How Popular was the Third Reich?

by Michael H. Kater

Ian Kershaw. Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983. xv, 425 pages.

In the social history of Nazism and the Third Reich, studies that are informed by a desire to examine the attitude of entire social groups to the Nazi phenomenon over time are still relatively scarce. Ever since official Nazi reports about the "mood" of the German population at any given time, authored by the Security Service (SD) of the SS or regional administrative offices (Landratsamter), became available for research in the archives, historians have attempted to probe into the mystery of the popular affection or disaffection for the Nazi dictatorship. Two kinds of studies have been published. There have been editions of the periodic public opinion reports, which let those texts speak for themselves and keep any annotative or interpretative comments to a minimum. If felicitously presented, the accounts have served as primary source material for further analysis. A fine early example is the collection of SD dossiers edited by the West German federal archivist Heinz Boberach; recently, Boberach has published these dossiers in their entirety. The public opinion reports were national in scope; regional reports filed by diverse official agencies, such as the police presidiums, have also been printed, for example those for the province of Pomerania in Prussia edited by Robert Thevoz and other West Berlin archivists.

Other editions of this kind have become available, some about the two institutionalized churches in Germany, but these have hardly scratched the surface. I know of further vast materials in many regional West German archives and, of course, in the Federal Archive in Koblenz, which are of a semi- official or official nature, written by all manner of Nazi bureaucrats and waiting to be tapped by historians. To mention only three: At the regional level, there are situation reports (Stimmungsberichte) penned by police officials for Westphalia in the Munster Staatsarchiv, and systematic reports by the Reichsnahrstand, located in the Wolfenbiittel Staatsarchiv that reflect the mood of farmers in Brunswick county. At the national level, but touching on the various regions, there is a hitherto totally neglected, powerfully emotive series of reports, many of them relating to the female segment of the Reich population, which were sought out, collated, and centrally issued in the Berlin office of the Reich Women's Leader Gertrud Scholtz-Klink. They are now available in the Koblenz Federal Archive.

The second type of study that evolved in the early to mid-1960s was based on some of the sources described above and was monographic. A pioneering and still useful specimen is the work of the Swiss historian Marlis G. Steinert on the feelings of the German population during World War 11 (Hitlers Krieg und die Deutschen). Relying on national SD reports, Steinert traced the popular opinion pattern from the people's enthusiasm over the successful beginnings of war to their disenchantment with the leadership. One of the disadvantages of Steinert's book was her unsystematic treatment of German society in terms of any perceived or real class structure. But then, at the time she wrote her study, it still had not become common to attempt a differentiation of the phenomenon of Nazi mass appeal through a qualified stratification of German society from 1933 to 1945. Or rather, efforts in this direction, i.e., toward inquiries that would lead to an analysis of German society before Hitler's assumption of power, made for instance by scholars such as Theodor Geiger, efforts that presupposed class differences in political behavior during formally democratic times, had been forsaken after 1945. The monolithic totalitarian model was applied equally to the governors and the governed of the Third Reich.

If one conceived of the Nazi rulers as a structurally homogeneous body (and the war experience alone would prompt outside critics to do so), then their subjects must have been likewise. Not until the seminal work of Ralf Dahrendorf, who re-introduced sociological perspective into the historiography of the recent German past in his celebrated Democracy and Society in Germany, and William Sheridan Allen's no-less-famous case history of Northeim, recently re-edited, was class delineation observed by historians in an effort to decide whether Nazism had touched all German social groups evenly and for what spans of time. The new approach became strikingly evident in the effort made by David Schoenbaum in his now classic study, Hitler's Social Revolution, in which one segment of the German population was deliberately contrasted with another to gauge the popular appeal of Nazi rule; at the same time, Schoenbaum delved into motivations and asked what general changes in society were wrought from 1933 to 1939. Unfortunately, this American scholar elected to stop at the beginning of the war, so that the "revolutionary" potential of the drawn-out conflict on the German people could not be assessed.

In his important new book, historian Ian Kershaw, of the University of Manchester, addresses this and other issues. Kershaw has published several articles and one previous monograph in German on the sentiments of ordinary people during the Third Reich, in peace as well as war, toward the political changes generated by Hitler and his cronies (notably as they affected the institutionalized church and German Jewry). In this book, Kershaw sets out once more to provide an analysis of the reactions of German Volksgenossen to Nazi governance. This he accomplishes, more completely than anyone has done, by dividing society into sectoral units and by testing upon them, within a sensible time-frame, the influence of various factors: economic, psychological, and religious. His brief but poignant conclusion serves both as a summary of the salient points and as a vehicle for the reconsideration of important ideas first aired by others, such as Schoenbaum's idea regarding abrupt social change after 1933. Kershaw's samples are drawn from Bavaria; the sources, housed in over two dozen Bavarian archives, are those plentiful reports of variegated provenance mentioned earlier. A set of tables, a map of Bavaria, a glossary, and a rich bibliography admirably complement the text.

Kershaw proceeds with a systematic examination of his predefined sections of society against the backdrop of Nazi-generated or Naziregulated impulses, both in peacetime and in war. As social subgroups, Kershaw constructs a model of workers, peasants, middle-class entrepreneurs, (lower) civil servants, and (lower-school) teachers. These he sees directly confronted with several economic developments, but also some political ones which, in the second or third instance, resulted in weighty economic changes. His deliberations are interspersed with examinations of the church issue and the repercussions of Nazi antisernitic legislation within the population. For purposes of the former issue, Bavarian society is bisected into a Protestant and a Catholic half, while for purposes of the latter, the Bavarian populace is treated as an indivisible monolith.

In order to recapitulate the author's findings briefly, one can say that Kershaw, in exemplary fashion, shows how specious was the Nazis' claim over the years to have pacified society and to have closed the pre-existing social gaps. The peasants, for example, were interested merely in their material well-being and ever unable or unwilling to look beyond the nearest church steeple. "Social union" to them was an enigma. When times were good, they tended to favor the regime; in economic crisis, they were apt to denounce it. After Hitler's assumption of power, when the grave consequences of the Great Depression for the rural population had been fairly redressed, peasants were positively inclined toward Hitler's Berlin central government even in traditionally sectionalist Bavaria, where Nazi successes in the Nazis' "Time of Struggle" (1919-1933) had been decidedly slow. But this success was offset again by the ill effects of the Hereditary Estate Law (Erbhofgesetz), which effectively reduced the farmers' creditworthiness along with their horizontal mobility. The war crushed any illusions of an improved situation for farmers by compounding the long-standing labor shortage and complicating the disadvantageous price structures even further, so that overall profits kept falling. Farmers were dismayed at finding themselves drawn into a war they did not understand and could not believe in; toward the end of the conflict, the unpopularity of the regime, especially of the Nazi party, in the Bavarian countryside was legend.

The fortunes of Hitler's dictatorship are traced in similar fashion among the workers, shopkeepers, civil servants, and teachers. Kershaw can corroborate the previous results obtained by Timothy Mason in regard to workers, indicating that they were essentially enemies of the regime and, especially in wartime, wished to have nothing whatever to do with it. In the case of the shopkeepers, Kershaw resumes and further develops the thesis already posited by Heinrich August Winkler, namely that small businessmen were "betrayed" by the Nazi regime after the seizure of power, before which they had had good reason to believe that the fleshpots promised them during the end of the Weimar Republic would finally be at hand. For various reasons, explained in detail, civil servants and teachers also felt let down. Here, too, material motivations seem to have taken precedence over purely ideological ones.

In his treatment of the church issue, Kershaw ably shows that being a pious Catholic or Protestant and a fervent National Socialist at one and the same time not only was not impossible, but was a most credible combination for Bavarians of all walks of life after 1933. This is one of the most important findings of this study; before this, any discussions of the church problem under institutionalized Nazism have implied that, by definition, being fervently Christian was commensurate with being fervently opposed to the Third Reich. In the past, this held true in particular with regard to the Protestant Confessional Church, but Kershaw produces persuasive evidence that a surprisingly high number of Confessionalist Protestants showed Nazi convictions. Problems between church and state that came to have a bearing on the mood of the Christian faithful originated not so much over questions of principle, ideology, or morals, as over jurisdictions. As Catholics are implicitly compared with Protestants, it dawns on the reader that Catholics would have been more beholden to their church than to the state in any major conflict, had one occurred.

Things were somewhat different in regard to the "Jewish question." Pre- 1933 antisemitism, observes Kershaw, while potentially virulent in certain economically defined segments of the population such as shopkeepers, never was a major force in German society and here Kershaw echoes William S. Allen's earlier verdict and parallels the more recent one of Sarah Gordon it certainly did not contribute to the rise of National Socialism and the erection of the Nazi Reich in any meaningful way. (I would differ on the degree of antisemitism and insist on the potency of this sentiment in contributing to the creation of the Third Reich, as I have recently argued in Yad Vashem Studies.) Bavarians were aware of the Nazi measures against Jews from 1933 to 1938, writes Kershaw; and while most did not approve of what they saw and heard (note the boycotts of April 1933!), they also did not interfere. Generally, Goebbels missed his chance to inculcate anti-Jewish feeling into the people after the SA bungled the actions of Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938) through their radical brutality and wanton inhumanity against German Jews. When Jews started to be ghettoized, Germans in Bavaria pretended not to notice, although some may have cheered and others again may have regarded them with pity and even sympathy from a distance. Reactions during the deportations are said to have been similar; ordinary Germans were much too preoccupied with the events of war. (To a large extent, Kershaw's post-1939 findings tally with subjective impressions recorded by contemporaries like Dr. Else Behrend-Rosenfeld, who was almost deported from Munich to the East but survived to write a moving memoir about her experience.)

In the final analysis, I find Kershaw's overall results, at least in part, significantly different from the often-published cliche Lowermiddle-class people did not have to be officially Nazi (i.e., party, SA, or SS members) in order to profess National Socialist sympathies, even Jew-hatred; bonafide Nazis, on the other hand, could very well be regular churchgoers and even act in defense of their bishop. With regard to the lower class, to be sure, Kershaw's portrait does not deviate significantly from that established in recent years: Whatever class Nazism may have derived from, it most emphatically was not a product of the German proletariat.

Like my colleagues, I applaud the appearance of this conscientious work; it will soon be regarded as a mainstay in the field of Nazi and Third Reich studies. I can say this with conviction, for the results of my own research in the past few years while based on somewhat different source materials and intellectual premises are generally in keeping with Kershaw's work. I, too, have found that it is necessary to depart from the cliche-ridden generalizations of the past; a formula that spells out single-class support for Nazism is overdue, for even the lower middle class did not support that movement by itself, as members of other "classes" became involved, and its support was not consistent over time.

I especially agree with Kershaw's judgment that the Nazi regime did not constitute a social revolution in the sense of Schoenbaum's interpretation, for the much-touted Volksgemeinschaft never came into being. In Kershaw's words, there was, "beneath the surface unity of the propaganda image, a remarkably disunited society. Under the propaganda varnish of the 'National Community' [Volksgemeinschaft] old antagonisms continued unabated, heightened even by Nazi social and economic policy, and new ones were added to them. The extent of disillusionment and discontent in almost all sections of the population, rooted in the socioeconomic experience of daily life, is remarkable" (p. 373).

One or two queries, merely for clarification, might be in order. It seems to me that at times Kershaw's picture of a considerable popular dissociation from Nazism becomes so overbearing that one may be tempted to ask who it actually was that supported the Nazis after 1933: only the party hacks? This should lead to a renewed consideration of the workers. Were they really so disinclined toward the regime, especially as the war began? Indeed, figures I have recently collected on the working class do suggest that with the onset of war their loyalty to the regime increased, if judged solely by the party joiners' curve.

Other questions arise from a somewhat different conception of a model for analysis rather than from disagreement over figures and facts. Despite Kershaw's explanations, I still have some difficulty with the assumed representativeness of the Bavarian prototype. Kershaw wishes it to stand for the whole of Germany and adduces good reasons why this could be so: the substantial Protestant minority in a Catholic sea; the reasonable balance between rural and urban settings; the mixed (agrarian-industrial) economy. One might add the male-female ratio, which mirrored, closely enough, the Reich proportions. But Bavaria was untypical for having spawned the Nazi movement early and then, paradoxically, for having fallen behind in its support for the dictatorship. Munich was "Capital of the Movement," but, along with Hamburg (as Kershaw showed in his first book), was consistently below the national large- city average in pro-Nazi enthusiasm. Nuremberg, on the other hand, was home to one of the most (popularly?) entrenched Gauleiter (Streicher) and host to the (popular?) party rallies, at least in peacetime. Surely, above and beyond Kershaw's references to nationally based literature and Federal Archive holdings, the typicality of Bavaria could have been more firmly established through a comparison with small, systematically constructed subsamples taken from north or middle Germany. Two or three countermodels would have sufficed; materials for these abound in the central and regional archives.

In addition, I would have preferred a somewhat more rigorously designed social model. With all its good history, there is simply not enough sociology in Kershaw's book. Without nit-picking I would like to submit that Kershaw uses somewhat loose criteria in the delineation of his social groupings. He defines the lower middle class (shopkeepers, civil servants, and teachers) broadly as Mittelstand, thereby avoiding a more precise characterization (unterer Mittelstand?; alter Mittelstand?; neuer Mittelstand?). While he most definitely does not mean oberer Mittelstand, he chooses on at least two occasions to extend his purview to members of the upper middle class, or social elite, namely, by implication, certain obere Beamte and upper-school teachers (pp. 118-19), and, again, jurists and judges, who always had a university education and were traditionally part of the administrative creme (pp. 326-27). It is also not clear why Kershaw consistently treats peasants as outside the lower-middle-class pale (as if they were a separate class!), and why he has chosen to disregard, within the conventionally defined lower middle class, the white-collar workers, to the study of whom, incidentally, a doctoral thesis at Bielefeld University has recently been dedicated. Furthermore, a proper differentiation between shopkeepers as artisans (Handwerksmeister) on the one hand and as small-time merchants (Kaufleute) on the other is also missing: is either group a priori assumed to be identical with the other? And what, exactly, is the definition of "workers" or "lower class" in this period, or are we to be guided by the less than systematic matrix laid out by Mason and others? Because Kershaw prefers sectional or horizontal definitions of his groupings to hierarchical or vertical ones, it is impossible to evaluate the Nazi-related sentiments that captivated them in connection with any potentially operative social mobility mechanisms. Neither is it entirely clear why Kershaw has elected to omit the members of the social elite (that is, the educated and the wealthy) from his study, even though this reviewer is fully aware of the difficulties inherent in delimiting the members of this social layer beyond any substantial doubts. And finally, in the treatment of the "Jewish problem," it would have been interesting, if not imperative, to see how popular (Bavarian) opinion of the Jews could conceivably have been class-specific.

But these are minor criticisms, or, more precisely, points on a list of desiderata geared to my own current interests in socio-historic research. They cannot detract from the overall value of this book, which, it is hoped, will lead to a plethora of emulations for different regions of Germany. After having written two significant studies on public or popular opinion in the Third Reich, both based on a Bavarian scenario, perhaps Ian Kershaw should now be encouraged to tackle a work on the larger, national scene. If undertaken, it is likely to be a long and arduous project, but generations of social historians will thank him.

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