February 4, 2008


How Hitler Won Over the German People: There were still many Germans who were skeptical of Hitler when he became chancellor in 1933. But Führer propaganda and military success soon turned him into an idol. The adulation helped make the Third Reich catastrophe possible. (Ian Kershaw, 1/30/08, Der Spiegel)

Sebastian Haffner plausibly reckoned that Hitler had succeeded by 1938 in winning the support of "the great majority of that majority who had voted against him in 1933." Indeed Haffner thought that by then Hitler had united almost the entire German people behind him, that more than 90 percent of Germans were by that time "believers in the Führer." In the absence of any genuine test of opinion, and in conditions of intimidation and repression for those who might dare to challenge official propaganda, when the only public opinion which existed was that of the regime's agencies, such a figure can only be guesswork, and is probably too high. At the same time, it seems hard to deny that the regime had won much support since 1933, and that this owed much to the perceived personal "achievements" of Hitler. The personalized focus of the regime's "successes" reflected the ceaseless efforts of propaganda, which had been consciously directed to creating and building up the "heroic" image of Hitler as a towering genius, to the extent that Joseph Goebbels could in 1941 with some justification claim the creation of the Führer Myth to have been his greatest propaganda achievement.

The propaganda image was never better summarized than by Hitler himself in his Reichstag speech of 28 April 1939 (which Haffner also cited):

"I overcame chaos in Germany, restored order, enormously raised production in all fields of our national economy...I succeeded in completely resettling in useful production those 7 million unemployed who so touched our hearts...I have not only politically united the German nation but also rearmed it militarily, and I have further tried to liquidate that Treaty sheet by sheet whose 448 Articles contain the vilest rape that nations and human beings have ever been expected to submit to. I have restored to the Reich the provinces grabbed from us in 1919; I have led millions of deeply unhappy Germans, who have been snatched away from us, back into the Fatherland; I have restored the thousand-year-old historical unity of German living space; and I have attempted to accomplish all that without shedding blood and without inflicting the sufferings of war on my people or any other. I have accomplished all this, as one who 21 years ago was still an unknown worker and soldier of my people, by my own efforts..."

The claim that the change in Germany's fortunes had been achieved single-handedly was, of course, absurd. Fascinating, nevertheless, in this litany of what most ordinary Germans at the time could only have seen as astonishing personal successes of the Führer, is that they represented national "attainments" rather than reflecting central tenets of Hitler's own Weltanschauung. There was not a word in this passage of the pathological obsession with "removing" the Jews, or of the need for war to acquire living space. Restoration of order, rebuilding the economy, removal of the scourge of unemployment, demolition of the restrictions of the hated Versailles Treaty, and the establishment of national unity all had wide popular resonance, ranging far beyond die-hard Nazis, appealing in fact in different ways to practically every sector of society. Opinion surveys long after the end of the Second World War show that many people, even then, continued to associate these "achievements" positively with Hitler.

Compared with the state of Germany six years earlier, it was hard for those listening to Hitler's 1939 speech, even many who had earlier opposed the Nazis, not to admit that Hitler had accomplished something extraordinary. Few were clear-sighted or willing enough to analyze what lay behind the "achievements," to reject the gross inhumanity on which Germany's rebuilding had been founded, to perceive the undermining of governmental structures and ruination of Reich finances that was taking place, above all, to comprehend the colossal risks for the country's very existence involved in the regime's course of action. And few were in any position to contradict the fundamental lie in the claim that Hitler had constantly endeavored to avoid bloodshed and to spare his people (and others) the suffering of war. What for most Germans in spring 1939 were aims in themselves, which Hitler appeared triumphantly to have accomplished, were for Nazi leaders merely the platform for the war of racial-imperialist conquest which they were preparing to fight.

But, however false their underlying basis, the claims in this speech point to areas of great success in winning over the mass of the population to support for Hitler. With all the caveats that are necessary for generalizations about approval, where those disapproving were mainly forced into silence, it is surely not mistaken to speak of a wide-ranging consensus which the integrative force of the Hitler Myth had cemented during the peace-time years of the dictatorship.

...between support for a legitimate nationalist impulse and a radical ideology is too subtle to be the basis of rational discourse or public policy, but you can see how we still fail to make it in the Islamic world and, in failing to do so, we squander the opportunity to divide the majority from the extremes.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 4, 2008 6:02 AM

"The distinction... between support for a legitimate nationalist impulse and a radical ideology is too subtle to be the basis of rational discourse or public policy..."

I almost understand this I think...

Care to expound?

Posted by: Benny at February 4, 2008 1:00 PM

I don't buy it.

They knew what they were rooting for.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 4, 2008 11:27 PM

I agree with Lou. Even the Commies (those who remained) cheered der Fuhrer in August 1939.

There were very few 'decent' Germans in 1933, and by 1938 far fewer. And it didn't take long to get right to the edge of Hell.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 5, 2008 1:51 AM