Modern history



That Strength Through Joy and associated programmes were a substitute for real economic improvements was a view that was widely shared, and had a good deal of basis in fact. Most statistical investigations are agreed that the economic situation of the mass of working-class wage-earners did not markedly improve between 1933 and 1939. Nominal hourly wages in 1933 were 97 per cent of what they had been in 1932, and they had still not recovered in 1939, by which time they had risen only by one percentage point, to 98.140 The German Institute for Business Research conceded on 24 February 1937 that rearmament had entailed ‘a large economic sacrifice for the German people’ even as it attempted to refute the claim that living standards had actually declined.141Calculating real wages has always been a tricky business, more so in the Third Reich than in most economies. Price Commissioner Goerdeler took the business of keeping consumer prices low very seriously; but even the Reich Economics Ministry admitted in 1935 that official statistics underestimated price rises, not to mention rents and other factors. Recent estimates have put average industrial real wages below their levels for 1928 (admittedly a particularly good year) until 1937, rising to 108 per cent in 1939; in practice, however, this meant that many workers in the consumer goods industries continued to earn less than they had done before the Depression; only those in arms and arms-related industries earned substantially more.142 Moreover, shortages of many kinds also entered the equation, along with the declining quality of many goods in consequence of the growing use of substitutes for basic raw materials like leather, rubber and cotton. Per capita consumption of many basic foodstuffs actually declined in the mid-1930s. In addition, wage increases were achieved above all by longer hours. In July 1934, Trustees of Labour were given the right to increase working time to more than the legal norm of eight hours a day and, particularly in arms-related industries, they used it. In machine engineering, for example, average weekly hours, after falling during the Depression from 49 in 1929 to 43 in 1933, rose to over 50 in the first half of 1939.143 Despite this, however, wages as a percentage of national income fell by 11 per cent between 1932 and 1938. Inequality actually increased between 1928, when the top 10 per cent of earners took 37 per cent of total national income, and 1936, when they took 39 per cent.144 The numerous deductions made from pay packets, for Strength Through Joy, Labour Front membership and the like, not to mention the endless collections held on the streets, in effect reduced income still further, in some cases by as much as 30 per cent. Under such circumstances, it was not surprising that by 1937-8 workers were having to put in longer hours just to maintain their existing, very modest standard of living.145

Overtime, generally paid at time and a quarter, was the only realistic way of increasing wages for most workers, since the closure of the trade unions had taken away their role in formal wage bargaining processes. Whether or not to work overtime was a matter for the individual employee. The result was a rapid atomization of the workforce, as each worker was pitted against his fellow workers in the struggle to increase wages and improve performance. It was not rationalization, but simple extra work, that led to increased production: the great period of rationalization and mechanization had been the mid-1920s; these trends did continue in many industries under the Third Reich, but at a much slower pace.146 And of course overtime, frowned on by the regime and its agencies in consumer goods industries, was strongly encouraged in war-relevant production. This was not least because the frantic pace of rearmament led not only to serious bottlenecks in the supply of raw materials but also to an increasingly serious shortage of suitably skilled and qualified workers. In the early days of the Third Reich, the government had concentrated on trying to direct labour into agriculture, where the shortage was obvious, particularly through labour service and labour camps of one kind and another. Laws passed on 15 May 1934 and 26 February 1935 required all workers to carry work-books, containing details of their training and qualifications and employment; these were kept on file at labour exchanges, where they could be consulted when the government was looking for workers to draft into new jobs. If a worker wanted to go abroad on holiday, he had to get permission from the labour exchange to do so. Employers could put critical remarks in the book, making things difficult for the employee in future posts. And as rearmament gathered pace, the government began to use the work-books to direct labour towards arms-related industries. On 22 June 1938 Göring issued a Decree on the Duty of Service, permitting the President of the Reich Institute for Labour Exchange and Unemployment Insurance to draft workers temporarily into particular projects where labour was in short supply. In February 1939 these powers were extended to make labour conscription indefinite in duration. Before long, over a million workers had been drafted in to munitions factories, defensive works like the so-called West Wall, better known as the Siegfried Line, a vast system of fortifications guarding Germany’s western borders, and other schemes judged vital for the coming war. Only 300,000 of these were conscripted on a long-term basis, but a million was still a sizeable chunk of a workforce that totalled 23 million by this time.147

These measures did not just deprive workers of the power of changing jobs, transferring to a better-paid position or moving to a different area. They also in many cases put them into situations where they found it difficult to cope. In February 1939, for example, Social Democratic observers reported that the workers forcibly removed from their jobs in Saxony to work on fortifications near Trier, on the other side of Germany, included a 59-year-old accounts clerk who had never wielded a pick and shovel before, and similarly unsuitable characters. Forced labour was being used as a punishment: ‘Anyone who in any way lets slip an incautious word is sent there, when the labour shortage means that he is not arrested.’ Textile workers were made to undergo compulsory medical examinations to see whether they were fitted for manual labour on the fortifications. There were reports that people who refused to go were arrested and transported by the prison authorities to their new place of work, where they were given the most exhausting jobs to do. Travelling by train to Berlin, one observer was surprised when:

In Duisburg a group of about 80 people stormed onto the train, shouting loudly, poorly dressed, in some cases in their work-clothes, their luggage mostly the poor man’s suitcase in the Third Reich, the Persil carton. In my compartment the travel guide sits down with a few women and girls. It soon becomes clear that they are unemployed textile workers from the area around Krefeld and Rheydt, who are to be resettled in Brandenburg, the men to work on motorway construction, the women in a new factory in Brandenburg. The people turn up in our compartment one after another, to get their 2 Reichsmarks money for the journey from the travel guide. A short while later some of them are drunk; they have spent their money in the restaurant car, on beer.148

Such groups, the reporter was told, were taken by train to new places of work week after week. The married men had the right to visit their families four times a year.

Even this did not solve the problem, which was made still worse by the insatiable appetite of the armed forces for new recruits. In April 1939 the Hanover labour exchange district reported a shortage of 100,000 workers for a variety of jobs, about half of them in construction; the building of the West Wall had drained the industry of large numbers of employees. In August 1939 there were said to be 25,000 vacancies in the metalworking industry in Berlin. Shortly afterwards the air force administration complained that there was a shortage of 2,600 engineers in the aircraft construction industry. So desperate were the labour administrators in the government that they even suggested releasing 8,000 state prisoners who happened to be qualified metalworkers; since a good number of these were probably in prison for political offences, the suggestion was never actually taken up. All this put a new bargaining power in the hands of workers in the key industries. On 6 October 1936 the Ministries of Economics and Labour pointed out in a letter sent directly to Hitler that labour shortages were leading to late fulfilment of contracts and delaying the whole rearmament programme. Employers were taking matters into their own hands and enticing workers away from rivals with higher wage offers, thus increasing the price of the goods they produced. In some factories employees were working as much as fourteen hours a day, or up to sixty hours a week.149 Workers at Daimler-Benz averaged fifty-four hours a week by the late 1930s, as against forty-eight in the last pre-Depression years.150 In a number of cases the Labour Front, concerned about the goodwill of the workforce, took a more flexible line towards wage increases than the government wished, bringing down a fiercely worded directive from Rudolf Hess, in the name of the Leader, on 1 October 1937, urging all Party institutions not to curry popularity by giving in to wage demands. Things would get better eventually, he promised; but for the moment, it was still necessary to make sacrifices.151

On 25 June 1938 Goring allowed Trustees of Labour to fix maximum wages in an effort to keep costs under control. The economic logic of rearmament’s effects on the labour market was against him. By this time even work stoppages - in effect, informal strikes - were being used by factory employees to try and improve their wages; the pressure to work longer hours was leading workers to go slow or call off sick to a degree that some officials even began to speak of ‘passive resistance’ on the shop-floor. Labourers drafted into projects such as the West Wall faced arrest and imprisonment if they left without permission; early in 1939, for example, it was reported that one such worker, Heinrich Bonsack, had been sentenced to three months in prison for leaving the West Wall without permission twice to visit his family in Wanne-Eickel. That workers ran away from the West Wall was not surprising: construction was carried out round the clock in twelve-hour shifts, living conditions were primitive, the pay was poor, safety measures non-existent, accidents frequent, and if work got behind schedule, labourers were forced to work for double or even treble shifts to catch up, with a break only once every twelve hours. Another worker, a turner, was refused permission by his employer in Cologne to leave his job for a better-paid one elsewhere, and when he signed off sick, the company doctor forced him back to his workplace. When his workbench was found shortly afterwards to be damaged, he was arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for sabotage, an offence that was being used by the authorities increasingly at this time. Conscription to jobs away from home led to so many incidents that in November 1939 Hitler ordered that workers where possible be conscripted into schemes or factories in the district where they lived, a measure that seems to have had little effect in practice.152

In characteristic fashion, the regime increasingly sought to enforce its measures by terror. A favourite measure on the part of employers was to threaten alleged troublemakers with sacking and immediate transfer to work on the West Wall. This had little impact. At their wits’ end, some employers began to call in the Gestapo to place agents on the shop-floor to spy out cases of loafing and slacking. From the second half of 1938, labour regulations had included increasingly severe penalties for contraventions such as refusing to work as ordered, or even smoking and drinking on the job, but these were relatively ineffective, and the courts were getting clogged with cases that were taking far too long to resolve. In August 1939 the Labour Front administration in the I.G. Farben factory at Wolfen wrote to all workers warning them that slackers would be handed over to the Gestapo without trial in future. Already in April, four companies in Nuremberg had called in the Gestapo to catch out under-performing employees. In the railway engineering works at Dresden, the Gestapo even carried out twice-weekly searches of the workforce without giving any reason. Munitions and war production factories were frequently convulsed by management fears of espionage or sabotage. Former Communists and Social Democrats were particularly vulnerable to arrest, even if they had long since ceased to be politically active. In the autumn of 1938, at the Heinkel aircraft works in Rostock and Warnemünde, where workers were relatively privileged and well paid, the works police were said to be arresting employees virtually every day, acting on denunciations from the spies they kept in the workforce. In many factories, workers were arrested for sabotage when they protested against the lowering of piece-rates or the worsening of working conditions. So intrusive did the Gestapo become in some factories that even the employers started to object. After the arrest of 174 employees at a munitions factory in Gleiwitz in 1938, the employers obtained their release after twenty-four hours, explaining to the Gestapo that a bit of criticism of the regime by the workers had to be tolerated, otherwise production would be disrupted, and that was surely not in the national interest.153

The suppression and fragmentation of political and organizational life directed people towards private pleasures and purposes: getting a steady job, marrying, having children, improving living conditions, going on holiday. It was for this reason that Strength Through Joy was so fondly remembered by many Germans after the war. Yet when people recalled this period, they found it difficult not just to remember public events, but even to recount their memories in chronological order. The years from 1933 to 1939 or even 1941 became a retrospective blur, in which the routines of private life made one day difficult to distinguish from the next. Economic achievement became the only real meaning in life for many: politics was an irrelevant irritation, a life in which it was impossible to participate with any kind of autonomy or independence and so not worth participating in at all, except insofar as one was obliged to. From this point of view, 1939 attracted a kind of nostalgic glow, the last year of relative peace and prosperity before plunging into a maelstrom of war and destruction, destitution and ruin that lasted until 1948. It was in the mid-to-late 1930s, indeed, that the foundations were laid for the hard-working, relatively unpolitical German society of the years of the ‘economic miracle’ in the 1950s. By the end of the 1930s, the great mass of German workers had reconciled themselves, often with varying degrees of reluctance, to the Third Reich. They might be unpersuaded by its core ideological tenets, irritated by its constant appeals for acclamation and support and annoyed by its failure to deliver a greater degree of prosperity. They might grumble about many aspects of life and privately pour scorn on many of its leaders and its institutions. But at least, most people reflected, it had given them a steady job and overcome, by whatever means, the economic hardships and catastrophes of the Weimar years, and for that alone, the vast majority of German workers seem to have thought it was worth tolerating, especially since the possibility of organized resistance was so minimal and the price of expressing dissent so high. There was widespread informal and individual refractoriness in Germany’s factories and workplaces on the eve of the Second World War, but it did not really amount to anything that could be called opposition, let alone resistance, nor did it create any real sense of crisis in the Third Reich’s ruling elite.154


How did the Third Reich deal with the unemployed and the destitute who suffered in their millions under the Depression and were still suffering when they came to power? Nazi ideology did not in principle favour the idea of social welfare. In My Struggle, Hitler, writing about the time he had spent living amongst the poor and the destitute in Vienna before the First World War, had waxed indignant about the way in which social welfare had encouraged the preservation of the degenerate and the feeble. From a Social Darwinist point of view, charity and philanthropy were evils that had to be eliminated if the German race was to be strengthened and its weakest elements weeded out in the process of natural selection.155 The Nazi Party frequently condemned the elaborate welfare system that had grown up under the Weimar Republic as bureaucratic, cumbersome and directed essentially to the wrong ends. Instead of giving support to the biologically and racially valuable, Weimar’s social state, backed by a host of private charities, was, the Nazis alleged, completely indiscriminate in its application, supporting many people who were racially inferior and would, they claimed, contribute nothing to the regeneration of the German race. This view was in some respects not too far from that of the public and private welfare bureaucracy itself, which by the early 1930s had become infused with the doctrines of racial hygiene, and also advocated the drawing of a sharp distinction between the deserving and the degenerate, although putting such a distinction into effect was not possible until 1933. At this point, welfare institutions, whose attitudes towards the destitute had become increasingly punitive in the course of the Depression, moved rapidly to bring criminal sanctions to bear on the ‘work-shy’, the down-and-out and the socially deviant. Nazi ideas on welfare were thus not wholly alien to the thinking of welfare administrators in the later stages of the Weimar Republic.156

Faced with ten million people in receipt of welfare assistance at the height of the Depression, however, it would have been political suicide for the Nazis to have written off the mass of the unemployed and destitute as not worth helping. However much the employment situation improved, or was made to look as if it improved, in the spring, summer and autumn of the Nazis’ first year in office, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels recognized that the economic situation would still be serious enough for many people to be living below the poverty line in the first full winter of the Third Reich in power. To boost the regime’s image and convince people it was doing everything it could to foster solidarity between the better-off and the worst-off amongst the Germans, he announced on 13 September 1933 that he was setting up a short-term relief programme which he called the Winter Aid Programme of the German People. This built on, formalized, co-ordinated and carried further a number of emergency relief schemes already launched by Regional Party Leaders; more importantly, it continued and expanded similar schemes that had already been mooted under the Weimar Republic and formally established in 1931 under Reich Chancellor Brüning.157 Soon, some 1.5 million volunteers and 4,000 paid workers were ladling out soup to the poor at emergency centres, taking round food parcels to the destitute, collecting and distributing clothes to the unemployed and their families, and engaging in a wide variety of other centrally directed charitable activities. When Hitler, in a widely publicized speech, urged people to contribute, two million Reichsmarks were pledged by a variety of institutions, including Nazi Party headquarters in Munich, the very next day. Donations received during the winter of 1933-4 eventually totalled 358 million Reichsmarks. Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry blared forth its satisfaction at this evidence of a new spirit of community solidarity and mutual help amongst the German people.158 This was not charity, therefore, or state welfare, even though it was in fact run by the state, by the Propaganda Minister and by a specially appointed Reich Commissioner for Winter Aid. It was, on the contrary, Goebbels declared, a form of racial self-help run by the German people for the German people.159

Yet again the reality was different from the propaganda. For contributions to the Winter Aid were virtually compulsory for everyone from the outset. When a burly, brown-uniformed stormtrooper appeared at the door demanding a donation, few were brave enough to refuse, and those who did faced the prospect of escalating threats and intimidation until they relented and put their money in the collection box. In Bavaria it was announced that those who did not contribute would be regarded as enemies of the Fatherland; some were publicly paraded through the streets with placards round their necks advertising their sin of omission; others were even dismissed from their jobs as a result. The experience of a Reich Entailed Farmer in Franconia who had refused to contribute in 1935 can hardly have been untypical: he was informed by Party District Leader Gerstner ‘that you are not worthy to bear the honourable title of farmer in National Socialist Germany’ and warned that it would be necessary ‘to take measures to prevent public disorder being created by your attitude’ - in other words, that he could expect either removal to ‘protective custody’ in a concentration camp or face physical violence from the local SA. In one cinema in Breslau in December 1935, eight armed SS men appeared on the stage at the end of the performance and announced that the exits had all been sealed; there were enemies of the state in the auditorium, and everyone had to make a donation to the Winter Aid to prove that they were not amongst their number. As the brief announcement ended, the doors burst open and fifty stormtroopers poured in, armed with collection boxes. Across the land, workers came under pressure to allow their contributions to be automatically deducted from their wage packets at a rate of 20 per cent of the basic income tax (later reduced to 10 per cent). Those who earned too little to pay tax still had to contribute 25 pfennigs from each pay packet. In one factory in 1938, workers were told that if they did not agree to a deduction, the sum they should be paying would be added to the sums deducted from the pay packets of their fellow employees.160

Crucially, regular, automatic contributions entitled the donor to receive a plaque which he could nail to the front door of his home, which brownshirts, Hitler Youth members and other Party members knocking on doors to collect donations were instructed to take as an instruction to move on without disturbing him. In some factories, however, workers were asked for additional contributions even if they had agreed to have Winter Aid deducted from their wage packets. And this still did not protect such donors from the importunities of brown-uniformed men standing on the streets with their collecting-boxes, or the pressure exerted by shopkeepers and customers to put loose change into the Winter Aid receptacles that were placed on the counters of most retail outlets. Winter Aid vendors also offered opportunities to collect various sets of illustrated cards, including a set of photographs of Hitler. Children were sometimes given part of a day off school and provided with knick-knacks to sell on the street for the Winter Aid collection. Purchase of a Winter Aid badge might help ward off the importunities of street-collectors; better still was to buy a Winter Aid nail, evidence that one possessed a Winter Aid shield, into which the nails, costing 5 pfennigs each, could be hammered, until the entire surface was covered with an estimated 1,500 of them. Wearing a Winter Aid badge on the street might have been a form of self-protection, but it also had the effect of advertising to others one’s solidarity with the regime. Nearly 170 million badges were sold in the winter of 1938-9. It became popular to use them as a decoration for Christmas trees in the home.161

As with so many other emergency measures in the Third Reich, the Winter Aid soon became a permanent feature of the sociopolitical landscape. The action was underpinned legislatively on 5 November 1934 by a Collection Law which allowed the Interior Minister and the Nazi Party Treasurer to suspend any charities or funds that competed with the Winter Aid, thus forcing all other philanthropic activities into the summer months and ensuring that demands for contributions would be addressed to the German people all the year round. On 4 December 1936 this was backed up by a Winter Aid Law that formally put the scheme on a permanent basis. The statistics were impressive. By the winter of 1938-9, 105 million Reichsmarks were coming in from wage deductions, with collections and donations, the largest from industry and big business, making up the rest of the total of 554 million. Winter Aid donations thus accounted for nearly 3 per cent of the average worker’s income at this time. Some changes had taken place since 1933, of course: after the winter of 1935-6, Jews were no longer included in the ranks of either donors or receivers. And the economic recovery had brought about a halving of the number of those in receipt of Winter Aid, from 16 million in 1933-4 to 8 million in 1938-9. Notable additions to the scheme included a ‘Day of National Solidarity’ every 1 December, when prominent members of the regime appeared in public to solicit donations on the streets, netting 4 million Reichsmarks in 1935 and no less than 15 million in 1938. By this time, too, it had become more or less compulsory for every family, indeed every German, to eat a ‘one-pot meal’ or cheap stew, with ingredients costing no more than 50 pfennigs in all, on the first Sunday of each month, ‘one-pot Sunday’; in the evening, stormtroopers or SS men or a representative of the Nazi People’s Welfare would appear at the door to demand the difference between 50 pfennigs and the normal cost of a family meal as a contribution. The same policy was implemented in restaurants as well. Hitler ostentatiously followed suit, passing round the Sunday dinner-table a list for his guests to pledge a donation of suitable grandeur. Every such meal, Albert Speer later complained, ‘cost me fifty or a hundred marks’. Under such pressure, the number of Hitler’s guests on the first Sunday of every month soon shrank to two or three, ‘prompting’, Speer reported, ‘some sarcastic remarks from Hitler about the spirit of sacrifice among his associates’.162

In the meantime, however, the Nazi Party had also been active in reshaping the private charity sector. The leading figure here was Erich Hilgenfeldt, a Saarlander, born in 1897 and an officer in the First World War. A former Steel Helmet activist, Hilgenfeldt had joined the Nazi Party in 1929 and become a District Leader in Berlin; he was thus close to Joseph Goebbels, who was his immediate Party boss as Berlin’s Regional Leader. Hilgenfeldt had co-ordinated and centralized a variety of internal brownshirt and Party welfare groups in the capital into the National Socialist People’s Welfare. With Magda Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister’s wife, as its patron, and with the backing of Hitler himself given on 3 May 1933, Hilgenfeldt extended his grip on Party self-help groups across the entire country, against considerable opposition from Robert Ley and Baldur von Schirach, who wanted welfare to be run by their own respective organizations. Hilgenfeldt successfully argued that welfare was not the first priority for either the Labour Front or the Hitler Youth, so a separate, comprehensive institution was needed that would put welfare at the top of its agenda. In the turbulent months from March to July 1933, he successfully took over virtually all the private welfare and philanthropic organizations in Germany, above all the massive welfare arms of the Social Democrats and the Communists. From 25 July 1933 there were just four non-state welfare organizations in Germany: the Nazi People’s Welfare, the Protestant Inner Mission, the Catholic Caritas Association and the German Red Cross. However, only the Nazi organization now received state funding; a good number of welfare institutions such as church kindergartens were passed over to it by the Inner Mission during the brief hegemony of the German Christians over the Protestant Church; and despite formal permission to collect contributions during the summer months, the other organizations, especially the Caritas, were increasingly disrupted in their work by physical attacks from brownshirt gangs, and then from 1936 onwards they were required to run their street and house-to-house collections at the same time as those of the Nazi organization, putting them at a severe disadvantage against this powerful competitor.163

Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick left people in no doubt as to where their contributions should go: it was, he declared in October 1934, ‘indefensible to allow the population’s charitable impulses and sense of sacrifice to be used for purposes whose implementation is not in the interests of the National Socialist state and thus not for the common good’. As this suggested, Christian charity was now to be displaced by the desire for self-sacrifice that Nazi ideology placed so high on its list of supposed attributes of the German race. There was another point to this, too: unlike the Winter Aid and other organizations like the Red Cross, the Nazi Party restricted its donations from the very beginning exclusively to people of ‘Aryan descent’.164 The National Socialist People’s Welfare enshrined in its constitution the statement that its aim was to promote ‘the living, healthy forces of the German people’. It would only assist those who were racially sound, capable of and willing to work, politically reliable, and willing and able to reproduce. Those who were ‘not in a condition completely to fulfil their communal obligations’ were to be excluded. Assistance was not to be extended to alcoholics, tramps, homosexuals, prostitutes, the ‘work-shy’ or the ‘asocial’, habitual criminals, the hereditarily ill (a widely defined category) and members of races other than the Aryan. People’s Welfare officials were not slow to attack state welfare institutions for the indiscriminate way in which they allegedly handed out their charity, thus pushing them still further down the racial hygiene road they had in fact already begun to tread. The Christian concept of charity was if anything even more reprehensible in Nazi eyes, and the pushing aside of Caritas and the Inner Mission by the Nazi welfare organization was in part designed to limit as far as possible what were seen as the racially undesirable effects of Church philanthropy.165

Despite these limitations, the National Socialist People’s Welfare was, alongside Strength Through Joy, probably the most popular Party organization in the Third Reich. With 17 million members by 1939, it projected a powerful image of caring and support for the weaker members of the German racial community, or at least, those who were judged to have got into difficulties through no fault of their own. By 1939, for example, it was running 8,000 day-nurseries, and it was providing holiday homes for mothers, extra food for large families and a wide variety of other facilities. Yet it was feared and disliked amongst society’s poorest, who resented the intrusiveness of its questioning, its moral judgments on their behaviour and its ever-present threat to use compulsion and bring in the Gestapo if they did not fulfil the designated criteria for support. Many others were dismayed at the way it brusquely elbowed aside the Church welfare institutions upon which they had traditionally relied in time of need. It was also impossible to ignore the widespread irritation, even anger and fear, aroused more widely by the ubiquity of street collections which, a Social Democratic agent reported in 1935, had ‘completely assumed the character of organized highway robbery’. ‘The importunity is so great’, reported another agent, ‘that nobody can escape it.’ ‘Last year one could still speak of it as a nuisance,’ one informant complained of the Winter Aid in December 1935, ‘but this winter it has become a plague of the first degree.’ There were not only Winter Aid collections but also Hitler Youth collections for the building of new youth hostels, collections for the support of Germans abroad, collections for air-raid shelters, collections for needy ‘old fighters’, a lottery for the benefit of job creation, and many more collections for local schemes. There were pay deductions for the Volkswagen car and workplace contributions for Strength Through Joy and Beauty of Labour, and much, much more. Such contributions, whether in kind or in money or in the form of unpaid voluntary work, amounted in effect to a new, informal tax. People grumbled and cursed, but all reports agree that they paid up anyway. There was no organized boycott of any of the collection actions, despite a few individual incidents of refusal to pay. People got used to the perpetual demands for money, clothing and other contributions; it became a normal part of everyday life. It was widely believed that old Nazis were amongst the most frequent and most favoured recipients of the aid dispensed in this way, and there were many stories of preferential treatment to Party members over ex-Communists or Social Democrats. This was not surprising, since political reliability was indeed a prime criterion for the receipt of support. Those who benefited were indeed most frequently Party members and their hangers-on. It was equally unsurprising that there were also many jokes about the corruption that was said to be inherent in the whole operation. One joke had two Party officials discovering a 50-Reichsmark note in the gutter as they were walking along the street. Picking it up, one of the two men announced he was going to donate it to the Party’s Winter Aid relief scheme. ‘Why are you doing it the long way round?’ asked the other.166

By devolving welfare spending onto the (allegedly) voluntary sector, the regime was able to save official tax-based income and use it for rearmament instead. Conscription, marriage loans and other schemes to take people out of the labour market led to further reductions in the burden of benefit payments on the state and so to further savings in state expenditure that could then be turned to the purposes of military-related expenditure. Unemployment benefits had already been severely cut by governments and local authorities before the Nazis took power. The new regime lost little time in cutting them even more sharply. Voluntary Labour Service and other, similar schemes to massage the unemployment statistics downwards also had the effect of reducing the amount of unemployment benefits that had to be paid out. Unemployment, of course, as we have seen, had by no means vanished from the scene by the winter of 1935-6, but local authorities continued to drive down the level of benefit payments by whatever means they could. From October to December 1935, when the official figure of welfare unemployed rose from 336,000 to 376,000, the total benefits paid to them across the Reich actually fell from 4.7 to 3.8 million Reichsmarks. Everywhere, welfare authorities were calling in the unemployed for questioning and examination as to whether they were fit to work; those who were deemed fit were drafted into the Reich Labour Service or emergency relief schemes of one kind or another; those who failed to appear were taken off the register, and their payments stopped. Rent supplements were cut, payments to carers for the old and the sick for medication were slashed. In Cologne, a working-class woman who asked the welfare officer for help in paying for medication for her 75-year-old mother, whom she cared for at home, was told that the state would no longer pay for such people, who were nothing but a burden on the national community.167

Cutting back on welfare payments was only part of a wider strategy. Urging the German people to engage in self-help instead of relying on payouts from the state carried with it the implication that those who could not help themselves were dispensable, indeed a positive threat to the future health of the German people. The racially unsound, deviants, criminals, the ‘asocial’ and the like were to be excluded from the welfare system altogether. As we have seen, by 1937-8 members of the underclass, social deviants and petty criminals were being arrested in large numbers and put into concentration camps since they were regarded by the Nazis as being of no use to the regime. In the end, therefore, as soon as rearmament had soaked up the mass of the unemployed, the Nazis’ original scepticism about the benefits of social welfare reasserted itself in the most brutal possible way.


The National Socialist Welfare organization, Winter Aid and Strength Through Joy were by far the most popular schemes mounted by the Third Reich at home. For many, they were tangible proof that the regime was serious about implementing its promise to create an organic national community of all Germans, in which class conflict and social antagonisms would be overcome, and the egotism of the individual would give way to the overriding interests of the whole. These programmes explicitly aimed to obliterate distinctions of class and status, to involve the better-off in helping their fellow Germans who had suffered in the Depression and to improve the lives of the mass of ordinary people in a variety of different ways. Paradoxically, it was the better-off who were most attracted to the ideology of the people’s community; workers were often too deeply imbued with Marxist ideas of class conflict to yield directly to its appeal. Not untypical was the reaction of Melita Maschmann, a young woman brought up in a conservative, upper-middle-class household, where her nationalist parents instilled in her a conception of Germany that she later described as ‘a terrible and wonderful mystery’.168 Conversation in her parents’ home in the early 1930s frequently turned to matters such as the humiliation of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the divisions and squabbles of the political parties in the Reichstag, the constantly escalating violence and mayhem on the streets, and the poverty and desperation of the growing numbers of unemployed. Nostalgic for the Kaiser’s day, when, her parents said, Germans had been proud and united, Melita herself found it impossible to resist the lure of the Nazis’ promise to stop internal dissension and unite all social classes in a new national community in which rich and poor would all be treated as equals.169 Her experience was echoed by that of many others. Yet although reactions to the welfare and leisure schemes that the Nazis deployed to give effect to such unifying ideas were often favourable, especially in retrospect, there was a down-side too. The element of compulsion in all of them could hardly be ignored. Despite the regime’s constant trumpeting of the virtues of self-sacrifice, these did not possess a universal appeal; on the contrary, many people were fixated on the achievement of material improvements in their own situation - hardly surprising after all they had been through in the war, the inflation and the Depression. Class distinctions seemed as alive as ever, and were compounded by a newly emerging distinction between ‘old fighters’ and local Party bosses, who were widely perceived as the principal beneficiaries of these schemes, and the rest. Deeply held beliefs among wide sections of the population, possibly even the majority, ranging from faith in the Christian idea of universal charity to an ingrained habit amongst many workers of viewing everything through the lens of a Marxist-influenced idea of class struggle, proved extremely difficult for the regime to eradicate.

By 1939, therefore, disillusion was widespread even with some of the most popular schemes implemented by the Third Reich. The first flush of enthusiasm for the regime had already begun to fade in 1934, and by early 1936 it had reached such a low level that even Hitler’s popularity was beginning to wane.170 How far did this disillusion reach, how general was it, and why did it fail to translate into a wider and more principled opposition to the regime? A good picture of how ordinary people regarded the Third Reich, the ways in which society changed between 1933 and 1939, and the extent to which the promise of a united, organic national community was realized, can be derived from the experience of a provincial town during this period. In the Lower Saxon town of Northeim, the most obvious outward and visible sign of change in the eyes of the inhabitants was the return of prosperity and order after the poverty and disorder of the last years of the Weimar Republic. Street clashes and meeting-room brawls, which had caused so much anxiety among the citizenry, were now a thing of the past. The town’s Nazi mayor, Ernst Girmann, after ousting his rivals within the local Party in September 1933, ruled Northeim alone, unfettered by any democratic controls, a position confirmed in January 1935 when a new, nationwide law came into effect giving mayors untrammelled power over the communities they ran. Girmann put out a substantial propaganda campaign unveiling elaborate plans for a revival of the job market in the town. These plans were never taken up by Northeim’s hard-headed businessmen; but after the unemployed had been taken off the streets into labour camps and public works schemes, the general revival of the economy that had already begun before the Nazi seizure of power started to have a real impact. Workers drafted into the Reich Labour Service were engaged on highly visible municipal improvements such as the extension of the town’s parkland, or the repainting of some of the town’s old houses.171

The most notable construction project involved the building of a Thingplatz or Nazi cultic meeting-place, an open-air theatre in a nearby forest, on land purchased by the city at an extremely high price from one of Girmann’s friends. A large number of new houses and apartment blocks were built in the town with subsidies made available by the government, though the most widely trumpeted construction project, a settlement of forty-eight new houses on the outskirts of the town, had been conceived already in the early 1930s and had in fact been delayed by objections raised by the local Nazis themselves in 1932. Only Aryan families who belonged to the Party or an ancillary organization could move in, and only if they were sponsored by the local Party. Still, the propaganda surrounding the ‘battle for work’ had the effect in Northeim of convincing most people that the Third Reich had indeed brought about a miraculous economic recovery. The sense of everyone pulling together to get Germany out of the economic rut was strengthened by the hyper-activism of the local National Socialist Welfare organization, with its collection boxes, benefit evenings, stewpot Sundays and mass rallies. However, the Third Reich’s most significant benefit to the local economy was brought by the army’s reoccupation of a local barracks, whose refurbishment triggered a mini-boom in Northeim’s construction industry. A thousand soldiers and ancillary staff meant a thousand new consumers and customers for local shops and suppliers.172

Yet according to regional Gestapo reports, none of this convinced the town’s many former Social Democrats and Communists, who were still unreconciled to the regime at the end of 1935, and were continuing to spread negative propaganda by word of mouth. Hostility was also noted amongst local Catholics; people still shopped in Jewish stores; conservatives were disillusioned and forging contacts with the army; and Girmann’s attempt to crush the local Lutheran congregation and make the town the first town in Germany without Christians foundered on the passive resistance of both clergy and laity. In conformity with national policy, Girmann did manage to force the closure of the town’s Catholic school, achieved mainly through a series of personal interviews with its pupils’ parents in which an undertone of intimidation must have been clearly audible to them. But higher authority would not allow him to employ overt violence against the Lutherans, and getting the Hitler Youth to throw snowballs at the crucifix on the town church was not really very effective, and so his campaign failed. Girmann was not above threatening people he observed failing to conform. People who did not turn up to meetings or left them early were confronted and asked for an explanation, and in one case, Girmann personally wrote to a young woman who had neglected to raise her arm in the Nazi salute, telling her she would be in danger of physical assault if she did the same again. Faced with such threats, local people were generally careful to conform, at least outwardly. All the same, there was no denying a widespread loss of enthusiasm for the regime in the town after the first months of euphoria.173

The local Party found it difficult to counter such disillusionment. By the end of 1935 it had lost its dynamism; its leaders, Mayor Girmann included, had become comfortable, well-off even, drawing high salaries and reaping the rewards of their earlier struggles. Even Girmann did little in the later 1930s except rebuild the town’s horse-riding facilities, which he proceeded to use himself on regular occasions. Nazi festivals and celebrations became empty rituals, with people participating more out of fear than commitment. The few open incidents of antisemitic violence in the town met with reactions from the townsfolk ranging from indifference to outright disapproval; this was, after all, the kind of disorder they had supposed the Third Reich had come into being in order to suppress. Former Social Democrats were grudgingly tolerated if they abstained from oppositional activities, which on the whole they did after 1935, when the last remaining resistance groups had been suppressed. Block Wardens visited the households in their charge on a regular basis, to extract Winter Aid payments and to check on their political reliability. They had to submit reports on anyone from their block who was applying for social welfare, seeking a position in any of the town’s numerous guilds and clubs, or looking for a government job. They had to fill in a form to this end, giving details of the applicant’s attendance at meetings, contributions to charity and so on. Yet of the thousands of such reports stored in the local archives, hardly a single one after 1935 classified the subject as politically unreliable; only for a brief while, at the height of the Church struggle, did the reports contain negative comments along these lines, usually concerning active Catholics. Many of the Block Wardens’ notes were vague or said little that was meaningful, but on one point, they were all specific, and that was whether or not their subjects contributed to Winter Aid and similar schemes. Failure to do so earned the person in question a black mark and a designation as ‘selfish’ or ‘unfriendly’. Such an individual had made the Block Warden’s job more difficult, and held the potential to get him into trouble if he did not deliver his designated quota of payments. Nothing much else mattered, except on occasion a rare failure of someone to hang out a flag on Hitler’s birthday or forgetting to give the Hitler greeting. Some kind of political stability had been achieved, and most Block Wardens now seemed to want little more than to carry out their regular duties unhindered and without trouble. They no longer cared very much about people’s political beliefs, so long as they conformed in outward appearance and kept their beliefs to themselves. No doubt they were somewhat more vigilant in former Communist strongholds in Berlin or the Ruhr than in a small provincial town like Northeim. Still, by 1939, a kind of modus vivendi had been reached: townspeople, whatever their views, participated in public rituals as required, though generally without much enthusiasm; the local Party was careful to leave it at that and not push people too far. Acquiescence and lip-service were all, in the end, that it had been able to achieve; but it was realistic enough to admit that this would have to do, and that was probably the situation elsewhere as well.174

The situation in Northeim reflected that of many other parts of Germany. Germans had not all become fanatical Nazis by 1939, but the basic desire of the vast majority for order, security, jobs, the possibility of improved living standards and career advancement, all things which had seemed impossible under the Weimar Republic, had largely been met, and this was enough to secure their acquiescence. Propaganda may not have had as much effect in this regard as the actual, obvious fact of social, economic and political stability. The violence and illegality of the Röhm purge had been widely accepted, for example, not because people supported Hitler’s use of murder as a political tool, but because it appeared to restore the order that had been threatened by Röhm’s stormtroopers over the preceding months. There was a broad consensus on the primacy of orderliness that the Nazis recognized, accepted and exploited. In the long run, of course, it was to prove illusory. But for the moment, it was enough to take the wind out of the sails of any oppositional movements that tried to convert rumblings of dissatisfaction with one or the other aspect of daily life under the Third Reich into a broader form of opposition.175


The social promises made by the Third Reich’s leaders were far-reaching indeed. Nazism had won support at the polls in the early 1930s not least because of its incessantly reiterated promise to overcome the divisions of the Weimar Republic and unite the German people in a new national, racial community based on co-operation not conflict, mutual support not mutual antagonism. Class differences would disappear; the interests of the Germanic race would be paramount. The two great symbolic propaganda demonstrations choreographed by Goebbels and the Nazi leadership in the opening months of the Third Reich, the ‘Day of Potsdam’ and the ‘Day of National Labour’, had both been intended to demonstrate how the new Germany would unite the old traditions of the Prussian Establishment on the one hand and the labour movement on the other. Interviewed by the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst on 27 January 1934, Hitler declared that Nazism ‘conceives of Germany as a corporate body, as a single organism’. ‘From the camp of bourgeois tradition’, he told Johst, National Socialism ‘takes national resolve, and from the materialism of the Marxist dogma living, creative socialism.’ He went on:

People’s Community: that means a community of all productive labour, that means the oneness of all vital interests, that means overcoming bourgeois privatism and the unionized, mechanically organized masses, that means unconditionally equating the individual fate and the nation, the individual and the people . . . The bourgeois must become a citizen of the state; the red comrade must become a racial comrade. Both must, with their good intentions, ennoble the sociological concept of the worker and raise the status of an honorary title for labour. This patent of nobility alone puts the soldier and the peasant, the merchant and the academician, the worker and the capitalist under oath to take the only possible direction in which all purposeful German striving must be headed: towards the nation . . . The bourgeois man should stop feeling like some sort of pensioner of tradition or capital and separated from the worker by the Marxist concept of property; rather, he should strive, with an open mind, to become integrated in the whole as a worker.176

Hitler underlined these points by projecting himself as a worker by origin, a humble man of the people who had risen through the ranks without ever losing touch with his lowly origins.

Hitler frequently reminded his audiences that, as he told an audience of over a million people assembled in Berlin’s Pleasure Gardens on Mayday 1937, he ‘did not issue from some palace: I came from the worksite. Neither was I a general: I was a soldier like millions of others.’ The camaraderie of the front line in 1914-18, when social barriers were wiped away in the heat of commitment to the national cause, was to live again in the spirit of the Third Reich:

It is a miraculous thing that, here in our country, an unknown man was able to step forth from the army of millions of German people, German workers and soldiers, to stand at the fore of the Reich and the nation! Next to me stand German people from every class of life who are today Regional Leaders etc. Though, mind you, former members of the bourgeoisie and former aristocrats also have their place in this movement. To us it makes no difference where they come from; what counts is that they are able to work for the benefit of our people.177

As Hitler’s use of the word ‘former’ on this occasion suggested, the Third Reich sedulously propagated the notion that all class distinctions had been abolished in the new Germany. ‘We are’, declared Robert Ley in 1935, ‘the first country in Europe to overcome the class struggle.’178 In token of this, many institutions of the Nazi Party made a point of elevating members of the lower classes into positions of authority over members of the bourgeoisie, as in the Hitler Youth, or of subjecting the scions of the elites to the authority of their supposedly former social inferiors, as when university students were sent to labour camps, or schoolteachers were disciplined by ‘old fighters’ from humble backgrounds in their compulsory training sessions. The Nazi students’ attack on the traditional student duelling corps was only one instance of a widespread assault on Germany’s most publicly prominent bastions of social privilege, and - to the disgust of traditionalists like Reck-Malleczewen - it was accompanied by a good deal of egalitarian rhetoric and verbal assaults on the reactionary nature of the class discrimination that the duelling corps so openly practised.179

Crucially, the rhetoric was accompanied by actual deeds. The decline in status, autonomy and power of the academically trained professions in the first six years of the Third Reich was real. Traditional institutions like the universities had been downgraded as part of the life-experience of young Germans, and far fewer went to them in 1939 than had done six years before. Small businessmen and white-collar workers saw the social divisions between them and the working class eroded by more than just Nazi speechifying. Aristocrats found themselves elbowed aside in the corridors of power by brash young Nazis from social classes far below theirs. Old-established figures of authority, from doctors to pastors, large landowners to village elders, found themselves under attack. Everywhere, the young, or at least a significant minority among them, seized their chance and asserted themselves against their elders: in the aristocracy, in the village, in the schoolroom, in the university. A new political elite had undeniably taken over. From the top rank of Nazis such as Goebbels and Goring, Schirach and Ley, down through the Regional Leaders to the bottom level of the Block Wardens and Hitler Youth commanders, new men, mostly young, often from unorthodox social backgrounds, sometimes, like Rosenberg for example, even from outside Germany itself, took over the reins of power. Moreover, a whole range of traditional social values had been downgraded: the professor’s prioritization of learning for its own sake, the doctor’s Hippocratic ethic of putting the patient’s interests before everything else, even the businessman’s enshrinement of profit as the ultimate measure of success - all these were swept aside by the Third Reich’s prioritization of war, race and the national community.

Yet the equality of status so loudly and so insistently proclaimed by the Nazis did not imply equality of social position, income or wealth. The Nazis did not radically revise the taxation system so as to even up people’s net incomes, for example, or control the economy in the way that was done in the Soviet Union, or later on in the German Democratic Republic, so as to minimize the differences between rich and poor. Rich and poor remained in the Third Reich, as much as they ever had. In the end, the aristocracy’s power over the land remained undisturbed, and younger nobles even found a new leadership role in the SS, Germany’s future political elite. Peasant families that had run their village communities for decades or even centuries managed for the most part to retain their position by reaching a limited accommodation with the new regime. Businessmen, big and small, continued to run their businesses for the usual capitalist profit motive. Professors shunted the most obviously unscientific and unscholarly excrescences of Nazi ideology into little institutes on their own, where they could be isolated from the mainstream of teaching and research, and continued much as before. Judges and lawyers still judged and pleaded, still fought cases, still sent people to prison. Doctors had more power over their patients, employers over their workers. The Churches undeniably lost ground in areas such as education, but all reports agree that the priest and the pastor by and large retained the loyalty of their flock despite all the efforts of the regime to undermine it. The rhetoric of the national community convinced many, perhaps even most Germans on the political level: party rivalries had gone, everyone seemed to be pulling together under Hitler’s leadership. ‘No more class struggle’, as Luise Solmitz noted in her diary on 27 April 1933, ‘or Marxism, religious antagonisms, - only Germany, - in Hitler.’180 But far fewer were convinced that the social utopia promised by the Nazis in 1933 ever really arrived.

A society cannot be totally transformed in a mere six years without huge, murderous violence of the kind that occurred in Russia, from the ‘red terror’ of the civil war years (1918-21) to the massive purges carried out by Stalin in the 1930s. The leadership of the Third Reich did, as we have seen, carry out a limited killing action against dissidents, or supposed dissidents, within its own ranks at the end of June 1934, and it also killed some thousands of its own real or supposed opponents within Germany, but its major violence was reserved for people outside the country and was carried out in wartime. There was no parallel to the Soviet regime’s killing of some three million of its own citizens, mostly in time of peace, nor to its imprisonment of many more millions in labour camps, nor to the violent upheavals that brought about the state ownership of industry and the collectivization of agriculture in Stalin’s Russia. Similarly, while the Third Reich restricted wages and consumption, this was not as part of a deliberate attempt to narrow the gap between rich and poor, as with the far more drastic restrictions imposed in Soviet society, but simply as a means of saving money to pay for rearmament. Nazism did not try to turn the clock back, for all its talk of reinstating the hierarchies and values of a mythical Germanic past. As we have seen, the groups who hoped for a restoration of old social barriers and hierarchies were as disappointed as were those who looked to the Third Reich to carry out a radical redistribution of land and wealth.181

The problem was that any programme of social change that the Nazis might have desired was in the end ruthlessly subordinated to the overriding determinant of preparation for war. Whatever helped get Germany ready for the conquest of Eastern Europe was good; whatever got in the way was bad. The realization of any social or racial utopia was postponed until Germany had acquired its much-vaunted living-space in the East, just as economic prosperity for the masses was ultimately made dependent on the same thing. Yet any assessment of what might have been then becomes increasingly speculative, the more so since there is every indication that Hitler would not have stopped with the conquest of the East but would have transformed the war from one waged for European supremacy to one fought for world domination. Still, something of the nature of the utopian character of the future Third Reich imagined by its leaders and ideologues could already be discerned by 1939. Nazism’s romance with technology, though driven by rearmament, went beyond the merely military. Here was a regime that wanted the latest machinery, the latest gadgets, the latest means of communication. All these things implied big factories, large businesses, modern cities, elaborate organizations. The principles on which the Nazi future would be based were scientific: the appliance of racial hygiene and Darwinist selectionism to human society without regard for any traditional morality or religious scruples, directed by an elaborate, hierarchical state apparatus that would brook no dissent. At times, Nazi rhetoric might seem to envision a Europe of peasant farmers, of Germans united by ties of ‘blood and soil’, enslaving and exploiting members of inferior races in a pseudo-feudal world shorn of the complexities and ambiguities of industrial society; de-industrialization and de-urbanization would be the essentials of the final incarnation of the Third Reich on a European scale.182 But the fiercest proponents of this view, such as Darré, were outflanked by those who believed that the new European racial order had to combine the most advanced industry, technology and communications with the reordering of agriculture and the countryside in a new balance between the two.183

In the real world of twentieth-century Germany, Nazism’s modernizing effects impacted on a context where rapid social and economic change had already been going on since the industrial revolution of the mid-nineteenth century. Here too there were ultimately fatal contradictions. Preparation for war, for example, undoubtedly speeded up already existing processes of concentration and rationalization in industry, and accelerated technological developments of many kinds. Military and medical technology and research, as we have seen, forged ahead in government-funded institutes and company research and development departments. On the other hand, the educational policies of the Third Reich moved rapidly towards reducing the professional, scientific and intellectual competence of Germany’s future professional elites, which were already beginning to decline in strength and numbers by 1939. If a future elite was beginning to emerge from the SS and from the new elite schools and Order Castles, then it was a dumbed-down elite that would find difficulty in managing a complex, modern industrial and technological social and economic system of a kind that would be capable of waging and sustaining a complex, modern, industrial and technological war. Traditional social institutions such as the trade unions were cleared away to make room for a total identification of the individual with state and race; yet the result was the exact opposite, a retreat of ordinary people into their private worlds of the home and family, a prioritization of consumer needs that the Third Reich was neither willing nor able wholly to satisfy. The destruction of the traditional institutions of the labour movement can plausibly be seen as a blow for modernity, paving the way for a very different, less antagonistic structure of labour relations after 1945. In the longer run, however, the decline of the traditional industrial working class and the rise of the service sector in a post-industrial society would have achieved this result by other means.

The problem with arguing about whether or not the Third Reich modernized German society, how far it wanted to change the social order and in what ways it succeeded in doing so, is that society was not really a priority of Nazi policy anyway. True, social divisions were to be, if not abolished altogether, then at least bridged over, social discord was to be replaced by social harmony, and status, though not class, was to be equalized as far as possible in new Reich. But much of this was to be achieved by symbols, rituals and rhetoric. Above all, what Hitler and the Nazis wanted was a change in people’s spirit, their way of thinking, and their way of behaving. They wanted a new man, and for that matter a new woman, to emerge out of the ashes of the Weimar Republic, re-creating the fighting unity and commitment of the front in the First World War. Their revolution was first and foremost cultural rather than social. Yet it was underpinned by something more concrete, that had real physical consequences for thousands, and in the end millions of Germans, Jews and others: the idea of racial engineering, of scientifically moulding the German people into a new breed of heroes, and its corollary, of eliminating the weak from the chain of heredity and taking those who were seen as the Germans’ enemies, real and potential, out of the reforged national community altogether. This meant a concerted attempt to improve the physical quality of the German race on the one hand: and a comprehensive drive to remove elements the Nazis considered undesirable, including above all the Jews, from German society on the other, as we shall now see.

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