by Ahmed Humayun
More than 70 years after its demise, the monstrous dictatorship of Adolf Hitler remains a fascinating case study of evil. I have often wondered: Did Hitler have the support of ordinary Germans? If so, how did he gain this support? There is no single or easy answer to these types of questions, but to my mind, the single most incisive guide to Hitler’s regime is "The Meaning of Hitler" (1978) by Sebastian Haffner.
Haffner grew up in Germany but fled to England with his Jewish fiancé in 1938. Originally trained as a lawyer, he became an influential journalist, political analyst, and author. During World War II, Haffner helped the West understand Nazi Germany. In "The Meaning of Hitler", Haffner suggests that most Germans supported Hitler at the height of his popularity, and that Hitler’s achievements helped win much of this support.
Of course, Hitler used force to gain and hold power. Since the 1920s, Nazi paramilitary forces had intimidated and assassinated opponents. After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the creation of the Gestapo further solidified Nazi control over German society. Hitler elevated the strategic use of terror to an art form. Haffner writes that Hitler and his henchmen would issue unhinged threats, then follow up with terrorist actions that fell short of the fearful expectations created by those threats, and finally, allow some normalcy to return while “keeping a little background terror”. This approach intimidated the general public without generating extreme opposition to Nazi rule.
Recent scholarship tends to confirm that while Nazi terror was immense, it was selective. Eric Johnson argues in "Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and ordinary Germans" (2000) that, in general, Nazi terror focused on political opponents of the regime and members of persecuted and stigmatized groups. If you belonged to these categories, you were systematically killed, tortured, and discriminated against; otherwise, you could probably stay out of the crosshairs of the Gestapo. Nazi repression didn’t necessarily impose a significant cost on the day-to-day lives of many Germans.
Many ordinary Germans who supported Hitler did so voluntarily. As Haffner notes, Hitler’s electoral success in 1932 was largely due to the complete failure of the political alternatives to address the worsening economic crisis. Upon assuming power, Hitler quickly eliminated political opposition and consolidated control over the state. His political and economic victories over the next six years earned him enormous credibility in the eyes of most Germans. By 1938, Haffner maintains that “Hitler had succeeded in winning over to himself the great majority of those who in 1933 had still voted against him – perhaps his greatest achievement of all.”
The most important achievement of Hitler’s regime in the eyes of ordinary Germans was the revival of the Germany economy. Hitler became Reich Chancellor in 1933 when Germany had 6 million unemployed people; by 1936 there was full employment. This occurred while wages and prices were stable, providing a sense of economic security and progress that had been absent for decades and had previously seemed impossible.
Germans also enjoyed a renewed sense of political stability. Although the Weimar Republic had replaced the German monarchy at the end of World War I, it lacked legitimacy and was constantly under assault from factions across the political spectrum. There was a widespread perception of instability, civil war, and chaos. (Of course, the Nazis themselves had played a central role in fomenting disorder). Upon assuming power, Hitler was credited for restoring order.
Similarly, Hitler won praise for his foreign policy and military strategy. The rest of the world looked with alarm at Hitler’s frenzied rearmament program, which violated the peace settlement implemented at the end of World War I. Many Germans, however, were strongly supportive, seeing it as a justified response to an unjust peace settlement. Germans saw their country as a great European power that was being denied its rightful role in world affairs – a sentiment adroitly exploited by Hitler. Meanwhile, the Nazi propaganda machine portrayed rearmament as peaceful and defensive in nature. From 1933 to 1939, Germany went from a defeated country that lacked modern weaponry and an air force to the strongest military power in Europe.
Did Hitler have anything to do with these achievements or was German public opinion just being manipulated by the formidable Nazi propaganda machine? Haffner states that Hitler was a “star performer” who appointed the right people, gave them authority, identified plans, and empowered their execution. He had no interest in economic policy – his primary objectives were wars of aggression and the realization of his anti-Semitic agenda – but he understood the vital significance of economic progress in gaining popular support.
Either way, at a time when many Germans felt weak and defeated, Hitler was credited with restoring a sense of order, strength and pride. He was greeted by raucous rallies, adoring applause, and that quick jerk of a salute that signals obedience and admiration. Today, when we look at the ranting hatred and absurd self-importance of Hitler’s speeches, it seems impossible to comprehend the cult of the Fuhrer. Of course, Hitler’s talents for oratory and mass spectacle helped gin up popular fervor. But as Haffner points out, the spectacle worked because it was undergirded by facts:
“Today the ‘How could we?’ of the old and the ‘How could you?’ of the young trip easily off the tongue. At the time, however, it required a quite exceptional perception and farsightnedness to recognize in Hitler’s achievements and successes the hidden seeds of future disaster, and it required quite exceptional strength of character to resist the effect of those achievements and successes. His speeches, with their barking and foaming at the mouth, which nowawdays cause revulsion or laughter when listened to again, were delivered at the time against a background of facts which deprived the listener of the strength to contradict even internally. It was that background of facts which produced the effect, not the barking and foaming at the mouth.”
The “background of facts” Haffner refers to made Hitler seem impressive to people far beyond Germany. If this seems surprising today, it is because we underestimate the dazzle of power, spectacle, and success. Winston Churchill was one of the clearest thinkers about the danger of Nazi barbarism to human civilization, and one of the main reasons why the Nazi threat was ultimately defeated. Yet even Churchill could write in "Great Contemporaries" (1935) that:
“It is not possible to form a just judgment of a public figure who has attained the enormous dimensions of Adolf Hitler until his life work as a whole is before us. Although no subsequent political action can condone wrong deeds, history is replete with examples of men who have risen to power by employing stern, grim, and even frightful methods, but who, nevertheless, when their life is revealed as a whole, have been regarded as great figures whose lives have enriched the story of mankind. So may it be with Hitler.”
Churchill acknowledges that Hitler’s career was “borne onwards, not only by a passionate love of Germany, but by currents of hatred so intense as to sear the souls of those who swim upon them”. He calls out some of Hitler’s crimes, acknowledges the merciless persecution of Jews, and says that Hitler has to choose whether or not to unleash another world war. Still, Churchill suggests that “the world lives on hopes that the worst is over, and that we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age.”
Of course, the worst was not over in 1935. If Churchill was uncertain about the potential direction of Hitler’s regime 10 years after the publication of Mein Kampf, a time period that had witnessed an unending stream of murderous speeches, political assassinations, terrorism and brutish thuggery – then perhaps it becomes possible to see why the spectacle of Hitler’s achievements intoxicated so many Germans.
In fact, for many those early years created a halo around Hitler that never quite dissipated. Seven years after the end of World War II, Milton Mayer, a Jewish American journalist of German descent, lived for a year in a small town in Germany. He met, befriended, and interviewed men who had been Nazis – not major leaders, but self-described “little men”, who had usually joined the local Nazi party to get a job and some status, and who saw themselves as ordinary Germans. Mayer told them he was writing a book for an American audience to help them better understand the story of National Socialism. This was the truth though Mayer did not tell them about his Jewish background – a wise choice since most of the men were anti-Semitic.
In “They Thought They Were Free” (1955), Mayer describes his conversations with these men. Other than the reflexive anti-Semitism, Mayer found the men to be fairly ordinary and even decent; he became friends with them. A typical example was the tailor’s son who had searched and largely failed to find work for four years until becoming a proper state employee – an SA policeman. These men used simple and limited criteria to assess the Nazi regime. For them, the early Hitler years had been the golden years:
“1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1939 – until September 1, when, as the Head of the Government told them, Poland attacked their country – the little lives of my friends went on, under National Socialism as they had before, altered only for the better, and always for the better, in bread and butter, in housing, health, and hope, wherever the New Order touched them.”
These opinions didn’t change after the war:
"No Occupation could make – or had made – anti-Nazis out of my friends. The evidence they had before their eyes for rejecting that period of their lives that was spent under National Socialism was wholly inadequate. And it was hard to see how any ‘recovery’ under any German government in any forseeable future (still less, under any Occupation) could make it adequate. At best until such time as men (or at least these men) changed the root basis of their values, ‘things’ could only some day be as ‘good’ as they had been under Hitler. What we call freedom is not, even if they had all the freedom we have, an adequate substitute in my friends’ view, for all that they had and have lost. Men who did not know that they were slaves do not know that they have been freed."
Hitler’s dramatic accomplishments in the 1930s were possible in a dictatorship, not a democracy. When it came to the economy, it was easy for him to impose policies from above, like fixed wages and price controls. He had eliminated political opposition, so he didn’t have to negotiate with any organized resistance. Anyone still willing to challenge the regime could be easily killed or dispatched to a concentration camp.
The propaganda effect of full employment ultimately outweighed the effect of the repression –which, as noted previously, generally affected a small percentage of the population. As Haffner writes, “right or wrong, the economic miracle of the 30s must be described as Hitler’s accomplishment, and to the extent there was even a certain logic on the side of those who, for the sake of the economic miracle, were prepared to accept the concentration camps.”
Free of effective domestic political opposition, Hitler acted with a uniquely free hand in foreign policy. For a long time, Hitler’s flouting of the international system and remarkable gambles yielded one foreign policy success after another. Showing up world powers who were believed to have mistreated Germany after World War I was also satisfying for many Germans. Hitler seemed invincible until 1941, when the German army faced its first significant military reverses in World War II.
None of Hitler’s achievements lasted because none of them were designed to last. For Hitler, Germany began and ended with him. Hitler deliberately destroyed what was left of the (already much weakened) German state when he assumed power. There was no constitution, no established procedures for different institutions to work together. The result was a “controlled chaos” in which the state consisted of multiple independent organizations that had overlapping jurisdictions and competed with each other. This made Hitler indispensable, and assured his domination of the Nazi order.
In this order, “the German Reich had to cease to be a state in order to operate as an instrument of conquest.” Hitler’s regime was designed to wage endless war, and exterminate Jews and other stigmatized groups, not deliver enduring benefits to the German people. In establishing this regime, Hitler won popular support and destroyed the possibility of any political alternative. As a result, no one could obstruct his agenda even if they had wanted to. When the war started turning badly for Germany in the early 1940s, public opinion was irrelevant because he was too firmly entrenched in power for any effective resistance.
The last few years of Nazi Germany were an unrelenting disaster at home and abroad. Many Germans just wanted the war to end, on as favorable terms as possible. Hitler would have none of it. As the Allied invaded Germany in 1945, Hitler issued the following proclamation:
"All military, transport, communication, industrial and supply facilities, as well as material assets within the Reich territory which the enemy might in any way whatever make use of for the continuation of this struggle, either now or in the forseeable future, are to be destroyed."
Hitler would go on to commit suicide, and he wanted Germany to die with him.
Hitler’s initial achievements led many people to overlook, minimize, or issue apologetics for Nazi crimes. This doesn’t mean it was impossible to see the Nazi regime for what it was from the very beginning – just that it required exceptional perception, farsightedness, and strength of character.
In 1939, Haffner wrote “Defying Hitler”, an astonishing and prescient memoir about the rise of the Nazis. At the height of the Fuhrer’s popularity in Germany, and two years before the ‘Final Solution’ began to be implemented, Haffner writes:
"…it is precisely the Nazis’ anti-Semitism that raises the most basic questions of existence, not just for the Jews. That is not true to the same extent of any of their other election pledges. It shows how ridiculous the attitude is, still found widely in Germany, that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis is a small side issue, at worst a minor blemish on the movement, which one can regret or accept according to one’s personal feelings for the Jews, and of “little significance compared to the great national issues.” In reality these “great national issues” are unimportant day-to-day matters, the ephemeral business of a transitional period in European history—while the Nazis’ anti-Semitism is a fundamental danger and raises the specter of the downfall of humanity."