How can it be explained that Nazism made real, if partial, inroads into wider German Society? (by Joshua Arbury)

How can it be explained that Nazism made real, if partial, inroads into wider German Society? (by Joshua Arbury)

It cannot be doubted that Nazi Germany was the most destructive political regime of the 20th century, not only because it unleashed World War II or instigated the holocaust but because of its impact on German society. The extent of this impact has been extensively debated by various historians, leading to a spectrum of opinions ranging from Marxist perspectives that emphasise a strengthening of class structures within German society, therefore concluding that Nazi Germany had a reactionary impact on Germany society , to that of liberal historians who claim that the modernisation which took place in Nazi Germany, along with a change in ‘subjective social reality’ is good evidence that a revolution of class and status occurred. General historiographical consensus leans towards the latter of these two arguments, although there is evidence of social continuation throughout the regime. If one concludes that Nazism did have an impact on German society then why were these social changes able to happen? While it is obvious that National Socialists used terror to achieve social policy, the level of support for Nazism was so great that terror alone could not explain the inroads made into wider German society. Propaganda, foreign policy success, the economic recovery of Germany from the Great Depression, as well as Nazism’s promise to create an ordered society for the majority of Germans appealed to a vast portion of the German population, who had been traumatised by the 1929-32 economic crisis as well as the contradictions of modern capitalism. Above all else, Nazism was allowed to make inroads into German society by the German public because it was accepted as the best possible political system to meet the needs of security, sensual satisfaction and social aspiration.

Assessing the social impacts of Nazism on German society is a complex task, much of which is caused by the internal contradictions of Nazi ideology. The extent, nature and mere existence of Nazi inroads into German society have been fiercely debated over the past 40 years, with little agreement being reached among various historians. Various factors make this task even more difficult: distinguishing between the social impact of World War II and that caused by Nazi policy; the argument that most of the social change occurring under Nazism was in the ‘subjective social reality’ (changes to attitudes, psyche and mentality of the population, which can be very difficult to analyse). Therefore it is to be expected that there are many interpretations of the question ‘to what extent did Nazism make real if partial inroads into wider German society?’ Marxist analysis stresses the continuities between Wilhelmine Germany and Nazi Germany such as a desire in Nazi ideology for a return to ‘blood and soil’, asserting that ‘Nazism was the dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of the German ruling class.’ This interpretation also distinguishes between the social base and the social function of Nazism, claiming that although it was a lower-middle class movement, the regime consistently betrayed their followers in the interests of big business. Obviously there are some major flaws in this argument, the most glaring being a contradiction between the betrayal of the masses and their continued support, as well as ‘the break with tradition and thus a strong push towards modernity’, which many see as a crucial Nazi policy.

In contrast, analysis by liberal-democratic historians such as Ralf Dahrendorf and David Schoembaum claims that Nazism had a profound effect on German society, to the extent that a ‘social revolution’ occurred, as Germany effectively became a classless society with unprecedented social mobility. The aim of Nazism to ‘overcome the rigid immobility and sterility of the old social order by offering mobility and advancement through merit and achievement, not through inherited social rank and birth right’ can be seen as highly revolutionary, although many social ideals held by the Nazi movement were crushed in 1934 during the ‘Night Of Long Knives’ purge of Ernst Rohm and SA leaders. Therefore any conclusion that a genuine ‘social revolution’ occurred in Germany is fraught with danger; education remained the domain of the elite and the workers’ situation hardly improved under Nazism as terror was introduced to many factories to ensure that production levels remained high. As neither ‘social revolution’ nor ‘social reaction’ can really explain the impact of National Socialism on German society, the conclusion made by Kershaw that ‘Nazism made real – if partial – inroads into wide sectors of German society’ is the most valid conclusion, as German society in 1939 was different to that of 1933 to a certain extent.

Once it has been established that inroads were made into German society, the more pressing question and the focus of this essay, is to develop an understanding of why this was possible. Nazism has been universally condemned since World War II, but within German during the 1930s it was very popular, especially among the bourgeoisie. Political and social oppression obviously played a role in the manufacturing of public opinion; some historians have termed this the ‘supervision theory’, which states the ‘systems of control, internal espionage and policing in the Third Reich were so efficient that even the faintest attempt at opposition was sure to lead to the concentration camp’. This theory goes some way towards explaining why so few Germans actively opposed the Nazi regime. Another similar argument, referred to as ‘the seduction theory’ emphasises that mass support was generated by ‘sophisticated techniques of fascist mass organisation and the supposed irresistibility of Goebbels’ propaganda.’ Through the Gleichschaltung (Nazification) of broadcasting, the Nazis manipulated the mass production of wireless receivers into a central instrument for ideological and political indoctrination. As the main intention of Nazi social policy was to change the attitudes of the German population, and convince them that the regime was advancing their needs, propaganda was an integral part of the inroads Nazism made into German society. Goebbels’ version of reality became compulsory for any newspaper correspondents, and the whole German media was directed towards supporting the Nazi regime.

Although the ‘supervision theory’ and the ‘seduction theory’ are both valid, and there is no doubt that terror and propaganda played a crucial role in maintaining the regime, they do provide an easy excuse for those who shrank away from any form of resistance against the Nazis. Moreover, the level of active support for the Nazi regime and their social policies cannot be simply explained by these two theories; even the most sophisticated propaganda system or police state could never create such popularity. Therefore the Nazi regime must have appealed to the German population. Analysis of the reasons why Nazism appealed to so many Germans is crucial to explaining why inroads were made into wider German society.

A very important aspect of the Nazi regime which led to popular support was its successful foreign policy, which won considerable approval throughout the general population. Many of the Nazi foreign policies were aimed at refuting the measures imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919. For many Germans the Treaty symbolised all that was wrong with German society, and was a constant humiliation. Policies such as ‘bringing home’ the Saar, remilitarising the Rhineland, reintroducing general conscription, and uniting all Germans (through Anschluss with Austria and occupying the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938) contradicted the restrictions outlined by the Treaty of Versailles, which in part explains the popularity of these policies. The German population had become frustrated with the timorous, compromise-minded and inconsistent foreign policies of the Weimar Republic, Hitler’s foreign policy contrasted with this approach as he pulled off successes through ‘his risk taking, his radicalism, his refusal to compromise and his unswerving purposefulness.’ Propaganda exploited the successes to their fullest, claiming that Germany was becoming a world power once again, and legitimised any violent methods used by referring to the immense success that resulted from them.

Although foreign policy definitely played a significant role in extending the appeal of Nazism and therefore the impacts it had on society, for many Germans there were far more important matters closer to home. Nazi economic policy was a tremendous success, and more than any other single factor, the ‘economic recovery’ of the 1930s allowed the Nazis to implement their policies with popular support. The Great Depression of 1929-32 impacted heavily on the German economy because a significant part of the recovery from 1923 hyperinflation had been funded by American money through short-term loans that could easily be removed if necessary. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, which lead to a depression within the United States, resulted in the withdrawal of much of this money from the German economy. The impact of this situation on the German economy was horrific: at least a third of the population were out of work by 1932 and there was a feeling of mass panic among the population.

As a result of this ‘mass panic’, not only were the Nazis brought to power, as they offered a ‘quick-fix’ for a public that had completely lost confidence in democracy and the free market system, but any minor improvements were hailed as great successes and the regime was credited with achieving an ‘economic miracle’. This was obviously reinforced by propaganda, which portrayed Adolf Hitler as a national hero who had pulled Germany out of the economic crisis, and offset any realisation that only marginal economic improvements had occurred by the late 1930s for many German workers or small business owners. However for the majority of the German population there was economic improvement, unemployment fell from over six million at the height of the depression to 1.6 million by 1936 (although official reports claimed full employment), which contrasted with 24% unemployment in the USA at the same time. Giant public works projects, such as the building of the Autobahn network and rearmament as the 1930s progressed, provided Germans with a source of national pride, as well as supplying thousands of jobs for those who had been unemployed during the Great Depression.

Undoubtedly the notion of ‘recreating national honour’ appealed strongly to the German people. The Nazis fulfilled this desire among the German population through their policy of Volksgemeinschaft, which sought to create a ‘national community’ that was not a return to the past, but a society free of the contradictions and irritations of the modern industrial age. Volksgemeinschaft had particular appeal to the German bourgeoisie, who had been marginalized by the growth of an organised labour movement and large-scale capitalism; small enterprises and workshops were threatened in an era of worsening economic conditions to a greater extent than the increasing numbers of large-scale corporations. The bourgeoisie desired to ‘recapture their traditional place by asserting the interests of the community against the egotistical interests of capital and labour’. This desire appealed so strongly to the bourgeoisie that they were willing to forego the liberal pre-occupation with equality and liberty in the interests of a national community.

Moreover, Nazism appealed to Germans because it could provide a sense of normality after the instability of the Weimar Republic. ‘The normality that people craved thus embraced both regimentation and subservience, and was underpinned by the overt use of force.’ Therefore any act of violence committed by the Nazis, whether directed at Jews, Communists or any dissenting faction of German society, could be legitimised because it was defending Volksgemeinschaft. This led to active and passive consent from the German population, whose attitudes were finely tuned by propaganda that reinforced the need for a national community and therefore the need to eliminate ‘community aliens’.

The story of Nazi successes, whether in foreign policy, economic matters or the creation of a sense of national community helps explain why there was active consent from the German population throughout most of the Nazi regime. However this does not explain why, when the tide began to turn against the Nazis in 1942-3, the German population did not actively resist Nazism; instead there remained widespread passive consent, and only informal resistance. Passive consent consisted of accepting the regime as a given and being prepared to do one’s day-to-day duty. This relied upon a retreat from the public sphere into the private; as a result many Germans were unwilling to act on their private reservations because Nazi Germany had become an un-politicised nation, either willingly as more modern consumer goods than ever became available, or forcibly by the Nazis who wished to create a non-political society because it would be less likely to rebel against their regime.

Although there are many different interpretations concerning the extent of Nazism’s social impact, it does seem very plausible that real, if partial inroads were made into wider German society. There was a significant change in mentality among the general population as well as the creation of a ‘national community, while at the same time basic class structure remained relatively unchanged. These inroads can be explained by the successes of the Nazi regime in the fields of foreign policy increased economic prosperity and political stability, which were manipulated by Nazi propaganda and terror to create a society that either actively supported the regime, or was too afraid to openly resist it. The insecurity and instability of Weimar was replaced by a sense of normality and strong leadership, and for millions of Germans this was worth the violence and injustice of the Nazi regime.


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Kershaw, Ian. ‘The Hitler Myth: Image and reality in the Third Reich’ in David F. Crew (ed.) Nazism and German Society 1933-1945, London, 1994.
Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, London, 2000.
Lambert, P. ‘German Historians and Nazi ideology: The Parameters of the Volksgemeinschaft and the Problems of Historical Legitimation’, European History Quarterly 25, 1995. pp. 555-82.
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