This issue will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

Hitler’s coming to power in January 1933 is steeped in ambiguity. On one hand, he was the leader of Germany’s largest political party, and was thus selected by Weimar conservatives to run the country and provide unity. On the other hand, the chancellorship was not decided by popular mandate and the Nazis won 33.09% of the votes in November 1932, hardly a majority. Immediately following the war, historians sought to explain Nazi Germany as a totalitarian state with a people firmly controlled from above. This was challenged in the 1960s by the notion of ‘cumulative radicalisation’, whereby Nazism also held to initiatives from below, though historians maintained the ability of the working-class not to engage with Nazism’s ideological message. By the 1980s, however, historians considered Nazi racial ideology as capable of penetrating popular mindsets.

Within this historiographical shift, Michael Burleigh articulated the notion of a Nazi political religion. This ideological framework essentially suggests that the ‘sacralisation of politics’ turned people towards Nazism as a political movement based on faith, abandoning tolerance and uniting a disparate society which had undergone a supposed moral collapse in the years of Weimar. This had a totalising effect, creating a Volksgemeinschaft (national community) based on notions of inclusion and exclusion. The creation of consensus was bound up in an ideological vision of uniting the country. This was particularly appealing in the context of Germany’s significant unemployment problem at the end of the 1920s, which the ‘party bickering’ of Weimar democracy had failed to prevent.

Bourgeois liberal democratic parties were losing face by the early 1930s. People began seeking more radical solutions than democracy was proving to provide them. Nazism was disruptive and powerful as a political contender because, according to Peter Fritzsche, ‘it threatened to overturn the privileged position of social elites while co-opting the gains made by the working-class movement.’ Robert Gellately has devoted himself to the argument that, from 1933, ‘consensus in favour of Hitler and increasingly also Nazism, was virtually never in doubt.’ To Gellately, consent and coercion were interlinked, though coercion was only used on selective minority groups. He emphasises that the initial targets of Nazi coercion were ‘social outsiders’; that is, communists and common criminals. Indeed, in 1933, as many as 2,000 people were detained on political grounds. To Gellately, that people were consistently aware of the repression of social outsiders and remained, at least, passively supportive of the Nazi regime is evidence of consensus. Part of Nazi popularity was creating an inclusive Volksgemeinschaft, where exclusion of outsiders would increase the sense of unity.

This dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion further extended to treatment of Jews. Michael Widlt emphasises that terror was key to the formation of Volksgemeinschaft. The day after the March 1933 elections, people were singing songs about ‘Jewish blood squirting under knives,’ and a nationwide boycott of Jewish stores was organised by the SA. Wildt articulates that the aim of the Nazis was to create social distance between Jews and non-Jews, stigmatising any solidarity and sympathy and creating a racist national unity. Gellately’s suggestion that there was consensus on the Nazis from 1933 would imply that the German population was behind the Holocaust.

The extent to which there was consensus is questionable to say the least. According to Geoff Eley, Michael Burleigh’s writings on ‘political religion’ are firmly influenced by his own contemporary notions of the ‘politics of decency’, revealing his liberal views in the heroic portrayal of the aristocrats of the 1944 July Plot, who put Hitler into power in the first place. Burleigh essentially reiterates the notion of ‘mass society’, which does not account for Germany’s deep political diversities. 

Richard Evans fundamentally questions Gellately’s belief in a consensus. Gellately emphasises that the Nazis only targeted ‘social outsiders’, but the largest group of people imprisoned in the early camps were communists. Far from social outsiders, communists were strongly integrated into working-class communities across Germany. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) gained 18.86% of the vote in November 1932. Gellately furthermore does not give due significance to Nazi violence against the Social Democrats (SDP), who made up 20.43% of the November 1932 vote. 3,000 leading members of the SDP were beaten up, tortured and in some cases killed in June 1933. Many were imprisoned in the early camps. A combined 13.1 million votes went to these workers’ parties, compared with the 11.7 million won by the Nazis. Violent coercion was thus used against extremely popular political parties which many, particularly working-class, Germans had voted for.

Coercion did not just involve outright terror. The Civil Service Law of 7th April 1933 coerced members of Catholic, liberal and conservative political parties to join the Nazi Party by the direct threat of losing their jobs in state employment. Civil service not only included more traditional civil servants but schoolteachers, university staff, prosecutors, policemen, social administrators, post office and public transport officials and more.

The National Socialist vision was attractive to some, particularly the middle classes and peasants, after the chaos of the 1920s. They were able to forge an exclusively inclusive movement steeped in German pride and nationalism. Nevertheless, I am inclined to agree with Richard Evans’ deconstruction of consent. Consent is based on freedom and capacity of choice. Violence was used from the regime’s inception. In this climate, ‘passive consent’ cannot be used to exemplify Nazi consensus. As Evans emphatically writes, ‘a threat of violence is not consent.’

By Elliott Cousins

Image: Heinrich Vogeler, Das Dritte Reich, Gouache, 1934