Modern history



The peasantry were generally assigned in German political discourse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to that peculiar and amorphous social group known by the untranslatable German appellation of the Mittelstand. This term expressed in the first place the aspirations of right-wing propagandists that the people who were neither bourgeois nor proletarian should have a recognized place in society. Roughly equivalent to the French petite bourgeoisie or the English lower middle class, they had come by the early 1930s to embody much more than a mere social group: in German politics they stood for a set of values. Located between the two great antagonistic classes into which society had become divided, they represented people who stood on their own two feet, independent, hard-working, the healthy core of the German people, unjustly pushed to the side by the class war that was raging all about them. It was to people like these - small shopkeepers, skilled artisans running their own workshops, self-sufficient peasant farmers - that the Nazis had initially directed their appeal. The Nazi Party programme of 1920 was indeed among other things a typical product of the far-right politics of the German Mittelstand; the support of such people was among the factors that had got the Party off the ground in the first place.42

The resentments of such groups were many, their perceived enemies legion. Small shopkeepers resented the big department stores, artisans hated the mass production of the big factories, peasants grumbled about unfair competition from the big estates. All of them were susceptible to the appeal of political rhetoric that blamed scapegoats such as the Jews for their problems. Representatives of all these groups saw an opportunity in the coming of the Third Reich to realize their long-held aspirations. And initially, indeed, they met with some success. The locally based attacks on the department stores, the boycotts and discriminations driven in many cases by artisans and small shopkeepers themselves, acting through the Nazi Party and the SA, were quickly backed by a Law for the Protection of Individual Trade passed on 12 May 1933. From now on, chain stores were forbidden to expand or open new branches, to add new lines, or to house within their walls self-contained departments such as barbers’ shops or shoemaking and shoe-repair sections. Restaurants in department stores, widely believed to be undercutting independent innkeepers and restaurateurs, were ordered to be closed. In August 1933 a new decree imposed further bans on baking, sausage-making, watch-repairing, photo-developing, and car-servicing by department stores. Three months later, department and chain stores were prohibited from offering a discount of more than 3 per cent on prices, a measure also extended to consumer co-operatives. Mail-order firms were reined in; Party organizations did their best to ensure that contracts for uniforms and equipment went to small businesses. From September 1933 the government’s housing repair and reconstruction subsidies provided a boost for many carpenters, plumbers, masons and other craftsmen.43 Artisans’ pressure-groups, frustrated by their failure to get what they wanted during the Weimar years, pressed for better qualifications and recognition of their corporate status through compulsory membership in trade guilds, and got them: from June 1934 artisans had to belong to a guild (Innung), which was required to regulate their particular branch of trade, from January 1935 under the supervision of the Economic Ministry. After 1935 it was compulsory for artisans to pass a master’s examination in order to be officially registered and thus to receive permission to open a workshop. These were long-held ambitions which went some way towards restoring the status many artisans felt they had lost in the course of industrialization and the rise of factory-based mass production. They were strongly backed by Schacht, who felt that small workshops and their owners made a useful contribution to the economy and deserved defending against the attempts of the Labour Front to degrade their status to that of workers by incorporating them into its organization.44

But for all the rhetoric and for all the pressure applied on the ground by local Party and brownshirt activists whose own background in many cases lay in the world of the small shopkeeper, trader or artisan, the initial flurry of practical action and legislative intervention in favour of small businesses soon died away as the economy began to be driven by the overwhelming imperatives of rearmament. Headlong rearmament necessarily favoured big business. Despite all the Nazis’ promises to rescue the lower middle class and the small businessman, the number of artisan enterprises, which had increased during the economic recovery by around 18 per cent between 1931 and 1936, declined by 14 per cent between 1936 and 1939.45 Between 1933 and 1939 the number of cobblers’ workshops decreased by 12 per cent, of carpenters’ by 14 per cent. The total turnover of artisanal trade had not recovered to its 1926 levels by 1939. Many artisans indeed were actually poorer than industrial workers. The shortage of raw materials, the competition of larger enterprises, the prohibitive expense of purchasing the machinery needed to process, for example, artificial leather, were some of the factors involved in bringing about these problems. Some traditional handicrafts like violin-making in Mittenwald or clock-making in the Black Forest were progressively undercut by factory production and went into a steep decline. Moreover, small business, like its bigger rivals, was increasingly beset by government regulations. Compulsory guild membership and the requirement to take an examination before receiving a formal certificate of competence that would allow them to go into business proved to be decidedly mixed blessings; many master artisans had to take the examinations all over again, and the paperwork involved in this was too much for many of them, particularly when in 1937 they were required to keep records of their income and expenditure. Instead of self-governing corporations, artisans found themselves drafted into guilds organized on the leadership principle and directed from above. The promise of enhanced status in a new corporate state had proved to be illusory. The Four-Year Plan, in addition, demanded rapid training rather than the thorough preparation and high standards which had been the idea behind compulsory examinations, so the Artisanal Chambers lost the exclusive right to award mastership qualifications.46

Small business was squeezed in another way, too, by the loss of labour through conscription and the better wages offered to employees in directly war-related industries. The concentration of business was suggested strongly by a 7 per cent decline in the number of owners and managers in trade, communications and transport in the official statistics between 1933 and 1939. True, some of this was accounted for by the closure of Jewish-owned workshops; between 1933 and 1938 the number of Jewish-owned artisanal businesses fell from 10,000 to 5,000, and by the end of 1938 all the rest had disappeared as well. Almost all of them were too small to be worth taking over, and indeed the grand total Aryanized rather than driven to closure was no more than 345. But there was more to the decline than this. Over the same period, the number of unpaid family employees grew by 11 per cent in commercial establishments as it became more difficult to find paid employees. Increasingly, as young men drifted away from this sector of the economy to other, more attractive ones, or were drafted into the armed forces, businesses were run by older men and their womenfolk. A survey of soap and brush shops at the beginning of 1939, for instance, showed that 44 per cent were run by women, and over 50 per cent of the male owners were over the age of fifty; nearly 40 per cent of the male owners also had to supplement their earnings from other sources of income. 47

A further financial burden was imposed from December 1938, when artisans were required to insure themselves without government assistance. By 1939 the Four-Year Plan, with its fixed quotas and prices, had drastically circumscribed the independence of small businessmen, from butchers, greengrocers, sweet-shop owners, bakers and corner-shops to cobblers, tobacco-stall proprietors and stallholders on Germany’s markets. Regulations and auditing took up time, while new taxes and compulsory donations cut into profits. The drastic shortage of labour in armaments and arms-related industries had led to growing official pressure on small businesses and workshops to swell the nation’s industrial workforce; by 1939 even independent artisans had to carry a work-book with dates of their training, qualifications and experience; thus registered, they could be drafted into a compulsory labour scheme at any moment; master shoemakers, for example, were drafted into the Volkswagen factory to retrain and work as upholsterers. In order to facilitate this redeployment of artisanal labour into war-relevant production (as the Volkswagen factory indeed was), the Artisanal Chambers were required in 1939 to ‘comb through’ their trades and pick out unviable enterprises in the consumer industries; perhaps 3 per cent of artisanal businesses were wound up as a consequence, almost all of them one-man workshops in which the owner was so poor that he had to rely on welfare payments for part of his income.48

Characteristic of the disappointment of many such groups in the Third Reich was the experience of the pharmacists, a branch of retailing based overwhelmingly on small independent drug stores. Many pharmacists saw in the coming of the Third Reich the chance to realize their long-term ambition of having their profession formally put on a par with medicine, to push back the growing might of the big drug companies, and to restore the integrity of the apothecary as a skilled, trained expert - a professional, indeed - who produced most medicinal remedies and treatments himself and was guaranteed against competition from herbalists and other unqualified rivals by the establishment of a legal monopoly. But this vision quickly turned out to be a mirage. Although the training of pharmacists was reformed in 1934 and Aryanized, with few objections, in 1935, the apothecaries themselves could not agree on how best to assert their monopolistic claims, and their organizations were absorbed into the Labour Front in 1934. The regime’s priorities soon took over, and pharmacists found themselves involved in the search for home-grown drugs to render Germany independent of pharmaceutical imports, and helping to prepare the medicaments that would be needed when war came. In this game, the big drug companies were the major players, and military priorities soon rendered the pseudo-medieval idea of the independent, small-town apothecary producing his own drugs and approved remedies almost entirely obsolescent.49 The same tale could be told in many other parts of the independent business sector. In the veterinary profession, for example, the same processes of co-ordination took place, with existing organizations dissolving themselves, and 4,000 out of Germany’s 7,500 vets already members of the new Reich Association of German Veterinary Surgeons by January 1934. Here as elsewhere, the voluntary professional associations largely co-ordinated themselves, and their reward was their formal incorporation into a Reich Chamber of Veterinary Surgeons in 1936. But early attempts by one wing of the profession to impose a backward-looking corporate form on their national organization gave way very quickly to the standard institutional structures of the Third Reich, centralized, hierarchical, and easily subject to central government control, as in other areas of small business as well.50

Social Democratic observers in Germany reported the dissatisfaction of artisans and small shopkeepers with their situation in the Third Reich. Already in May 1934, small businessmen and retailers were complaining that the economic situation had not improved enough for people to be spending more on the consumer goods and services they mainly produced and sold, while the Party was constantly badgering them for contributions of one kind and another which they had no choice but to pay. Among their many grievances was the fact that promises to curb consumer co-operatives, in many cases institutions formerly close to the Social Democratic labour movement, had not been kept. Co-ordinated into the Labour Front and used as a convenient means of rewarding ‘old fighters’ by putting them in executive positions, the co-ops lost little more than the subsidies and tax privileges they had been granted under the Weimar Republic. A law of May 1935 arranged for the winding-up of financially weak co-ops, but attempts to ban civil servants from membership were quashed by Hess in 1934; and while around a third of the country’s 12,500 co-op stores did close down by 1936, often under pressure from local Party groups, there were still some two million co-op members at the latter date, and small shopkeepers still felt cheated because they had not disappeared altogether.51 In Silesia, according to the report of a Social Democratic agent, there was great ‘bitterness’ in these circles:

The ceaseless collections are leading people to grasp the beggar’s staff. Turnover has fallen rapidly. Because of poor wages, workers can only buy the cheapest articles, and of course they flock to the department stores and one-price shops. People are cursing like fishwives, and their disappointment has already made itself publicly apparent in meetings ... At a recent meeting in Görlitz a shopkeeper spoke up in the discussion and said: ‘What didn’t they promise us before?! - The department stores were going to be closed, the co-operative societies were going to be destroyed, the one-price shops were going to disappear. Nothing has happened! We’ve been lied to and betrayed!’ The next day the man was arrested. This caused a great deal of bitterness.52

Not only was consumer demand slow to recover, but the regime had, in this sense, not been National Socialist enough.53

In 1935, even some shopkeepers and artisans who had been zealous Nazis in previous times were reported to be voicing their disappointment that their situation had not improved. One master artisan from Aachen was heard to say that all his colleagues were opponents of Hitler, but only three out of fifty he knew would actually dare to open their mouths; the rest remained silent.54 One could not say that the Nazis had done nothing for them, a Social Democratic report noted later, but almost all the measures they had taken had been double-edged. Credit had become difficult to obtain, demand was slow to recover, price controls had a damaging effect on profits, guild contributions were burdensome, the guilds were badly run, and taxes were being ratcheted upwards and collected with far greater zeal than before.55 Yet in the end, even the Social Democrats were forced to conclude in 1939 that: ‘For the moment, the artisans’ discontent against their increasingly oppressive situation scarcely has a political point.’ They grumbled about shortages of raw materials, complained about the loss of their workers to the armed forces or the munitions industry, and cursed the requirement placed on them to keep elaborate business records, but none of this came together into any generalized criticism of the regime itself. The Social Democrats concluded that these were ‘social strata for whom political thinking has always been alien’. This was dubious. Disappointment created disillusion, even dissent; but as in other areas of society, there were good reasons why this did not spill over into outright opposition to the regime. Those artisans and small businessmen who did keep their heads above water - the great majority - found for all their troubles and travails that their economic situation was at least better than it had been in the Depression. The small-business sector remained deeply divided, between producers and retailers, services and manufactures, and in many other ways. Finally, of all the sectors of German society this had been the most favourable to right-wing nationalism, antisemitism, and anti-democratic sentiment since the late nineteenth century. It would take more than economic discontent to turn it against the regime altogether.56


Artisans and shopkeepers were not the only social group who hoped for an improvement in status with the coming of the Third Reich. White-collar workers and salaried employees of private businesses had long looked enviously at the superior pay, status and privileges of civil servants. Known popularly as the ‘new Mittelstand’, they were, however, deeply divided politically, with liberal and Social Democratic organizations rivalling those of the far right, and their votes for the Nazi Party in the Weimar years had not been above the average for the country as a whole. Many hoped that the Third Reich would once more set up the barriers of status between white-collar workers and manual labourers that the previous years had torn down. Fear of ‘proletarianization’ had been a major driving force in the white-collar unions, whether on the left, the centre or the right. But they were bitterly disappointed when Hitler came to power. The leaders of all three political wings of the white-collar unions were arrested and put into concentration camps, and the unions themselves, along with all other white-collar organizations, were amalgamated into the German Labour Front.57 Moreover, the fact that the workers and their organizations were formally integrated into the national community dismantled a further barrier. White-collar workers did not possess the close-knit traditions or distinctive culture that organized labour had enjoyed in the Social Democratic and to a lesser extent Communist movement, so they were more vulnerable to atomization and terrorization and less capable even of passive resistance. 58 It was not surprising, therefore, that a Social Democratic agent in a life insurance business in central Germany reported in 1936 that most were politically apathetic, apart from a few former supporters of the Steel Helmets and the Nationalists, who might not have been fanatical adherents of Hitler but were none the less pleased with the way in which he had crushed ‘Marxism’ in 1933. ‘The majority of the male employees are dully accepting of the political compulsion and all the various regulations, ’ he admitted. Most of them came from the lower middle class. They blamed problems on the ‘little Hitlers’ of the regime and continued to admire the Leader himself. The chances of any kind of critical thinking about the regime were fairly remote here.59

More complicated was the position of university-trained professionals, of lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, university professors and the like. As we have seen, the Third Reich had a variable impact on the status of these groups, downgrading lawyers, civil servants, schoolteachers and professors on the one hand, and upgrading doctors in particular on the other. The Nazis’ anti-intellectualism and populism had an obviously damaging effect on the social prestige of such groups overall, and the changes that came about in university training reflected this, with the drastic fall in student numbers, the requirement to spend long periods of time in labour camps and the abolition of autonomous student institutions like the corporations. The rapidly growing power and prestige of the armed forces opened up new careers for bright and ambitious young men from the upper and middle classes in the officer corps, and made the professions seem dull and unrewarding in comparison. The oft-repeated and openly expressed Nazi contempt for the law made a career in it unappealing, and it is not surprising that by 1939 there were widespread complaints about the lack of suitable recruits for the judiciary and the legal profession. Even where a profession did relatively well out of the Third Reich, like the engineers, their situation did not improve that much. Rearmament, with its requirement for technical expertise in the design of tanks, ships, planes and weaponry; fortifications like the West Wall and public projects like the motorways; prestigious building projects in Berlin, Munich and elsewhere: these and other factors even led the Ministry of Labour to exempt engineers from labour mobility restrictions in 1937, especially if they changed jobs to further their professional training and development. None of this made much difference to their pay, however: in a company like Siemens, for example, the starting salary of a qualified engineer was still less than that of a first-year schoolteacher in 1936, while the engineers’ organization, led by Fritz Todt, was still complaining in 1939 that humanities graduates enjoyed greater social prestige than engineers. The award at the 1938 Nuremberg Party Rally of the second German Prize for Art and Science (the substitute for the now-banned Nobel Prizes) to Fritz Todt, the car designer Ferdinand Porsche and the aircraft engineers Wilhelm Messerschmidt and Ernst Heinkel in explicit and much-trumpeted recognition of the achievements of German technology did not seem to compensate much in the eyes of most engineers.60

All professional groups, however, had lost substantially in autonomy through the process of co-ordination in the early months of the Third Reich, when their various professional associations were closed down, merged and brought under Nazi leadership. All had acquiesced in the process, as they had also in the purging of Social Democrats and Communists and the removal of Jewish members from the professional associations and in the end from the professions themselves. The dumbing-down of university education and professional training, with its emphasis on ideological indoctrination and military preparedness rather than on the traditional acquisition of knowledge and skills, added to this regimentation of professional activities to produce a palpable demoralization amongst many professionals. Even the doctors, probably the most favoured of the traditional professions under the Third Reich, lost some of their old privileges without gaining new ones. When in 1935 the government introduced a Reich Physicians’ Ordinance, for example, supplemented by a Professional Statute in November 1937, the doctors found themselves tightly bound by a set of rules imposed from above with penal sanctions threatened to anyone who infringed them. Disciplinary courts quickly became active in issuing warnings, meting out fines and even suspending doctors who transgressed. Not only did the doctors themselves now have to keep the Reich Physicians’ Chamber, founded in 1936, informed of any changes in their own circumstances, and submit to it any new contractual arrangements they entered into for approval; they also had to breach patient confidentiality by reporting serious cases of alcoholism, hereditary or congenital disabilities and sexually transmitted diseases to the authorities. Indeed the 1935 Ordinance, while affirming the principle of confidentiality in theory, explicitly said it could be overridden in practice if required by the ‘common sense of the people’, which of course, as ever, was defined by the regime and its servants. Doctors, no matter how senior they might be, were also required to undergo new training courses in racial hygiene and hereditarian biology. Five thousand physicians had to attend such courses in 1936 alone: many of them resented having to listen to interminable lectures by Nazi ideologues whose qualifications they frequently regarded as inferior to their own and whose ideas many of them treated with justified scepticism and suspicion.61

An even worse blow to their collective pride was the regime’s failure to concede the medical profession’s long-held demand for the suppression of ‘quacks’, or non-university-trained healers, of whom there were at least 14,000 in Germany in 1935, or three for every ten qualified doctors. The National Socialist Physicians’ League, to which about a third of doctors belonged, lacked influence and prestige and was generally thought to be rather ineffective. The position of the Reich Physicians’ Chamber, to which all doctors had to belong, was stronger, but the basic problem was that leading Nazis, from Hitler downwards, were quite sympathetic to alternative medicine. The head of the Reich Physicians’ Chamber, Gerhard Wagner, as we have already seen, supported what he called the ‘New German Healing’ and tried to foist courses in it on university medical faculties.62 In the face of contradictory pressures from the doctors’ organization on the one hand and its own leaders on the other, the regime dithered for years until in February 1939 it finally announced that all lay healers had to be registered with the German Natural Healers’ Union, and that henceforth there were to be no new recruits into the occupation. Not only did this give the lay healers professional status, but from now on, those who could show the required degree of competence could get the title ‘physician of natural healing’, thus counting as doctors, while university-trained physicians could now be required to assist registered nature healers if the latter asked for their help. Particularly talented lay healers could even gain admittance to medical faculties in the universities without the usual qualifications. Finally, the whole set of rules and regulations was not backed up by any kind of sanctions against unregistered lay healers, who could continue to practise so long as they did not charge fees. Thus the German medical profession had to endure loss of professional status, increased government interference, and the erosion of traditional ethical positions.63

Yet all this was more than balanced out by the enormous increase in the power doctors wielded over the individual in the Third Reich, bolstered by state policies such as sterilization and health screening for a whole variety of purposes, from military service to marriage. Health was central to a regime whose main priority was racial fitness, and the vast majority of doctors were more than willing to go along with the state’s new requirements in this respect; indeed, the idea of racial hygiene had been widely popular in the medical profession well before 1933. Doctors’ pay increased sharply after 1937, with average gross earnings rising from just over 9,000 Reichsmarks in 1933 to nearly 14,000 four years later; by 1939 it was said to be in the region of 20,000. The removal of so many Jewish physicians from the profession had led to a growth in the practices of those who remained, the economic recovery had increased people’s willingness to contribute to health insurance funds, and the funds themselves had been reformed so as to make it less expensive for patients to visit the surgery and less complicated for doctors to get the fees. This put doctors comfortably ahead of lawyers in the earning stakes, and, incidentally, amounted to around twice the income of dentists, whose role in racial hygiene and its associated health policies was more or less minimal. Outside the surgery, the rapid growth in the armed forces opened up new opportunities to doctors to serve in the medical corps. Doctors were recruited to provide medical services for many branches of the Nazi Party and its affiliated organizations, from the brownshirts to the Hitler Youth. The most ambitious could join the SS, where they could obtain prestige and promotion more easily than in civilian life. Himmler set up an SS medical academy in Berlin to provide them with ideological training, and the doctors within the SS were headed by the grandly titled SS Reich Doctor, parallel to Himmler’s own title of SS Reich Leader. Altogether, it has been estimated that over two-thirds of physicians in Germany had a connection with the Nazi Party and its affiliates. The doctors’ key role in the imagined Nazi future was marked out by institutions such as the Leadership School of German Physicians, a training camp located in a picturesque part of rural Mecklenburg, where members of the Nazi Physicians’ League underwent a two-week training programme in Nazi ideology to prepare them for a political role in the Third Reich in years to come. Younger doctors thus found scope for their ambition in the highly ideologized area of racial hygiene, while older, established members of the profession were able to carry on their traditional work, and even be paid better than before for it, at the price of an unprecedentedly high level of interference in it from the state. It was an implicit bargain that most medical men were willing to accept.64


Other professional groups were somewhat less satisfied, in particular Germany’s vast and ramified state civil service. Despite Hitler’s attempt in 1934 to try and sort out a division of labour between the traditional state service and the Party, tensions and struggles between the normative and prerogative arms of the ‘dual state’ continued and if anything got worse as time went on. While institutions like the Interior Ministry felt obliged to warn civil servants not to accept instructions from Nazi Party agencies or individuals without any formal capacity in the state, Hitler himself, notably in a proclamation read to the Nuremberg Party Rally on 11 September 1935, insisted repeatedly that if state institutions proved ineffective in implementing the Party’s policies, then ‘the movement’ would have to implement them instead. ‘The battle against the inner enemy will never be frustrated by formal bureaucracy or its incompetence. ’65 The result was that the civil service soon began to seem very unattractive to ambitious young graduates eager to make their way in the world. As the SS Security Service noted in a report in 1939:

The development of the sphere of the civil service has in general again been in a negative direction. Well-known, threatening phenomena have in the period under review once more increased in dimension, such as the shortage of personnel, negative selection and absence of younger recruits because of the poor pay and public defamation of the civil service, failures in personnel policy because of the lack of any unity of approach, and so on.66

There were serious problems of recruitment already by 1937. The law faculties of Germany’s universities, upon which the civil service largely depended for recruits, had shrunk dramatically in size since 1933, as students went into more fashionable subjects like medicine. On the other hand, the bureaucratization of Nazi Germany - a term actually used in 1936 by the Reich Statistical Office - had led to a 20 per cent growth in public employment in federal, state and local administration between 1933 and 1939. But better-paid administrative posts were still to be had in the Party and its affiliated organizations. By 1938 there were serious staff shortages in state offices at all levels. Yet it was not until the summer of 1939 that the salary cuts imposed by Brüning’s austerity programme during the Depression were at least partially reversed. Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick painted a drastic picture of civil servants’ chronic indebtedness and predicted that the civil service would soon be unable to carry out its tasks any more. For the sharp decline in the prestige and position of civil servants, however, the Party and its leaders, who constantly poured scorn upon the state apparatus and those who staffed it, only had themselves to blame.67

In view of these developments, it was not surprising that a thoughtful civil servant, Count Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, himself a member of the Nazi Party since 1932, voiced his despair at the way things were going in September 1937. He drew Ministers’ attention to the new Reich Civil Service Law, which described the civil service as the main pillar of the state. Without it, he pointed out, the Four-Year Plan could not be properly implemented. Yet its efficient functioning was being blocked by a sharp decline in strength as a result of repeated political and racial purges, while the proliferation of Party and state institutions had led to a chaos of competing competences that made proper administration virtually impossible. He went on:

Although it has considerable achievements to its credit since the take-over of power, it is publicly ridiculed as a ‘bureaucracy’ either by the Leader or by the community and decried as alien to the people, disloyal, without anyone being prepared to reject officially this disparagement of a class on which the state depends. Civil servants, especially leading ones, are exposed to attacks on their work, which in fact are directed against the state as such . . . The consequences of this treatment of the civil service are that the civil service feels increasingly defamed, without honour, and in some degree of despair. Recruitment is beginning to dry up . . . The civil service is largely reduced to the economic status of the proletariat . . . By comparison, business offers many times the salary . . .68

Among senior civil servants such as Schulenburg, disappointment at the dashing of the high hopes they had held in 1933 was palpable. Things, he declared, were even worse than they had been under Weimar. The long and honourable tradition of the civil service was being destroyed.69

Schulenburg’s disillusion was to lead him rapidly into a position strongly hostile to the regime. As far as the great majority of civil servants were concerned, however, the forces of tradition and inertia proved superior. The civil service had held a special place in German society and politics since its formation in eighteenth-century Prussia. Some of the ideals of duty to the nation, contempt for politics, and belief in efficient administration, survived into the twentieth century and informed civil servants’ reaction to the Nazis. Rigid bureaucratic procedures, formal rules, a plethora of grades and titles, and much more besides, marked out the civil service as a special institution with a special consciousness. It was not easily displaced. Some decided to soldier on in the interests of the nation they thought the civil service had always represented. Others were attracted by the authoritarian style of the Third Reich, its emphasis on national unity, on the removal of overt political conflict, and particularly, perhaps, its effective removal of a whole range of constraints on bureaucratic action. Efficiency replaced accountability, and that too was attractive to many civil servants. In every Ministry in Berlin, every regional and local government office, civil servants obeyed the laws and decrees handed down to them by Hitler, Göring and other Ministers to implement because, above all, they considered it their duty to do so. Dissenters, of course, had been weeded out in 1933; but the vast majority of German bureaucrats were in any case arch-conservatives who believed in an authoritarian state, considered Communists and even Social Democrats traitors, and favoured renewed national expansion and rearmament.70

One such bureaucrat, typical in many ways, whose voluminous family correspondence has by chance survived to give us a detailed view of a middle-class perspective on the Third Reich, was Friedrich Karl Gebensleben, City Planning Officer in Braunschweig. Born in 1871, the year of German unification, Karl Gebensleben had trained as an engineer and worked for the German railway system in Berlin before taking up his post in 1915. He was obviously a man of integrity who was trusted by his colleagues, and by the early 1930s he was combining his administrative post with the office of deputy mayor of the city. His wife Elisabeth, born in 1883, came from a prosperous farming background, as did her husband. The couple were pillars of Braunschweig society, frequented concerts and patronized the theatre, and were to be seen together at all major public celebrations, receptions and similar events. Their daughter Irmgard, born in 1906, had married a Dutchman, and her presence in Holland was the occasion for most of the family’s letter-writing; their son Eberhard, born in 1910, studied law at a series of universities, as was normal at the time, including Berlin and Heidelberg, and aimed to take up work in the Reich civil service as a career. This was a solid, conventional, bourgeois family, therefore. But in the early 1930s it was clearly in a deep state of anxiety, plagued above all by fears of a Communist or socialist revolution. Elisabeth Gebensleben expressed a widely held view when she wrote to her daughter on 20 July 1932 that Germany was in mortal peril from the Communists, aided and abetted by the Social Democrats. The country was swarming with Russian agents, she thought, and the violence on the streets was the beginning of a planned destabilization of the country. Thus any measures to ward off the threat were justified.71

Well before the Nazi seizure of power, Elisabeth Gebensleben had become an admirer of Hitler and his movement: ‘This readiness to make sacrifices, this burning patriotism and this idealism!’ she exclaimed in 1932 on witnessing a Nazi Party demonstration: ‘And at the same time such tight discipline and control!’72 Not surprisingly, she was full of enthusiasm for the coalition government headed by Hitler and appointed on 30 January 1933 - in the nick of time, she thought, as she witnessed a Communist demonstration against the appointment (‘Has Hitler grasped the tiller too late? Bolshevism has taken far, far deeper anchor in the people than one suspected’).73 The mass, brutal violence meted out by the Nazis to their opponents in the following months did not, therefore, cause her many sleepless nights: ‘This ruthless, decisive action by the national government’, she wrote on 10 March 1933, ‘may put some people off, but first there surely has to be a root-and-branch purge and clear-out, otherwise it won’t be possible to start reconstruction.’74 The ‘purge’ included the Social Democratic Mayor of Braunschweig, Ernst Böhme, who had been elected in 1929 at the age of thirty-seven. On 13 March 1933 Nazi stormtroopers burst into a council session and hauled him roughly out onto the street. Within a few days he had been forced under duress to sign a paper resigning all his offices in the town. A band of SS men took him to the offices of the local Social Democratic newspaper, stripped him naked, threw him onto a table and beat him unconscious, after which they threw a bucket of water over him, dressed him again as he was, paraded him through the streets and put him in the town gaol, from which he was eventually released some time later, to return to private life. As his deputy, Karl Gebensleben took over temporarily and without demur as the city’s new mayor. Although he was upset by the dramatic and unexpected scene he had witnessed in the council chamber, Karl nevertheless took strong exception to newspaper reports that he had wept as the mayor was carried off to his fate. He had indeed worked closely with Böhme over the past few years, but his probity as a civil servant would not have allowed him such an unrestrained show of emotion. His wife Elisabeth, though disapproving (‘I would have wanted Böhme to have a somewhat less ignominious sendoff’), consoled herself with the thought that in the Revolution of 1918 the conservative mayor of the time had himself been humiliated by the ‘Reds’.75

Like other conservatives, the Gebenslebens were reassured by the obeisance to tradition paid in the opening ceremony of the Reichstag at Postdam on 21 March. They dusted off their black-white-red imperial flag and hung it out in triumph, while Karl took part in a celebratory march through the streets of Braunschweig.76 Anything the Gebenslebens disliked, especially acts of violence committed by the stormtroopers and SS, they dismissed as the work of Communist infiltrators.77 They believed implicitly the trumped-up charges of peculation brought by the Nazis against trade union officials and others.78 As Elisabeth reported to her daughter Hitler’s speeches over the radio, what shone through in her words was a strongly reawakened national pride: Germany now had a Chancellor to whom the whole world paid attention.79 A staunch Protestant, she joined the German Christians (‘So, reform in the Church. I’m pleased’) and listened excitedly as her pastor compared Hitler to Martin Luther.80 The family’s illusions were as significant as their enthusiasms. Karl Gebensleben applauded the ‘strict discipline’ introduced into public life and the economy by ‘the leadership principle, which alone has validity’ and the ‘co-ordination down to the tiniest institutions’, but thought that in time a moderate opposition along English lines would be permitted to exist. Towards the end of May, he and his wife finally joined the Nazi Party, not out of self-preservation, but out of a positive sense of commitment to the new Germany. As he wrote proudly if somewhat self-consciously to his daughter:

So your ‘old’ dad has also had to procure for himself a brownshirt, peaked cap, belt, tie and party badge as fast as possible. Mum thinks the uniform fits me fantastically and makes me look decades (?) younger!!! Oh!!! Well, well, my dear, if only someone had told me before! But it’s a grand feeling to see how everyone is trying through discipline to do the best for the Fatherland - strictly according to the motto: The public interest comes first.81

As an administrator, Karl welcomed the decision to exclude the city council from most future issues and to decide them instead in a small committee. ‘By this means, time and energy are made available for useful work.’82 Before him, he saw a new time of efficiency and coherence in administration. Things, of course, did not quite turn out that way.

This was not the only point on which the Gebenslebens deceived themselves. There were illusions too in the family’s attitude to the regime’s posture towards the Jews. Antisemitism initially played little part in the family’s support for Nazism. When Elisabeth Gebensleben saw the shattered display windows of Jewish-owned shops in the town in mid-March 1933, she ascribed this to ‘provocateurs . . . who, as has been ascertained, have smuggled themselves into the NSDAP in order to discredit the nationalist movement at home and abroad . . . Communists and fellow travellers’. If any Nazis were involved, it was clear that Hitler disapproved, she thought.83 She found antisemitic speeches by Goebbels and Goring ‘terrible’ and was alarmed by the Nazis’ disruption of Fritz Busch’s work as a conductor in Leipzig (she thought this was because he was Jewish, although in fact he was not). Such attacks on Jewish artists were ‘catastrophic’, she wrote, and added: ‘There are rogues amongst the Jews too, but one mustn’t forget all the great men amongst the Jews, who have achieved such an enormous amount in the fields of art and science.’84

Yet she was soon taking a different view, following the boycott of Jewish shops on 1 April 1933 and the accompanying massive propaganda. ‘The era in which we are now living’, she wrote to her daughter with unintentionally prophetic force on 6 April 1933, ‘will only be judged fairly by posterity.’ She went on:

It’s world history that we’re experiencing. But world history rolls over the fate of the individual, and that makes this epoch, which is so pure and elevated in its aim, so difficult, because side-by-side with the joy we are experiencing, there is also sympathy with the fate of the individual. That applies to the fate of the individual Jew too, but does not alter one’s judgement of the Jewish question as such. The Jewish question is a worldwide question just like Communism, and if Hitler intends to deal with it, just as he does with Communism, and his aim is achieved, then perhaps Germany will one day be envied.85

She considered the boycott justified in view of the ‘smear campaign against Germany’ that the regime claimed was being mounted by Marxists and Jews abroad. All stories of antisemitic atrocities in Germany were ‘pure invention’, she roundly declared to her daughter in Holland, following Goebbels’s injunction to anyone who had contacts with foreigners to take this line; either she had forgotten the incidents she had found so shocking only three weeks before, or she had decided deliberately to suppress them. Germany had been robbed of the ‘possibility of life’ by the Treaty of Versailles, she reminded her daughter: ‘Germany is protecting itself with the weapons it has. That the Jews are partly being shown the door of their offices in the legal system, in medicine, isalso correct in economic terms, as hard as it hits the individual, innocent person.’ She believed, wrongly of course, that their number was merely being reduced to the same proportion as that of Jews in the population as a whole (though this principle, she failed to reflect, did not apply to other groups in Germany society, for example Protestants, whose share of top jobs was proportionately far higher than that of Catholics). In any case, she said, demonstrating how far she had taken Nazi propaganda on board in the space of a mere few weeks, perhaps because it built on prejudices already latent in her mind, the Jews were ‘cunning’: ‘The Jews want to rule, not to serve.’ Her husband Karl told her stories of Jewish ambition and corruption that seemed to justify the purge.86By October 1933 she had slipped effortlessly into the use of Nazi language in her letters, describing the Communist-front Brown Book of Nazi atrocities as a work of ‘lying Jewish smears’.87

As far as Karl was concerned, the achievement of the Third Reich was to have replaced disorder with order. ‘When the National Socialist government took power,’ he said in a speech welcoming the new Nazi mayor of Braunschweig as he took up his office on 18 October 1933, ‘it found chaos.’ The removal of the endlessly quarrelling political parties of the Weimar years had paved the way for orderly municipal improvements. Beyond this, Germany’s pride had been restored.88 When disorder seemed to raise its head once more at the end of June 1934, in the shape of Ernst Röhm and the brownshirts, Elisabeth breathed a sigh of relief as Hitler acted. Unlike her daughter, she expressed no doubts about the rightness of the murders committed at Hitler’s behest. ‘One feels absolutely insignificant in the face of the greatness, the truthfulness and the openness of such a man,’ she wrote.89 After these events, the family had little more to say to each other about politics. Their concerns turned inwards, to the birth of grandchildren, and to Karl and Elisabeth’s son Eberhard, who was planning to study for a doctorate with the conservative, pro-Nazi jurist Walter Jellinek in Heidelberg; after much discussion, Jellinek suddenly disappeared from their correspondence: it turned out that he was Jewish and he therefore lost his job.90

Eberhard signed on for paramilitary training with the brownshirts, did his military service, then entered the Reich Economics Ministry as a junior civil servant, joining the Nazi Party on 29 November 1937. The family’s interest in politics did not revive. Nazi Germany for the Gebenslebens provided the stability they had longed for, a kind of return to normality after the upheavals of the Weimar years. In comparison with this, small doubts and niggles about the way in which it had been done seemed insignificant, hardly worth bothering about. The defeat of Communism, the overcoming of political crisis, the restoration of national pride were what the Gebenslebens wanted. Everything else they ignored, explained away, or, more insidiously, gradually took on board as the propaganda apparatus of the Third Reich incessantly hammered its messages home to the population. The conformity of middle-class families like the Gebenslebens was bought at the price of illusions that were to be rudely shattered after 1939. Karl and Elisabeth did not live to see this happen. Karl died on the day he retired, 1 February 1936, of a heart attack; his widow Elisabeth followed him on 23 December 1937. Eberhard’s career in the civil service did not last long: by 1939 he had been drafted into the army.91

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