World War II, and specifically, Nazi Germany, has been a fascination of mine since I was young enough to read. The main attraction has always been the question of how an apparent civilized and developed people could be led to commit such horrors. What eventually led to the rationalizations necessary to completely disregard human dignity and commit atrocities? And how could such a large part of the population get fooled by populist rhetoric? These are huge and complex questions that have been written about extensively, and I do not pretend to answer this fully at this time, but I would like to describe a few steps that I think are important to remember.
First, Hitler’s extreme ideas were known from the start.
Let’s start with Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, which he dictated in prison after the failed Putsch in Munich in 1923. One of the big lessons he learned after he was released from prison after having served only 9 months, was that his road to power would have to be realized through legitimate means instead of through revolutionary ones. Hitler’s ‘March on Rome’ (in his case Munich) failed, and he set out to conquer the hearts and minds of the German people instead. His eventual rise to power in 1933 brought his book, written almost 10 years earlier, back from obscurity. How did people perceive the book now that Hitler was in power, it being very explicit about his intentions? Historian David Cesarani wrote the following about how ‘Mein Kampf’ was perceived by foreign (English) diplomats:
“So, a perusal of Mein Kampf gave the reader in 1933 a sense of who Hitler was and the intensity of his hostility to Jews, but how reliable was it as a guide to his current thinking of future actions? In October 1930, Sir Horace Rumbold [Britisch Ambassador to Berlin from 1928 to 1933] summed up the Nazi programme as ‘striving for a greater, better, cleaner and less corrupt Germany’. His successor, Sir Eric Phipps, doubted that Hitler would adhere to positions ‘expressed with such incredible violence in a work written in a Bavarian prison ten years ago.’ Both men believed that Hitler was consistent about the Jews although they were equally convinced that in general he had moderated his views. Hence, Hitler’s early life and career were not necessarily predictors of what he would do once he was in a position of power.”1
Many German people thought similarly, tragically. Despite this common sentiment, historian Richard Evans describes very clearly that to actually read Mein Kampf gives a very clear picture of Hitler’s ideology:
“Those people who read it, probably a relatively small proportion of those who bought it, must have found it difficult to gain anything very coherent out of its confused melange of autobiographical reminiscences and garbled political declamations. Hitler’s talent for winning hearts and minds lay in his public oratory, not in his writing. Still, no one who read the book could have been left in any doubt about the fact that Hitler considered racial conflict to be the motor, the essence of history, and the Jews to be the sworn enemy of the German race, whose historic mission it was, under the guidance of the Nazi Party, to break their international power and annihilate them entirely. ‘The nationalization of our masses’, he declared, ‘will succeed only when, aside from all the positive struggle for the soul of our people, their international poisoners are exterminated.'”
“Hitler’s beliefs were clearly laid out in My Struggle, for all to see who wished to. No one familiar with the text could have emerged from reading it with the view that all Hitler wanted was the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, the restoration of the German borders of 1914 or the self-determination of German speaking minorities in Central-Europe. Nor could anyone have doubted the visceral, fanatical, indeed murderous quality of antisemitism. But beliefs and intentions are not the same as blueprints and plans.”2
They might not have been blueprints exactly, as the question of how he was to accomplish what he had written remained very unclear. Even when he was in power, things didn’t develop according to some well organized masterplan. As historian David Cesarani explains:
“…persecution of the Jews became ancillary to making war. Their fate would be determined more by Machtpolitiek – the setting and achievement of geo-strategic goals by diplomacy or force of arms – than by Judenpolitik. To be sure, Hitler’s Jew hatred, shared by his inner circle and echoed by the Nazi party, commingled with the aspiration to make Germany into a great power; but it was not a driving force in and of itself. Rather, Germany’s economic exigencies, strategic priorities, military successes and setbacks would decisively influence how Jews were treated.”3
Victor Klemperer, who’s journals covering the period of the Third Reich are used extensively by historians, wrote a letter to a former pupil of his, Hans Hirche, in 1947 who had been a major in the Wehrmacht and now asked for Klemperer’s help in finding a new job now that the war was over. Hirche maintained that he was innocent of any atrocities committed by the Germans during the war. Klemperer responded that “you and all the others must have known what crazy criminals you were serving, what unthinkable cruelties you stood up for and made possible by your loyalty.” He continued: “Hadn’t one of you read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where all that was later carried out had been planned in advance with shameless openness? And were all these murders, all these crimes, wherever one looked, only evident to us—I do not only mean the Jews, but all the persecuted?”4
‘Planned’ might be an overstatement, but to anyone who went through the effort of actually reading the book, Hitler’s ideology would have been quite clear. If anything, it wasn’t taken seriously enough, as was apparent by the responses of the two British ambassadors in Berlin quoted earlier.
Add to this the poignant review of George Orwell, after reading Mein Kampf in 1940, who stated that “simply on the internal evidence of Mein Kampf, it is difficult to believe that any real change has taken place in Hitler’s aims and opinions. When one compares his utterances of a year or so ago with those made fifteen years earlier, a thing that strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way in which his world-view doesn’t develop. It is the fixed vision of a monomaniac and not likely to be much affected by the temporary manoeuvres of power politics.”5
Second, the gradual saturation of the German people with Nazi ideology was to a large extent a result of well executed propaganda. Historian Richard Evans described the process as follows:
“Propaganda, he [Hitler] learned …, must always be directed at the masses:
“All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be…. The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want them to understand by your slogan.”
And it had to appeal to the emotions rather than to reason, because: ‘The people in their overwhelming majority are so feminine by nature and attitude that sober reasoning determines their thoughts and actions far less than emotion and feeling.’ Finally, propaganda had to be continuous and unvarying in its message. It should never admit a glimmer of doubt in its own claims, or concede the tiniest element of right in the claims of the other side.”6
Hitler stated that “the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no succes unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for succes.”7
It worked. Of course the people who would end up forming the ideological core of the Nazi movement needed very little encouragement to accept the doctrines, but even among ordinary Germans who didn’t necessarily consider themselves part of the movement, the constant propaganda had a noticeable impact on public opinion. Young impressionable people were an especially easy target and participated in large numbers in the different pogroms against first the Communist and (more and more) the Jews, as the Nazi’s Judenpolitik took shape. One telling example of a young lady’s reaction to Kristallnacht [the night of broken glass] on 9-10 November 1938 shows how young people were enamored with and indoctrinated by Nazi ideology.
“Melita Maschmann, who was working in the press and propaganda office of the Bund deutscher Mädel in Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, attended a demonstration outside the town hall on 9 November. The next day she travelled to Berlin where she saw the shattered windows of Jewish stores and shops. ‘I said to myself: The Jews are the enemies of the new Germany. Last night they had a taste of what this means. Let us hope that Western Jewry, which has resolved to hinder Germany’s “new steps to greatness” will take the events of last night as a warning. If the Jews sow hatred against us all over the world, they must learn that we have hostages for them in our hands.’ This was the Volksgemeinschaft in action.”8
This indoctrination was affecting everyone, as historian David Cesarani explains that “highly educated and humane Germans were just as prone to seeing Jews in the light of anti-Jewish stereotypes. Konrad Jarausch, a teacher and co-editor of a Protestant theological journal, was called up in 1939 and served as a sergeant in a reserve security division. On the way to manage a POW camp at the end of September 1939 he remarked in a letter to his wife that ‘the Jews have filled the scene with their miserable seediness. How squalid and pathetic. How sordid they are in their wretched humanity.’ Although Jarausch regarded the Jews as human, he could not help seeing them as anything other than dirty and furtive.”9
Another aspect that influenced the German people, on top of the Nazi propaganda, were their prevailing prejudices:
“Victor Klemperer catalogued the growing acceptance of Nazism with a mixture of fascination, disbelief and horror. He observed how the traditional prejudices of ordinary Germans formed a bridge to the regime and eased their acquiescence. In October 1936, the local librarian, Fraulein Roth, visited him after he was banned from using the facility. She was ‘vehemently opposed to the Nazis’ but conceded that some of their anti-Jewish measures were fine. She told him ‘”If they had expelled the Eastern Jews or had excluded Jews from the bench, that at least would have been comprehensible.”‘ To her their offense was not that they abrogated the civil and human rights of innocent citizens; they just went to far. A year later and Klemperer detected how the idea of the Volksgemeinschaft [people’s community] had become common sense, bringing with it the exclusion of certain groups without the need for conscious hatred. He noted the case of a man who was no ‘Jew-Hater’ but articulated National Socialist ideas unthinkingly. ‘About the necessity of the community of the people, of distinct races; of the identity of the law and power, of the unquestionable superiority of the new German army… of the need to repel Communism… the man is quite unaware of how much of a National Socialist he is… I said to myself once again, that Hitlerism is after all more deeply and firmly rooted in the nation and corresponds more to the German nature than I would like to admit.’”10
Third, the apparent religious nature of the Hitler cult is undeniable. As historian Richard Overy explained in comparing the former Soviet Union with Hitler’s Third Reich, that “cults are conventionally religious rather than political phenomena. In both Germany and the Soviet Union the distinction between the two became blurred in the public mind. The Hitler cult was the more self-consciously religious of the two. Hitler was described either as a god himself, or a gift from god. Alois Spaniel, a party leader from the Saar, described Hitler as ‘a new, a greater and a more powerful Jesus Christ’. The Church minister Hans Kerrl described Hitler as ‘the real Holy Ghost’. Among the thirty-point programme of the pro-National Socialist German Christian movement, set up in 1933, could be found the following:
“the greatest written document of our people is the book of our Führer, Mein Kampf. [The movement] is completely aware that this book incorporates not only the greatest, but also the purest and truest ethics for the present life of our people.”
The National Socialist movement developed its own liturgy, complete with creed, baptism and marriage service. Small ‘Hitler altars’ were set up in public places and private homes, like the Lenin Corners of the Soviet cult.”11
Once Nazi ideology had firmly taken root in Germany, the Nazi movement did everything it could to reinforce those beliefs, to keep the hearts and minds of the people pointed to their Führer. Michael Shermer, in his book ‘The believing brain’ explains this process as follows:
“Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.”12
Mass meetings, or rallies, were one important way to gain new converts and reinforce Nazi ideology and the Hitler cult. They were filmed and shown in theaters all around Germany so everyone could experience the atmosphere that was so carefully created. Leni Riefenstahl’s ’Triumph of the Will’ is one well known propaganda film of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally. Hitler himself described the religious nature, and function of mass meetings and rallies, for which he was (in)famous as follows:
“The mass meeting is also necessary for the reason that in it the individual, who at first, while becoming a supporter of a young movement, feels lonely and easily succumbs to the fear of being alone, for the first time gets the picture of a larger community, which in most people has strengthening, encouraging effect. The same man, within a company or a battalion, surrounded by all his comrades, would set out on an attack with a lighter heart than if left entirely on his own. In the crowd he always feels somewhat sheltered, even if a thousand reasons actually argue against it.
But the community of the great demonstration not only strengthens the individual, it also unites and helps to create an esprit de corps. The man who is exposed to grave tribulations, as the first advocate of a new doctrine in his factory or workshop, absolutely needs that strengthening which lies in the conviction of being a member and fighter in a great comprehensive body. And he obtains an impression of this body for the first time in the mass demonstration. When from his little workshop or big factory, in which he feels very small, he steps for the first time into a mass meeting and has thousands and thousands of people of the same opinion around him, when, as a seeker, he is swept away by three of four thousand others into the mighty effect of suggestive intoxication and enthusiasm, when the visible succes and agreement of thousands confirm to him the rightness of the new doctrine and for the first time arouse doubt in the truth of his previous conviction — then he himself has succumbed to the magic influence of what we designate as ‘mass suggestion.’ The will, the longing, and also the power of thousands are accumulated in every individual. The man who enters such a meeting doubting and wavering leaves it inwardly reinforced: he has become a link in the community.”13
Lets examine a little closer the process Hitler describes here. First the “strengthening” and “encouraging” effect mass meetings had on individuals who are fairly new to the movement and getting an instant sense of community. Second, it unites and helps create an esprit de corps [the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and strong regard for the honor of the group]. Third, he describes the effects the meeting should have on the “seeker” as he or she ought to be “swept away by three of four thousand others into the mighty effect of suggestive intoxication and enthusiasm.” Fourth, the mass of like minded people create the confirmation of the correctness of the new doctrine and create the doubt necessary to discard his or her previous conviction. The confirmation of the new doctrines therefore should only be validated by ones emotions and feelings, instead of by reason and facts (as quoted earlier). And fifth, the seeker has now “succumbed to the magic influence” of what Hitler designated “as ‘mass suggestion.” And last, sixth, a mass meeting like this is designed to eliminate doubt, and should leave the individual “inwardly reinforced.”
Being swept away by “suggestive intoxication and enthusiasm” and to eventually “succumb to the magic influence” of “mass suggestion” sounds like a recipe of disaster, and it was, because it worked on large numbers of people. The positive feedback loop, mentioned by Michael Shermer, keeps confirming the newly acquired beliefs by adding emotional boosts of confidence. Mass meetings and rallies were instrumental in Hitler winning the hearts and minds of the people. It enabled him to build up his own personality cult and enchant his audience by the tightly orchestrated experiences they were designed to be.
This enchantment wasn’t lost on correspondent William L. Shirer, who described visiting one such mass meeting in Nuremberg in 1934. ”I’m beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler’s astonishing success,” he wrote in his journal. He continued:
“Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans. This morning’s opening meeting in the Luitpold Hall on the outskirts of Nuremberg was more than a gorgeous show; it also had something of the mysticism and religious fervour of an Easter of Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral.”14
Another vivid example of one of these rallies was written down by American journalist Virginia Cowles:
“As the time for the Führer’s arrival drew near, the crowd grew restless. The minutes passed and the wait seemed interminable. Suddenly the beat of the drums increased and three motor-cycles with yellow standards fluttering from their windshield raced through the gates. A few minutes later a fleet of black cars rolled swiftly into the arena: in one of them, standing in the front seat, his hand outstretched in the Nazi salute, was Hitler.
Then Hitler began to speak. The crowd hushed into silence, but the drums continued their steady beat. Hitler’s voice rasped into the night and every now and then the multitude broke into a roar of cheers. Some of the audience began swaying back and forth, chanting ‘Sieg Heil’ over and over again in a frenzy of delirium. I looked at the faces around me and saw tears streaming down people’s cheeks.”15
And fourth, how the Nazi ideology and regime reshaped peoples perception of reality.
The way this was accomplished was part of the propaganda effort already mentioned. According to Hannah Arendt, while speaking about totalitarian movements, “ideological thinking becomes emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a “truer” reality concealed behind all perceptible things, dominating them from this place of concealment and requiring a sixth sense that enables us to become aware of it. The sixth sense is provided by precisely the ideology, that particular ideological indoctrination which is taught by the educational institutions, established exclusively for this purpose, to train the “political soldiers” in the Ordensburgen [National Socialist order or schooling castles] of the Nazis…” She continued that ”the propaganda of the totalitarian movement also serves to emancipate thought from experience and reality; it always strives to inject a secret meaning into every public, tangible event and to suspect a secret intent behind every public political act. Once the movements have come to power, they proceed to change reality in accordance with their ideological claims. The concept of enmity is replaced by that of conspiracy, and this produces a mentality in which reality—real enmity or real friendship—is no longer experienced and understood in its own terms but is automatically assumed to signify something else.”16
Hitler propagated this idea in Mein Kampf where he stated that “the function of propaganda is, for example, not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”17
By not making objective studies of the truth and consequently letting those truths be judged by the peer review process which is essential in the scientific method, people’s sense of reality will change. What used to be real, is no longer so, and is replaced by the dictates of the ideology which task is to exclusively ”emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for.”
In conclusion, the four points I have mentioned are just part of the tragic story that enabled a civilized country to disregard human dignity and become (in large numbers) willing participants in one of the worst crimes in history. Hitler’s book Mein Kampf was very clear about Hitler’s intentions but was not taken seriously. The gradual indoctrination of the German people, by well executed propaganda and by reinforcing existing prejudices, combined with the religious nature of the movement and creating a false sense of reality by replacing objective reality with ”pageantry and colour and mysticism” lead to the destruction of Germany and large parts of Europe and an incredible loss of lives. This process started gradually and most people never would have thought during the nineteen twenties and thirties it would have resulted in what the Third Reich is now infamous for.
1. Cesarani, David; Final solution p.16-17
2. Evans, Richard; The Coming of the Third Reich p.196-197
3. Cesarani, David; Final solution p.145-146
4. Johnson, Daniel, (2000) ’What Victor Klemperer saw’
5. Orwell, George (1940); The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 2
6. Evans, Richard; The Coming of the Third Reich p.168
7. Hitler, Adolf; Mein Kampf p.184
8. Cesarani, David; Final solution p.198
9. Cesarani, David; Final solution p.248
10. Cesarani, David; Final solution p.137-138
11. Overy, Richard; The Dictators p.120
12. Shermer, Michael; The Believing Brain
13. Hitler, Adolf; Mein Kampf p.478-479
14. Evans, Richard; The Third Reich in Power p.124-125
15. Overy, Richard; The Dictators p.110-111
16. Arendt, Hannah; The Origins of Totalitarianism p.470-471
17. Hitler, Adolf; Mein Kampf p.182