THE FÜHRER MYTH Pt.4

Part 4: How Hitler Won Over the German People

The ‘Dynamic Hatred’ against Minorities

How many fully swallowed the nauseating personality cult can, of course, never be established. Not a few obviously did. Unctuous letters, doggerel poems and other eulogies, photographs and gifts — including in one case the offer of a sack of potatoes which the Führer apparently liked — poured in, to be dealt with by Hitler’s adjutants. There was a rise in the early years of the Third Reich in the numbers of parents naming their new-born babies Adolf, even though a decree of 1933 had instructed local registry offices to discourage the practice to protect the Führer’s name. Such effusions of the Führer cult were doubtless confined in the main to a fanatical, Nazified minority. But even those able to keep the full excesses of the personality cult at arm’s length nevertheless often accepted at least some parts of Hitler’s positive image.

The national community gained its very definition from those who were excluded from it. Racial discrimination was inevitably, therefore, an inbuilt part of the Nazi interpretation of the concept. Since measures directed at creating “racial purity,” such as the persecution later of homosexuals, Roma and “a-socials,” exploited existing prejudice and were allegedly aimed at strengthening a homogeneous ethnic nation, they buttressed Hitler’s image as the embodiment of the national community. Even more so, the relentless denunciation of the nation’s alleged powerful enemies — Bolshevism, western “plutocracy,” and most prominently the Jews (linked in propaganda with both) — reinforced Hitler’s appeal as the defender of the nation and bulwark against the threats to its survival, whether external or from within.

Though Hitler’s anti-Semitic paranoia was not shared by the vast bulk of the population, it plainly did not weigh heavily enough in the scales on the negative side to outweigh the positive attributes that the majority saw in him. The widely prevalent latent dislike of Jews, even before monopolistic Nazi propaganda got to work to drum in the messages of hatred, could offer no barrier to the “dynamic” hatred present in a sizeable minority — though after 1933 a minority holding power. Much research has illustrated a diversity of attitudes towards the persecution of the Jews (most plainly visible in varied reactions to the promulgation of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935 and “Kristallnacht” in November 1938). Nevertheless, the Nazis appear to have been successful in establishing, in most people’s eyes, that there was a “Jewish Question”, and in deepening the anti-Jewish feeling at the time that the external threat of imminent war was growing.

An Irrelevant Consideration

When the open violence of Kristallnacht proved unpopular, even within Nazi circles, Hitler took care to distance himself publicly from the pogrom which he himself had commissioned. But, despite extensive disapproval of the methods, there was by now a general feeling that Jews no longer had any place in Germany, and Hitler’s association of Jews with the growing international danger (which he had done more than anyone to foster) strengthened — at least did not weaken — his image as the fanatical defender of his nation’s interests.

Materially, too, many had benefited from the exclusion of Jews from German society, their economic dispossession, and their expulsion. The “boycott movement” which had begun as soon as Hitler became Reich Chancellor and, in waves, had effectively driven Jews out of commercial life, eventually ushering in the “aryanization” program of 1938 that robbed Jews of their possession, operated to the profit of large numbers of Germans. Here, too, many felt reason to be grateful to Hitler. The human cost, paid by an unpopular minority, was for them an irrelevant consideration.

The apparently unending run of successes that Hitler could claim during the “peacetime” years of the Third Reich had a further reinforcing by-product. After 1933, affiliations of the NSDAP could spread their tentacles to almost all sectors of society. Millions of Germans were “organized” by the Nazi Movement in some fashion or another, and in each affiliation it was difficult fully to escape the clammy embrace of the Führer cult. Armies of petty apparatchiks and careerists owed position and advancement to the “system” that Hitler led. The emphasis upon “leadership” and “achievement” invited ruthless competition, played upon everyday ambition and opened up unheard of possibilities, unleashing a vast outpouring of energy in the broad endeavor to promote the vision of national renewal embodied in Hitler himself. Literally or metaphorically, many individuals at every level of the regime operated along the guidelines laid down by Werner Willikens, state secretary in the Prussian Agriculture Ministry in February 1934 when he declared:

“Everyone who has the opportunity to observe it knows that the Führer can hardly dictate from above everything which he intends to eventually accomplish. On the contrary, up till now everyone with a post in the new Germany has worked best when he has, so to speak, cooperated with the Führer.”

Willikens added that it was “the duty of everybody to try to cooperate with the Führer”– a key to how the Third Reich functioned, and to an important bond between “Führer” and society.

Deflated and Isolated

These bonds were not, of course, of uniform strength. Alongside the fanatics were the skeptics and, though they could not express themselves in any meaningful fashion, the dissenters. Nor was it possible to sustain the enthusiasm for Hitler at a constant height. The outpourings of elation at moments of triumph, such as the announcement of the re-militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, were peaks. They subsided again as soon as the gray everyday returned for most people.

Nevertheless, the affective integration which Hitler’s mounting popularity during the first years of the dictatorship undoubtedly created was of immeasurable importance. Whether the adulation of Hitler was genuine or contrived (as it doubtless was in many cases), it had the same function. Millions of Germans who might otherwise have been opposed to, doubtful about, or only marginally committed to the regime and Nazi doctrine were publicly seen to give Hitler their backing. This was crucial to the dynamic of Nazi rule.

At the grass roots, the growth of the Führer cult meant that Hitler could detach himself from policy areas which were unpopular and exploit immense reserves of personal support practically at will. The negative impact, for example, of the “Church struggle” was directed away from Hitler and towards subordinate leaders, such as Goebbels and Rosenberg. When popular morale sagged in the spring of 1936, the Rhineland spectacular, focused directly on Hitler’s “great achievement,” served to re-galvanize support for the regime. The very purpose of the Reichstag “election” of March 29, 1936 was to demonstrate the unity of the people behind Hitler for internal as well as foreign consumption. Not for the last time during the Third Reich, opponents of the regime felt deflated and isolated. And Hitler had the backing he needed for further advancement of his expansionist goals. “The Führer allows the people to demand that he implement the policies he wanted,” was the perceptive insight of one Sopade report.

Deposing Him Was Impossible

The plebiscitary acclamation which Hitler could summon on such occasions massively strengthened his own position against the different groupings within the regime’s power elite. Among the narrower elite of Nazi leaders, Hitler’s immense popularity made him in every respect unchallengeable in his dogmatically held views and in his steerage of policy, even when, by 1938-9 some Nazi leaders, including Göring, were having cold feet about the dangers of embroilment in a war with the western powers.

More important still, Hitler’s popularity made him untouchable for those groupings within the national-conservative power-elite, above all in the Wehrmacht leadership and parts of the Foreign Ministry, where fears of a future disastrous war were leading by 1938 to the first embryonic signs of opposition to the dangerous course of foreign policy. When the western powers played into Hitler’s hands and given him yet another “triumph without bloodshed”, it was plain to the nascent oppositional circles at the end of September 1938, that any move to depose him was impossible (a realization which helped to paralyze the conservative resistance throughout the first, victorious phase of the war).

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