Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This is totalitarianism: German life under the Third Reich

Awhile back I set myself the huge project of reading, and thinking in pixels here, about Richard J. Evans' history of Nazi Germany. This three volume opus has been acclaimed as "masterpiece of historical scholarship." It better be; it's more than 2000 detailed pages in three books.

I offered some reflections on the first volume, The Coming of the Third Reich last fall.

In the second part, The Third Reich in Power, Evans recounts what the Nazis were doing with and to Germany in the period of uneasy "peace" between Hitler's accession to power on January 30, 1933 and the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 which set off the European conflagration we call World War II.

Most of the volume is devoted to exactly the questions likely to be paramount to contemporary English speaking readers: what was it like for ordinary Germans to live in the Third Reich? Were they frightened? Did Germans enthusiastically embrace the brutish fanatics who had so efficiently seized the machinery of the state? -- or did they just try to keep their heads down? Did they believe the Nazi propaganda? How did the Nazis sell most of them on the belief that national difficulties and disappointments were the fault of a one percent minority (500,000 out of 67 million Germans) who were Jewish?

Evans does a terrific job of making answers accessible to contemporary readers who may find the material and intellectual circumstances in the middle of the last century in central Europe a far stretch indeed.

First to what seems the obvious question: did some awful combination of secret police terror and more conventional "legal" constraints simply frighten people -- including the third or so of the population who had recently been Communists or Social Democrats -- into adopting Nazi beliefs? As is true of many questions like that, Evans seems to answer both yes … and no.
The Gestapo was only one part of a much wider net of surveillance, terror and persecution cast by the Nazi regime over German society in the 1930s; others included the SA [brown-shirted Nazi thugs] and SS [Nazi paramilitary], the Criminal Police, the prison service, the social services and employment offices, the medical profession, health centers and hospitals, the Hitler Youth, the Block Wardens and even apparently politically neutral organizations like tax offices, the railway and the post office. All of these furnished information about deviants and dissidents to the Gestapo, the courts and the prosecution service, forming a polymorphous, uncoordinated but pervasive system of control in which the Gestapo was merely one institution among many.

Everything that happened in the Third Reich took place in this pervasive atmosphere of fear and terror, which never slackened and indeed became far more intense towards the end. 'Do you know what fear is?' an elderly worker asked an interviewer some years after it was all over: 'No. The Third Reich was fear.'

Yet terrorism was only one of the Third Reich's techniques of rule. For the Nazis did not just seek to batter the population into passive, sullen acquiescence. They also wanted to rouse it into positive, enthusiastic endorsement of their ideals and their policies, to change people's minds and spirits and to create a new German culture that would reflect their values alone.
Evans' subsequent discussion of Nazi efforts to impose their own cultural beliefs on the population is fascinating. Living as we do with our own clashes of cultures, modern Americans can perhaps imagine something analogous to his characterization of a reaction to a Nazi art exhibit designed to expose Germans to what was labelled "Degenerate Art" -- that would be Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, etc.
Like much else in Nazi culture, it allowed ordinary conservative citizens the opportunity to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held but previously been hesitant to reveal…
I'm reminded of our periodic cultural conflicts such as those over the "offensive" art of Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano … only mobilized deliberately by a police state.

The Nazis were "determined to reduce, and if possible eliminate, the Churches as centers of real or potential alternative ideologies to its own." Evans recounts how they overwhelmingly succeeded in silencing almost all resistance from German Christians, Protestant and Catholic.
For all the courage of many leading figures in the mainstream Churches, and many ordinary members of their congregations, none of them opposed the Third Reich on more than a narrowly religious front. The Gestapo might allege that Catholic priests and Confessing pastors hid out-and-out opposition to National Socialism under the cloak of pious rhetoric, but the truth was that, on a whole range of issues, the Churches remained silent.

Both the Evangelical and Catholic Churches were politically conservative, and had been for a long time before the Nazis came to power. Their fear of Bolshevism and revolution, forces that showed their teeth once more in reports of the widespread massacre of priests by the Republicans at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, strengthened them in their view that if Nazism went, something worse might well take its place. The deep and often bitter confessional divide in Germany meant that there was no question of Catholics and Protestants joining forces against the regime.

The Catholics had been anxious to prove their loyalty to the German state since the days when it had been doubted by Bismarck during the 1870s. The Protestants had been an ideological arm of the state under the Bismarckian Empire and strongly identified with German nationalism for many years. Both broadly welcomed the suppression of Marxist, Communist and liberal political parties, the combating of 'immorality' in art, literature and film, and many other aspects of the regime's policies.

The long tradition of antisemitism amongst both Catholics and Protestants ensured that there were no formal protests from the Churches against the regime's antisemitic acts. The most they were prepared to do was to try and protect converted Jews within their own ranks, and even here their attitude was at times extremely equivocal. Yet the Nazis regarded the Churches as the strongest and toughest reservoirs of ideological opposition to the principles they believed in. …
Evans includes a a long discussion of whether thinking of Nazism as a species of religion is an appropriate metaphor; he makes the case that it is just as correct to frame Nazism as kind of militarism. I have to say that all of this reminded me of Brent Nongbri's insight that among Western academics, "religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity …" I think Evans is in that trap here.

Evans relies heavily on accounts from ordinary Germans to convey what life was like. Here he turns to one Melita Maschmann to describe how Nazi anti-semitic race hatred came to be incorporated in her thinking, obliterating her previous familiarity with actual German Jews.
She had plenty of contact with Jews, who made up about a third of her class in the secondary school she attended in a well-to-do part of Berlin in the early 1930s. Here the non-Jewish girls instinctively dissociated their Jewish classmates from 'the Jews' , who 'were and remained something mysteriously menacing and anonymous', 'The anti-semitism to my parents', Maschmann went on in the open letter she wrote to a former Jewish schoolmate after the war, "was a part of their outlook which was taken for granted . . . One was friendly with individual Jews whom one liked, just as one was friendly as a Protestant with individual Catholics. But while it occurred to nobody to be ideologically hostile to the Catholics, one was, utterly, to the Jews. . . In preaching that all the misery of the nations was due to the Jews or that the Jewish spirit was seditious and Jewish blood compelled you to think of old Herr Lewy or Rosel Cohn… I thought only of the bogey-man, ' the Jew'. And when I heard that the Jews were being driven from their professions and homes and imprisoned in ghettos, the points switched automatically in my mind to steer me round the thought that such a fate could also overtake you or old Lewy. It was only the Jew who was being persecuted and 'made harmless."

Constantly exposed to antisemitic propaganda, Maschmann later remembered that she and her upper-middle-class friends had considered it rather vulgar, and often laughed at attempts to convince them that the Jews performed ritual murders and similar crimes. … Yet although she did not take part in violent actions or boycotts, Maschmann accepted that they were justified, and told herself: 'The Jews are the enemies of the new Germany . . . If the Jews sow hatred against us all over the world, they must learn that we have hostages for them in our hands.' Later on, she suppressed the memory of the violence she had seen on the streets, and 'as the years went by I grew better and better at switching off quickly in this manner on similar occasions. It was the only way. Whatever the circumstances, to prevent the onset of doubts about the rightness of what had happened.' A similar process of rationalization and moral editing must have taken place with many others, too.
Very few ordinary Germans kept their moral compasses intact under the Third Reich in Evans' telling; he makes the rationale for their accommodations utterly understandable. Hitler and his followers really did have a genius for exploiting the particular intellectual and moral weaknesses of their countrymen. Evan's sums up the result this way:
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 Rohm 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 Rohm'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.
All of this was in preparation for a war of conquest to come, a race war. That's Evans' third volume which I'll write up here in due time.

2 comments:

Theo said...

I read the first two volumes at your suggestion, and also found them fascinating. The complete capitulation of the churches (well, almost complete) was disheartening. In stemmed in part from agreement and in part from fear. But I suspect it also stemmed from the desire to be "influential" or "relevant."

I got bogged down in volume three. Actually, the accounts of Nazi atrocities became too much for me and I had to put it down. I didn't have the heart (courage) to continue reading it.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Theo: I'm reading the third volume now. My initial impression is that its frame derives from Evans' experience as an expert witness in the Lipstadt/Irving Holocaust denial libel trial. It's testimony. And also simply witness. I'll finish, but agree very much that it is terribly hard even to read.

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