“The Nazi Regime Depended More on its Broad Popularity than on Terror in the Years 1933-39.” How Far Do You Agree with this Statement? (2017), by Sean Gabb

“The Nazi Regime Depended More on its Broad Popularity
than on Terror in the Years 1933-39.”
How Far Do You Agree with this Statement?

Note: One of my duties in the various places where I teach is to show students how to write essays – something most young people are not nowadays taught to do. What I like to do in class is to choose a question at random, discuss possible approaches, and then dictate an answer one paragraph at a time. Some of these answers are very short. Some are just notes. Some amount to small dissertations. In this latter case, the students take turns at looking on-line for the information we decide is needed. It they cannot find it, I show them how to change the structure of what has already been written, or to strike out in a new direction.

It is a “writing masterclass” approach that makes use of my own strengths, and is often a welcome alternative to formal teaching. It fills up a long morning session. Everyone learns something, and the more attentive will improve their final grades by at least one step.

Here is an example of the finished product. Do not take it as a statement of personal opinion. It is an answer produced for a specific question, and it bears in mind what a possibly unknown examiner will appreciate, and what can be written to incorporate the sources found in class. SIG

PS – If anyone wants to engage my services as a teacher of these skills, please click on the image to the left. Though they are my niche subjects, Greek and Latin are not my exclusive focus as a teacher. I do much else besides.


So long as we keep in mind that we are discussing the period before the War, I generally agree with this statement. I see much support for it in Sources 4 and 6. The contrary evidence in Source 5 cannot be denied, but can be put in context.

First, I will compare the Nazi Regime with the other great tyranny of that period. The Stalinist Regime in Russia was openly brutal. It killed millions of people in peacetime. Opposition was not only suppressed wherever found, but was actively sought out, and was even fabricated to keep up a general air of paranoia.

Reasons for this. Russia had a weak tradition of civility. It was going through a radical transformation to a new kind of society. Stalin had played only a small part in the 1917 Revolution, and had competitors with better credentials. Living standards for the people at least failed to rise. Control had to be maintained by open terror.

In Germany, none of these conditions applied. The country had a long tradition of civility, and the Regime’s greatest crimes had to be kept secret to the end. Once the radicals were killed or neutralised in the Night of the Long Knives, German life seemed mostly to be unaltered, except for the better. Again after the NotLK, there was no one to rival Hitler, either as ideological or as political leader. Above all perhaps, the Nazi Regime kept its electoral promises.

Hitler’s main promises before 1933 were:

  1. To end the Great Depression in Germany;
  2. To end political instability and street violence;
  3. To make Germany great again.

He delivered on all of these. In 1933, unemployment was about six million. Within eighteen months, it was down to a few hundred thousand. Throughout the decade, living standards rose sharply, and Germany was transformed by new roads and housing projects and other modern infrastructure. He shut down the Communist Party, and then – again the NotLK – shut down his own contribution to the late-Weimer chaos. Until he went too far, too quickly, with the Polish adventure, his foreign policy was a conspicuous success.

Bearing these things in mind, the Regime was broadly and even wildly popular among the great majority of Germans. Of course, the films of the Nuremberg Rally (1934) and the Olympic Games (1936) were made as propaganda. But Hitler’s immense popularity did not need to be faked. He went about Germany without bodyguards. People gathered to cheer him, and even touch him. If he had called a free election any time before 1939, I see no reason to doubt he would have won a big majority.

For these reasons, there was no need for open terror. As Robert Gellately says, “[m]ost people… had no direct confrontation with the Gestapo.” The bad things done by the Regime were mostly known about by rumour. Indeed, the police state itself enjoyed general support.

E.A. Johnson goes further. He notes that Hitler was seen as on the side of law and order. If you were a homosexual too far out of the closet before 1933, or a Jew unable to cover up your ancestry, or an unrepentant Communist, life was increasingly hard. But most people were none of these things, and most people at least vaguely approved of making life hard for these people. The police state was seen as something that “served their interests.”

Johnson emphasises that the Nazi police state existed, and was sometimes “brutal.” At the same time, it was selective in ways that would have astonished the NKVD in Russia. Unless you were one of the victimised groups, the Regime “often ignored or dismissed expressions of non-conformity and mild disobedience.” Examples of this would be the great tolerance given to famous musicians like Richard Strauss or Wilhelm Furtwangler, who sometimes stood against the anti-Jewish policies, and even refused to give the Nazi salute in public.

It was different with the dissidence in Army circles that was crushed in 1938. Then again, the Regime needed the armed forces to back its aggressive foreign policy. It could look the other way when Furtwangler played Czech music in Prague. The Oster Plot had to be utterly crushed.

As said, Germany had traditions of civility that would not tolerate blanket terror from the outset. Again as said, there was no need for blanket terror. The Regime was a success as reasonably defined. There is no need to terrorise people when the shops are full of things that everyone can afford, and when the post-Versailles map of Europe is being redrawn in Germany’s interest.

Another point worth mentioning is that police states are expensive. Unless a ruler is mad in ways that Hitler does not seem to have been, why bother with omnipresent spying and filling up vast concentration camps, when hardly anyone outside the victimised groups is disinclined from more than vague and occasional grumbling?

Richard Evans takes a darker view of the Regime. He sees a “much wider net of surveillance, terror and persecution.” He notes that every organ of the German State and civil society was made into instruments of surveillance and control. For him, the normality of German life in the 1930s was a purely surface phenomenon. He quotes an “elderly worker” interviewed after the War, who said: “The Third Reich was fear.”

Of course, the Regime kept a general watch on people. Of course, it could be ruthless and brutal when it felt threatened – again, see the Oster Plot. But nothing Evans says of Germany before the War compares with the comprehensive and extreme terror seen in Stalinist Russia. Indeed, the person he quotes may be of little authority. We are not told if the “elderly worker” was within one of the victimised groups, or if he was living when interviewed in East or West Germany. Also, he was interviewed after the souring experience of how the Regime behaved during the War, and after its defeat, when it was at least unwise to express support for it. Trained historians may be able to make sharp distinctions between life in Germany in the first and second halves of the Regime’s existence. For someone of probably limited education, and possibly advanced age, who had personally experienced the whole period, these distinctions may have been harder to make.

My conclusion is that the Nazi Regime was openly evil, and increasingly unpopular, during the second half of its existence, and its evil is plainly evidenced if you look at the first half with the second in mind. At the same time, the Regime relied on – and largely “deserved” – the broad support during the 1930s of a German people who did not know, and could not know, what was coming next. Given this fact, the Regime had no need to replicate in Germany the horrors of Stalinist Russia. And it did not replicate these.

© 2017, seangabb.

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