued a declaration of principles that formally rejected the Aryan Paragraph and the attempt of the German Christians to merge Nazism with Protestant Christianity. It was an unequivocal declaration of independence from the Reich Church and delivered a strong rebuke to the German Christians and to Reich Bishop Müller for their attempts to Nazify the Church. The text of the Barmen Declaration was written by Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who was residing in Germany. It was, in effect, the founding document of a new, anti-regime Protestant Church, the Bekennende Kirche, or Confessing Church.
The Confessing Church viewed itself as the legitimate Protestant church in Germany and was especially vocal in its rejection of “Nazi theology.” As a consequence, its pastors were under perpetual Gestapo surveillance and were frequently arrested. By 1937, some seven hundred pastors of the Confessing Church had been imprisoned, including particularly prominent figures—Bishop Theophil Wurm of Württemberg in 1935 and in 1937 Niemöller himself. Niemöller had continued to give sermons highly critical of the regime and had become the national voice of the disaffected, attracting a diverse following from former Social Democrats, Communists, and Catholics. In 1937, he was tried and convicted of actions embarrassing to the state, but was released the following year since he had already served his sentence of seven months while awaiting trial. Immediately upon his release he was rearrested—a not uncommon practice in the Third Reich. He disappeared into the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. He would spend seven years in the camps, much of it in solitary confinement, before he was liberated by the Americans in the spring of 1945.
Although they occasionally ruffled the smooth surface of the Third Reich and hundreds of clergy disappeared into the concentration camps in the prewar years, the churches posed no imminent danger to the dominance of the regime. Their criticism was mostly confined to Nazi intervention in church matters, and they remained largely silent about other criminal policies of the regime. Some smaller sects, especially the Jehovah’s Witnesses, courageously refused to swear any allegiance to Hitler’s new order and distributed pamphlets condemning the idolatry of Hitler and the Nazi attempts to undermine Christian beliefs. They also refused to serve in the military. They were rounded up and dispatched to the camps, most without a trial, where they constituted a major element of those arrested for religious opposition. They were an irritant but little more. And yet for the Nazis, whose goal was to leave no group outside their control, the churches were more than a nuisance: with their relative independence and their organizational networks spread across the country, their very existence represented a threat to the regime’s totalitarian aspirations.
Hitler was reluctant to attack the churches directly and left the rabid anti-Christian rhetoric to Goebbels, Rosenberg, and Himmler. But in private conversations he left no doubt about his intentions. “In the long run,” he explained to luncheon guests in 1941, “National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together. . . . The heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jews.” Later he confided to Speer and Himmler that he had been patient, but “we shan’t be able to go on evading the religious problem. . . . The evil that is gnawing our vitals is our priests, of both creeds. . . . The time will come when I’ll settle my account with them, and I’ll go straight to the point. . . . They’ve only got to keep at it, they’ll hear from me, all right. I shan’t let myself be hampered by juridical scruples. . . . In less than ten years from now, things will have quite another look, I can promise them.”
Terror and political indoctrination were central pillars of the Third Reich, but what the regime counted on was not just fear and not ideological commitment but apathy—each atomized individual looking for his or her own interests. Opportunists, especially among the more educated, rushed to join the party in such numbers that by the end of 1933 over half the membership of the NSDAP had joined since Hitler’s appointment as chancellor. And, of course, if one had misgivings, if one disagreed, one found little or no reinforcement in public. One didn’t dare confide in friends or colleagues or talk openly to strangers. Organized discussion outside National Socialist supervision became virtually impossible. Would someone inform? Werner Finck, the popular comedian at the Catacombs cabaret in Berlin, performed a routine in which a patient sitting in a dentist’s chair refuses to open his mouth. When the puzzled dentist asks why, Finck responds, “I don’t know you.” The skit routinely brought down the house—until, inevitably, the Nazis closed the Catacombs.
And besides, official reality in the Third Reich was so relentlessly positive, so upbeat. The newspapers carried no dissenting opinions, no outraged letters to the editor; the newsreels portrayed a happy people, proud of having overcome the lost war, the Great Depression, and international oppression. Why be a troublemaker? So many seemed happy in the new Volksgemeinschaft. They went dancing, went to the movies, went on excursions, attended the opera. On the surface everything seemed familiar, normal. But, of course, it wasn’t. Trying to describe life in the Third Reich and the insidious process by which society was diverted, seduced, tricked, threatened, and implicated, a German schoolteacher, hardly a Nazi himself, explained to a Jewish friend from America after the war:
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, “regretted,” that unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these “little measures” that no “patriotic German” could resent must someday lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying “Jew swine,” collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. . . . You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). . . . You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.
By mid-1934 it was obvious to all that this was no ordinary authoritarian dictatorship but a regime with totalitarian aspirations, a regime that sought to dominate not only the individual’s public behavior, but his private life, his thoughts. Hitler and the National Socialists had embarked on a course of action that would seek to efface the distinction between public and private life. “The revolution that we have made is a total revolution,” Goebbels stated in November 1933. “It encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up. . . . It has completely altered relations between individuals and utterly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state.” The Nazi goal was to “replace individuality with collective racial consciousness and the individual with the community.” In the Third Reich, Goebbels bluntly proclaimed, there would “no longer [be] any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself . . . the time for personal happiness is over.” Or as Robert Ley, minister of Labor, succinctly expressed it, “the individual in Germany who leads a private life is asleep.”