Friday, 1 June 2012

The Third Reich in Power, Richard Evans

This is the second book of Richard J. Evans' seminal trilogy on the Third Reich.  It examines politics, society and culture in Germany during the high days of the Third Reich, from Hitler's accession to power in 1933 to the outbreak of the Second World War.


What kept the Nazis in power for so long?  To begin with, there was the terror.  The Nazis were very successful in smashing organised political opposition.  The Social Democratic Party and the rest of the German left were crushed in a horrible orgy of violence in the first part of 1933, and the parties of the right were bullied into dissolving themselves.  By July 1933, the only party which stood between the Nazis and a one party state was the Catholic Zentrumspartei, and their fate was sealed when the church decided to try to cut a deal with Hitler in the vain hope that he could be persuaded to leave the Catholics alone.

Once the violence of the 1933-34 period had subsided, not many overt enemies remained who were capable of mounting any effective opposition to the regime.  On the left, the Social Democrats and the Communists (who hated each other almost as much as they hated Hitler) proved incapable of maintaining any real level of resistance.  The anti-Nazi opposition disappeared as a political force.  Concentration camps, after initially being populated by Social Democrats, Communists and trade unionists, instead became repositories of vagrants, Jews, gay men and career criminals.

On the right, the conservative establishment began to realise that their plan to co-opt the Nazis had gone badly wrong.  Hitler forced the conservative leaders Hugenberg and Papen out of his government, and made sure that he personally succeeded Field Marshal von Hindenburg as head of state when the latter died in 1934.  Many conservatives were broadly content to acquiesce in Nazi rule - those Brownshirts were a ghastly rabble, but at least they had crushed the Marxists.  The Nazis encouraged them in this policy of acquiescence by killing some of their leading figures.

In general terms, the police state did its job well enough.  The Gestapo wasn't actually everywhere, but people thought that it was, and that was what mattered.  Enough people got denounced and arrested to convince the rest that it was best for them to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.  As for ordinary criminals, the prisons filled up and a much harsher penal regime was introduced.  The legal profession did little to stop any of this from happening.

In time, opposition to the regime shifted from political circles to the churches, on both sides of the deep Protestant-Catholic divide.  Pro-Nazi Protestants tried to take over the mainstream Evangelical Church, but they had only partial success and their attempt triggered the formation of the dissident Confessing Church. This was not a progressive, liberal organisation: many of its members were fundamentalists who opposed the Nazis because they believed that the Bible required them to do so, and its most famous member, Martin Niemoeller, was a right-wing nationalist.  However, it attracted some former Social Democrats and even Communists who miraculously rediscovered their religious faith once their political organisations had been smashed.  Meanwhile, Catholics were ambivalent in their responses to the regime.  Outright criticism was generally limited, but it did sometimes surface, and in any event the Nazis were not prepared to share their control of German society with an international organisation characterised by strict doctrinal discipline and an extensive network of social and educational organisations.  The result was institutional and individual harassment of Catholics, combined with crude anti-Catholic propaganda.  Over a third of all German priests ran into trouble with the authorities at some point.


Yet terror by itself was not enough.  In fact, holding down the German people by force was ideologically unacceptable to the Nazis.  Unlike conventional dictatorships, they aspired not merely to compel their subjects to obey them but to change their souls.  Like the Soviets and the Italian Fascists, they sought to create not merely a new state and a new society but a "new man".  It was not enough that the German people (mostly) did what they were told - they had to believe in the Nazis' vision of the future.

The Nazis saw themselves as a revolutionary movement, and sincerely wanted to create a new, mobilised national community.  They had little interest in maintaining traditional social hierarchies and privileges, being preoccupied instead with their own hierarchy of racial superiority.  They had no more loyalty to aristocrats, bishops or the old Prussian officer caste than they did to the exiled Kaiser (though Himmler did think that the aristocracy had some good Aryan blood in it, and quite a few young noblemen ended up as SS officers).  Hitler liked to project an image of himself as a plain man of the people, a worker and a soldier, and in various cases the Nazis placed individuals from lower-class origins in positions of institutional authority over their supposed social superiors.

The regime had some level of success in winning popular support.  It is no secret that the Weimar Republic never won the allegiance of a large part of the electorate.  By Evans' reckoning, parties supportive of the democratic constitution never had a parliamentary majority after 1920, and the Nazis had gained an impressive 33% of the vote in the last free German elections in November 1932.  On the other hand, the Nazis' rise was shallowly rooted.  They had won only 2.6% of the vote as late as 1928.  Tens of millions of Germans continued to despise them, or, at best, had a lukewarm respect for their success in bringing back stability and a certain level of prosperity.  The dream of creating a new mobilised racial community was always something of a fantasy.  This was particularly true in regions and communities in which political allegiance was closely bound up with tribalism and cultural loyalties - namely those of the ex-Social Democratic working classes and the Catholics.  Resistance to the Nazis in these circles continued to be apparent even in the heavily rigged plebiscite results of the Third Reich.

The Nazis did their best to evangelise the population to their cause.  State control was exerted over the media and culture, and censorship mostly cut oppositional elements off from access to the public sphere (with a few exceptions: notably, the internationally respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was cut more slack than most other newspapers).  The censor-in-chief, of course, was Dr Josef Goebbels, whose ideas about propaganda were remarkably sophisticated and ahead of their time.  He disliked crude propaganda, worried that the German people would get bored with heavy-handed indoctrination, and tried to get the media to mix political dogma in with popular entertainment.  He was only partially successful in this.  For one thing, Hitler himself didn't really do subtlety, preferring as he did the more straightforward partisanship of the likes of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

It is easy - and far from inaccurate - to mock the philistinism of the Nazis, a movement which was led, after all, by a failed painter.  The impersonal muscular statuary, simple tales of blood and soil, forgettable pastiches of Wagner and huge white neoclassical buildings were by turns trite, camp and sinister.  Goebbels' sympathy for artistic modernism could only soften to some extent the simpler tastes of Hitler and the rest.  Modern art was condemned, most famously in the 1937 exhibition dedicated to "degenerate art" (entartete Kunst), as was jazz music, which was equated with African and Jewish racial degeneracy.  A few genuinely distinguished German artists collaborated to a greater or lesser extent with the Nazis, including the composer Richard Strauss and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler

The Nazis were aware of the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the next generation.  Membership of the Hitler Youth (HJ) was strongly encouraged, if not compulsory.  The hardline, militaristic regime of the organisation was not to everyone's taste, and some boys seem to have been lax in attending or let their membership lapse.  Other members absorbed their indoctrination; disturbingly, there were reports of children threatening to report their parents to the authorities if they tried to stop them going to meetings.  More prosaically, rebellious teenagers wound up their ex-socialist parents by greeting them with a hearty "Heil Hitler!" instead of the more traditional "good morning".  In all, the HJ seems to have helped to coarsen German society generally and to condition German youth for the coming of war.  In the classroom, some schoolteachers seem to have been relatively receptive to Nazi ideology, but the HJ undermined school discipline and teachers' authority.  The Nazis made half-hearted attempts to set up their own schools to train their empire's future √©lite, but their academic standards were unimpressive and they were not a success.

University professors were quite resistant to Nazi ideology - and, for his part, Hitler was openly contemptuous of academics - but their influence waned as university rolls fell.  There was an attempt to replace the theories of Einstein, the "relativity-Jew", with "Aryan physics", but the only academic subject that really flourished under the Nazis was medicine (though academic standards slipped even in this traditionally demanding field).  Medical studies were thought to dovetail with Nazi ideas about racial hygiene and eugenics - and, of course, a nation that was on the path to war had other reasons for needing plenty of doctors.

Eugenics got off to an early start, with compulsory and voluntary sterilisation programmes and various state-led attempts to encourage pukka Aryans to marry and have children.  In fact, these efforts were not that unusual by contemporary standards, even when compared with democratic countries: sterilisation laws and pronatalist policies were quite common in the interwar period.  Unsurprisingly, however, the Nazis carried their ideas about racial hygiene further than their counterparts elsewhere, attributing phenomena such as alcoholism and even prostitution to hereditary degeneracy.  Their approach to the allegedly denegerate hardened from 1939 onwards, when they transitioned from incarcerating them and sterilising them to murdering them.

And then there was the most despised minority of all - the Reich's Jewish population.  Persecution of the Jews came in peaks and troughs.  Most Jews ended up fleeing the country, but some opted to stay, and in any event their number shot up after the Anschluss.  Not all of them fully understood the danger they were in, and those who emigrated were mostly the younger and richer members of the community.  Violence and harassment of Jews reached its peaks in 1933, 1935 and, especially, 1938.  The constant barrage of antisemitic propaganda didn't convince everyone, but there is evidence that it had some impact on public attitudes.  Following the infamous nationwide pogrom of Crystal Night in November 1938, a series of apartheid-style laws were introduced to banish Jews entirely from mainstream German society and strip them of their property.  By early 1939, Hitler was talking openly about the prospect of exterminating them.


Hitler was given credit by many Germans for rescuing the economy from the Great Depression, and he continues to be given credit for this achievement in some quarters today.  Yet Evans questions the idea that the Nazis turned around the German economy.  He notes that they arrived in power when the economy was already beginning to recover, and that in any event unemployment fell more slowly than the official figures admitted.  Nor did the recovery necessarily mean higher living standards for the German people.  Nazi economic priorities meant producing guns rather than butter.  Shortages and queuing were the result - at the very moment when Germany was becoming a modern consumer society - and rationing had been introduced by the end of the 1930s.  Overall, the economy was distorted in an attempt to re-arm the country for the expansionist war which the Nazis hoped would pay the bill for their fiscal indiscipline.

One question which is sometimes raised in popular and polemical literature is how far National Socialism can be characterised as being socialist (its nationalism is not in doubt).  This is not an easy question to answer, since Nazi economic policy was something of a mess.  To be sure, the Nazis were not Thatcherite capitalists.  They intervened extensively in the workings of the market, and they had no problem with large-scale state spending financed by increased taxes and borrowing.  Hitler even created a Soviet-style "Four Year Plan" and placed it under the control of Goering, bypassing the more conservative Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht.  Yet the Nazis had little interest in the traditional socialist goals of redistributing wealth and building a welfare state.  The rich mostly stayed rich, as long as they weren't Jewish.  Welfare provision sat uneasily with the Nazis' social Darwinism, and was to a large extent left to non-governmental charities.  The huge trade union movement was converted into the tame German Labour Front - this highly corrupt organisation achieved some popularity through its "Strength Through Joy" leisure programmes, but it failed in the more basic task of raising workers' wages.  The Nazis' policies on state spending and economic management were not Keynesianism for Keynesianism's sake - they were dictated by the overriding ideological priorities of rearmament and war.

And war was always where the Third Reich was headed.  It wasn't clear quite when it would come, or how - indeed, Hitler was furious that his diplomatic triumph at Munich in 1938 had cheated him of the chance to start a war, while simultaneously highlighting the lack of appetite for conflict among the German population.  In fact, it was during the Czech crisis that the conservative establishment engaged in their last serious attempt to get rid of Hitler before the last days of the War - a conspiracy of senior military officers to execute a coup if Hitler's foolhardy brinkmanship turned into a conflict.  But the moment passed, and Hitler suffered no further serious challenges until the Stauffenberg plot of 1944.  Eventually, in September 1939, Hitler's reckless diplomacy went too far even for Chamberlain and Daladier, and he got what he wanted.  The German people were less happy with this turn of events.  They may have spent the last 6 years being harrassed by the Gestapo and browbeaten with propaganda, but they weren't stupid.