The Dream of a “People’s Empire”
The National Socialist German Workers Party was founded on a doctrine of inequality between races, but it also promised Germans greater equality among themselves than they had enjoyed during either the Wilhelmine empire or the Weimar Republic. In practice, this goal was achieved at the expense of other groups, by means of a racist war of conquest. Nazi ideology conceived of racial conflict as an antidote to class conflict. By framing its program in this way, the party was propagating two age-old dreams of the German people: national and class unity. That was the key to the Nazis’ popularity, from which they derived the power they needed to pursue their criminal aims. The ideal of the Volksstaat—a state of and for the people—was what we would now call a welfare state for Germans with the proper racial pedigree. In one of his central pronouncements, Hitler promised “the creation of a socially just state,” a model society that would “continue to eradicate all [social] barriers.”1
Like all other revolutionaries, the predominantly youthful members of the Nazi movement had an urgent, now-or-never aura about them. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Joseph Goebbels was thirty-five years old. Reinhard Heydrich was twenty-eight; Albert Speer, twenty-seven; Adolf Eichmann, twenty-six; Josef Mengele, twenty-one; and Heinrich Himmler and Hans Frank, both thirty-two. Hermann Göring, one of the eldest among the party leadership, had just celebrated his fortieth birthday. And a decade later, in the midst of World War II, Goebbels could still conclude from a statistical survey: “According to the data, the average age of midlevel party leaders is 34, and within the government, it’s 44. One can indeed say that Germany today is being led by its youth.” At the same time, Goebbels nonetheless called for a continuing “freshening of the ranks.”2
For most young Germans, National Socialism did not mean dictatorship, censorship, and repression; it meant freedom and adventure. They saw Nazism as a natural extension of the youth movement, as an antiaging regimen for body and mind. By 1935, the twenty- to thirty-year-olds who set the tone for the party rank and file viewed with open contempt those who advocated caution. They considered themselves modern men of action with no time for petty, individual concerns. “The philistines may fret,” they mocked, “but tomorrow belongs to us.” In January 1940, one ambitious young Nazi wrote of Germany’s standing on the threshold of “a great battle” and declared confidently that, “no matter who should fall, our country is heading toward a great and glorious future.” Even as late as March 1944, despite the terrible costs Germany had incurred, the faithful were still cheerfully gearing up for “the final sprint to the finish in this war.”3
In a diary entry from 1939, a thirty-three-year-old described his decision to apply for a position helping resettle ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe in the expanding German empire: “I didn’t need to think about it for a second. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I hope they’ll be able to use me and will accept my application. It would get me out of the confines of my office, which has grown very stale.” Two weeks later he noted: “I’m awed by the size of the task. I’ve never been given such great responsibility before.”4 Female university students spent semester breaks in occupied Poland, staffing the provisional day care centers that freed German settlers to bring in the harvest. One student later wrote enthusiastically: “It made no difference which school we were from. We were united in one great mission: to apply ourselves during our break in Poland with all our strength and whatever knowledge we had. It was truly an honor to be among the first students allowed to do such pioneering work.”5
In 1942, twenty-seven-year-old Hanns Martin Schleyer—later a leading industrialist and president of the Employers’ Association in the Federal Republic of Germany—was working in the Nazi administration of occupied Prague. There he complained about older bureaucrats dragging their feet and contrasted their hesitancy with the gung-ho attitude of his own generation: “We learned at a young age during the movement’s days of struggle to seek out challenges, instead of waiting for them to come to us—this and our constant efforts for the party, even after it took power, made us ready to take on responsibility much earlier than usual.”6 In May 1941, Hans Schuster, who would go on to become a senior editor of the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung after the war, was made economic attaché to the German mission in Zagreb. Although only twenty-six, he was charged with helping to establish Croatia as a Nazi satellite state. Earlier, having written his Ph.D. dissertation on “The Jewish Question in Romania,” he had worked for the German embassy in Bucharest, where he was involved in various conspiratorial endeavors. In a letter from January 1942 to his friend Hellmut Becker, another influential figure in postwar Germany, Schuster wrote with the breathless enthusiasm of a true believer:
I would really like to move on soon. The past year here has been too good to me. Things have gone almost too smoothly, though conditions have been very tense and, for weeks on end, quite dangerous. [We had] the coup d’état in Belgrade, followed by the war and our coup here in Agram [Zagreb]. I’ve had the good fortune to be assigned to help with the difficult task of building up this country. For a full six months, I’ve been working under the excellent command of envoy Kasche [an SA squadron leader] and have been given a lot of responsibility. The circumstances are especially fortuitous thanks to our good relations with the present government before it came to power.
Schuster was granted his request for a transfer, and later, as a soldier, he expressed his gratitude that “the variety of this life, the constant excitement, the challenge of making independent, if minor, decisions that require a modicum of imagination and initiative” had protected him against “the side of war that dulls the senses.”7
These young men and women were living out the perennial dream of people in their twenties: independence, opportunity, and jobs that demanded pioneer spirit, satisfying their need for improvisation and constant physical and mental challenges. Disdaining the small-minded culture of everyday office work, they wanted to test their limits, enjoy themselves, and experience the thrill of the unknown and the intoxication of taking part in a fast-paced, modern war. Elated by feelings of unlimited possibility, they embarked on a search for an identity all their own.
Among those who took power in 1933 were many recent university graduates and students. Their ranks included the rebellious sons of old elite families and the increasingly self-assertive lower classes, who had profited from the Social Democrats’ reforms in the Weimar Republic. They overcame differences in background through their collective struggle for a National Socialist utopia, a utopia at once romantic and technologically modern. Viewing themselves and their peers as the avant-garde of the “young Volk,” they disdained their more experienced, skeptical elders as “cemetery vegetables.” To members of the new generation, veteran civil servants, with their devotion to rules and principles, were “ossified old geezers.”8 The movement’s activists and the far greater number of cautious but curious sympathizers looked beyond the constraints of the present toward the dawning of a new, völkisch age. The burden of what would soon become enormous daily challenges was easy to bear when one’s gaze was fixed so firmly on the future. Goebbels considered calling his 1941 book of war speeches “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow.” (The actual title of the volume, when published, was An Unprecedented Age.)9 For all these reasons, National Socialism can be seen as a dictatorship of youth. Within only a few years, it developed into the most destructive generational project of the twentieth century.
Another source of the Nazi Party’s popularity was its liberal borrowing from the intellectual tradition of the socialist left. Many of the men who would become the movement’s leaders had been involved in communist and socialist circles in the waning years of the Weimar Republic. In his memoirs, Adolf Eichmann repeatedly asserted: “My political sentiments inclined toward the left and emphasized socialist aspects every bit as much as nationalist ones.” In the days when the movement was still doing battle in the streets, Eichmann added, he and his comrades had viewed Nazism and Communism as “quasi-siblings.”10 Also typical of his generation was Wolfgang Hillers, a leftist writer and art critic, who declared: “The ‘I’ has to be subjugated to a ‘we,’ and new German art can only be nourished from the wellsprings of this ‘we.’”11 Before Hitler’s rise to power, Hillers had collaborated with socialist authors Bertolt Brecht and Johannes R. Becher on The Great Plan, a choral work celebrating the achievements of the industrialization of the Soviet Union under Stalin. After 1933, Hillers needed only to substitute the word “German” for “proletariat” to conform to the new political spirit. He’d already made the journey from “I” to “we,” and his recognition “that the new spirit of collectivism could best be expressed in choral form” was easily transferable. The new Germany envisioned by the Nazis gave their former opponents in the demonstrations, debates, and public battles of the Weimar Republic ample opportunity to make their own personal peace with the Third Reich.12
Germany’s rapid military defeat of France in 1940 was accomplished by violating Belgian and Dutch neutrality—a transgression against international law that Hitler dismissed as “meaningless.” The Führer impressed upon his supporters, and gradually upon the German people as well, a maxim that was soon to justify any and all sorts of crimes: “No one will ask questions, once we’ve achieved victory.”13
That year, while temporarily confined to a sickbed, Reich Deputy Finance Minister Fritz Reinhardt wrote to his boss, Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk: “I’m looking forward to the great tasks that will have to be accomplished soon. . . . We can be enormously glad to live and work in these heady days. Paris in German hands, France on the verge of capitulation! In such a short span of time! It’s hard to believe!”14
It is pointless to ask whether any of the Nazis’ grandiose plans for the future were anything more than propaganda. The extraordinarily feverish tempo, the youthful élan with which Germans jettisoned their moral scruples are what make the twelve short years of Nazi rule so difficult for us to comprehend. Nazi society drew its extreme intensity from the regime’s ability to merge opposites: rational and emotional political goals, old and new elites, the interests of the people, the party, and the government bureaucracy. Huge bursts of energy were released wherever the Nazi Party apparatus conjoined contradictory elements: the preservation of putative traditions with the desire for technological achievement; antiauthoritarian glee at the toppling of the old order with the authoritarian devotion to a new utopia in which Germany would finally assume its place in the sun. Hitler combined the prospect of national revival with the risk of absolute collapse, the ideal of communal class harmony with minutely organized genocidal violence.
The Seismic Shift
The Nazi leadership had little patience with lawyers, judges, career diplomats, general staff officers, and other stolid members of the old order. But it was to the party’s advantage to give such people time to conform to the new order. Equally useful to the party were civil servants within the Reichsbank and the Ministries of Finance and Economics, shrewd men who had gathered their first political and professional experience in Wilhelmine Germany and the early years of the Weimar Republic. Many had fought in World War I, and they came from all walks of life, as did the members of most university institutes, private and semiprivate economic think tanks, academic societies, newspaper editorial staffs, and economics divisions of large commercial banks.
Their expertise was crucial to the success of the Nazi leadership’s criminal undertakings. Between 1939 and 1945, under the leadership of Ministerial Director Gustav Schlotterer, civil servants within Division III of the Ministry of Economics plundered much of Europe with a thoroughness that is difficult to imagine today. Division III was founded in 1920 to fulfill Germany’s obligations under the Treaty of Versailles. Helpless to resist French, Belgian, and British demands for reparations, this generation of civil servants received an introductory lesson in the art of subjugation, looting, and blackmail. Later, they would turn this involuntarily acquired know-how back on their teachers, bolstering it with a German talent for bureaucratic organization. In their minds, the myriad techniques they applied to exploit their fellow Europeans were just compensation for previous humiliations.
Civil servants were also instrumental in advancing the Führer’s anti-Semitic agenda. The Nuremberg Laws, which were broadly and somewhat hastily proclaimed by Hitler at the annual Nazi Party conference in September 1935, mandated the preservation of “German blood” against threats from Jews. But they did not even define who was to be considered Jewish. It was up to legal experts to transform Hitler’s vague ideas of protecting German blood and of “breeding out” the characteristics of “inferior” races into practicable regulations that bureaucrats could implement. Only once this had been done could the government issue the first ordinance of the Reich Citizenship Law (Reichsbürgergesetz), which defined who was to be considered Jewish and how to classify people in cases of mixed parenthood and marriage. In formulating that legislation, the party’s legal experts ignored the fine racial distinctions worked out by German geneticists and simply decreed that the religious affiliation of an individual’s grandparents, which could be easily ascertained from registration documents, would be the legal basis for deciding hundreds of thousands of cases of disputed ethnicity. This created an automatic procedure for social exclusion.
Civil servants played an equally key role in the “atonement payment” (Judenbusse) of one billion reichsmarks that Hermann Göring, in a fit of anti-Semitic fervor, ordered Jews to pay in 1938. The Finance Ministry translated this demand into a 20 percent levy on personal assets, to be paid in four installments over the course of a year. In the end, the money raised significantly exceeded Göring’s original figure.
These so-called special measures, now regarded as the first steps toward the Holocaust, could only be put into practice with the help of precise work by bureaucrats and civil servants. After Nazi Germany’s conquest of Central and Eastern Europe, for example, the Reich General Auditor’s Office monitored the confiscation of Jewish property in Belgrade, the management of the deportation centers for Dutch Jews, and the operations of the German administration of the Lodz ghetto in Poland.15 Economic logic was a motor that drove the Holocaust. The Ministry of Economics charged the National Board for Economy and Efficiency with producing a cost-benefit analysis of the Warsaw ghetto. The board issued a number of reports that cautioned against maintaining such prisonlike but economically unviable “Jewish areas of residence.”16
These examples illustrate how the impulsive, populist, and often improvised actions of the Nazi movement were supported by an experienced bureaucracy. As willing as civil servants were to serve the national cause, however, they were never keen to relinquish control over their traditional instruments of power. The General Auditor’s Office and the civil court system, for instance, continued to operate much as they had before 1933; the leadership of both institutions retained considerable autonomy, and the multitiered bureaucracy worked with notable efficiency. The Nazi gauleiters (district leaders), whose ideal form of rule was a nonbureaucratic dictatorship directly translating popular will into action, were constantly frustrated by civil servants who insisted that fiscal questions be decided in strict accordance with national budgetary guidelines. Friction, irritation, and conflict were unavoidable, especially when government bureaucrats sought to impose financial limits on political or military maneuvers. Yet the polycratic organizational structure of the Nazi state did not, as is often claimed, lead to chaos. The strength, however precarious, of the regime was its capacity for resolving conflicts of interest and deciding on an appropriate course of action. This capacity allowed the state to avoid administrative gridlock while it developed and implemented ever more radical policies. Such was the genesis of Nazi Germany’s ultimately homicidal mixture of political volunteerism and functional rationality.
Copyright © 2005 by S. Fischer Verlage GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. Translation copyright © 2006 by Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved.