Striving for consensus in Nazi Germany?

Nathan Stoltzfus’s Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany has a remarkable and startling thesis: though the Nazi regime used absolutely unconstrained violence and coercion in its conquest, domination, and annihilation of its enemies (Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, the USSR), its approach to ruling Germany was strikingly different. Stoltzfus maintains that Hitler and the Nazi regime sought to cultivate broad support among Germans for its war and extermination aims, while building a strong consensus around ideology and values in the German homeland.

Except for a tiny fraction of the population, consisting of Jews, political dissidents, social outsiders, and the congenitally “incurable,” National Socialism strove to bring all Germans into line with the thinking that they should be the master of others. The effort to extract the maximal effort of the people in conquering the continent and killing millions outright was conducted with concern for the “German-blooded” people. Nazi propaganda directed German women to become the mothers of the nation through appeals to love of Nazi leaders and heroes, as well as for their own children. The National Socialist People’s Welfare (NSV) was an enormous agency dedicated to benefiting productive, racially valuable Germans. kl 54

In fact, Stoltzfus suggests that post-war Germany has fallen for a myth of its own wartime history: the myth of a violent, coercive dictatorship that compelled the German people to carry out his evil purposes.

The Germans have earned high praise for facing the crimes of their past, showing more reluctant countries how to do it. Still today there are signs of a retrenchment among some historians, as well as in the official commemorations in Germany, in the comforting belief that Hitler ruled his own “race” of people by intimidation and terror more than by incentives and rewards, that the Gestapo crushed all opposition, and that the dictatorship set its course according to its ideology and proceeded in a straight path toward it, steamrolling any obstacles with brute force. kl 102

But according to Stoltzfus, this is a myth. On the homefront, Stoltzfus appears to argue, Hitler was a calculating politician, aiming at creating a supportive and contented public, rather than a ranting dictator using murder, torture, and imprisonment to coerce his nation to his goals. And the German public was largely willing to support his policies.

Robert Gellately makes a similar case in Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people. The most important thing he could do to win them over was to solve the massive unemployment problem. Although it is clear that his regime beat the Great Depression faster than any of the Western democracies, it still took time.

The new regime made no bones about using coercion in many forms against its declared enemies, but it also sought the consent and support of the people at every turn. As I try to show in the book, consent and coercion were inextricably entwined throughout the history of the Third Reich, partly because most of the coercion and terror was used against specific individuals, minorities, and social groups for whom the people had little sympathy. (kl 195)

Thus, the Nazis did not act out of delusional or blind fanaticism in the beginning, but with their eyes wide open to the social and political realities around them. They developed their racist and repressive campaigns, by looking at German society, history, and traditions. The identification and treatment of political opponents and the persecution of social and racial outsiders illustrated the kind of populist dictatorship that developed under Hitler. (kl 264)

And Gellately argues that the German public was aware of many of the details of the violence of the secret police and the use of concentration camps and rejects the view that these facts were withheld from the German public:

This book challenges these views. It shows that a vast array of material on the police and the camps and various discriminatory campaigns was published in the media of the day. In the 1930s the regime made sure the concentration camps were reported in the press, held them up for praise, and proudly let it be known that the men and women in the camps were confined without trial on the orders of the police. kl 299

The most compelling evidence of this interpretation of Hitler’s populist dictatorship, for Stoltzfus, is the fact that there were occasional signs of public disapproval of Nazi actions, including resistance by Germany’s churches to euthanasia, protests against imprisonment of Jewish husbands of non-Jewish wives, and public protests over other issues; and the Nazi regime sought to change its behavior to conform better to the expectations of the public. These are the compromises in the title of Stoltzfus’s book.

During 1943 as well, Hitler preferred to appease rather than repress two spectacular street protests by women, even as the People’s Court increased sentences for treason. By mid-1943, complaints and jokes about the regime leaders were so prevalent that prosecutors thought that singling one person out for punishment on such an offense was untenable, and the SD was concerned about an inner collapse on the home front. kl 512

Taken separately, each instance of regime compromise might be explained as an exception that it made for specific sectors of Germans: workers, the churches, women. Taken together, the various cases of the dictatorship’s willingness to compromise in ruling the people illuminate a pattern of response to social dissent, regardless of which group was dissenting. The regime’s willingness to make concessions to the working class in order to assuage its dissatisfactions is well documented.51 But it also preempted or ameliorated signs of sustained opposition in public by other social groups as well, an approach that is hardly surprising considering its earnest manipulation of demonstrations and rallies in an effort to influence opinion and “nationalize the people.” kl 566

In this respect, if Stoltzfus and Gellately are correct, the domestic dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin were radically different. Stalin treated the population of his nation as the enemies of socialism and of the regime, and his tools of control were entirely drawn from the war chest of arrest, terror, imprisonment, and murder. Soviet citizens were terrified into submission — with the partial exception of support for the “Great Patriotic War” and Comrade Stalin’s brilliant generalship. If there is such a thing as a “scale” of totalitarianism, this suggests that the Soviet Union under Stalin was a vastly more fully totalitarian state than the domestic Nazi state in Germany.

The reason this argument by Stoltzfus is especially important today is that it is not just about history — about Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather, it seems to suggest a playbook for contemporary “wannabe” autocrats and dictators, including a recent president of the United States. The strategy that Hitler pursued, according to Stoltzfus, was to put forward a compelling nationalist ideology affirming the German nation, a powerful and vitriolic racism against Jews and Slavs, and an assurance that “the leader” can achieve the national interest by leading the nation and waging merciless war against its racial enemies. This is the stuff of radical right-wing populism today. Stoltzfus appears to recognize this continuity:

While his dictatorship murdered millions in the name of ideology, Hitler managed the relationship with the Germans of the Reich in ways that place him among those whom scholars now identify as “soft” dictators, who prefer the tactics of persuasion, enticement, cooptation, and compromise to work their will. These scholars associate “soft” tactics with dictatorships of the twenty-first century by contrasting them in one fell swoop with caricatures so gross they characterize both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes. kl 204

Had he not been aiming to reshape the Germans into a Nazi national community, with a new Nazi superego, Hitler could have relied more fully on terror. But he was convinced that the existing German mythos could only be replaced by edging it out with another ideology the people found acceptable. In Nazi practice, as Hitler foresaw it, force could be deployed to secure the people’s worldview once a majority was behind it, as he continued toward winning all but the fringe. kl 230

“Soft dictatorship” at home, with a willingness to compromise when public opinion appears to demand it, along with consistent planning and action in support of the underlying racist ideology — that is a very different understanding from the traditional view of Nazi dictatorship. And yet it is a worrisome illustration of the power that charismatic, malevolent leaders can exercise over a mass society.

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