HOW SUCCESSFUL WAS HITLER IN DOMESTIC AFFAIRS?
There are conflicting views about this. Some argue that Hitler’s regime brought many benefits to the majority of the German people. Others believe that his whole career was a complete disaster and that his so-called successes were a myth created by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. Taking the argument a step further, some German historians claim that Hitler was a weak ruler who never actually initiated any policy of his own.
One school of thought claims that the Nazis were successful up to 1939 because they provided many benefits of the sort mentioned, and developed a flourishing economy. Hence Hitler’s great popularity with the masses, which endured well on into the 1940s, in spite of the hardships of the war. If only Hitler had succeeded in keeping Germany out of war, so the theory goes, all would have been well, and his Third Reich might have lasted a thousand years (as he boasted it would).
(b) Only superficially successful?
The opposing view is that Hitler’s supposed successes were superficial and could not stand the test of time. The so-called ‘economic miracle’ was an illusion; there was a huge budget deficit and the country was, technically, bankrupt. Even the superficial success was achieved by methods unacceptable in a modern civilized society:
- Full employment was achieved only at the cost of a brutal anti-Jewish campaign and a massive rearmament programme.
- Self-sufficiency was not possible unless Germany was able to take over and exploit large areas of eastern Europe belonging to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia.
- Permanent success therefore depended on success in war; thus there was no possibility of Hitler keeping out of war.
- Nor was there much evidence of any improvement in the standard of living of ordinary people, which Hitler claimed was one of his main aims. As Richard J. Evans points out: ‘Most statistical investigations are agreed that the economic situation of the majority of middle-class wage-earners did not markedly improve between 1933 and 1939.’ As concentration on rearmament increased, there were shortages of food and other important goods; in fact the per capita consumption of many basic foodstuffs declined in the mid-1930s. Any wage increases came about only through working longer hours.
The conclusion must therefore be, as Alan Bullock wrote in his biography of Hitler, that Recognition of the benefits which Hitler’s rule brought to Germany needs to be tempered by the realization that for the Fuhrer – and for a considerable section of the German people – these were by-products of his true purpose, the creation of an instrument of power with which to realize a policy of expansion that in the end was to admit no limits.
Even the policy of preparedness for war failed; Hitler’s plans were designed to be completed during the early 1940s, probably around 1942. In 1939 Germany’s economy was not ready for a major war, although it was strong enough to defeat Poland and France. However, as Richard Overy points out, ‘the large programmes of war production were not yet complete, some barely started . … The German economy was caught in 1939 midway through the transformation anticipated … as Hitler ruefully reflected some years later, militarization had been “mismanaged”.’
Adam Tooze argues that Hitler resisted pressure from his advisers to prepare for a long war because he believed that Germany had no chance of winning a long war. In fact, in the first year of the war most of the increased military expenditure went on the production of aircraft, artillery and ammunition for the war in the West, which was expected to be fairly short. Only then would preparations be made for the attack on Russia.
(c) The Hitler myth
Given that all Hitler’s work ended in disastrous failure, this raises a number of questions: for example, why was he so popular for so long? Was he genuinely popular, or did people merely put up with Hitler and the Nazis through fear of what would happen to them if they complained too loudly? Was his popular image just a myth created by Goebbels’s propaganda machine?
There can be no doubt that Hitler’s achievements in foreign affairs were extremely popular; with each new success – announcement of rearmament, remilitarization of the Rhineland, the Anschluss (union) with Austria and the incorporation of Czechoslovakia into the Reich, it seemed that Germany was reasserting its rightful position as a great power. This was where Goebbels’s propaganda probably had its greatest impact on public opinion, building up Hitler’s image as the charismatic and infallible Messiah who was destined to restore the greatness of the Fatherland. Even though there was little enthusiasm for war, Hitler’s popularity reached new heights in the summer of 1940 with the rapid defeat of France.
There is evidence too that Hitler himself was genuinely popular, although some sections of the Nazi party were not. Gotz Aly argued that ordinary Germans genuinely believed Hitler’s promise that he would raise their living standards and many of them had personal experience of improvement. Ian Kershaw, in his earlier work, The Hitler Myth, showed that Hitler was seen as being somehow above the unpleasantness of day-to-day politics, and people did not associate him with the excesses of the more extreme party members. The middle and propertied classes were grateful that Hitler had restored law and order; they even approved of the concentration camps, believing that communists and other ‘anti-social troublemakers’ deserved to be sent there. The propaganda machine helped, by portraying the camps as centres of re-education where undesirables were turned into useful citizens.
However, Richard J. Evans (in The Third Reich in Power, 2006) does not go along with the view that Hitler enjoyed widespread support after his first few years in power. He believes that the endless propaganda – in the newspapers, over the radio, in the cinema and in the theatre – together with the experiments in education, the limits on what types of culture were allowed and the constant military parades and Nazi celebrations simply led to boredom and escapism after the initial novelty wore off. Evans argues that the relative lack of opposition can be at least partly explained by the fact that people developed survival strategies, keeping clear of politics and immersing themselves in private, family and church life. Fear of arrest and violence were still the main reason why the vast majority of people merely tolerated the Nazis There can be no doubt that it was difficult and risky to criticize the regime; the government controlled all the media, so that the normal channels of criticism that exist in a modern democratic society were not available to ordinary Germans. Anyone who tried even to initiate discussion about Nazi policies risked the threats of informers, the Gestapo and the concentration camps.
It was during 1941 that Hitler’s image became seriously tarnished. As the war dragged on, and Hitler declared war on the USA, doubts about his infallibility began to creep in. The realization gradually dawned that the war could not be won. In February 1943, as news of the German surrender at Stalingrad spread, a group of students at Munich university courageously issued a manifesto: ‘The nation is deeply shaken by the destruction of the men of Stalingrad … the World War I corporal has senselessly and irresponsibly driven three hundred and thirty thousand German men to death and ruin. Ftihrer, we thank you!’ Six of the leaders were arrested by the Gestapo and executed, and several others were given lengthy jail sentences. After that the majority of people remained loyal to Hitler, and there was no popular uprising against him. The only significant attempt to overthrow him was made by a group of army leaders in July 1944; after the failure of that plot to blow Hitler up, the general public remained loyal to the bitter end, partly through fear of the consequences if they were seen to have turned against the Nazis, and partly through fatalism and resignation.
(d) A weak dictator?
It was the German historian Hans Mommsen, writing in 1966, who first suggested that Hitler was a ‘weak dictator’. He meant, apparently, that in spite of all the propaganda about the charismatic leader and the man of destiny, Hitler had no special programme or plan, and simply exploited circumstances as they occurred. Martin Broszat, in his 1969 book The Hitler State, developed this theme further, arguing that many of the policies attributed to Hitler were in fact instigated or pressed on him by others and then taken up by Hitler.
The opposite view, that Hitler was an all-powerful dictator, also has its strong proponents. Norman Rich, in Hitler’s War Aims, believed that Hitler was ‘master in the Third Reich’. Eberhard Jackel has consistently held to the same interpretation ever since his first book about Hitler appeared in 1984 (Hitler in History): he used the term ‘monocracy’ to describe Hitler’s ‘sole rule’.
In practice, he hardly adopted the method of a ‘weak dictator’. All his early foreign policy successes, the suppression of the SA in 1934, and the decisions that he took in 1939-40 during the early part of the war, when he reached the peak of his popularity – there was nothing weak about any of this. People who knew him well recognized how he became more ‘masterful’ as his confidence grew.
Clearly Hitler could not have carried out Nazi policies without the support of many influential groups in society – the army, big business, heavy industry, the law courts and the civil service. But equally, without Hitler at the head, much of what happened during those terrible 12 years of the Third Reich would have been unthinkable. Ian Kershaw provides this chilling verdict on Hitler and his regime:
Never in history has such ruination – physical and moral – been associated with the name of one man . … Hitler’s name justifiably stands for all time as that of the chief instigator of the most profound collapse of civilization in modern times . … Hitler was the main instigator of a war leaving over 50 million dead and millions more grieving their lost ones and trying to put their shattered lives together again. Hitler was the chief inspiration of a genocide the like of which the world had never known . … The Reich whose glory he had sought lay at the end wrecked . … The arch-enemy, Bolshevism, stood in the Reich capital itself and presided over half of Europe.