Letters to Hitler, Henrik Eberle (ed), Polity Press, 259 pp, £20, ISBN 978-0745648736
Two common propositions are found among the numerous English language commentaries on popular support for Nazism in Germany. The first argues that the German people contracted a political and moral virus which became the Nazi plague, a plague that ended only with military defeat and successful denazification after the war; everything, this proposition implies, has been normal since. The second is that the German people are inherently prone to militarism and authoritarianism and thus very dangerous in all circumstances. When Margaret Thatcher voiced her opposition to German reunification, declaring “We beat the Germans twice and now they’re back” she was reflecting this second view. For those who find both positions unsatisfactory, not to say banal, the book under review will be of interest.
After the fall of Berlin, the Russians, having completed a mass rape of the population, removed pretty much everything that wasn’t nailed down and a lot that was. This extended beyond useful industrial and military hardware to include a huge hoard of Nazi paperwork, which has only recently become available to researchers and which includes many letters written to Hitler by ordinary citizens from the 1920s onwards. Although they certainly do not constitute an exhaustive survey of public opinion, we can learn something of German attitudes in general, and towards Nazism in particular, from these letters.
The contemporary reader will be struck by the extreme respect, veneration and emotional enthusiasm the letter writers had for their chancellor: “Esteemed leader”; “ We send our esteemed, beloved leader Adolph Hitler our heartiest wishes for success and happiness.”; “We want only Adolph Hitler as our leader, as the sole strong hand , as dictator.”; “With true German hearts we would like to greet you on your birthday”; “Dear revered Mr Reich Chancellor”; “Beloved leader and Reich Chancellor”; “My supreme leader”; “Our treasured Mr Reich Chancellor”; “Eternal loyalty”; “Heartfelt good wishes and good luck for your dear work”; “Unalterable loyalty”; “In reverence and profound gratitude”; “We pay you homage” and so on.
The tone in general is one of saccharine idiocy and the first impression one of individuals who have willingly and with great psychological relief embraced a process of self-infantilisation. All authority has been transferred to Hitler, who is believed capable of solving not only all of Germany’s problems but also the writers’ own personal problems.
These enthusiasts did not of course represent all of Germany. There is no doubt that a minority ‑ the families of the historian Joachim Fest and of Joseph Ratzinger, for example, had the Nazis’ number taken. Indeed, given settled Nazi policy of visiting violence on opponents, it can be reasonably assumed that significant numbers simply kept their heads down. Those who wrote were almost always people who saw themselves as strong supporters of the Nazis. So, by and large in these letters we are encountering Hitler’s supporters.
Closer reading reveals that a considerable number of writers moved beyond mere expressions of adulation to address or reveal their deeper attitudes on various subjects. And on the evidence of these letters it appears that these supporters of the regime were motivated by concerns quite different from those of the Nazi leadership. And if it is true that this group of letter writing enthusiasts were ideologically poor Nazis, it seems logical that this must have been even more so the case for the population at large.
If asked to describe the central features of the ideological mishmash that made up Nazism, one would naturally refer to its vicious anti-Semitism and to the Nazi idea of a biologically based racial hierarchy, with German Aryans at the top and Jews at the bottom. The Nazi desire for territorial expansion, for Lebensraum, might also be mentioned. But if that’s what Nazism was about these letter writers don’t appear to have known or, if they knew, to have given these principles much weight.
Racial hierarchy is unmentioned as far as I can see. (The book would certainly have benefited from an index.) Of the hundreds of letters included only around a dozen refer to Jews and, where anti-Semitism is involved, it is – with one exception ‑ not couched in the pseudoscientific language of Nazism but rather seems to be a not particularly virulent version of the anti-Semitism found in many European countries at that time. Territorial expansion is a minor theme compared to the desire for peace.
The following letter, from thirty-two-year-old Elsa Walter, a party supporter, conveys views that are confused and in parts unpleasant. However, her thinking and values seem a long way from the Nazi poison which claimed that Jews controlled Britain, the United States and France and that a struggle to the death was necessary between Germany and the Jews, who were the personification of the devil and the human form of all evil.
But if you were to ask me, Adolf Hitler, what is my position with regard to the Jewish question, I would tell you unhesitatingly, in a genuinely womanly way: I pity the Jews, who are undeservedly abused in moral and spiritual ways … They are effusive in their love for women and their otherwise money-grubbing race spends huge amounts of money on its love and inclination for women … I am not disgusted by Jews, but I wouldn’t let one kiss me – my race and my natural feeling refuses to accept that. But one thing, before Jewish men leave German districts for once and for all, I have a request to make of German men: just look at their reverence for woman … because you can still learn something from them in this regard. A Jew really cares for his own, he cares that things go well for them … how beautiful it is to be loved and completely cared for as a woman.
The letters contain a number of negative references to bigwigs, of no specified ethnicity, and Jews. Some writers complained about Jewish commercial practices and their effects on the German middle classes. Others have different gripes. In one letter a woman wrote to complain that her husband had divorced her after twenty years and married a Jewish woman who now stood to benefit from a widow’s pension when he died. (One wonders what could possibly have gone wrong in that marriage.) Others complained that Germans purchased goods from Jews rather than from German businesses. There were also letters in the early days from Jewish supporters and party members who were upset or outraged that they were experiencing discrimination. In 1935 another supporter sent Hitler a poem entitled “Hail Victory” which advocated that Hitler “reach out” to the Jews to ensure “Germany’s prosperity and Resurrection”. On the whole the infrequent references to Jewish people (complaints about other Germans far outnumber them) would tend to confirm the view that the country’s Jewish population was a fully integrated and accepted part of society.
Letters which display an awareness of Nazi ideology are the exception, even among party members. And those who were aware did not necessarily accept Nazi thinking. Ruth Dellman, a supporter of the National Socialist movement, wrote: “I take the liberty of asking a few questions that are important for me and for those around me. We are welfare students (social work trainees) and seminarians in a seminar for youth leaders and adhere to National Socialism. Naturally, many well-intentioned attempts are made to get us to abandon this world view.” She then moves on to her central criticism, which concerns the role of women in the Third Reich: “… we also find quite repellent the idea that females are to be divided up into classes and married on breeding farms … If you very esteemed Mr Hitler could provide information … we would thereby be greatly served.” Ms Dellman here touched on the question of biological engineering, which she found outrageous, but which was central to Nazi thinking; indeed, as the editors write, it was very much the SS intention to divide German women into types.
On the subject of territorial expansion, Hitler’s correspondents were quite tepid. Many letters congratulated him for maintaining peace. The bloodless Austrian and Sudetenland gains were quite welcome but, with some exceptions, there was no general appetite for war. People were happy to see Germany become a major European power but, as the editors observe, once war became a real prospect “the letters received in Hitler’s private office suggested a change in the public mood”. Arguably the public had wanted it both ways, but now they were going to get it one way, the military way.
As the war progressed the flow of letters sent to Hitler declined. The number of birthday greetings he received in 1944 was a trickle compared with the torrents that had flowed in in the 1930s. However, if people wished to withdraw the carte blanche they had given the Nazis, there were no institutional means of so doing. Some heroes emerged, such as the Munich students of the White Rose resistance group, but heroes are rare. Most people remained passive and struggled with worsening conditions, hoping for as long as they could that Germany would eventually win. The childish phase of political adulation was well over and fear of the price Germans would pay for the consequences of that phase must have begun to loom large in the minds of ordinary Germans.
They did not have to long to wait. The horrors of aerial bombing offered a preview. When defeat came it was total; the Germans suffered enormously in the aftermath of war, with the deaths of several million civilians in the two years following surrender. Up to three million were expelled from Czechoslovakia and around nine million forced to leave East Prussia and adjacent areas. These expulsions were executed with extensive violence and abuses. Many died and vast numbers of women were subject to repeated rape. By any standards this was a national trauma, a German tragedy.
However, in the half-century following their defeat the Germans discovered there was no sympathy abroad for their suffering. If, following the 1914-18 war, Germany was punished, now she was a moral pariah and the view was that if Germans had suffered then that was a good thing. Germans therefore remained quiet.
Fifty years later, at the beginning of the twenty-first century and two generations after the war, the country had edged beyond postwar numbness and humility. The impression one has of contemporary Germans is of a people with a clear historical understanding of the Nazi era as a distinctly German phenomenon and as something to be acknowledged as a wholly reprehensible period in German history, but one which was not their personal responsibility and which does not comprise the entire German story.
History, as ever, ensures that some sand gets into the works and that some complications arise. Germany spent the second half of the twentieth century building its economy, strengthening the European Union and developing strong democratic institutions which would withstand facile populism. As a result, the new Germany marked a significant and growing distance from the Nazi era. Then the crisis of the half-baked European project descended. It was, of course, no accident that Germany found itself in a good place when the music stopped. The years of self-indulgence had been replaced by a culture of quiet diligence. There were signs of envy in some quarters.
Some commentators in states whose politicians had been permitted to act with childlike irresponsibility reached for sticks to attack Germany and made comparisons between present-day Germany and the Nazi era. But those old sticks have proved weak and incapable of wounding. States reeling from the effects of irresponsible government understand this. Irresponsible elements among the commentariat would do better to argue that it is not necessary to experience the extreme suffering undergone by Germans in the mid-twentieth century in order to finally purge childish impulses.
Maurice Earls is a bookseller and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.