“Existence or nonexistence” (Fritzsche 265), “…belonging to a Nazi society, or giving up on organizational life altogether” (Stephenson 107) – these were common dichotomies with which average Germans felt confronted throughout World War II and the twelve-year rule of the Nazi Party. With bitter memories of 1918 and Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I lingering heavily in the air, the German people faced many choices when it came to responding to Nazi rule, though historians frequently disagree on the feasibility or even existence of some of these alternatives. As Dr. Peter Fritzsche argues in his book Life and Death in the Third Reich, the decision ultimately boiled down to two primary options: reliving the destruction of Germany’s national pride and identity or complying with Nazi rule in the defense of them. Even in the face of criticism offered by other sources and historians, Fritzsche makes a compelling case which suggests that most Germans chose the latter of the two options – they complied with Nazi rule and policies through their own volition, not through the overbearing nature of the totalitarian regime.
Modern academia tends to marginalize idealist explanations of human motivation, particularly in political affairs. Adopting Marxist-inspired social theory in which man’s mind is inert matter shaped by the conditions of his existence, paying little attention to man’s ideology — not to mention philosophy — as a motive force. In examining a case so extreme as Nazism, it provides an opportunity to see the intense role Nazi ideology (and the culture which spawned, nourished, and institutionalized it) played in the political events in Germany from the late nineteenth century through World War II. Thus, Peter Fritzsche’s book is a rather fantastic exception to the aforementioned determinist academic dogma, tracing the Nazi’s successful rise to power through available historical sources to its ultimate source: a German culture which already believed in the central ideals of Nazism and needed only a group of convicted ideologues to pursue and actualize those ideals.
Early in the book, Fritzsche admits that Germans supported Nazi policies for a number of reasons, including “fear, opportunism, and careerism, as well as varying degrees of ideological conviction. The list can be extended: citizens were also lazy, indifferent, and ignorant” (Fritzsche 8). It is ideological conviction, however, that Fritzsche believes was the most commonplace reason. Fritzsche notes (and his sources later corroborate) that the diaries of average Germans did not “leave behind traces of a terrorized society” (11), discounting fear as a primary motive for compliance with Nazi policies. Moreover, Fritzsche’s sources demonstrate his point that “Nazism, the Jews, and the war were frequent subjects of conversation” (12), rejecting the notion that compliance with Nazi policies was the result of mere ignorance or mental laziness. Contrary to popular notions that average Germans were simply harangued into a hypnotic acquiescence toward National Socialism, Fritzsche asserts that it was Germany’s acceptance of the underlying premises of Nazism, “not Hitler’s charisma” (11), that allowed the regime to continue with very little resistance.
Part of the allure of Nazism, according to Fritzsche, “rested on the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft, or people’s community” (38). Collectivism and exclusivity, ideas which later led to German resistance against the Allied invasion of Germany until the very fall of the Reichstag in Berlin, existed long before the Nazis achieved control in 1933. Summed up by simple dichotomous relations such as “‘friend’ or ‘foe,’ ‘me’ or ‘you’” (277), the drive for German national and ethnic unity was one of the fundamental similarities between the desires of average Germans and the policy goals of the Nazis. Because “the Nazis infiltrated the political machinery and the informal, vibrant social and cultural life of German towns and cities” (49), they were able to bring to life a new national narrative about the pride and achievements of the German people. The fact that so many Germans flocked to radio programs like Wunschkonzert by the Propaganda Ministry and that Nazi initiatives like the “Strength through Joy” and Volkswagen campaigns received high levels of support demonstrates a general acceptance and even appreciation of Nazi policies among average Germans. As Fritzsche puts it, the Nazis “simply dared to implement preconceived ideas” (7).
Quite basically, many Germans had long-accepted many of the underlying premises of Nazism, even as early as the First World War. The chief premise – collectivism and the individual’s duty to serve the collective, that is, the “Fatherland” – existed as a motivation for young men to go to war in World War I as much as it did later in World War II. For example, Robert Otto Marcus, a medical candidate from Munich, lamented the thought of being home from the front in World War I while his “comrades out here were ready to give their lives for the Fatherland at any moment” (Witkop 79). Ernst Günter Schallert, a student of philosophy from Berlin, expressed collective nationalism more explicitly than Marcus, stating that Germans “must all do our duty to the Fatherland. And we offer our sacrifice willingly and gladly” (100). He even went so far as to tell his parents to “rejoice that [they] have been permitted to give two sons for the Fatherland” (Witkop 103).
Yet another student, this time a student of architecture named Herbert Weisser, exhibited the same nationalistic pride in German culture – along with the notion that German culture is under attack and in need of defense. These premises were later shared by the Nazis, garnering them support from a population who already possessed that same philosophic framework. Specifically, Weisser stated that it was the goal of German soldiers “to defend all that which German culture has built up through a thousand years of work, in toil and sweat and blood” (Witkop 105). Even in the face of their own mortality, German soldiers’ sense of nationalistic devotion did not falter. In a note delivered to his parents upon his death in battle, Heinz Pohlmann urges his parents to bear his loss bravely because, though they gave “what they value most,” they gave it “for that which is of most value – our glorious Fatherland” (Witkop 195). The Nazis did not need to inculcate such sentiments in – let alone force them upon – the German population; the Nazi Party merely served as the most consistent, most explicit mouthpiece of the philosophical fundamentals that were at the core of German culture at the time, and they ascended to power as a result.
Decades later in the midst of World War II, the intellectual steps required to move from Weisser’s belief that German culture and national identity were under attack to the sentiments of Private Alfred G. who wrote that “it’s either us or the Jews” (Fritzsche 276) were slight at best and virtually nonexistent at worst. After all, it was, in the words of another German soldier in World War II named Walter Kassler, “a matter of existence or nonexistence” for the German people (Fritzsche 276). As such, Fritzsche’s use of his source material to assert that widespread German support for Nazi concepts like the Volksgemeinschaft is validated across the broader context of German history in the twentieth century, as is his notion that these ideological foundations later led to complicity with Nazi policies throughout the Third Reich.
As Jill Stephenson correctly points out, however, “The creation of a ‘national community’, or Volksgemeinschaft, was an aspiration of the Nazi leadership that remained at best only partially fulfilled” (Stephenson 99). Despite the best efforts by the Nazis, there remained stark “regional differences and… contrasts between life in towns and life in the countryside” (103). She admits that the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft “had considerable appeal in the early 1930s” (99), but perhaps her suggestion that it was mere “cosmetic propaganda” for the Nazis to assert that they had overcome “traditional divisions within German society by creating an inclusive national community” is going a step too far (105).
Fritzsche’s argument is not that Nazism eliminated geographic and social differences within the Volksgemeinschaft. Instead, Fritzsche merely argues that the notion of the Volksgemeinschaft allowed Germans to transcend those differences. In this sense, the Nazis’ usage of the Volksgemeinschaft as a unifying national principle did achieve its goal: providing a national narrative around which average Germans could rally, whatever their regional allegiance or social station, and Adolf Hitler was its embodiment. Hitler represented the “myth of infallibility and invincibility” so desired by the German people following their defeat in World War I, which (along with the bloody internal purges of dissidents within the party) explains why “there was little criticism of Hitler” (Stephenson 101). The massive outpouring of national pride following the failed July 20 assassination plot in 1944 (Fritzsche 290) again confirms that Germans were, by and large, supportive of the Volksgemeinschaft ideal and the man they thought represented it. Nikolaus Wachsmann echoes this notion, arguing that the “promise of national rebirth resonated particularly strongly in the early 1930s when the Republic was shaken to the core by economic and political crisis,” thus generating an ideal Germany that was “the complete opposite of the conflict-ridden Weimar society” (Wachsmann 122).
But which Germans belonged in the Volksgemeinschaft? According to Victor Klemperer, this new national community “was meant for the German ‘Aryan people,’ not the population at large” (Fritzsche 69). Even if one belonged to the national community according to one’s racial ancestry, membership was not free. Inclusion “brought responsibilities and duties” which one was expected to perform for the good of the community, not just “benefits and status” for being an “Aryan” (Stephenson 100).
But in order for there to be an “in group,” there must necessarily be an “out group” as well. Determining who belonged to which group began as early as 1933, a year which “saw the start of a comprehensive policy of exclusion, aimed at remaking the German nation in the Nazis’ image” (Wachsmann 124). A few Germans disagreed with the exclusionary aspect of the Volksgemeinschaft to the point of being ashamed to identify themselves as “Aryans.” When interrogated by an SA patrol, Sebastian Haffner even went so far as to consider it “a humiliation, to have answered the unjustified question as to whether [he] was ‘Aryan’ so easily, even if the fact was of no importance” to him, as he was an “Aryan” by Nazi standards (Haffner 151). Though the very fact that he used his status as an “Aryan” to maintain his privilege to use the library deeply troubled Haffner, so much so that he eventually fled Germany for that and many other reasons.
Still, Haffner is not an example of most Germans at the time, despite his desire for his audience to “consider [his] case as typical” (5). As Stephenson notes, “It quickly became clear that the mass of ‘valuable’ Germans were prepared to accept Hitler’s regime and the undoubted benefits that it brought many of them – in peacetime, at least…” (100). Numerical evidence suggests that millions of German volunteers participated in the National Socialist People’s Welfare (a racially-oriented charitable organization) and that eight million enrolled in the Reich Air Defense League, demonstrating a high level of support for Nazi principles and the ideal “new Germany” constructed by the Nazis (Fritzsche 51). “By 1939, 82 per cent of eligible young people between 10 and 18 years of age were members of the various divisions of the Hitler Youth” (Stephenson 114). If not outright support, these numbers demonstrate, at the very least, complicity with Nazi policies. Though Stephenson argues that the Nazis remained “encumbered by a dead weight of those who paid their subscription… but took no further part in Nazi activities” (109), one must differentiate between active participation in activities that specifically relate to the NDSP and those which can be viewed relevant in the broader conception of the German national community. The high numbers of individuals who did participate in Volksgemeinschaft-esque organizations like the Hitler Youth, the NSPW, and the RADL do not corroborate Stephenson’s notion that most were merely “passively acquiescent” toward Nazi policies (114), but instead suggest that complicity toward policies of this sort was quite high.
The origin of that complicity is highly contentious. So far, the accounts agree that complicity (or, at the very least, complacence) toward Nazi policies was not the result of the spectacles of “enthusiasm and dynamism” that took place in 1933 (Fritzsche 41), “though the Germans like being intoxicated by patriotic celebrations” (Haffner 134). Instead, there were three primary reasons that explain why the average German – not the diehard party enthusiast nor the active anti-Nazi dissident – was complicit with Nazism: fear, social pressure, and ideological agreement. Fritzsche, though he acknowledges other reasons, believes ideological agreement is the primary reason average Germans supported Nazi policies, including the Reich’s anti-Semitic policies. Wachsmann supports the notion that German support for Nazism was the result of Nazi terror tactics, Stephenson appears to believe support (to the extent that she addresses this support) came from social pressures within the Third Reich, and Haffner defends a fairly even mix of all three though he points to fear as “the most basic reason” (134).
Fritzsche’s argument centers around the high number of German diaries and letters expressing support for Nazi policies without active coercion on the part of the government. Take, for example, the Nazis’ stance on the “Jewish question.” The Nazis, who believed that the “existence [of Jews] … was incompatible with Germany’s revival” (Fritzsche 186-187) enacted portions of their “Final Solution” before the very eyes of the German people who cannot claim to have been unaware of them. In fact, the primary sources provide a strong indication that many Germans accepted the same premises promoted by Nazi minister of aviation and chief of the Luftwaffe Herman Göring that World War II was about “whether the German… prevails here, or whether the Jew rules the world” (187). While Germans may have suffered some moral qualms regarding the deportation of their neighbors, general support for the relocation of the Jews was notably high. As one historian recorded after visiting some local German taverns in December 1941, “Most of the drinkers at the bar completely support this measure” (253). These sentiments were echoed by German soldiers throughout World War II – on killing those considered ethnically inferior, Kassler’s acceptance of the idea that doing so was a matter of “existence and nonexistence” for the German people has already been noted (276), as has Private Alfred G.’s frank remark, “it’s either us or the Jews” (276). The presence of such accounts – written without coercion and in the absence of totalitarian oversight – strengthen Fritzsche’s case that average Germans accepted much of Nazi philosophy despite that “[s]oldiers wanted an end to the war, just as civilians expressed dismay with many aspects of Nazi rule” (267).
Stephenson’s argument from social pressure must be predicated with a note on the fact that she discusses resistance far more than Fritzsche. She spends a great deal of time discussing various kinds of active resistance against Nazi policies, such as disbanded groups “gathering to drink coffee… [producing] a source of frustration to Gestapo agents” (108) or of young Catholic groups that resisted the formation of Hitler Youth organizations in their towns (111). Others still tried “to express their opposition to Nazism through clandestine publications” (117). Whereas Fritzsche simply acknowledges that there were certain kinds of resistance, it appears that Stephenson overemphasizes opposition movements, given the previously addressed statistics.
Because of this, it is difficult to identify Stephenson’s explanation for the Germans who did support Nazi policies – it was simply not the focal point of her examination. Even so, she does explain support for Nazism in several places. She accepts the fact that “adults had a choice about whether to join a party formation or affiliate or to withstand pressure to do so,” though she quickly follows by insisting that “an insistent local leader could be hard to resist” (110). Local leaders, peers, and “pressure from teachers who were NSDAP members or officers in the Hitler Youth” supposedly account for those Germans who did not support Nazi policies yet went along with them anyway (110), though this seems insufficient as an answer. As such, she adds the social benefits offered by the Nazis in exchange for acquiescence, benefits which would disappear should one oppose the party or not work toward nationalist goals. Average Germans “accepted the benefits [the regime] brought, such as full employment and family allowances” along with the privileges one received for being an Aryan such as those recorded by Wachsmann (114). Still, because Stephenson is more concerned with resistance, her notion of the motivation behind supporting Nazi policies can only be gleaned from a few places within her essay.
Wachsmann, however, makes no secret of why he thinks Germans complied with Nazi rule: fear. He speaks a great deal on how Communist “organizations were ripped apart and often brutally maltreated” in “temporary torture chambers” (123). Additionally, “regulations [that] lent an appearance of legality to Nazi terror” allowed the Nazis to breed fear amongst the populace but in a way the average German would find difficult to oppose (126). There is a slight recognition of the ideological motivation behind the exclusionary, racially-motivated acts committed by the Nazis at the outset of the regime in Wachsmann’s essay. Wachsmann notes that the “jumble of ideas” that led to the policy of exclusion “had been around since the nineteenth century” (127), and that many Nazi actions were based on “deep-seated social prejudice” (133). Regardless, he appeals to fear as a motivation for complying with Nazi policies.
In this sense, Wachsmann appears to have largely accepted the narrative of the Third Reich as an all-powerful totalitarian regime, frightening dissidents into remaining silent. However, this narrative is misguided for several reasons. For one, cases of successful measures of resistance have already been noted by Stephenson, however ultimately innocuous the resistance of leftist/Communist groups gathering informally over coffee might have been. Though these cases were not representative of most Germans, they do demonstrate that the regime was not as all-powerful as propaganda films like Triumph of the Will would have one believe. Second, many Germans enthusiastically accepted the benefits the new regime had to offer. Last, and most compelling, is Fritzsche’s point that the private writings of individual Germans did not “leave behind traces of a terrorized society” (11). Certainly, there were terrorized groups within the Third Reich, namely those considered racially impure and Communist sympathizers, but for the average German who was considered part of the Volksgemeinschaft, the terror was not so great that one would have felt in danger if one did not attend local NDSAP meetings or sign their children up for the Hitler Youth. The sense of fear was, in fact, so underwhelming for average German’s in the later years of Nazi rule that men (however few) like Hugo B., a tailor in Berlin, would record sharply anti-government thoughts in their private writings, such as, “Every day the same shit. Nothing to eat, nothing proper to drink…” (268).
Haffner’s argument is quite similar to Fritzsche’s in many ways. Namely, he notes the large role ideology played in the rise of Nazism, blaming the fact that Germans “had never learned to live from within themselves how to make an ordinary private life great, beautiful, and worthwhile, how to enjoy it and make it interesting” for people turning to the Nazis for answers (Haffner 68-69). He also recorded general public support for anti-Semitic policies in Germany, noting how discrimination against the Jews was treated as a joke, even among intellectuals, such as an instance in which the SA drove Jews from the public library (149). Moreover, he admits that there are a plethora of reasons for which individuals became Nazis, and that there was not “a single solid, positive, durable reason among them” (134).
Regardless, the reason for joining the Nazis that Haffner finds the most compelling is fear: “Join the thugs to avoid being beaten up” (134). This was possibly true with the “casualties of March” (Stephenson considers them “opportunists” (Stephenson 108)) who joined the party when the political situation was still tenuous in 1933 (Haffner 134), but afterwards, Haffner’s argument is open to the same criticisms as Wachsmann’s.
As such, Fritzsche’s appeal to ideology remains the most compelling. Though Stephenson focuses too intensely on resistance movements within the Reich, her examples coupled with Fritzsche’s sources paint a picture of a German people that did not live in a state of perpetual fear. Instead, those that did partake in Nazi activities did so largely of their own volition for ideological reasons. Stephenson’s notion of societal pressure presupposes the existence of a society in which there is enough of a consensus on a given policy or group policies that individual members would feel compelled to agree. This certainly explains latecomers, but not the origin of the societal consensus itself; this is what Fritzsche explains, and this is why his conception of German motivation is stronger than Stephenson’s.
In a way, though, Fritzsche would probably not disagree with the notion that fear was a key component of individual motivation to support Nazi policies. No, this fear was not that of an individual against the state, but it was something much more fundamental – more philosophic. The average German did act on fear, but it was a fear of identity death, not of the Nazis. It was a fear that was found at the very heart of the Volksgemeinschaft and German collectivism; it was a fear of repeating the results of WWI; it was a fear of losing one’s misplaced, nationalistic pride; it was a fear of losing one’s national identity. Quite simply, so synonymous was each Nazi’s existence, for him, with the Reich as a whole that the ideological fear driving the Germans who complied with Nazi policies was the fear of “nonexistence.” To be was to be Nazi, and nothing else.
The events of Nazi Germany were not the result of the material conditions of German existence. They were, first and foremost, ideologically motivated, driven by a collectivist culture and a political regime that embodied it. Even so, culture should not be treated as an overbearing, deterministic force any more than other deterministic alternatives. Rather, “culture” is merely the sum of ideas and values in a given society, along with the individuals who shape them. It is not a primary, but a secondary entity — the collection of ideals already most prevalent in a given society, not the originator of those ideals. The originators, as they always are, are individuals — the people who produce, transmit, and reproduce ideological value systems. It was through the production, transmission, and reproduction of a collectivist, socialist, nativist, racist ideology which eventually produced its political corollary, the Nazi Party. The need for a new idealist paradigm in the social sciences is apparent in academia’s general rejection of this conclusion in favor of determinist explanations of the same event. Only when man understands the role of man’s philosophy in his actions can he begin to address the problems of his social existence at a philosophical level — only when he understands the importance of ideas can he work to shape a rational culture of rational ideas.