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.

Professional horse-sense suggests that it is only a matter of time before historians set out to redeem this derided class, and there are already signs that craftsman morality and small-town virtues are being treated with a new sympathy. Certainly the link between the petty-bourgeoisie and National Socialism has been the object of some recent scepticism. New attention has been paid to the political ambiguity of the class, and Richard Hamilton has argued that the Nazi electoral base owed less to the petty-bourgeoisie and more to the bourgeoisie proper than previously assumed. He analysed electoral districts and also made imaginative use of voting returns from fashionable holiday resorts and cruise ships, which registered high levels of Nazi support. It is reasonable to ask how many craftsmen and insurance clerks were disporting themselves in Garmisch during July 1932.

At the electoral level, the question of the respective weight of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois support for the Nazis has therefore been reopened. Michael Kater’s book suggests the need for a comparable shift of emphasis in the case of Nazi Party membership. True, his quantitative evidence confirms a very marked petty-bourgeois over-representation in the NSDAP, both before and after the ‘seizure of power’. Minor public officials were especially prominent, primary schoolteachers providing the classic example. Kater also convincingly depicts the petty-bourgeois milieu of the half-educated Nazi autodidact. Typical was the master shoemaker’s son Hans Schemm, a Franconian schoolteacher and later Gauleiter. An admirer of Goethe, Nietzsche and Wagner, a chess-player, part-time chemist and beekeeper, whose experiments ‘proved’ the scientific validity of anti-semitism, Schemm was the perfect terrible simplificateur, a Hitler writ small. Kater also introduces us to travelling salesman Paul Gillgasch, who struggled to pay his district party’s telephone bills from the sale of razor blades and portraits of the Führer. This is the familiar world of the Spiesser.

But Kater also shows that, especially in the years 1930-33, the Nazis started to recruit more heavily from the ranks of the bourgeoisie: businessmen, academics, high officials, professionals (especially doctors). They constituted a rising proportion of party newcomers, giving expression to what Kater, in an unhappy phrase, calls the ‘socio-economic disillusionment of these upper societal segments’. The changing age of party members reinforces this conclusion. In 1930, for the first time, the percentage of Nazi joiners in the 30-39 age group was above their share of the overall population – a further indication of Nazi recruitment from higher up the social scale. One reason was certainly the growth of mandarin alienation from the Weimar order – a theme which is also usefully explored by Geoffrey Giles in the Stachura collection. But Kater is surely right to note another important strand: the movement towards the Nazis of more dynamic, technocratically-minded bourgeois. National Socialism appeared to offer a chance to get on with the job, unhindered by economic uncertainty and parliamentary bickering. To the bourgeoisie as a whole, the Nazis seemed both purposeful and reassuring, an alternative to the discredited Weimar system, on the one hand, and to the threat of social revolution, on the other. The party became increasingly popular among the propertied and respectable as it cleaned up its act and presented a conservative face. In the last years before the ‘seizure of power’ it did well in attracting that ‘slimy bourgeoisie’ which was so resented by veterans of the Kampfzeit.

When Hitler became Chancellor the party had 850,000 members. Two years later it had two and a half million, and by 1945 the figure was perhaps eight million. What effect did this have on its composition? Kater is alive to the variables which influenced the size and shape of the post-1933 membership: the conflict, never clearly resolved, between a mass party and an élite cadre, the periodic opening and closing of the membership rolls, the different kinds of opportunism which prompted people to join, the impact of the war. Kater’s differentiated account produces no startling results. The petty-bourgeoisie continued to be the likeliest source of recruits. The social élite continued to be heavily over-represented in the party until 1939, its support tailing off under the radicalising impact of war. Workers grew as a proportion of new joiners from the end of the 1930s, but remained – as they had always been – under-represented. Perhaps more striking is the growth of female party membership. This growing public visibility paralleled the tendency, even before 1939, for the regime to compromise its own principles by driving women out of the home to meet the labour shortage. The war quickened the pace of both these developments, so that by 1945 women constituted perhaps 35 per cent of party members, compared with little more than 5 per cent a decade earlier. Taking this together with Kater’s findings on the Nazi leadership, what we see are aging men running a party increasingly made up of young women.

The ranks of party functionaries, growing old with the regime, contained many misfits. Their arbitrariness and frequent incompetence were built into the decision-making structure of the Third Reich. But Kater also shows the powerful bureaucratic and technocratic norms which drove the system forward, and he argues convincingly against some earlier writers who stressed the ‘broken backgrounds’ of ‘marginal men’ in the party leadership. In the upper ranks especially, the party attracted the sort of person who looked for good career prospects and job security. The disturbing element of normality is well illustrated at the very top of the pile. Frick had been a senior Bavarian administrator, Ley came from IG Farben, Frank and Goebbels had good university records and ‘would have succeeded in any field or calling’. Hess, Kater notes, would probably have become a professor in Munich, although the author’s earlier remarks about Bavaria suggest that this is not meant as a compliment.

Brownshirt leaders also came from higher social backgrounds and were generally older and better-educated than ordinary storm-troopers, as Conan Fischer’s study shows. More than half of Sturmführer and higher ranks had seen war service, usually as NCOs or junior officers. This applied to hardly more than one in twenty of the rank and file. Differences between leaders and led play an important part in Fischer’s interpretation. He argues that the SA as a whole constituted a much more proletarian body than has usually been accepted, and that this offers a key to its awkward political status after January 1933. The inchoate discontent of working-class Brownshirts posed a radical threat, which provides the background to the Röhm putsch of June 1934 and the subsequent domestication of the SA. Fischer interweaves the conventional and the controversial skilfully, but he loses his way in the end by pushing a revisionist thesis too hard.

It would be generally agreed that the typical Stormtrooper was young, unmarried, economically distressed and violent. It is also widely accepted that the SA was generally more successful than the Nazi Party in recruiting workers, especially in major urban areas. There we find a significant level of switchovers between Brownshirts and Communists through the depression years. In 1933 the SA would have included both those who had joined out of a vaguely articulated working-class bitterness, and ex-Communists (and some ex-Socialists) who had joined, as they joined the Nazi factory cell organisation, in order to continue operating under new protective colouring. One of Fischer’s sources notes the presence in the SA of these ‘beefsteaks’ who were brown on the outside and red within: ‘There is a joke about two SA men, one of whom complained that there were “so many Nazis” in his company. The other replies: “In our company there are still three, but we’ll soon chase them out.” ’

Problems nevertheless arise, the first of which concerns Fischer’s analysis of SA membership. He seems to be using a rather generous definition of ‘worker’, especially if we remember the broad social impact of unemployment in Germany. Take the trained shop-assistant, Rudolf Jung, cited in the study. Many shop-assistants were highly conscious of their white-collar status in the Weimar Republic, as the notorious politics of the Deutschnationale Handlungsgehilfenverband indicate. Jung, however, lost his post and became successively unemployed, a postal worker, unemployed again and (via the SA) a railway worker. Does this make him a ‘worker’ – or a disgruntled, déclassé shop-assistant? One’s answer would normally depend heavily on the social background of the individual. Fischer’s own figures suggest a disproportionate number of ‘workers’ from petty-bourgeois backgrounds, and it looks very much as if various unemployed craftsmen’s, clerks’ and farmers’ sons have been shoe-horned into the worker category. It also seems likely that Fischer’s findings have been affected by the urban bias of his sample. The overall effect is to underplay those aspects of the SA which other writers have noted – above all, its strongly petty-bourgeois composition, and its paramilitary character, rooted in the traditions of the far Right.

That the SA’s actions in 1933-34 were spontaneously violent and vaguely anti-capitalist would be disputed by no one; and they certainly alarmed Nazi leaders, business and the Army. But Fischer’s preoccupation with establishing the centrality of a soured proletarian radicalism leads him to minimise the selectivity of SA violence. It was, after all, Socialist, Communist and trade-union organisations which formed the principal targets, along with Catholics and Jews. Violence against the institutions of state, on the other hand, took the form, not of frontal assaults, but of symbolic attacks on ‘soft’ targets, as Fischer himself notes. It was the scale rather than the direction of Stormtrooper violence that disturbed Hitler and his respectable allies. This is an important dimension, which Fischer relegates too readily to the margin of his account. However we compute the social composition of the Brownshirt membership, the SA’s role within the overall seizure and consolidation of power surely deserves more attention than it receives here. Most disappointing of all perhaps, we learn surprisingly little about the ambiguous but crucial relationship between Brownshirts and Army in 1933-34 and beyond.

Both Kater and Fischer are centrally concerned with the presence of different occupational groups in their respective organisations, and both try to bind this information together by exploring the attitudes to be found among members of those groups. Kater performs those operations with painstaking care, but his book has a somewhat invertebrate quality. Fischer is more fluent and single-minded, but pays a price for this in range and balance. Both books share problems which have to be set against their considerable merits. They sometimes succumb to a certain formalism in processing their socio-economic categories, and what often seems to be absent is a sense of the broader pattern, of how occupational identities and attitudes were mutually related. This is not a crusty rejection of the quantification which both employ: indeed the curious feature of these works is the way in which an impressionistic and rather old-fashioned use of biographical detail and direct quotation fills so much of the space between the statistics. The message seems to be that once we have got the hard facts sorted out, history can be written as if it was exactly what contemporaries said and thought it was. To which it might be objected that history should encompass the effects of historical actions as well as the intentions of historical actors.

When we talk about the advent of a National Socialist regime in Germany, it is certainly important to show how the Nazis acquired an active following of members and voters. But we should also be prepared to talk about more oblique and indirect reasons for Nazi success, and to do so in terms of institutions as well as aggregates of individuals. A number of contributors to the Stachura collection have valuable points to make along these lines. John Conway offers a sensitive account of the German Churches after 1918, showing how they were unwilling and unprepared to meet the challenge posed by the republic, and came to see Hitler as a bulwark against Communism and as a national saviour. Dick Geary provides an excellent introduction to the problem of the industrial élite and the Nazis. The main issue here is not who financed Hitler, or even the active sympathy of some individual industrialists for National Socialism. This is the smoking gun theory of big business and Nazism, and Geary argues effectively against historians who have posed the problem in these terms. He follows the arguments of recent writers like Abraham and Weisbrod in showing how crucial sections of the industrial élite wanted rid of Weimar and came to see some kind of accommodation with Hitler as the only solution.

Above all, coal, iron and steel interests, the heavy metal groups, had been opposed to the republic from the outset. Suffering from overproduction, international competition and high labour costs, they were hostile to the trade-union rights, compulsory arbitration and welfarism that Weimar represented. With the advent of the depression they undermined efforts at reconciliation between capital and labour and made an important contribution to the overthrow of parliamentary government. The more ‘progressive’ branches – chemicals, electrics, finishing industries – which were less labour-intensive, lost the political initiative they had briefly possessed within the industrialists’ ranks. And even they became less conciliatory and pro-republican as the crisis deepened. Only a few individuals actively supported Hitler: but dissatisfaction with the regimes of Brüning, Papen and Schleicher narrowed the political options. It became increasingly possible to imagine and to tolerate a coalition government which included Hitler, in order to dismantle the welfare and labour legislation of Weimar and restore both markets and profitability.

Very different in style but equally illuminating is Michael Geyer’s subtle and glancing account of relations between the Reichswehr and National Socialism. Geyer teases out the ‘partial identity of interest’ between the two, making telling observations on every interpretation advanced by historians on the subject since Wheeler-Bennett. He considers the Army’s fear of revolution, its alienation from Weimar, the issue of rearmament, Schleicher’s efforts to ‘tame’ Hitler, and the overall mentality of the officer corps, which, as Geyer has convincingly shown elsewhere, was simply not ‘feudal-traditional’. His account is appropriately labelled ‘Etudes in Political History’, and its serpentine brilliance repays more than one reading. The central paradox he demonstrates is that the rupture of political legitimacy in the last years of the republic sucked the Reichswehr into politics in a way which threatened to be counter-productive. By December 1932 or January 1933, ‘the Reichswehr was faced with its most difficult choice since 1923: in order to achieve what it wanted (rearmament), it had to give up what it had (its prominent but self-destructive position in politics).’ The advent of Hitler enabled this circle to be squared.

The many admirable essays in Stachura’s volume make it a valuable collection. I had two principal regrets. In his introduction and in two further essays, the editor resists few opportunities to lay about the work of other historians with a sometimes embarrassing savagery. This is disagreeable in itself, and it also prompts the question: who edits the editor? Secondly, no essay in the volume deals explicitly with the problem of resistance to the ‘seizure of power’, although a number of contributors address the question indirectly, especially in dealing with the Army, industry and the Churches. But what of the Left, and the lack of effective resistance from social democrats (SPD), Communists (KPD) and trade unions? That is the subject at the heart of Eve Rosenhaft’s lucid and original study of the KPD in Berlin. Many historians have drawn attention to the adverse effect on working-class resistance of the KPD’s dogmatism, particularly in following the orthodoxy of the Comintern’s notorious ‘third period’, which branded the social democrats as ‘social fascists’. This, together with the SPD’s own exaggerated legalism, reinforced working-class political disunity in the face of the Nazis.

But Stalinist diktat was only a part of the story: weakness and disunity had their roots in Germany’s own circumstances. They were a product of historical differences between SPD and KPD which were heightened by the last years of Weimar. Unemployment affecting a third of the labour force not only undermined the possibility of anti-Fascist strike action: it also tended to cow those with jobs, setting employed against unemployed in ways with which we are once again becoming familiar. The fact that perhaps 85 per cent of KPD members were unemployed also helps to explain the shifting focus of radical working-class discontent away from the increasingly irrelevant private employer, towards the crumbling public-welfare edifice of Weimar, frequently identified with and manned by social democrats. The location of Communist anti-Fascism in the neighbourhood rather than the factory is central to Rosenhaft’s taut and scrupulous account. She shows how long-term social change and the impact of the economic crisis combined to make the neighbourhood Kietz the chosen territory of physical resistance by the young Communist workers of Red Berlin.

At this level, self-defence meant fighting the traditional police enemy, resisting the eviction of tenants by landlords and organising ‘cashless’ or ‘proletarian shopping trips’; it also meant disputing control of the streets and taverns with the Brownshirts. The problem was the tendency for the street fighting to develop beyond the control of the party, eclipsing broader political activity. Trapped between a repressive semi-legality and the territorial imperatives of its own macho rank and file, the KPD leadership found it impossible to transform self-defence into political offence. Characteristic of the KPD dilemma was the matter of guns. Leadership attempts to limit the use of firearms by the Red Front Fighters failed, with the result that members ‘played wild-west with them and blasted around quite senselessly in world history’.

Rosenhaft succeeds in combining theoretical analysis with insight into street politics. Her critique of Communist political strategy is all the more convincing because it does not – for once – depict merely an arid disputation about how many monopoly capitalists could dance on the head of a pin. Yet she is also able to illuminate the social structure revealed by the murder of Horst Wessel, the Brownshirt ex-student who lived with a prostitute and was in conflict with local pimps backed by an organised crime syndicate, and with his landlady, the widow of a Communist.