Nazi Votes

David Blackbourn

  • The Nazi Machtergreifung edited by Peter Stachura
    Allen and Unwin, 191 pp, £12.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 04 943026 2
  • Stormtroopers: A Social, Economic and Ideological Analysis 1929-35 by Conan Fischer
    Allen and Unwin, 239 pp, £20.00, June 1983, ISBN 0 04 943028 9
  • The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders 1919-1945 by Michael Kater
    Blackwell, 415 pp, £22.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 631 13313 5
  • Beating the Fascists: The German Communists and Political Violence 1929-1933 by Eve Rosenhaft
    Cambridge, 273 pp, £24.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 521 23638 X

Every picture tells a story – even the illustrations on the covers of books. Michael Kater’s cover shows a rather shabby, cabbage-patch Hitler attending a harvest festival in 1936, receiving the salutes of a crowd in which the faces of adoring women are prominent. The image is both revealing and misleading. The peasant costumes certainly alert us to the affinities between Nazism and provincial kitsch, and Hitler’s studied geniality also reminds us of his extraordinary personal popularity, always much greater than that of the party as a whole or of its other leaders. But the illustration is more likely to mislead if it reinforces the popular idea of a Hitler cult among women. Jill Stephenson, writing in the collection of essays edited by Peter Stachura, disposes effectively of what one recent writer has called ‘the sacrificial willingness of women to be Hitler’s devotees’. The complex and changing position of women in the Third Reich admits of no such conclusion, while it is certain that before 1933 women always gave less electoral support to National Socialism than men. Hitler would have done better without female suffrage, just as he would have done better in 1932 with first-past-the-post elections rather than PR.

The supposed idolatry of Hitler on the part of credulous women is one sub-species of an extremely common view: that the Nazis successfully appealed to a defeated and stricken people by means of a uniquely dramatised form of ideology and propaganda. This is the view of Hitler as Pied Piper. It is strongly evoked by the cover of the Stachura volume, which depicts the Nazis marching through the Brandenburg Gate on the night Hitler became Chancellor, lights and swastikas creating an atmosphere of gaudy, sinister theatricality. It is a compelling but potentially misleading picture. The ceremonial pathos and irrationalism of the Nazi appeal were real enough. Ian Kershaw, also writing in the Stachura volume, notes the mysticism which fired one convert to the NSDAP: ‘On April 20, in Kassel, for the first time I heard the Führer Adolf Hitler speak in person. After this, there was only one thing for me, either to win with Adolf Hitler or to die for him. The personality of the Führer had me totally in its spell.’ It may seem obvious that a barrage of propaganda played an important part in helping the Nazis to reach parts of the electorate the other parties failed to reach (such as first-time voters). But there are also good grounds for scepticism about the broader potency of this siren song. There is evidence that many of the propaganda themes so cherished by Hitler and by party activists were actually quite unimportant in mobilising electoral support. This is true of an issue like Lebensraum, but also (more surprisingly) of anti-semitism. Similarly, it seems likely that the frenetic cycle of marches and meetings at local level followed rather than preceded electoral success. The principal meaning of this activity should perhaps be sought less in its impact on mass opinion, more in the importance it had in keeping the finances of individual speakers and local party organisations afloat. There are, in fact, many cases where the link between propaganda and vote-gathering is very tenuous, and it is the electoral pattern of Nazi success which raises the most serious questions about the Pied Piper interpretation. Why did the NSDAP achieve so much support in certain kinds of constituency and so little in others? Why, above all, did they attract no more than a small minority of German workers and Catholics? The obvious answer, in both of these cases, is that they had strong political loyalties which the Nazis were unable to break. And the reverse of this is also true: where the Nazis succeeded, they did so by saying what the non-Catholic parties and groupings of the centre-right had always said, but saying it more vigorously. They addressed themselves deftly to particular material interests and banged the drum on anti-Communism, law and order and nationalism: but they also succeeded in projecting themselves as above mere party, as a movement untainted by the discredited ‘system’.

The real point about Nazi propaganda success is therefore more narrow but also more telling than the one often made. The party successfully created an image of dynamism: but this appeal was most potent where it worked with the grain of existing values and sectional interests.

For many years, historians and political scientists have been largely agreed about whose sectional interests and values proved particularly susceptible to the Nazi message: the petty bourgeoisie, that most awkward of awkward classes. Numerous studies have documented Nazi success in the countryside and small towns, among butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers, farmers, white-collar workers and local government clerks. The reasons for this have also become familiar. Craftsmen and shopkeepers were squeezed between large capital and organised labour, resentful of both and attracted by the smallman anti-capitalism of the Nazis. They were joined by farmers, who feared the red menace (represented most directly by urban raids on the turnip fields), but also came to expect nothing good of large landowners and politicians who milked the Weimar system. The new petty bourgeoisie of office workers and lesser officials had slightly different problems. They had been a buoyant group before 1914, but war, revolution and inflation brought new anxieties and sharpened old ones. The white collar ‘little man’ of Hans Fallada’s bestselling novel began to lose out. Differentials with manual workers were eroded, and many of the old social certainties disappeared. Impotent Pooterish rage continued to be fuelled by salary squabbles affecting petty officials and by the fear (and reality) of unemployment among white-collar workers in the private sector. The received picture is therefore one of a volatile petty-bourgeoisie whose self-hate was projected onto a hatred of others. Hitler was the little man’s strong man. The Nazis and the petty-bourgeoisie seem to have been made for each other.

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