• Charles E.Cheadle

Has the Role of Coercion in Maintaining the Nazi Regime in Power upto 1939 been Exaggerated?

Assess the view that the role of coercion in maintaining the Nazi regime in power 1933 to 1939 has been exaggerated.




In the context of a politically polarised Germany, this assessment argues Hitler’s early use of extreme physical coercion by the apparatus and agents of a police state, eliminating opponents across the whole political spectrum within 18 months of ‘taking’ power, has not been exaggerated but critically maintained the Nazi regime in power in the years leading to WW2, supported by historians like Broszat, who take a traditional view of Nazi coercion. Although more recent evidence suggests the consent of middle-class Nazi voters facilitated Hitler’s coercion of immediate communist rivals, fearing communist terror spreading from neighbouring Russia. However, exploiting their fear, Hitler’s physical coercion of all political opposition, not just communist, arguably enabled him to remarkably quickly transform a democratic Germany into a Nazi dictatorship. Persuasive evidence of Hitler winning overwhelming and continued support in national elections and plebiscites, supported by more recent historians like Peukert, suggesting Hitler had popular consent for his authoritarianism as the solution to the endemic instabilities of Weimar, suggesting the Nazi’s use of violence to maintain power has been exaggerated. However, a wholly voluntaristic view is undermined by evidence of unprecedented violence eliminating all political bases, enabling Hitler to legislate for a one-party state which effectively removed any alternative to voting for the Nazi party. Whilst finding physical coercion of 68,000,000 ordinary Germans by a smaller apparatus of terror, inconsequential, suggesting many consented to the Nazi regime, supported by Bessel’s more revisionist view. Concluding, Hitler’s early use of extreme physical coercion of political opponents, representing over half of the population, has not been exaggerated. Creating an indiscriminatory climate of fear which contributed to the efficacy of other Nazi coercion, supported by Speier, maintained the Nazi regime in power during these years by effectively deterring opposition, even Nazi supporters, who had willingly sacrificed their civil liberties to safeguard the Nazi state, becoming “increasingly cautious” of speaking out of turn.


Given Hitler lacked a parliamentary majority in January 1933, his grip on power far from secure, it is arguable his use of extreme physical coercion to eliminate political rivals was vital to maintaining power. Broszat substantiates this view, arguing “right from the first months in power the police forces of the SA, SS and Gestapo used unprecedented violence against political opponents in order to maintain the regime in power”.[1] Hitler’s ‘ruthless confrontation’, removing the mass support of immediate Communist and Social Democrat rivals who could outvote him in the coalition government, just a month after his appointment as Chancellor, lends significant weight to the argument.[2] Although one of many thousands, a Stormtrooper’s later recollection of brutal arrests, “creating an atmosphere of chaotic terror’,[3] substantiates Hitler’s ‘unprecedented’ use of an SA paramilitary force, many of whom were ex-military, to arrest 4,000 unarmed ordinary civilians, including many party leaders.[4] Attributing an arson attack on the Reichstag parliament building to the start of a communist revolt, some suggest the fire itself contrived, [5] together with the SD intelligence agency providing a list of opponents to target, and a purpose built concentration camp at Dachau, provide strong evidence Hitler was prepared to use violent coercion to maintain power from the outset. A study of Robert Griesinger, a part-time member of the General SS, substantiated by extensive archival research across Nazi-occupied Europe, examining rare surviving SS documents not previously available, provides fresh, and unique evidence of the violence following the fire.[6] Griesinger, witnessing plain-clothed secret police of the Gestapo using ‘vicious torture’, effectively validating the claims of Social Democrat MP, Joseph Felder, he was “severely beaten, taken to Dachau in chains, and given a rope to hang himself with”,[7] graphically illustrate the ‘unprecedented’ nature of violence use by the security police to force socialist councillors across the country to resign, shooting dead the Mayor of Stassfurt for failing to comply.[8] Although, the study finding not just the paramilitary SS police, whose job was to protect Nazi party leaders throughout Germany, but ordinary bureaucrats from the administrative division, such as teachers and lawyers, like Griesinger, actively participating, weakens the argument as it suggests Hitler relied on the consent of the bourgeois middle-class who, like Hitler, perceived Russian communist terror threatened their very survival. However, extreme physical coercion of left-wing rivals, not just communists, disrupting campaigning just 6 days before the March election has not been exaggerated but was a catalyst for the Nazi vote increasing from a plurality to a majority, and preventing Social Democrat deputies voting against Hitler’s Enabling Act, was pivotal to establishing his dictatorship, giving him the right to rule by decree. Together with evidence of Hitler using physical coercion to remove the mass support of political opponents from across the whole political spectrum, the SA arresting working-class leaders in Berlin, the SS detaining Catholic deputies in Bavaria - ‘everyone particularly active in party politics’,[9] who combined represented the majority of the electorate in the last free Reichstag elections, together with his Conservative coalition partners dissolving after the SS killed all potential candidates to a ‘post-Hitler’ government during the Rohm Putsch, critically securing Hitler absolute power,[10] give overwhelming support to the argument violent coercion played a significant role in establishing Nazi dictatorship within 18 months of being ‘handed’ power.[11] Although arguably, Nazi coercion of seriously divided working-class parties to maintain power has been exaggerated, with the influence of affiliated trade unions diminished by high levels of unemployment they did not pose a real threat to the Nazi regime,[12]and with the prospect of a Concordat between the Pope and the regime, the Catholic Centre party dissolved itself. However, early physical coercion, broke the allegiance of millions of workers to left-wing ideology which Hitler perceived prevented him generating support for Nazism, and violent intimidation of Catholic party members and lay organisations arguably the reason a Concordat was needed in the first place. Although, continued criticism of Nazi interference in the church, one protestant eventually silenced by lethal injection in 1939, suggests in this instance the effectiveness of violent coercion has been exaggerated.[13]However, together with the Gestapo continuing to violently repress the few emerging opposition parties over the following years, executing some of the left-wing Markwitz Circle, strongly supports the argument, whilst undermined by Hitler relying on the consent of the middle-classes to remove his immediate coercion of communist rivals, proceeding to violently coerce all rivals across the whole political spectrum has not been exaggerated, preventing any significant measure of later collective opposition critical to Hitler maintaining power during these years. Although, in contrast, mobile units of the Gestapo, alongside a ‘co-opted’ military, violently coercing political opposition abroad, such as in the Rhineland in 1936 and Austria in 1938,[14] arguably brought about consent, and reinforced any existing societal support of ‘super-patriotic’ Germans, sharing Hitler’s vision of a 200,000,000 strong German Empire.[15]


Whilst physical coercion of political opposition effectively ‘resolving’ the inherent political instability of Weimar, created the Third Reich, a lack of evidence, suggests physical coercion of ordinary Germans was not a decisive factor in maintaining the Nazi’s in power, suggesting many consented. Bessel’s cautious approach to revisionism supporting this view, arguing “Nazi repression exercised through the Gestapo and the concentration camps was small scale and did not affect the majority of the population”.[16] Bessel purports, as the Nazi apparatus of physical terror was smaller than once thought it was inconsequential in coercing 68,000,000 Germans to comply, implying most consented or were coerced by other means. Manfred Von Schroder later explaining, “people knew of the camps but they were only an illusion”, although as a Nazi diplomat he may seek to excuse camps as a necessary counter-measure to a Bolshevik revolution,[17] together with evidence the 70 early camps quickly closed, suggests physical coercion of ordinary Germans has been exaggerated because most had no direct contact with the camps. Bessel’s idea of a scaled-down Gestapo gains some support from a large statistical analysis of 1,000 Gestapo records, limited by the records relating to solely Nazi- voting regions in North Bavaria which did not require a large Gestapo presence.[18] However, finding only 28 secret police controlled Würzburg’s population of 1,000,000, considered alongside an equally large analysis, finding the Gestapo under-resourced in traditionally left-wing working- class regions of the industrial Rhineland, where opposition to the regime was strongest – “less than 1% of the Krefeld population having any brush with the Gestapo”, lend convincing support to Bessel’s contention, it was structurally impossible for the Gestapo to be all-pervasive, therefore physical coercion does not account for ordinary German’s compliance.[19] Although, by placing a different emphasis on the findings of the second study, because it focuses on the first years of policing of areas where opposition to Nazism was most prevalent, it is arguable a ‘proactive’ Gestapo, used limited resources more selectively to target left-wing opposition, supporting a traditionalist view of coercion. However, together with a large survey of elderly non-Jewish Germans, a useful resource to gauge public perception as it takes account of faded memory and opinions from across Germany specific to this period, including 200 oral testimonies,[20]finding 75% of respondents having “neither feared or been aware of anyone arrested by the Gestapo” strongly supports Bessel’s view, the Gestapo did not use physical coercion to ensure the compliance of most ordinary Germans, suggesting consent rather than coercion maintained the Nazi ‘s in power.


Extreme physical coercion of political opponents being critical to maintaining Hitler in power is some-what undermined by evidence of its more selective use and limited impact on ordinary Germans. However, it is arguable the coercive climate of fear which resulted from immediate and extensive violent coercion of all political opponents has not been exaggerated, but provided Hitler with the most effective means of coercing all Germans to comply. Supporting this argument, Browder contends, “the Gestapo’s use of ordinary peoples self-policing capacities later, presupposed a massive wielding of coercive terror earlier on”.[21] Albeit ‘political’, 40,000 prisoners, upstanding citizens, formerly sitting on councils and in parliaments across Germany, like MP Joseph Felder, returned home in 1933 with horrific stories, the SS killing in excess of 600 camp prisoners, exemplified by socialist Friedrich Kellner, who kept his contemporary diary hidden, and wrote with ‘extreme caution’ in 1938.[22]Although mindful of the fact Kellner’s fear would naturally have been heightened by living in a small Nazi-voting town, his attached news clippings verifying the continual articulation of heinous acts of violence by a Nazi-censored press, his ‘secret’ diary provides reliable evidence of a climate of fear, when extrapolated to the experience of many thousands of ‘former’ political opponents and their families suggests over half of the population living in extreme fear of Nazi physical terror, most effectively deterred open dissent. Although, some Germans actively participating in the terror of Kristallnacht, the “creeping compliance” of others who, having a “learned indifference” to Nazi violence by 1938,[23] were arguably not coerced but complicit in Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, suggests coercion through fear has been exaggerated. Although only examining the city court records of Augsburg, finding denunciation cases from overhearing anti-Nazi comments in pubs fell dramatically from 75% in 1933 to only 10% by 1939 even in a Nazi strong-hold in Bavaria,[24] the same study finding 22% of people charged with ‘malicious gossip’ in the mid-1930’s were Nazi party members, provides surprising evidence even Nazi supporters feared making an incautious remark, suggesting the security police kept all Germans under “continuous supervision” because support for Nazism dwindled. Together with a study finding surveillance of ordinary Germans by significant numbers of low-level Nazi ‘Block Wardens’[25] over 2,000,000 by 1939, reporting ‘unguarded’ comments of residents of their ‘block’ to the Gestapo, and elderly interviewees of the aforementioned survey, recalling becoming increasingly “cautious” of speaking out of turn, provide overwhelming evidence of the Nazi’s use of a coercive climate of fear, invading the public and private lives of ordinary citizens, has not been exaggerated but acted as a significant deterrent to anybody minded to oppose, regardless of political affiliation, by adding to a perception of an omnipresent Gestapo having an agent on every corner.[26]


Extreme physical coercion of all political opposition, critically enabling Nazi dictatorship and deterring future political opposition to the regime has not been exaggerated. Although it is arguable Hitler restructuring the legal system to reinforced a climate of fear resulting from early violence, and using it to underpin other coercive measures, was the most effective form of coercing ordinary Germans to comply and maintain the regime in power during these years.


Nazi ‘restructuring’ of the judicial system, leading to severe sentences for new ‘pseudo’ crimes, and the security police, operating without legal constraint, resulting in arbitrary arrests and indefinite detention, arguably making the Nazi’s use of the law the most effective tool of coercion ensuring German compliance. Fraenkel’s brief summary, “during the early years of the regime, Hitler’s principal instrument of terror was the Law”.[27] Although, making his historical assessment shortly after fleeing Germany to avoid persecution as both a Socialist and a Jew, Fraenkel’s view may be tainted, as a defence lawyer he was highly placed to comment on Hitler’s debasement of the criminal law and due process. His contention gains immediate support from Hitler quickly abolishing jury trials to avoid the public returning unfavourable verdicts.[28] Hitler- controlled political courts trying all ‘crimes against the state, doubling the prison population during these years, suggests the judiciary, forced to subscribe to the Nazi League of Jurists and align with Nazism, were effectively coerced into making decisions on innocence in favour of the regime.[29] Unfairly convicting and handing-out long prison sentences for ‘subversive treason’, even for minor offences of ‘malicious gossip’ about Hitler, the widespread reporting of draconian punishments, Judge Friesler in the ‘People’s Court’ ordering the execution of 5,000 citizens in 1937,[30] without a right of appeal having no means of challenging the Nazi state, amounting to ultimate coercion of the law.[31]Added to this, the courts reinterpreting police ‘protective custody’ powers, usefully summarised by the former head of the Gestapo’s legal department, Werner Best, “as long as the Gestapo carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally”,[32] becoming basic Gestapo Law in 1936, effectively allowing the security police to operate ‘above the law’, further increasing terror of the law as there was no means of challenging police decisions to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone who ‘might’ commit a crime.


Fraenkel’s argument can however be extended, senior conservative jurists arguably willingly became coercive agents of the regime because they shared Nazi ideology. Synder, supporting this view, argues “the power of authoritarianism was freely given, relying on the support of conservatives in the Courts”.[33] His contention gaining significant support from the lack of evidence of organised opposition, few judges resigned in protest or removed from office - in 1933 Prussia dismissed only 300 from a legal profession of 45,000.Together with a useful study, as it is specific to this period and focuses on sentencing of 1,000 new offences of subversive treason, finding judges retained a “significant degree of discretion”, despite Hitler’s control of the political courts, interpreting what “was good for the Aryan race as good law”, the Ministry of Justice criticising under 20 verdicts for not going far enough, [34] suggests judges were not coerced from the top.[35] The overwhelming consent of the judiciary applying new coercive laws extensively, because they consented, maintaining Hitler in power has not been exaggerated.


Supported by Bracher, it is arguable it was not terror of the law but Hitler’s use of legal mechanisms, tending to appear legitimate in contrast to the revolutionary overthrow of power in 1918, which maintained the Nazi’s in power. Bracher explaining, “a power vacuum existed in which no government or political force was able to gain popular legitimacy for its actions”.[36] Hitler immediately using Weimar law to exploit the “power vacuum”, under the guise of protecting the state, ‘temporarily suspending’ civil liberties, including freedom of the press, lends significant weight to the argument. His destruction of a traditionally independent German press, forcing 1,600 newspapers to close in 1935, effectively neutralising the ability of political opponents to communicate an alternative to Nazism, ensuring ordinary citizens lost the means to scrutinise his regime, has not been exaggerated but limiting the scope for opposition further maintained the regime in power.[37] Hitler also using his newly acquired authority to pass laws without Reichstag approval, even though the Enabling Act was passed illegally, effectively removing the autonomy of German Federal States which enabled him to use Länder parliaments to ‘rubber-stamp’ his laws to reassure Germans everything was in order.[38] Using his ‘reorganisation’ of the civil service, to continually dismiss Nationalist party member, a decisive factor in this coalition partner dissolving. Thus, by making the law and the Fuhrer’s Will identical,[39] Hitler sought to ‘legitimise’ and use his absolute control of the law in the best interests of the regime to maintain power during these years.


Revisionist and traditionalist historians agree, Hitler used the coercive nature of the law to advance his Nazi agenda. Hitler using ‘pseudo’ legal means to decimated constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, and a “dual legal-system”, offered no protection against arbitrary arrest and unfair convictions, to a large degree undermining the legitimacy he sought,[40] has not been exaggerated, reinforcing a pervading atmosphere of terror to keep the whole population in line critical to maintaining Nazi dictatorship.[41]


Whilst Hitler used coercion of the law to reinforce a climate of fear, it is arguably his use of propaganda which most effectively coerced ordinary Germans to comply. O’Shaughnessy, supporting the argument purports “propaganda was more than just an instrument of government but was itself a medium through which to exercise power”.[42] Hitler’s creation of a Ministry of Propaganda as one of his first acts as Chancellor, putting into practice his lengthy theorising on the psychological potential of propaganda in his political manifesto Mein Kampf some years before,[43]is exemplified by his introduction of new social rituals - even his birthday was celebrated, and building monumental architecture – such as the vast parade grounds at Nuremberg.[44] Helpfully summarised by a Nazi Diplomat later describing Hitler reviewing the troops, “there all in line…but there’s no order here”, suggests Nazi propaganda ,pervading all aspects of cultural life, designed to create an illusion of allegiance to encourage ordinary Germans to conform, even if behind the scenes the structure of government was arguably more chaotic.[45] Added to this, Hitler believing the control of information as important to maintaining power as controlling the military, created a department with the sole remit of “protecting against the threat of domestic counter-propaganda”, provides strong evidence in support of O’Shaughnessy’s argument, Hitler intended the Third Reich to be a propagandist state from the outset.[46] Exploiting his control of all mass mediums of communication to continuously disseminate Nazi rhetoric, exemplified by Hitler’s radio broadcast to the nation over loudspeakers in Spring 1936, successfully manipulating even left-wing factory workers at Krupps to secure almost 100% of the electoral vote.[47] Substantiated by a study of an SD intelligence ‘media monitor’, finding ordinary Germans in the mid-1930’s ‘not close to the truth’ in what they knew about the realities of Nazi terror, provides convincing support of the manipulation of propaganda effectively coercing all classes of Germans to believe in a false reality.[48] As the study examines surviving records from the Headquarters of the Reich Security, Order Police and Inspectorate of Camps, as well as Himmler’s Press Post and Goebbels Propaganda Ministry, each agency individually evaluating reports on public opinion from agents located across the Reich, provides an invaluable source of evidence of indoctrinating propaganda effectively coercing ordinary Germans has not been exaggerated but has a far-reaching and decisive influence conditioning many to accept Nazism and maintain the regime in power.


In contrast, the power of propaganda is arguably rooted in its’ ability to appeal rather than coerce, supported by Kallis who argues “Nazi propaganda during these years was an indicator of what people sincerely hoped to be true”.[49] Although as Minister for Propaganda Goebbel’s does not necessarily offer a balanced view of the role of coercion, recognising the limitations of physical coercion of the entire population as early as March 1933, his belief Hitler needed the ‘ideological support of the whole people’ appears to have merit and adds weight to Kallis argument, consent for Nazism rather than coercion maintained Hitler in power.[50] As there is limited evidence, Helen Radtke, writing on “Why I became a Nazi” in 1933, provides a rare insight into women’s political motivations for supporting the Nazi regime.[51] Explaining she “volunteered to serve the homeland in the war for the cradle”, suggests propaganda messaging appealing to what women “sincerely hoped to be true” were most influential in persuading women to embrace Nazi doctrine, a wife of a serving soldier also contributing to her nationalistic view. A recent examination of contemporary letters, whilst limited to one family, giving an insight into an ‘average’ and highly literate, multi-generational family, who, living apart in Germany and Holland, explain their genuinely held belief Hitler was “fighting for their very existence”,[52] supported by Goebbels bombardment of images of Hitler as a strong leader for the time, encouraging large numbers of women to attend Nazi rallies, importantly securing their vote, as they outnumbered men – in Berlin 1,116 for every 1,000 men, suggests appealing messages ensured the conformity of many ordinary Germans.[53]Although, Radtke echoing a key Nazi slogan also suggests “repeated exposure” techniques to similar messages, calculated to trigger an “authority bias”,[54] arguably coerced many Germans into believing in a great “illusion” of a man who never really existed, and coerced women into remaining in the private sphere, because Hitler perceived feminist ‘new women’ of Weimar threatened traditional gender roles.[55] However, a study of Nazi newspapers unearthing positive press reports, praising the “re-educational” nature of Dachau in 1933, substantiated by [56] an earlier study finding even non-Nazi journalists presented the camps positively, “beyond what censorship required” in the Northeim press,[57] and middle-class women such as Elisabeth Gebensleben, whose letters to her daughter reveal she felt “unnerved by beggars on the street”, welcoming tailor messages, such as ‘Bread and Work’ offering hope and promising economic stability.[58]A study finding propaganda failing to mobilise hatred of Catholic Bavarians for the Jews, despite their pre-Nazi dislike, maintained social contact with their Jewish neighbours, further suggesting the efficacy of propaganda was determined by its ability to reinforce existing societal consensus rather than used as a method of coercion, persecution of the Jews clearly did not appeal.[59]


However, coming full circle, it is arguable the power of propaganda to coercively control ordinary Germans to comply lay in Hitler’s preparedness to use extreme physical coercion. Speier supporting this argument, contends, “whilst propaganda lacks the bluntness and irrevocability of physical violence it derives its’ ultimate efficacy from the power of those, who may at any moment cease talking and start killing”.[60] The argument significantly supported by the Northeim study referred to above,[61] finding ordinary citizens who believed in Nazism implicitly threatened by daily articles of concentration camps in 1933, and explicitly threatened by front-page news in 1934 of ordinary Germans receiving long sentences for maliciously gossiping about the regime. Together with evidence Hitler, understanding the power of articulating violence, insisting the “forceful” reporting of the first summary executions of "anti-socials" in 1939, by the police and without due process,[62] suggests Hitler’s early violent coercion of political opponents has not been exaggerated in maintaining the regime in power, as propaganda most effectively deterred opposition to the regime when underpinned by a very real threat of violence.


Whilst Hitler’s self-purported propagandist state effectively manipulated existing societal

consensus conditioning many Germans to accept Nazism, when articulating threats of violence, backed up by Hitler’s willingness to use violent coercion, played a significant role deterring opposition to maintain the regime in power during these years.[63]


However, supported by the more recent historical opinion, it is arguable mass voluntarism rather than coercion ultimately maintained power the regime in power during this period, Peukert arguing “many citizens bowed before Nazi policy”.[64] Evidence of Nazi foreign and economic policy success giving substantial weight to the argument, Making both a priority at a time of high unemployment, Hitler’s ‘new’, and later ‘Four-Year Plan’ promoting autarky, creating 100,000’s jobs in construction and rearmament, eliminating unemployment by 1936,[65] supported by success in national elections and plebiscites suggesting despite broad coercive measures many Germans consented, seduced by Hitler as a strong and capable leader. However, conscripting unemployed men to labour- intensive work schemes, having no platform for collective opposition, early violence having removed political and trade union bases, other than the Nazi Labour Front,[66] given a shovel and bicycle, with little choice over pay or where they worked- by 1939, 1,000,000 workers compulsorily reassigned to war-related industries for objecting, hardest hit by the economic crisis, [67] propaganda messages of ‘Bread and Work’ further exploiting fear of unemployment, further undermining Peukert’s voluntarism argument. However, there is strong evidence Hitler had mass support for his ideological policies, exemplified by the overwhelming number of doctors,[68] supporting Nazi racial policy sterilised over 400,000 'hereditarily sick’ as ‘life unworthy of life’, an ‘economic drain’ on the Nazi state, [69]and further in the context of an inherent spiritual-moral crisis, financially independent German Protestant Templars,[70] offering an independent view, finding a majority of Protestant Germans, who made up 60% of the population, welcoming ‘revivalism’ of Hitler’s Reich Church, and policies advancing Hitler’s vision of a ‘national community’ without crime - in 1937, a policy of ‘preventative arrest’ keeping 2000 ‘habitual’ criminals from further crime,[71]further supporting Peukert contention, mass support for Nazi policy, rather than coercion maintaining the Nazi’s in power.


However, consent for Nazi policies is outweighed by the evidence of extreme coercion of left-wing workers who represented a substantial proportion of the population, together with a wider system of social discipline which further limited the chances of non-compliance. Many millions of Germans, certainly in the early years, ‘co-opting’ in Nazi- organisations at every level, because Nazi dictatorship largely satisfied their hopes and fears following the endemic failings of Weimar, halting the Communist terror threat and delivering an ‘economic miracle’. However, given Hitler’s complete decimation of fundamental civil liberties, and the elimination of platforms, limiting the ability for successful opposition, a wholly voluntaristic view falls short. Most convincing, Hitler engendering fear in the whole population, although more selective, extreme violent coercion sending 1,300,000 to camps during these years, underpinning other Nazi coercion, has not been exaggerated in maintaining Hitler in power in the years leading up to WW2.


Charles E.Cheadle



BIBLIOGRAPHY

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