Workers and Nazis in Hitler's Homeland

By Kirk, Tim | History Today, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Workers and Nazis in Hitler's Homeland


Kirk, Tim, History Today


Politicians have always been anxious to know what people are really talking about, and in this respect authoritarian regimes are caught in a dilemma. They are reluctant to tolerate the free expression of public opinion, and accordingly institute censorship and surveillance systems and encourage snooping and denunciation. Yet public opinion which is so tightly controlled by the state is no real guide to popular morale or the level of support for the regime. Most emperors, after all, would like to have some sort of warning if their new clothes are about to be ridiculed, and in this Hitler was no exception.

Secret police forces were well established in Europe long before the Nazis came to power and had been used in a variety of modern states from Elizabethan England and prerevolutionary France to Tsarist and Soviet Russia. The secret state police force inherited by the Nazis in 1933, the Geheime Staatpolizei (known by the familiar abbreviation Gestapo) was used to detect political subversion and dissent, and its agents arrested thousands of Communists, trades unionists, supposed strike leaders, turbulent priests, Jehovah's witnesses and homosexuals every year. But modern rulers cannot afford to restrict their attention to the opinions and activities of conscious dissidents alone. In the age of popular politics even dictators derive their political authority, at least in part, from the consent of a significant proportion of the population; and the Nazis never forgot that one of the keys to their success had been their ability to deliver for the Right the sort of mass support which labour movements had traditionally delivered for the Left.

Nor could the Nazis rest once they were established in office. Many of the regime's leaders were convinced that Germany had been betrayed -- stabbed in the back -- in 1918 by insurgent workers led astray by Jews and Marxists. One way of preventing this happening again was to imprison and intimidate workers' leaders. But repression alone was not enough: the Nazis remained constantly aware of the need to mobilise support and to win acclamation for their policies from the German people. Nor was the propaganda they deployed in pursuit of this aim merely a relentless torrent of political slogans. Cleverer propagandists, conscious of the limited attention span of their audiences produced material that was suggestive rather than insistent. But attention to the production of propaganda was not enough, and the Nazis went to extreme lengths to ascertain how it was received and, indeed, what people thought about a whole range of things, from Hitler's speeches and wartime newsreels to the shortage of children's shoes.

Such curiosity was not restricted to the German government. In Britain the pioneers of `mass observation' were writing up their reports, while opinion polling was established both in the United States and in Western Europe. In Nazi Germany a whole range of institutions, from the judicial authorities and munitions inspectorate to the underground Social Democratic Party, compiled reports on popular morale. From 1938, however, the most comprehensive reports were those drawn up by the security service (SD) of the Reichsfuhrer of the SS, which collected material at a very local level (whether a village or a block of flats) on a more or less daily basis. This material was then condensed into reports at one of a number of regional headquarters, such as Vienna, before being passed on to Berlin. Several times a week between 1938 and 1944 the Reports from the Reich were circulated among the secret policemen and senior civil servants of a regime which could learn nothing of the everyday realities of wartime Germany from its own media.

It is such reports that enable us to ascertain not only the attitudes of the people, but the preoccupations of the regime as well. And eager as they were to monitor whatever grumbles there might be about egg rations or higher taxes, the main concern of SD opinion-gatherers was that the jewels in the crown of Nazi Germany's plebiscitary consensus -- the positive reception of the party's charismatic leader, and popular approval of the government's foreign policy -- remained untarnished, and their reports reflect these preoccupations. …

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