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I am the people

By Götz Aly

Götz Aly's "Hitlers Volksstaat" is one of the most-awaited books in Germany this spring. In it, Aly defends the thesis that Germans accepted Hitler's raiding of occupied countries for as long as they did because he had introduced a "leftist" social policy at home, which above all benefited the poor. Aly summarises his views here

The film "Der Untergang" (The Downfall) about Hitler's final days is not a "sign of emancipation", as one German paper would like to have us believe. There is no reason to fear that Germans are softening their stance on their greatest mass murderer by depicting him as too human. "The Downfall" shows the potentate in the exceptional moment of failure. The Soviet soldiers have left him no room to manoeuvre; the only choice that remains is between the poison and the bullet. Those who love to be horrified by Hitler will not be asking for a refund. But on an analytical level, the film leads nowhere, provokes shoulder-shrugging and head-shaking.

Neither Hitler nor Goebbels, himself the subject of a recent documentary, were particularly fascinating as people. What is interesting is how and why they became vehicles of political will in Germany. Just asking this question raises the hackles of old 68ers, anti-Hartz reform protesters, members of the CSU and media-savvy executives alike.

Like all revolutionaries, Hitler and his youthful entourage created an atmosphere of "now or never". In 1933, when the Nazis took power, Goebbels was 35 years old, Heydrich 28, Speer 27, Eichmann 26, Mengele 21, Himmler and Frank 32. Göring, one of the older ones, had just celebrated his 40th birthday. As a functionary in occupied Prague, the 27-year-old Hanns Martin Schleyer, later to become President of the Employer's Union, was amused by the hesitant elders, who were disturbed by the uprising of "real national socialism": "The readiness which the war instilled in us at an early age, to seek out tasks rather than wait to be assigned them, led us to positions of responsibility earlier than we expected."

Hans Schuster, born in 1915 and familiar to older readers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung as a senior editor, was made Economic Attaché to the German mission in Zagreb (Agram) in May 1941. He had previously worked at the German embassy in Bucharest, having written his PhD at Leipzig on "The Jewish Question in Romania". Writing in 1942, Schuster reflected on the previous year: "...things have gone almost too smoothly – although there was tension at times and some dangerous weeks - like the coup d'etat in Belgrade and then the war and our coup here in Agram. But then I had the good fortune to be given the responsibility of rebuilding this country, a laborious task I've been working at for a good half year under the excellent command of the Envoy Kasche (Storm Trouper Squadron Leader)!"

For the majority of young and by no means monstrous men, National Socialism meant freedom and adventure, a physical and mental anti-ageing program. They were looking for challenges, fun and the ultimate kick in the modern mobile war. They were in their early twenties, trying to find themselves, spurred on by feelings of omnipotence. They lacked the social skills to fit in. They created, in a destructive sense, the most successful generational project in modern history.

Hitler oriented himself to the mood of the population. He asked himself on an hourly basis how he could better satisfy the German majority. Playing a constant game of give and take, he established the redistributive state par excellence. The tax incentive for married couples, so vehemently defended by the conservatives in 2002, stems from 1934. The kilometre flat-rate so dear to today's Bavarian government dates back to the same tax reform law which stated: "It is a constitutional prerogative of National Socialism that citizens have their own homes in the open countryside ..." Since 1941, German pensioners have had a right to health insurance and are no longer dependent on public or church welfare. Under Hitler, the number of holidays was doubled.

Bonuses for working on Sundays, bank holidays and late shifts were taxed until October 2, 1940 at which point the Nazi government wrote them off with a flick of the wrist. Even the Reich's finance minister gave his approval "naturally, on condition that the war is over in 1940." And he rightly anticipated what a "strong impression" this good deed would make on the German public in the midst of a "gigantic war".

Anyone trying to understand the destructive success of National Socialism should look at the public face of the annihilation policy – the modern, cosy and obliging welfare state. During WWII, German soldiers' wives received twice as much family support as their British and American counterparts. They had more money than in peace times. The generosity of state benefits meant that women saw no reason to work. In 1942 it was suggested that state benefits be reduced and taxed but Hitler blocked the idea, fearing public opposition. Funk, the Reich's minister for economic affairs commented drily, "Our economic policy during the war was overly opulent. It is not easy to correct such a thing."

Until May 8, 1845, 80 percent of Germans paid no direct war taxes. The indirect taxes were limited to tobacco, brandy and beer. The Regime's cautious handling of the Volk was apparent in every last detail. In the so-called "South-Eastern German consumer region", the tax on a litre of beer (which Goebbels referred to as a "positive mood element") was 10 Reichspfennigs; in the North, it was about 30 more. There was no tax on wine because it would have affected wine producers who were "already struggling economically".

Protection against unfair dismissal, tenant protection regulations, protection from seizure under execution: hundreds of finely tuned laws were aimed at socio-political appeasement. Hitler ruled according to the principal of "I am the people", later to form the basis of the German Republic's welfare state. The Schröder/Fischer government now faces the historic task of bidding a prolonged farewell to the German community of the Volk.

Hitler gained overwhelming support with his policy of running up debts and explaining that it would be others that paid the price. He promised the Germans everything and asked little of them in return. The constant talk of "a people without living space", "international standing", "complementary economic areas" and "Jew purging" served a single purpose: to increase German prosperity without making Germans work for it themselves. This was the driving force behind his criminal politics: not the interests of industrialists and bankers such as Flick, Krupp and Abs. Economically, the Nazi state was a snowballing system of fraud. Politically, it was a monstrous bubble of speculation, inflated by the common party members.

Of course sceptics existed en masse. The majority of those who joined the National Socialist German Workers Party did so for one or other wishy-washy point in its programme. Some joined to fight the hereditary enemy France; others out of a youthful rebellion against establish norms. Catholic clergy blessed the weapons for the crusade against the godless Bolsheviks, while speaking out against euthanasia; and those predisposed to Socialism were attracted by the anti-clerical, anti-elitist aspects of National Socialism. After the war, millions of Germans had no qualms about redefining their party membership as "resistance", regardless of the party's horrendous legacy.

In this fast-paced political climate, pockets of tension formed under the all-embracing party umbrella. That was the political alchemy of his rule. There arose a constant tension everywhere the NSDAP used its policy of permanent dynamism to bring together conflicting elements: the nostalgic urge to preserve supposed traditions brushed up against the modern impulse to push technological boundaries; anti-authoritarian revolutionary fervour strained against an authoritarian utopian move towards a German autocracy. Hitler combined the rebirth of the nation with the threat of its demise, community-minded class harmony with the force of annihilation, managed through a strict division of labour.

The majority of Germans were thrown first into a state of delirium, then intoxicated by the lightning pace of history and finally – with Stalingrad, the carpet bombing and then the ever-increasing evidence of showcase terror in their own country - reduced to desensitised nervous wrecks. "It always feels like the cinema," Victor Klemperer's salesman Vogel commented in the middle of the Sudentenland Crisis in 1938. A year later, nine days after the beginning of the campaign against Poland, Göring promised the workers at the Rheinmetall-Borsigwerke metal works in Berlin that they could rely on a leadership which "I must say, is racing with energy." Words that Goebbels echoed in his diary: "a fantastic tempo, all day long".

In closed circles, Hitler often referred to the possibility of his imminent death in order to maintain the explosive tempo necessary for his rule. He moved like an amateur tightrope walker, taking ever more, ever quicker steps to keep his balance, then flailing about uncontrollably in a last ditch attempt to stay upright, before finally plummeting. The film "Der Untergang" (The Downfall) shows the final meters of his fall in slow motion. But no reasons are given for it.


A shorter version of the article appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 1 September, 2004.

Götz Aly, born in 1947 in Heidelberg, studied journalism, history and political science in Munich before completing his doctorate and habilitation at the Otto-Suhr-Institute in Berlin. He has been an editor at the Tageszeitung and the Berliner Zeitung, and now works as a freelance journalist. In 2002 he was awarded the Heinrich-Mann-Prize of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Arts, and in 2003 the Marion-Samuel-Prize of the Foundation "Remembrance". Since 2002 he has been visiting lecturer for Holocaust research at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt. Götz Aly has published widely on national socialist history and social policy, and his book "Hitler's Volksstaat. Raub, Rassenkrieg und nationaler Sozialismus" (excerpt) will be published on March 10 by S. Fischer.

Translation: nb and lp.

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