On “Nazism and German Society: 1933-1945” Edited by David F. Crew

Nazism and German Society: 1933-1945, a series of articles on Nazi Germany, summarizes a new approach which has emerged in the field of historical study. As editor David F. Crew observes: “For many years after 1945, discussion of the popular experience of German fascism seldom went beyond vague assertion of ‘collective guilt’ or equally simplistic attempts to differentiate between the ‘victims and the ‘perpetrators.’” (1) The authors of this collection emphasize how Nazism was not imposed upon the German people. Rather, the successful rise of Nazism must be understood as, at least partially, a product of its environment. As works of social history, these articles reveal the causes and consequences of Nazism on a more microcosmic, focused level. Crew maintains that the previously common notion of Nazi Germany as a “totalitarian model” was a consequence of how the Nazi regime had sought to depict itself through its own propaganda. (1) Thus to fully comprehend the causes and consequences of Nazism, a new perspective must be pursued. These articles emphasize this new, more detailed approach. This new approach is valuable as it further explains an historical development which at face value, may appear no more than an anomaly.

In his article “German Workers, German Soldiers,” Omer Bartov rejects the previously popular interpretation of the Third Reich as an all powerful, all-popular monolithic regime which had perverted the course of history: “The view of Nazism as an aberration, a society inexplicably gone made, or taken over by a ‘criminal clique’ against its will, has not been corroborated by historical evidence.” (43) Rather, Bartov understands Nazism as having fit into its contemporary context, as a “normalizing” force following an era of chaos. Bartov focuses upon the transformation of the working class, from staunch opponents to fervent supporters, as proof of the “fit” of Nazism into the historical narrative. Just as the First World War had “demonstrated that a just, classless society is not a necessary precondition for total mobilization,” the onset of the Second World War led even opponents to fight for the “Nazi regime so many of them were were supposed to oppose,” and even “[fight] shoulder to shoulder against those they had been persuaded to believe were their common enemies.” (47-8) Thus the transformation of workers, from natural opponents of the regime to its enthusiastic soldiers, exemplifies the convergence of historical precedence and contemporary circumstance which facilitated the rise of Nazism.

Though perhaps less a result of historical precedence than ideological particularities, the ease with which German society received the Nazis’ policies towards women reveal something about the collective German psyche. In “Natalism, Maternity and Paternity in National Socialist Racism,” Gisela Bock maintains that the repression and objectification of women was largely a result of National Socialist ideology. However, Bock remains ambiguous on the issue of whether or not the relationship between Nazism and women was a result of historical context.

Bock’s article illustrates that chauvinistic programs such as sterilization were a result of a convergence of certain notions of motherhood and race which were already supported by the popular eugenics movement. However, Bock observes that the Nazis’ emphasis upon race “shaped National Socialism’s multiple views of women.” Bock further claims that “[National Socialism] broke with the maternalist image of the female sex.” (134) The somewhat anomalous nature of the Nazis’ perspective towards women, signals the limits to which broad historical movements can be understood as a result of microcosmic forces. While some may disagree with Bock, there evidently remains historians unwilling to comprehend Nazi Germany and its activities as solely a consequence of its contemporary or historical context. What can be extrapolated from Bock’s article is that, although certain aspects of Nazi ideology were a perversion of contemporary attitudes, its gradual acceptance illustrates its contemporary appeal. In “Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent? Gestapo, society and resistance,” Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Gerhard Paul reject the popular notion that the Gestapo was an all-powerful organization. They emphasize that the Gestapo was only able to succeed through the consistent volunteering of information on the part of German civilians: “The phenomenon of mass denunciation… was solely a matter of free will.” (180) This revelation is telling, as it places the blame for Nazi totalitarianism as much on the perpetrated as it does on the perpetrators. The true nature of the relationship between the Gestapo and German society vindicates a more microcosmic approach to the study of Nazi Germany.

Through the analysis of just one particular aspect of German society under the Third Reich, we come closer to comprehending how the rise of Nazism was more than a historical phenomenon. The authors, quoting Hans Mommsen, agree that “the decisive cause of the German catastrophe was not the Nazis’ superior manipulative capabilities or their techniques of rule, but rather the lack of resistance in German society to the destruction of politics. The Third Reich can, in this respect, be historicized without thereby questioning the special importance of National Socialism.” (189) Thus the existence of Nazi Germany can be understood as a result of the weaknesses and instability of German society, not the force and energy of the movement itself.

The various perspectives and opinions in Nazism and German Society all possess a common, overarching theme. Historical phenomena, those which warrant as much academic research and study as do Nazism and Nazi Germany, necessarily have to be examined and analyzed from manifold perspectives. Thus seeking to break away from previous approaches to the study of Nazi Germany, these authors emphasize social history, and individually focus upon a particular piece of the larger historical narrative. This microcosmic, particularized approach allows contemporary students of history to understand an historical event as the convergence of diverse developments, rather than solely a grand chapter in the annals of history.


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