Modern history



On the morning of 6 May 1933, a group of vans pulled up outside Dr Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in the smart Tiergarten district of Berlin. Out of them leapt students from the Berlin School for Physical Education, members of the National Socialist German Students’ League. They drew up in military formation, then, while some of them took out their trumpets and tubas and started to play patriotic music, the others marched into the building. Their intentions were clearly unfriendly. Hirschfeld’s Institute was well known in Berlin, not only for its championing of causes such as the legalization of homosexuality and abortion, and for its popular evening classes in sexual education, but also for its comprehensive collection of books and manuscripts on sexual topics, built up by the director since before the turn of the century. By 1933 it housed between 12,000 and 20,000 books - estimates vary - and an even larger collection of photographs on sexual subjects.149 The Nazi students who stormed into the Institute on 6 May 1933 proceeded to pour red ink over books and manuscripts, played football with framed photographs, leaving the floor covered in shards of broken glass, and ransacked the cupboards and drawers, throwing their contents onto the floor. Four days later, more vans arrived, this time with stormtroopers carrying baskets, into which they piled as many books and manuscripts as they could and took them out onto the Opera Square. Here they stacked them up in a gigantic heap and set light to them. About 10,000 books are said to have been consumed in the conflagration. As the fire burned on into the evening, the students carried a bust of the Institute’s director into the Square and threw it into the flames. Told that the 65-year-old Hirschfeld was abroad recovering from an illness, the stormtroopers said: ‘Then hopefully he’ll snuff it without us; then we won’t need to string him up or beat him to death.’150

Wisely, Hirschfeld did not return to Germany. While the Nazi press reported triumphantly on the ‘Energetic Action against a Poison Shop’ and announced that ‘German students fumigate the Sexual Science Institute’ run by ‘the Jew Magnus Hirschfeld’, the venerable sex reformer and champion of homosexual rights remained in France, where he died suddenly on his sixty-seventh birthday, on 14 May 1935.151 The destruction of his Institute was only one part, if the most spectacular, of a far more wide-ranging assault on what the Nazis portrayed as the Jewish movement to subvert the German family. Sex and procreation were to be indissolubly linked, at least for the racially approved. The Nazis moved with the approval of conservatives and Catholics alike to destroy every branch of Weimar Germany’s lively and intricately interconnected congeries of pressure-groups for sexual freedom, the reform of the abortion law, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the public dispensing of contraceptive advice and anything else that they thought was contributing to the continued decline of the German birth rate. Sex reformers like the Freudian Wilhelm Reich or the long-time campaigner for abortion reform Helene Stocker were forced into exile, their organizations and clinics closed down or taken over by the Nazis. The police, meanwhile, raided well-known homosexual meeting-places they had previously tacitly tolerated, while in Hamburg they arrested hundreds of female prostitutes in the harbour district, acting, somewhat bizarrely, on the basis of the Reichstag fire decree ‘for the protection of people and state’. If nothing else, the raids illustrated how the decree could be used as legitimation for almost any kind of repressive action by the authorities. The dubious legality of this action was resolved on 26 May 1933, when the cabinet amended the liberal Law against Sexually Transmitted Diseases passed in 1927. The amendments not only recriminalized prostitution, effectively legalized in 1927, but also reintroduced the legal ban on publicity and education relating to abortion and abortifacients.152 Within a short space of time, the Nazis had dismantled the entire sexual reform movement and extended legal restrictions on sexuality from the existing punitive laws against same-sex relations to many other kinds of sexual activity that were not directed towards the goal of increasing the birth rate.

The attack on sexual liberation had already been foreshadowed in the last years of the Weimar Republic. The years 1929-32 had seen a massive public controversy on abortion law reform, stirred up by the Communists, and reflecting the need of many couples to avoid having children in circumstances of dire poverty and unemployment. Huge demonstrations, rallies, petitions, films, newspaper campaigns and the like had all drawn attention to the issues of illegal abortion and ignorance about contraception, and the police had banned a number of meetings held by sex reformers. On 1 March 1933 a new decree on health insurance had legitimated the closure of state-funded health advice clinics across the land, enforced during the following weeks by gangs of brownshirts. Doctors and staff were thrown out onto the streets; many, particularly if they were Jewish, went into exile. The Nazis argued that the entire system of social medicine developed by the Weimar state was geared towards preventing the reproduction of the strong on the one hand, and shoring up the families of the weak on the other. Social hygiene was to be swept away; racial hygiene was to be introduced in its stead.153 That meant, as some eugenicists had been arguing since the end of the nineteenth century, drastically reducing the burden of the weak on society by introducing a programme of preventing them from having children.

These ideas had rapidly gained wider currency among doctors, social workers and welfare administrators during the Depression. Well before the end of the Weimar Republic, experts had seized the opportunity afforded by the financial crisis to argue that the best way to reduce the impossible burden of welfare on the economy was to prevent the underclass from reproducing, by subjecting them to forcible sterilization. Before many years had passed, there would thus be fewer indigent families to support. Before long, too, the numbers of alcoholics, ‘work-shy’, mentally handicapped, criminally inclined and physically disabled people in Germany would be drastically reduced - on the dubious assumption, of course, that all these conditions were overwhelmingly hereditary in nature - and the welfare state would be able to direct its dwindling resources on the deserving poor. Protestant charities, influenced by doctrines of predestination and original sin, broadly welcomed such ideas; the Catholics, bolstered by a stern warning from the Pope in a 1930 encyclical that marriage and sexual intercourse were solely for the purposes of procreation, and that all human beings were endowed with an immortal soul, were strongly against. The appeal of a eugenic approach, even for liberal-minded reformers, was increased by the fact that mental asylums began to fill up rapidly from 1930 as families could no longer afford to care for ill or disabled members, while at the same time mental asylum budgets were drastically cut by local and regional authorities. In 1932 the Prussian Health Council met to discuss a new law allowing voluntary eugenic sterilization. Drafted by the eugenicist Fritz Lenz, who had been contemplating such policies since well before the First World War, it placed the power of advice.and application on welfare and medical officials whose word the poor, the confined and the handicapped would have been hard put to gainsay.154

This was only part of a much wider crackdown on what the respectable saw as various forms of social deviance. At the height of the economic crisis, no fewer than 10 million people were in receipt of some form of public assistance. As the democratic parties were closed down, municipal and state legislatures taken over and turned into assemblies of cheer-leaders for the local Nazi bosses, and newspapers deprived of their ability to investigate freely matters of social and political concern, welfare agencies, like the police, were freed from any kind of public scrutiny or control. Social workers and welfare administrators had already long been prone to regard claimants as scroungers and layabouts. Now, encouraged by new senior officials put in place by Nazi local and regional administrations, they could give free rein to their prejudices. Regulations passed in 1924 had allowed authorities to make benefits dependent on the recipient agreeing to work ‘in suitable cases’ on communal job schemes. These had already been introduced on a limited scale before 1933. Three and a half thousand people were working on compulsory labour schemes in Duisburg in 1930, and Bremen had been making such employment a condition of benefit receipt since the previous year. But in the dire economic situation of the early 1930s only a small proportion of the unemployed were covered - 6,000 out of 200,000 people on benefit in Hamburg in 1932, for example. From the early months of 1933 onwards, however, the number rapidly increased. Such work was not employment in the full sense of the word: it did not involve health insurance or pension contributions, for example, indeed it was not even paid: all that those who were engaged in it got was their welfare support plus, sometimes, pocket-money for travel or a free lunch.155

The work was supposedly voluntary, and the schemes were run by the private initiative of charitable institutions such as the Church welfare associations, but the voluntary element became rapidly less visible after March 1933. The urgent problem of mass unemployment was being tackled in the first place by coercion. A typical scheme was the ‘Farm Aid’ programme of March 1933, which took up initiatives already launched under the Weimar Republic to help the rural economy by drafting in young unemployed people from the towns to work on the land for board and lodging and nominal pay. Again, this was not employment in the proper sense of the word, but by August 1933 it had taken 145,000 people off the unemployment register, 33,000 of them women. Local administrators responsible for the homeless in Hamburg had been claiming since 1931 that they were making life unpleasant for the destitute and forcing them to seek support elsewhere. Such attitudes rapidly became more widespread in 1933. The number of overnight stays in the Hamburg Police Shelter fell from 403,000 in 1930 to 299,000 in 1933, largely as a result of this policy of deterrence. Officials began to argue that vagrants and the ‘work-shy’ should be sent to concentration camps. On 1 June 1933 the Prussian Interior Ministry issued a decree for the suppression of public begging. Poverty and destitution, already stigmatized before 1933, were now beginning to be criminalized as well.156

The police themselves, freed from the constraints of democratic scrutiny, launched a series of large-scale raids on the clubs and meeting-places of Berlin’s ring associations, networks of organized crime, in May and June 1933, as part of a campaign against professional criminals. Precincts they regarded as the haunts of criminal gangs were also centres of support for the Communists and their supporters. Such a crackdown was only possible after the Red Front-Fighters’ League had been smashed; it also constituted a further intimidation of the local population. Since the Nazis regarded crime, and particularly organized crime, as heavily dominated by Jews, it was not surprising that the police also raided fifty premises in Berlin’s ‘Barn District’ (Scheunenviertel) on 9 June 1933, a quarter known not only for its poverty but also for its high Jewish population. Needless to say, the association existed almost wholly in the minds of the Nazis themselves.157 The ring associations were ruthlessly smashed, their members taken into preventive custody without trial, and their clubs and bars closed down.158

In the penal system, where many of these people would eventually end up, the rapidly growing problem of petty crime had already led to pressure for harsher, more deterrent policies in the state prisons. Administrators and penal experts had argued in the last years of the Weimar Republic for the indefinite imprisonment or security confinement of habitual criminals whose hereditary degeneracy, it was assumed, rendered them incapable of improvement. Security confinement was increasingly thought to be the long-term answer to the burden these offenders supposedly imposed on the community. According to which criminologist or prison governor was making the estimate, anything between one in thirteen and one in two of all state prison inmates fell into this category at the end of the 1920s. Security confinement was included in the final drafts of the proposed new Criminal Code under preparation in the second half of the 1920s. Although the draft Code fell foul of the interminable wrangling of Weimar’s political parties, these proposals had a wide measure of assent in the penal and judicial establishments and clearly were not going to go away.159 There was no lack of specialist opinion that thought that the sterilization of genetically defective people should be compulsory.160 The Weimar welfare state had begun to turn to authoritarian solutions to this crisis that contemplated a serious assault on the bodily rights and integrity of the citizen. These would soon be taken up by the Third Reich and applied with a draconian severity that few under Weimar had even dreamed of. More immediately, state financial cutbacks were in any case forcing penal and welfare administrators to make ever harsher distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving, as conditions in state institutions of one kind and another worsened to the point where it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep everybody in them healthy and alive.161


The crackdown did not just affect the politically suspect, the deviant and the marginal. It affected every part of German society. Driving the whole process forward was the massive outburst of violence unleashed by the stormtroopers, the SS and the police in the first half of 1933. Reports continually appeared in the press, in suitably bowdlerized form, of brutal beatings, torture and ritual humiliation of prisoners from all walks of life and all shades of political opinion apart from the Nazis. Far from being directed against particular, widely unpopular minorities, the terror was comprehensive in scope, affecting anyone who expressed dissent in public, from whatever direction, against deviants, vagrants, nonconformists of every kind.162 The widespread intimidation of the population provided the essential precondition for a process that was in train all over Germany in the period from February to July 1933: the process, as the Nazis called it, of ‘co-ordination’, or to use the more evocative German term, Gleichschaltung, a metaphor drawn from the world of electricity, meaning that all the switches were being put onto the same circuit, as it were, so that they could all be activated by throwing a single master switch at the centre. Almost every aspect of political, social and associational life was affected, at every level from the nation to the village.

The Nazi takeover of the federated states provided a key component in this process. Just as important was the ‘co-ordination’ of the civil service, whose implementation from February 1933 onwards had put such powerful pressure on the Centre Party to knuckle under. Within a couple of weeks of Hitler’s appointment, new State Secretaries - the top civil service post - had been appointed in a number of ministries, including Hans-Heinrich Lammers at the Reich Chancellery. In Prussia, adding to the effects of the previous purge carried out by Papen after July 1932, Hermann Goring replaced twelve Police Presidents by mid-February. From March onwards, the violence of the stormtroopers was rapidly forcing politically unacceptable city officials and local mayors out of office - 500 leading municipal civil servants and seventy Lord Mayors by the end of May. Laws eliminating the autonomy of the federated states and providing for each one to be run by a Reich Commissioner appointed in Berlin - all except one were Nazi Party Regional Leaders - meant that there were few obstacles left after the first week of April to the ‘co-ordination’, or, in other words, Nazification of the civil service at every level. At the same time as the state governments were being overthrown, local Nazis, backed by squads of armed stormtroopers and SS men, were occupying town halls, terrorizing mayors and councils into resigning, and replacing them with their own nominees. Health insurance offices, employment centres, village councils, hospitals, law courts and all other state and public institutions were treated in the same way. Officials were forced to resign their posts or to join the Nazi Party, and were beaten up and dragged off to prison if they refused.163

This massive purge was given legal form by the promulgation on 7 April of one of the new regime’s most fundamental decrees, the so-called Law for the Restoration of a Professional Civil Service. Its title appealed to the corporate spirit of conservative civil servants and contained more than an implied criticism of the attempts of Weimar governments, especially in Prussia, to bring committed democrats in from outside the civil service to serve in senior posts. The first aim of the new decree was to regularize and impose centralized order on the widespread forcible ejection of civil servants and officials from their offices by local and regional brownshirt and Party actions. The law provided for the dismissal of untrained officials appointed after 9 November 1918, of ‘non-Aryan’ civil servants (defined on 11 April as having one or more ‘non-Aryan’, in other words, Jewish grandparent, and on 30 June as including any civil servant married to a non-Aryan), and of anyone whose previous political activity did not guarantee political reliability, or acting in the interests of the nationalist state, as the law put it. Only those with war service in 1914-18 were exempt.164

Justifying the Law on 25 April 1933, Hermann Goring criticized ‘time-servers’ in the civil service:

It had repelled and disgusted him to see how in his Ministry, whose body of civil servants notoriously consisted of up to 60 per cent of Severing-adherents, swastika badges were already sprouting from the earth like mushrooms after a few days, and how already after four days the clicking of heels and the raising high of hands were already a general sight on the corridors.165

Many civil servants did indeed rush to preserve their jobs by becoming members of the Nazi Party, joining the army of those who quickly became known mockingly as the ‘March Fallen’, after the democrats who lost their lives in the March disturbances of the 1848 Revolution. Between 30 January and 1 May 1933, 1.6 million people joined the Nazi Party, dwarfing the existing Party membership, a Gadarene rush that illustrated as few other things did the degree of the opportunism and sauve qui peut that were gripping the German population. Up to 80 per cent of Party members in Catholic areas such as Koblenz-Trier and Cologne-Aachen in the summer of 1933 had only joined within the previous few months. Indeed, Hitler became worried that this massive influx was changing the character of the Party by making it too bourgeois. But within the short term, at least, it meant the allegiance of the overwhelming majority of civil servants to the new regime.166 In fact, about 12.5 per cent of senior civil servants in Prussia and around 4.5 per cent elsewhere were dismissed as a result of the law. Further clauses allowed the demotion of civil servants or their compulsory retirement in the interests of administrative simplification; the numbers affected here were roughly similar. Altogether the Law affected between 1 and 2 per cent of the entire professional civil service. The dismissals and demotions had the incidental, and far from unintended effect, of reducing government expenditure as well as imposing racial and political conformity. Meanwhile, on 17 July 1933 Goring issued a decree reserving the right to appoint senior civil servants, university professors and judicial officials in Prussia to himself.167

Particularly important within the vast and diverse world of state employees were the judiciary and the prosecution service. There was a distinct threat that Nazi violence, intimidation and murder would run foul of the law. A large number of prosecutions, indeed, were begun by lawyers who did not share the new regime’s politically instrumental view of justice. But it was already clear that the majority of judges and lawyers were not going to make any trouble. Out of around 45,000 judges, state prosecutors and judicial officials in Prussia in 1933, only some 300 were dismissed or transferred to other duties on political grounds, despite the fact that very few state lawyers belonged to the Nazi Party at the time of Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor on 30 January. Adding on Jewish lawyers and judges dismissed (whatever their political position) on grounds of race made a total of 586. A similarly tiny proportion of the legal profession was dismissed in other German states. No serious objections were raised from the legal profession to these actions. Collective protest became in any case well-nigh impossible when the professional associations of judges, lawyers and notaries were forcibly merged with the League of National Socialist Lawyers into the Front of German Law, headed by Hans Frank, who was appointed Reich Commissioner for the ‘Co-ordination of the Judicial System in the States and for the Renewal of the Legal Order’ on 22 April. The reservations of the German Judges’ League had already been disposed of, as Hitler mentioned the ‘irremovability of judges’ in a speech on 23 March, and promises were made by the Justice Ministry to improve judges’ pay and prestige. Soon, lawyers were falling over themselves to join the Nazi Party, as the state Justice Ministers began to make it clear that promotion and career prospects would be harmed if they did not.168 Between this point and early 1934, 2,250 prosecutions against SA members and 420 against SS men were suspended or abandoned, not least under pressure from local stormtrooper bands themselves.169

These measures were part of a massive and wide-ranging purge of German social institutions in the spring and early summer of 1933. Economic pressure-groups and associations of all kinds were quickly brought into line. Despite the fact that agriculture was nominally in the hands of Hitler’s coalition partner Alfred Hugenberg, it was the leader of the Nazi Party’s farmers’ organization, Walther Darré, who made the running here, forcing a merger of agricultural interest groups into a single Nazi organization well before Hugenberg was eventually obliged to resign his post in the cabinet. Many groups and institutions reacted by trying to pre-empt such forcible co-ordination. In the business sector, employers’ associations and pressure-groups such as the Reich Association of German Industry incorporated Nazis onto their boards, declared their loyalty to the regime, and merged with other industrial pressure-groups to form the unitary Reich Corporation of German Industry. By making such a move unprompted, the industrialists sought to ensure that they could ward off the most intrusive attentions of the new regime. At one point, the Nazi functionary Otto Wagener had forcibly occupied the headquarters of the Reich Association of German Industry, with the clear intention of closing it down. Following the voluntary co-ordination of the Association by itself, he was displaced as Hitler’s Commissioner for Economic Questions by Wilhelm Keppler, a long-term intermediary between the Nazis and big business who, unlike Wagener, was trusted by both sides.

On 1 June 1933 business took another step to try and secure its position. Leading businessmen and corporations founded the Adolf Hitler Donation of the German Economy. This was supposed to bring an end to the frequent, sometimes intimidatory extortions exacted from businesses by local SA and Party groups by instituting a regular and proportional system of payments by industrialists to Nazi Party funds. It steered 30 million Reichsmarks into the Party’s coffers in the following twelve months. But it failed to secure its primary objective, for its foundation did nothing all the same to prevent lesser Party and SA bosses from continuing to extort smaller sums from businesses at a local level. However, big business was not too worried. Hitler had gone out of his way to reassure its representatives on 23 March that he was not going to interfere with their property and their profits, or indulge in any of the eccentric currency experiments with which the Party had toyed under the influence of Gottfried Feder in the early 1920s.170With the trade unions smashed, socialism off the agenda in any form, and new arms and munitions contracts already looming over the horizon, big business could feel satisfied that the concessions it had made to the new regime had largely been worth it.

Voluntary co-ordination was an option open to a whole variety of associations and institutions provided they could get their act together quickly enough. As often as not, however, organizations that had been living a relatively secure and undisturbed existence for decades were confused, divided and overtaken by events. A characteristic example was the Federation of German Women’s Associations, the umbrella organization of the moderate German feminists and the German equivalent of the National Councils of Women familiar for many years in other countries. Founded nearly forty years previously, it was a vast and elaborate confederation of many kinds of women’s societies, including professional associations like that of the women teachers. Overwhelmingly middle-class in composition, the Federation was deeply divided by the rise of the Nazis, a party for which most of its members were probably voting by 1932. Some senior figures wanted to fight the ‘masculinity drunk with victory’ that they saw triumphing in the Nazi movement, while others insisted on maintaining the Federation’s traditional party-political neutrality. As discussions dragged on, the Nazis resolved the issue for them.

On 27 April 1933 the Baden provincial chapter of the Federation was sent a curt note by the leader of the Nazi women’s organization in the province, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, informing it that it was dissolved. The central leadership of the Federation wrote to the Reich Interior Minister asking in some puzzlement what the legal grounds were for such a peremptory act, and assuring him that the Baden chapter was far from being a danger to public safety. The national leader of the Nazi Women’s Front, Lydia Gottschewski, declared somewhat airily that the Baden chapter had been dissolved on the basis of the law of the revolution, and enclosed a form for signature by the Federation’s President, in which she was invited to submit the Federation unconditionally to the direction of Adolf Hitler, to expel all its Jewish members, to elect Nazi women to top positions and to join the Nazi Women’s Front by 16 May. In vain the Federation pointed out to Gottschewski that it supported the ‘national revolution’, welcomed the eugenic measures being proposed by the regime and wanted to play its part in the Third Reich. On 15 May, faced with the fact that many of its member associations had already been co-ordinated into one Nazi institution or another, it voted formally to dissolve itself altogether, since its constitution made it impossible for it to belong to another organization.171


The Nazi ‘co-ordination’ of German society did not stop at political parties, state institutions, local and regional authorities, professions, arid economic pressure-groups. Just how far it went is perhaps best illustrated by returning to the example of the small north German town of Northeim, long dominated by a coalition of liberals and conservatives with a strong Social Democratic movement and a much smaller branch of the Communist Party in opposition. The local Nazis had already managed to manipulate the municipal elections held on 12 March by running as the ‘National Unity List’ and freezing the other parties out. The Nazi leader in the town, Ernst Girmann, promised the end of Social Democratic corruption, and the end of parliamentarism. Despite all this, the Social Democrats held their own in the local and regional elections, and the Nazis, though they took over the town council, failed to do better than they had in July 1932. The new council met in public, with uniformed brownshirts lining the walls, SS men assisting the police, and chants of ‘Hail Hitler!’ punctuating the proceedings, in a local version of the intimidation that accompanied the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag. The four Social Democratic councillors were refused permission to sit on any of the committees and not allowed to speak. As they walked out of the meeting, stormtroopers lined up to spit on them as they passed. Two of them resigned shortly afterwards, the other two went in June.

After the last Social Democrat had resigned, Northeim’s town council was used purely for announcing measures taken by Girmann; there was no discussion, and the members listened in absolute silence. By this time, some 45 council employees, mostly Social Democrats, had been dismissed from the gas works, the brewery, the swimming pool, the health insurance office and other local institutions under the civil service law of 7 April 1933. Including accountants and administrators, they made up about a quarter of the council’s employees. Easing out the town’s mayor, a conservative who had held the office since 1903, proved more difficult, since he resisted all attempts to persuade him to go, and stood up to a considerable degree of harassment. In the end, when he went on vacation, the Nazified town council passed a vote of no confidence in him and declared the local Nazi leader Ernst Girmann mayor instead.

By this time, the leading local Communists in Northeim had been arrested, together with a number of Social Democrats, and the main regional newspaper read in the town had started to run stories not only on the concentration camp at Dachau but also on one much closer to Northeim, at Moringen, which had over 300 prisoners by the end of April, many of them from other political groupings besides the main body of inmates, the Communists. At least two dozen of the SS camp guards were local men from around Northeim, and many prisoners were released after a short period in the camp, so that what went on there must have been well known to the townspeople. The local town newspaper, formely liberal in its allegiance, now frequently reported the arrest and imprisonment of citizens for trivial offences such as spreading rumours and making abusive statements about National Socialism. People knew that more serious opposition would meet with more serious repression. Opponents of the regime were dealt with in other ways, too; active Social Democrats were dismissed from their jobs, subjected to house searches, or beaten up if they refused to give the Hitler salute. Pressure was put on their landlords to evict them from their homes. The brownshirts subjected the local Social Democratic party leader’s shop to a boycott. Constant petty harassment was henceforth his lot, and that of other former prominent figures in the local labour movement, even if they abstained from all political activity.

Such were the implicit and sometimes explicit threats that lay behind the process of ‘co-ordination’ in a small town like Northeim, and in thousands of other small towns, villages and cities. The process began in March and rapidly gathered pace during April and May 1933. Like virtually all small towns, Northeim had a rich associational life, much of it more or less unpolitical, some of it not. The local Nazi Party brought all this under control by one means or another. Some clubs and societies were closed down or merged, others taken over. The railway workers in Northeim, an important centre in the national rail network, had already been pressurized by Nazis in senior positions in the local railway yards to enrol in the Nazi factory cell organization even before Hitler became Chancellor, but the Nazis made less progress in dealing with other workers until 4 May, when brownshirts took over the trade union offices and abolished the unions altogether. By this time, Girmann was insisting that every club and association had to have a majority of Nazis or Steel Helmets on its executive committee. Professional associations were merged into the newly founded National Socialist Physicians’ League, the National Socialist Teachers’ League and similar bodies, which all those concerned knew they had to join if they were to keep their jobs. The popular and well-funded local consumer co-operative was put under Nazi control but was too important to the local economy to close down, despite the fact that the Nazis had previously attacked it as a ‘red’ institution that undermined independent local businesses. Clubs for the war disabled were merged into the National Socialist War Victims’ Association, the Boy Scouts and the Young German Order into the Hitler Youth.

The inexorable pressure for Nazification of voluntary associations in the town met with a variety of responses. The Northeim singing clubs mostly dissolved themselves, though the workers’ choir attempted to adjust beforehand by cutting its links with the German Workers’ Singing League. The upper-class singing club (‘Song Stave’) survived by altering its executive committee and consulting the local Nazi Party before changing its membership. The shooting societies, an important part of local life in many parts of Germany, elected Girmann as Chief Captain and were told by him that they had to promote the military spirit rather than existing just for recreational purposes as they had done so far. They survived by flying the swastika, singing the Horst Wessel Song, and opening up some of their shooting competitions to the general public to counter Girmann’s charge of social exclusivity. All the local sports clubs, from the swimming association to the football club and the gymnastic societies, were forced to join in a single Northeim Sports Club under Nazi leadership, amid considerable recrimination. Some local social leaders took pre-emptive action to stop the Nazis confiscating their funds. The ‘Beautification Club’, a well-off association dedicated to improving the town’s parks and woods, put all its funds into building a hunting lodge just beyond the town boundary before dissolving itself. And several of the local guilds, informed that they had to elect new committees by 2 May, arranged huge drinking sessions and lavish banquets in order to use up the funds which, they were convinced, would soon fall into the hands of the Nazis.172

This process of ‘co-ordination’ took place in the spring and summer of 1933 at every level, in every city, town and village throughout Germany. What social life remained was at the local inn, or took place in the privacy of people’s homes. Individuals had become isolated except when they gathered in one Nazi organization or another. Society had been reduced to an anonymous and undifferentiated mass and then reconstituted in a new form in which everything was done in the name of Nazism. Open dissent and resistance had become impossible; even discussing or planning it was no longer practicable except in secret. Of course, in practice, such a situation remained an aim rather than a reality. The process of co-ordination was less than perfectly carried out, and a formal adherence to the new order through, for example, attaching the name ‘National Socialist’ to a club, a society or a professional organization, by no means implied a genuine ideological commitment on the part of those involved. Nevertheless, the scale and scope of the co-ordination of German society were breathtaking. And their purpose was not simply to eliminate any space in which opposition could develop. By bringing Germany into line, the new regime wanted to make it amenable to indoctrination and re-education according to the principles of National Socialism.

Reflecting on this process a few years later, the lawyer Raimund Pretzel asked himself what had happened to the 56 per cent of Germans who had voted against the Nazis in the elections of 5 March 1933. How was it, he wondered, that this majority had caved in so rapidly? Why had virtually every social, political and economic institution in Germany fallen into the hands of the Nazis with such apparent ease? ‘The simplest, and, if you looked deeper, nearly always the most basic reason’, he concluded, ‘was fear. Join the thugs to avoid being beaten up. Less clear was a kind of exhilaration, the intoxication of unity, the magnetism of the masses.’ Many, he also thought, had felt betrayed by the weakness of their political leaders, from Braun and Severing to Hugenberg and Hindenburg, and they joined the Nazis in a perverse act of revenge. Some were impressed by the fact that everything the Nazis had predicted seemed to be coming true. ‘There was also (particularly among intellectuals) the belief that they could change the face of the Nazi Party by becoming a member, even now shift its direction. Then of course many jumped on the bandwagon, wanted to be part of a perceived success.’ In the circumstances of the Depression, when times were hard and jobs were scarce, people clung to the mechanical routine of daily life as the only form of security: not to have gone along with the Nazis would have meant risking one’s livelihood and prospects, to have resisted could mean risking one’s life.173

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