Military history

8. LIFE IN THE THIRD REICH: 1933–37

IT WAS AT THIS TIME, in the late summer of 1934, that I came to live and work in the Third Reich. There was much that impressed, puzzled and troubled a foreign observer about the new Germany. The overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their culture had been destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation.

In the background, to be sure, there lurked the terror of the Gestapo and the fear of the concentration camp for those who got out of line or who had been Communists or Socialists or too liberal or too pacifist, or who were Jews. The Blood Purge of June 30, 1934, was a warning of how ruthless the new leaders could be. Yet the Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being cowed and held down by an unscrupulous and brutal dictatorship. On the contrary, they supported it with genuine enthusiasm. Somehow it imbued them with a new hope and a new confidence and an astonishing faith in the future of their country.

Hitler was liquidating the past, with all its frustrations and disappointments. Step by step, and rapidly (as we shall see in detail later), he was freeing Germany from the shackles of Versailles, confounding the victorious Allies and making Germany militarily strong again. This was what most Germans wanted and they were willing to make the sacrifices which the Leader demanded of them to get it: the loss of personal freedom, a Spartan diet (“Guns before Butter”) and hard work. By the autumn of 1936 the problem of unemployment had been largely licked, almost everyone had a job again* and one heard workers who had been deprived of their trade-union rights joking, over their full dinner pails, that at least under Hitler there was no more freedom to starve. “Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz!” (The Common Interest before Self!) was a popular Nazi slogan in those days, and though many a party leader, Goering above all, was secretly enriching himself and the profits of business were mounting, there was no doubt that the masses were taken in by the new “national socialism” which ostensibly put the welfare of the community above one’s personal gain.

The racial laws which excluded the Jews from the German community seemed to a foreign observer to be a shocking throwback to primitive times, but since the Nazi racial theories exalted the Germans as the salt of the earth and the master race they were far from being unpopular. A few Germans one met—former Socialists or liberals or devout Christians from the old conservative classes—were disgusted or even revolted by the persecution of the Jews, but though they helped to alleviate hardship in a number of individual cases they did nothing to help stem the tide. What could they do? They would often put the question to you, and it was not an easy one to answer.

The Germans heard vaguely in their censored press and broadcasts of the revulsion abroad but they noticed that it did not prevent foreigners from flocking to the Third Reich and seemingly enjoying its hospitality. For Nazi Germany, much more than Soviet Russia, was open for all the world to see.* The tourist business thrived and brought in vast sums of badly needed foreign currency. Apparently the Nazi leaders had nothing to hide. A foreigner, no matter how anti-Nazi, could come to Germany and see and study what he liked—with the exception of the concentration camps and, as in all countries, the military installations. And many did. And many returned who if they were not converted were at least rendered tolerant of the “new Germany” and believed that they had seen, as they said, “positive achievements.” Even a man as perspicacious as Lloyd George, who had led England to victory over Germany in 1918, and who in that year had campaigned with an election slogan of “Hang the Kaiser” could visit Hitler at Obersalzberg in 1936 and go away enchanted with the Fuehrer and praise him publicly as “a great man” who had the vision and the will to solve a modern nation’s social problems—above all, unemployment, a sore which still festered in England and in regard to which the great wartime Liberal leader with his program We Can Conquer Unemployment had found so little interest at home.

The Olympic games held in Berlin in August 1936 afforded the Nazis a golden opportunity to impress the world with the achievements of the Third Reich, and they made the most of it. The signs “Juden unerwuenscht” (Jews Not Welcome) were quietly hauled down from the shops, hotels, beer gardens and places of public entertainment, the persecution of the Jews and of the two Christian churches temporarily halted, and the country put on its best behavior. No previous games had seen such a spectacular organization nor such a lavish display of entertainment. Goering, Ribbentrop and Goebbels gave dazzling parties for the foreign visitors—the Propaganda Minister’s “Italian Night” on the Pfaueninsel near Wannsee gathered more than a thousand guests at dinner in a scene that resembled the Arabian Nights. The visitors, especially those from England and America, were greatly impressed by what they saw: apparently a happy, healthy, friendly people united under Hitler—a far different picture, they said, than they had got from reading the newspaper dispatches from Berlin.

And yet underneath the surface, hidden from the tourists during those splendid late-summer Olympic days in Berlin and indeed overlooked by most Germans or accepted by them with a startling passivity, there seemed to be—to a foreigner at least—a degrading transformation of German life.

There was nothing hidden, of course, about the laws which Hitler decreed against the Jews or about the government-sponsored persecution of these hapless people. The so-called Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935, deprived the Jews of German citizenship, confining them to the status of “subjects.” It also forbade marriage between Jews and Aryans as well as extramarital relations between them, and it prohibited Jews from employing female Aryan servants under thirty-five years of age. In the next few years some thirteen decrees supplementing the Nuremberg Laws would outlaw the Jew completely. But already by the summer of 1936 when the Germany which was host to the Olympic games was enchanting the visitors from the West, the Jews had been excluded either by law or by Nazi terror—the latter often preceded the former—from public and private employment to such an extent that at least one half of them were without means of livelihood. In the first year of the Third Reich, 1933, they had been excluded from public office, the civil service, journalism, radio, farming, teaching, the theater, the films; in 1934 they were kicked out of the stock exchanges, and though the ban on their practicing the professions of law and medicine or engaging in business did not come legally until 1938 they were in practice removed from these fields by the time the first four-year period of Nazi rule had come to an end.

Moreover, they were denied not only most of the amenities of life but often even the necessities. In many a town the Jew found it difficult if not impossible to purchase food. Over the doors of the grocery and butcher shops, the bakeries and the dairies, were signs, “Jews Not Admitted.” In many communities Jews could not procure milk even for their young children. Pharmacies would not sell them drugs or medicine. Hotels would not give them a night’s lodging. And always, wherever they went, were the taunting signs “Jews Strictly Forbidden in This Town” or “Jews Enter This Place at Their Own Risk.” At a sharp bend in the road near Ludwigshafen was a sign, “Drive Carefully! Sharp Curve! Jews 75 Miles an Hour!”*

Such was the plight of the Jews at about the time the Festival of the Olympics was held in Germany. It was but the beginning of a road that would soon lead to their extinction by massacre.

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