Modern history

PROLOGUE

I

The Third Reich came to power in the first half of 1933 on the ruins of Germany’s first attempt at democracy, the ill-fated Weimar Republic. By July, the Nazis had created virtually all the fundamental features of the regime that was to govern Germany until its collapse almost twelve years later, in 1945. They had eliminated open opposition at every level, created a one-party state, and co-ordinated all the major institutions of German society with the exceptions of the army and the Churches. Many people have tried to explain how they managed to achieve such a position of total dominance in German politics and society with such speed. One tradition of explanation points to long-term weaknesses in the German national character that made it hostile to democracy, inclined to follow ruthless leaders and susceptible to the appeal of militarists and demagogues. But when one looks at the nineteenth century, one can see very little evidence of such traits. Liberal and democratic movements were no weaker than they were in many other countries. More relevant, perhaps, was the relatively late creation of a German nation-state. After the collapse in 1806 of the Holy Roman Reich created by Charlemagne a millennium before - the famous thousand-year Reich that Hitler sought to emulate - Germany was disunited until the wars engineered by Bismarck between 1864 and 1871, which led to the formation of what was later called the Second Reich, the German Empire ruled by the Kaiser. In many ways this was a modern state: it had a national parliament that, unlike its British counterpart for example, was elected by universal manhood suffrage; elections attracted a voter turnout of over 80 per cent; and political parties were well organized and an accepted part of the political system. The largest of these by 1914, the Social Democratic Party, had over a million members and was committed to democracy, equality, the emancipation of women and the ending of racial discrimination and prejudice, including antisemitism. Germany’s economy was the most dynamic in the world, rapidly overtaking the British by the turn of the century, and in the most advanced areas like the electrical and chemical industries, rivalling even the Americans. Middle-class values, culture and behaviour were dominant in Germany by the turn of the century. Modern art and culture were beginning to make their mark in the paintings of Expressionists like Max Beckmann and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the plays of Frank Wedekind and the novels of Thomas Mann.

Of course, there was a down-side to the Bismarckian Reich. Aristocratic privilege remained entrenched in some areas, the national parliament’s powers were limited and the big industrialists, like their counterparts in the USA, were deeply hostile to unionized labour. Bismarck’s persecution, first, of the Catholics in the 1870s, then of the fledgling Social Democratic Party in the 1880s, got Germans used to the idea that a government could declare whole categories of the population ‘enemies of the Reich’ and drastically curtail their civil liberties. The Catholics responded by trying to integrate more closely into the social and political system, the Social Democrats by sticking rigidly to the law and repudiating the idea of violent resistance or violent revolution; both behavioural traits that were to resurface to disastrous effect in 1933. In the 1890s, too, small extremist political parties and movements emerged, arguing that Bismarck’s work of unification was incomplete because millions of ethnic Germans still lived outside the Reich, especially in Austria but also in many other parts of Eastern Europe. While some politicians began to argue that Germany needed a large overseas Empire like the British already possessed, others began to tap lower-middle-class feelings of being overtaken by big business, the small shopkeeper’s fear of the department store, the male clerk’s resentment of the growing presence in business of the female secretary, the bourgeois sense of disorientation when confronted by Expressionist and abstract art and many other unsettling effects of Germany’s headlong social, economic and cultural modernization. Such groups found an easy target in Germany’s tiny minority of Jews, a mere 1 per cent of the population, who had mostly been remarkably successful in German society and culture since their emancipation from legal restrictions in the course of the nineteenth century. For the antisemites the Jews were a source of all their problems. They argued that the civil liberties of the Jews had to be restricted and their economic activities curtailed. Soon political parties like the Centre Party and the Conservatives were losing votes to these fringe parties of antisemites. They responded by incorporating into their own programmes the promise to reduce what they described as the subversive influence of the Jews in German society and culture. At the same time, in a very different area of society, Social Darwinists and eugenicists were beginning to argue that the German race needed to be strengthened by discarding the traditional Christian respect for life and by sterilizing or even killing the weak, the handicapped, the criminal and the insane.

These were still minority strands of thought before 1914; nor did anyone weld them together into any kind of effective synthesis. Antisemitism was widespread in German society, but overt violence against Jews was still rare. What changed this situation was the First World War. In August 1914 cheering crowds greeted the outbreak of war on Germany’s main town squares, as they did in other countries too. The Kaiser declared that he recognized no parties any more, only Germans. The spirit of 1914 became a mythical symbol of national unity, just as the image of Bismarck conjured up a mythical nostalgia for a strong and decisive political leader. The military stalemate reached by 1916 led to the German war effort being put in the hands of two generals who had won major victories on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. But despite their tight organization of the war effort, Germany was unable to withstand the might of the Americans when they entered the war in 1917, and by early November 1918 the war was lost.

Defeat in the First World War had a disastrous effect on Germany. The peace terms, though no harsher than those which Germany planned to impose on other countries in the event of victory, were bitterly resented by almost all Germans. They included the demand for massive financial reparations for the damage caused by the German occupation of Belgium and northern France, the destruction of the German navy and air force, the restriction of the German army to 100,000 men and the banning of modern weapons like tanks, the loss of territory to France and above all to Poland. The war also destroyed the international economy, which did not recover for another thirty years. Not only were there huge costs to pay, but the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the creation of new independent states in Eastern Europe fuelled national economic egotism and made international economic co-operation impossible. Germany in particular had paid for the war by printing money in the hope of backing it by annexing industrial areas of France and Belgium. The German economy could not meet the reparations bill without raising taxes, and no German government was willing to do this because it would have meant its opponents would have been able to accuse it of taxing the Germans to pay the French. Inflation was the result. In 1913 the dollar had been worth 4 paper marks; by the end of 1919 it was worth 47; by July 1922, 493, by December 1922, 7,000. Reparations had to be paid in gold and in goods, and at this rate of inflation the Germans were neither willing nor able to manage it. In January 1923 the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr and began to seize industrial assets and products. The German government announced a policy of non-cooperation. This sparked a decline of the mark’s value against the dollar that was unprecedented in scale. An American dollar cost 353,000 marks in July 1923; in August four and a half million; in October 25,260 million; in December four million million, or four followed by twelve noughts. Economic collapse stared Germany in the face.

Eventually the inflation was halted. A new currency was introduced; passive resistance to the Franco-Belgian occupation ended; the foreign troops withdrew; reparations payments resumed. The inflation fragmented the middle classes, by pitting one interest group against another, so that no political party was able to unite them. The post-inflation stabilization, retrenchment and rationalization meant massive job losses, both in industry and in the civil service. From 1924 onwards there were millions of unemployed. Business resented the failure of government to help it in this deflationary situation and began to look for alternatives. For the middle classes in general, the inflation meant a moral and cultural disorientation that was only worsened for many by what they saw as the excesses of modern culture in the 1920s, from jazz and cabaret in Berlin to abstract art, atonal music and experimental literature such as the concrete poetry of the Dadaists. This sense of disorientation was present in politics too, as defeat in war had brought about the collapse of the Reich, the flight of the Kaiser into exile, and the creation of the Weimar Republic in the revolution of November 1918. The Weimar Republic had a modern constitution, with female suffrage and proportional representation, but these were not instrumental in its downfall. The real problem of the constitution was the independently elected President, who had wide-ranging emergency powers under article 48 of the constitution to rule by decree. This was already used extensively by the Republic’s first President, the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert. When he died in 1925, his elected successor was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, a staunch monarchist who had no deep commitment to the constitution. In his hands, article 48 would prove fatal to the Republic’s survival.

The final legacy of the First World War was a cult of violence, not just in the hands of veterans such as the radical right-wing Steel Helmets, but more particularly in the younger generation of men who had not been old enough to fight, and now tried to match the heroic deeds of their elders by fighting on the home front. The war polarized politics, with Communist revolutionaries on the left and various radical groups emerging on the right. The most notorious of these were the Free Corps, armed bands who were used by the government to put down Communist and far-left revolutionary uprisings in Berlin and Munich in the winter of 1918-19. The Free Corps attempted a violent coup d’état in Berlin in the early spring of 1920, which led to an armed left-wing uprising in the Ruhr, while there were further left- and right-wing uprisings in 1923. Even in the relatively stable years from 1924 to 1929, at least 170 members of various political paramilitary squads were killed in street fighting; in the early 1930s the deaths and injuries escalated dramatically, with 300 killed in street and meeting-room clashes in the year from March 1930 to March 1931 alone. Political tolerance had given way to violent extremism. The parties of the liberal centre and moderate left suffered dramatic electoral losses in the mid-1920s, as the spectre of Communist revolution retreated and the middle classes voted for parties further to the right. Those parties that actively supported the Weimar Republic never had a parliamentary majority after 1920. Finally, the Republic’s legitimacy was further undermined by the bias of the judiciary in favour of right-wing assassins and insurgents who claimed patriotism as their motive, and by the neutral stance taken by the army, which became steadily more resentful at the Republic’s failure to persuade the international community to lift the restrictions placed on its numbers and equipment by the Treaty of Versailles. German democracy, hastily improvised in the aftermath of military defeat, was by no means doomed to failure from the start, but the events of the 1920s meant that it never had much of a chance to establish itself on a stable footing.

II

There was a huge variety of extremist, antisemitic groups on the far right in 1919, especially in Munich, but by 1923 one of them stood out above the rest: the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, led by Adolf Hitler. So much has been written about the power and impact of Hitler and the Nazis that it is important to point out that his party was out on the far margins of politics until the very end of the 1920s. Hitler, in other words, was not a political genius who raised mass support for himself and his party single-handedly. Born in Austria in 1889, he was a failed artist with a Bohemian lifestyle who possessed one great gift: the ability to move crowds with his rhetoric. His party, founded in 1919, was more dynamic, more ruthless and more violent than other extreme-right-wing fringe groups. In 1923 it felt confident enough to try a violent coup d’état in Munich as a prelude to a march on Berlin along the lines of Mussolini’s successful ‘march on Rome’ the previous year. But it failed to win over the army or the forces of political conservatism in Bavaria, and the coup was dissipated in a hail of gunfire. Hitler was convicted and put into Landsberg prison, where he dictated his autobiographical political tract, My Struggle, to his dogsbody Rudolf Hess: not a blueprint for the future, to be sure, but a compendium of Hitler’s ideas, above all antisemitism and the idea of a racial conquest of Eastern Europe, for all who cared to read it.

By the time he came out of prison, Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of antisemitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism, which had been floating around for some time but had not so far been integrated into a coherent whole. He gathered around him a team of immediate subordinates - the talented propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the decisive man of action Hermann Goring and others - who built up his image as leader and reinforced his sense of destiny. But despite all this, and despite the violent activism of his brownshirt paramilitaries on the streets, he got nowhere politically until the very end of the 1920s. In May 1928 the Nazis only won 2.6 per cent of the vote, and a ‘Grand Coalition’ of centrist and leftist parties led by the Social Democrats took office in Berlin. In October 1929, however, the Wall Street crash brought the German economy tumbling down with it. American banks withdrew the loans on which German economic recovery had been financed since 1924. German banks had to call in their loans to German businesses in response, and businesses had no option but to lay off workers or go bankrupt, which indeed many of them did. Within little more than two years more than one German worker in three was unemployed, and millions more were on short-term work or reduced wages. The unemployment insurance system broke down completely, leaving increasing numbers destitute. Agriculture, already under strain because of a fall in world demand, collapsed as well.

The political effects of the Depression were calamitous. The Grand Coalition broke up in disarray; so deep were the divisions between the parties over how to deal with the crisis that a parliamentary majority could no longer be found for any kind of decisive action. Reich President Hindenburg appointed a cabinet of experts under the Catholic politician Heinrich Brüning, an avowed monarchist. It proceeded to impose savagely deflationary cutbacks, only making the situation worse still. And it did so by using the Presidential power of rule by decree under article 48 of the constitution, bypassing the Reichstag altogether. Political power was diverted from parliament upwards, to the circle around Hindenburg, who could use his power of ruling by decree, and downwards, onto the streets, where violence escalated exponentially, pushed on by Hitler’s brownshirted stormtroopers, now numbering hundreds of thousands. For the thousands of young men who joined the brownshirts, violence quickly became a way of life, almost a drug, as they launched against the Communists and the Social Democrats the fury their elders had vented on the enemy in 1914-18.

Many brownshirts were without a job in the early 1930s. It was not unemployment, however, that drove people to support the Nazis. The unemployed flocked above all to the Communists, whose vote rose steadily until it reached 17 per cent, giving the party 100 seats in the Reichstag, in November 1932. The Communists’ violent revolutionary rhetoric, promising the destruction of capitalism and the creation of a Soviet Germany, terrified the country’s middle classes, who knew only too well what had happened to their counterparts in Russia after 1918. Appalled at the failure of the government to solve the crisis, and frightened into desperation by the rise of the Communists, they began to leave the squabbling little factions of the conventional political right and gravitate towards the Nazis instead. Other groups followed, including many Protestant small farmers, and manual workers from areas where the culture and traditions of the Social Democrats were weak. While all the middle-class parties collapsed completely, the Social Democrats and the Centre Party managed to restrict their losses. But by 1932 they were all that was left of the moderate centre, squashed helplessly between 100 uniformed Communist and 196 brownshirted deputies in the Reichstag. The polarization of politics could hardly be more dramatic.

The Nazis, then, as the elections of September 1930 and July 1932 showed, were a catch-all party of social protest with particularly strong middle-class support and relatively weak, though still very significant, working-class backing at the polls. They had broken out of their core constituency of the Protestant lower middle classes and farming community. Other parties, appalled at their losses, tried to beat them at their own game. This had nothing to do with specific policies, much more with the image of dynamism that the Nazis projected. The hated, calamitous Weimar Republic had to be got rid of, and the people united once more in a national community that knew no parties or classes, just as it had been in 1914; Germany had to reassert itself on the international scene and become a leading power again: that was more or less what the Nazis’ programme amounted to. They modified their specific policies according to their audience, playing down their antisemitism where it met with no response, for example, which is to say in most parts of the electorate after 1928. Besides the Nazis and the Communists battling it out on the streets, and the intriguers around President Hindenburg vying for the old man’s ear, a third major player now entered the political game: the army. Increasingly alarmed by the rise of Communism and the growing mayhem on the streets, the army also saw the new political situation as an opportunity to get rid of Weimar democracy and impose an authoritarian, military dictatorship that would repudiate the Treaty of Versailles and rearm the country in preparation for a war of reconquest of Germany’s lost territories, and perhaps more besides.

The army’s power lay in the fact that it was the only force that could effectively restore order in the shattered country. When President Hindenburg’s re-election in 1932 was achieved only with the help of the Social Democrats, who backed him as a less unacceptable choice than his main rival, Hitler, Chancellor Brüning’s days were numbered. He had failed in almost everything he had undertaken, from solving the economic crisis to restoring order to Germany’s towns and cities, and he had now offended Hindenburg by failing to secure his re-election unopposed and by proposing the break-up of the kind of landed estate Hindenburg himself owned in Eastern Germany to help the destitute peasantry. The army was anxious to get rid of Brüning because his deflationary policies were preventing rearmament. Like many conservative groups it hoped to enlist the Nazis, now the largest political party, as legitimation and support for the destruction of Weimar democracy. In May 1932 Brüning was forced to resign and replaced by the Catholic landed aristocrat Franz von Papen, a personal friend of Hindenburg’s.

Papen’s advent to power sounded the death-knell of Weimar democracy. He used the army to depose the Social Democratic state government in Prussia and prepared to reform the Weimar constitution by restricting voting rights and drastically curtailing the legislative powers of the Reichstag. He began to ban critical issues of daily newspapers and to restrict civil freedoms. But the elections he called in July 1932 only registered a further increase in the Nazi vote, which now reached 37.4 per cent of the poll. Papen’s attempt to enlist Hitler and the Nazis in support of his government failed when Hitler insisted that he and not Papen had to head the government. Lacking almost any support in the country, Papen was forced to resign when the army lost patience with him and put its own man into office. The new head of government, General Kurt von Schleicher, did no better at restoring order or co-opting the Nazis to give the semblance of popular backing to his policy of creating an authoritarian state. After the Nazis had lost two million votes in the Reichstag elections of November 1932, their evident decline and their obvious lack of funds created a serious division in the Party’s ranks. The Party’s organizer and effective second man after Hitler, Gregor Strasser, resigned from the Party in frustration at Hitler’s refusal to negotiate with Hindenburg and Papen. The moment seemed right to take advantage of the Nazis’ weakness. On 30 January 1933, with the agreement of the army, Hindenburg appointed Hitler as head of a new government in which all the other posts bar two were held by conservatives, with Papen as deputy Chancellor at their head.

III

In reality, 30 January 1933 marked the beginning of the Nazi seizure of power, not of a conservative counter-revolution. Hitler had avoided the mistakes he had made ten years previously: he had achieved office without formally destroying the constitution, and with the support of the conservative establishment and the army. The question now was how to convert his position in yet another Weimar coalition cabinet into a dictatorship in a one-party state. First, all he could think of doing was to intensify the violence on the streets. He persuaded Papen to appoint Hermann Goring as Prussian Minister of the Interior, and in this capacity Goring promptly enrolled the brownshirts as auxiliary police. They went on the rampage, smashing trade union offices, beating up Communists, and breaking up Social Democratic meetings. On 28 February chance came to the Nazis’ aid: a lone Dutch anarcho-syndicalist, Marinus van der Lubbe, burned down the Reichstag building in protest against the injustices of unemployment. Hitler and Goring persuaded a willing cabinet effectively to suppress the Communist Party. Four thousand Communists including virtually the entire party leadership were immediately arrested, beaten up, tortured and thrown into newly created concentration camps. There was no let-up in the campaign of violence and brutality in the weeks that followed. By the end of March the Prussian police reported that 20,000 Communists were in prison. By the summer over 100,000 Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists and others had been arrested, with even official estimates putting the number of deaths in custody at 600. All of this was sanctioned by an emergency decree signed by Hindenburg the night after the fire suspending civil liberties and allowing the cabinet to take any necessary measures to protect public safety. Van der Lubbe’s lone act was portrayed by Joseph Goebbels, soon to become Reich Propaganda Minister, as the result of a Communist conspiracy to stage an armed uprising. This convinced many middle-class voters that the decree was right.

Yet the government did not ban the Communists in a formal, legal sense, because it feared that the party’s voters would all desert to the Social Democrats in the elections Hitler had called for 5 March. Amidst massive Nazi propaganda, paid for by an inflow of fresh funds from industry, and violent intimidation, in which most rival political meetings were banned or broken up, the Nazis still failed to achieve an overall majority, peaking at 44 per cent and only getting over the 50 per cent barrier with the help of their conservative Nationalist coalition partners. The Communists still won 12 per cent and the Social Democrats 18 per cent, with the Centre Party holding firm at 11 per cent of the vote. This meant that Hitler and his cabinet colleagues were still far short of the two-thirds majority they needed to alter the constitution. But on 23 March 1933 they still managed to get it by threatening civil war if they were frustrated, and by winning over the Centre Party deputies with the promise of a comprehensive Concordat with the Papacy guaranteeing Catholics’ rights. The so-called Enabling Act passed by the Reichstag that day gave the cabinet the right to rule by decree without reference either to the Reichstag or to the President. Together with the Reichstag Fire Decree it provided the legal pretext for the creation of a dictatorship. Only the ninety-four Social Democratic deputies present voted against it.

The Social Democrats and Communists between them had won 221 seats in the Reichstag elections of November 1932 as against 196 for the Nazis and another 51 for the Nazis’ allies the Nationalists. But they failed completely to mount any concerted resistance to the Nazi seizure of power. They were bitterly divided. The Communists, under orders from Stalin in Moscow, labelled the Social Democrats ‘Social Fascists’ and argued that they were worse than the Nazis. The Social Democrats were reluctant to co-operate with a party whose deviousness and unscrupulousness they rightly feared. Their paramilitary organizations fought hard against the Nazis on the streets, but they would have been no match for the army, which backed the Hitler government all the way in 1933, and their numbers were also well below those of the stormtroopers, who numbered more than three-quarters of a million in February 1933. The Social Democrats wanted to avoid bloodshed in this situation, and stayed true to their law-abiding traditions. The Communists believed that the Hitler government was the last gasp of a moribund capitalist system that would quickly collapse, opening the way to a proletarian revolution, so they saw no need to prepare for an uprising. Finally, a general strike was out of the question when unemployment stood at 35 per cent; striking workers would quickly have been replaced by unemployed people desperate to rescue themselves and their families from destitution.

Goebbels got the agreement of the trade union leaders to support the creation of a new national holiday on Mayday, a long-held demand of the unions, and turned it into a so-called day of national labour, with hundreds of thousands of workers gathering on Germany’s public squares under the swastika to listen to speeches by Hitler and the other Nazi leaders broadcast over loudspeakers. The next day stormtroopers all over Germany raided trade union and Social Democratic offices and premises, looted them, carried off the funds, and closed them down. Within a few weeks, mass arrests of union officials and Social Democratic leaders, many of whom were beaten up and tortured in makeshift concentration camps, had broken the spirit of the labour movement. Other parties were now targeted in turn. The liberal and splinter parties, reduced by electoral attrition to being small groups on the fringes of politics, were forced to dissolve themselves. A whispering campaign began against Hitler’s Nationalist coalition partners, coupled with the harassment and arrest of Nationalist officials and deputies. Hitler’s chief Nationalist ally, Alfred Hugenberg, was forced to resign from the cabinet, while the party’s floor leader in the Reichstag was found dead in his office in suspicious circumstances. Protests by Hugenberg met with a hysterical outburst from Hitler, in which he threatened a bloodbath if the Nationalists resisted any longer. By the end of June the Nationalists too had been dissolved. The remaining big independent party, the Centre, suffered a similar fate. Nazi threats to sack Catholic civil servants and close down Catholic lay organizations combined with the Papacy’s panic fear of Communism led to a deal, concluded in Rome. The party agreed to dissolve itself in return for the finalization of the Concordat already promised at the time of the Enabling Act. This supposedly guaranteed the integrity of the Catholic Church in Germany along with all its assets and organizations. Time would show that this was not worth the paper it was written on. In the meantime, however, the Centre Party followed the others into oblivion. By the middle of July 1933, Germany was a one-party state, a position ratified by a law formally banning all other parties apart from the Nazis.

It was not just parties and trade unions that were abolished however. The Nazi assault on existing institutions affected the whole of society. Every state government, every state parliament in Germany’s federal political system, every town and district and local council was ruthlessly purged; the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act were used to dismiss supposed enemies of the state, meaning enemies of the Nazis. Every national voluntary association, and every local club, was brought under Nazi control, from industrial and agricultural pressure-groups to sports associations, football clubs, male voice choirs, women’s organizations - in short, the whole fabric of associational life was Nazified. Rival, politically oriented clubs or societies were merged into a single Nazi body. Existing leaders of voluntary associations were either unceremoniously ousted, or knuckled under of their own accord. Many organizations expelled politically leftish or liberal members and declared their allegiance to the new state and its institutions. This whole process (‘coordination’ in Nazi jargon) went on all over Germany from March to June 1933. By the end, virtually the only non-Nazi associations left were the army and the Churches with their lay organizations. While this was going on, the government passed a law that allowed it to purge the civil service, a vast organization in Germany that included schoolteachers, university staff, judges and many other professions that were not government-controlled in other countries. Social Democrats, liberals and not a few Catholics and conservatives were ousted here too. To save their jobs, at a time when unemployment had reached terrifying dimensions, 1.6 million people joined the Nazi Party between 30 January and 1 May 1933, when the Party leadership banned any more recruiting, while the number of brownshirt paramilitaries grew to over two million by the summer of 1933.

The proportion of civil servants, judges and the like who were actually sacked for political reasons was very small. The major reason for dismissal, however, was not political but racial. The civil service law passed by the Nazis on 7 April 1933 allowed dismissal of Jewish civil servants, though Hindenburg had succeeded in getting a clause inserted protecting the jobs of Jewish war veterans and those appointed under the Kaiser, before 1914. The Jews, Hitler claimed, were a subversive, parasitical element who had to be got rid of. In fact most Jews were middle-class, and liberal-to-conservative in their politics, insofar as they had any. Nevertheless Hitler believed that they had deliberately undermined Germany during the First World War and caused the revolution that created the Weimar Republic. A few socialist and Communist leaders had been Jewish, it is true, but the majority were not. For the Nazis this made no difference. The day after the March election, stormtroopers rampaged along the Kurfürstendamm, a fashionable shopping street in Berlin, hunting down Jews and beating them up. Synagogues were trashed, while all over Germany gangs of brownshirts burst into courthouses and dragged off Jewish judges and lawyers, beating them with rubber truncheons and telling them not to return. Jews who were amongst those arrested as Communists or Social Democrats were particularly harshly treated. Over forty Jews had been murdered by stormtroopers by the end of June 1933.

Such incidents were widely reported in the foreign press. This formed the pretext for Hitler, Goebbels and the Nazi leadership to put into action a long-mulled-over plan to stage a nationwide boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. On 1 April 1933 stormtroopers stood menacingly outside such premises warning people not to enter them. Most non-Jewish Germans obeyed, but not with any enthusiasm. The biggest Jewish firms were untouched because they contributed too much to the economy. Realizing it had failed to arouse popular enthusiasm, Goebbels called the action off after a few days. But the beatings, the violence and the boycott had their effect on the Jewish community in Germany, 37,000 of whose members had emigrated by the end of the year. The regime’s purge of Jews, whom it defined not by their religious adherence but by racial criteria, had a particular effect in science, culture and the arts. Jewish conductors and musicians such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were summarily dismissed or prevented from performing. The film industry and radio were rapidly purged of both Jews and political opponents of the Nazis. Non-Nazi newspapers were closed down or brought under Nazi control, while the journalists’ union and the newspaper publishers’ association both placed themselves under Nazi leadership. Left-wing and liberal writers, such as Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann and many others, were stopped from publishing; many left the country. Hitler reserved his particular enmity for modern artists like Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Vassily Kandinsky. Before 1914 he had been rejected from the Vienna Art Academy because his painstakingly representational drawings of buildings had been thought talentless. Under the Weimar Republic, abstract and Expressionist artists had gained wealth and reputation with what Hitler thought were ugly and meaningless daubs. While Hitler railed against modern art in his speeches, gallery and museum directors were sacked and replaced with men who enthusiastically removed modernist works from exhibition. The many modernist artists and composers, like Klee or Schoenberg, who held positions in state educational institutions, were all fired.

Altogether about 2,000 people active in the arts emigrated from Germany in 1933 and the following years. They included virtually everyone with an international reputation. Nazi anti-intellectualism was underlined still further by events in the universities. Here too Jewish professors in all fields were dismissed. Many, including Albert Einstein, Gustav Hertz, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born and twenty past or future Nobel prize winners, left the country. By 1934, some 1,600 out of 5,000 university teachers had been forced out of their jobs, a third because they were Jewish, the rest because they were political opponents of the Nazis. Sixteen per cent of physics professors and assistants emigrated. In the universities it was above all the students, helped by a small number of Nazi professors such as the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who drove the purges on. They forced Jewish and leftist professors out by violent demonstrations, and then, on 10 May 1933, they organized demonstrations in the main squares of nineteen university towns and cities in which huge numbers of books by Jewish and left-wing authors were piled up and set alight. What the Nazis were trying to achieve was a cultural revolution, in which alien cultural influences - notably the Jews but also modernist culture more generally - were eliminated and the German spirit reborn. Germans did not just have to acquiesce in the Third Reich, they had to support it with all their heart and soul, and the creation of the Propaganda Ministry under Joseph Goebbels, which soon acquired control over the whole sphere of culture and the arts, was the main means by which the Nazis sought to achieve this end. Nevertheless, Nazism was in many respects a thoroughly modern phenomenon, keen to use the latest technology, the newest weapons, and the most scientific means of reshaping German society to its will. Race, for the Nazis, was a scientific concept, and by making it the basis of all their policies, they were taking their stand on what they conceived of as the application of scientific method to human society. Nothing, neither religious beliefs, nor ethical scruples, nor long-hallowed tradition, was to get in the way of this revolution. Yet in the summer of 1933, Hitler felt constrained to tell his followers that it was time for the revolution to come to a stop. Germany needed a period of stability. This book begins at that moment, the moment when the destruction of the remnants of the Weimar Republic had been completed and the Third Reich was finally in power.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!