The Role Social
and Cultural Attitudes Played in Bringing
the Nazis to Power in Germany
Monash University, 1997
This paper looks at what effect social and cultural attitudes among the German people had in bringing the National Socialist party (Nazis) to power, as it was the main source to the evil of World War II, in which Adolf Hitler played the central role. The conclusion discusses the importance of these attitudes, and whether it can be said that some guilt might be put not only on the Nazi party and its fanatical leaders, but on the German people as well.
Europe, Nazism, Germany, attitudes, World War II
It is regarded as one of the greatest and heinous mass murders in history, and a shame for the human population. The devastating results of World War II, with some 6 million Jews killed and a total of approximately 43 million dead, have in various ways made an impact on every individual in the civilized world. Many of us are wondering how human and moral beliefs, built up for centuries, could vanish and make way for hatred, megalomania, and madness.
There will never be a complete or satisfying answer to this, but some explanations can be obtained by examining the past. This paper looks at what effect social and cultural attitudes among the German people had in bringing the National Socialist party (Nazis) to power, as it was the main source to the evil of World War II, in which Adolf Hitler played the central role. As this is a vast topic, the explanations and reasons given should be regarded as one way to approach the question, and not the answer to it. Thus, the conclusion discusses the importance of these attitudes, and whether it can be said that some guilt might be put not only on the Nazi party and its fanatical leaders, but on the German people as well.
BEFORE WORLD WAR II
In his book about the evolution of Hitler’s Germany, Horst von Maltitz reflects on the ideology of the National Socialist Party, and argues that it, in fact, ”did not contain a single idea of any substance which had not been derived from, and had not long been part of the German intellectual or cultural heritage”. Furthermore, he also sees the rise of Nazism as ”the story of the political and social emergence of the long-repressed and disdained petty bourgeoisie with all its intellectual and psychological faults and shortcomings, under the leadership of a (probably) psychopathic member of this group”.
It was not an accidental occurrence that the Nazis came to power in the early 1930s. The German people in the Weimar Republic faced a difficult economic and political crisis, with an unemployment increase from 9.7% in 1928 to 44.2% in 1932. By 1932 the industrial production had fallen to just 59% of its 1928 volume, and the net weekly wage of industrial workers fell to almost 50% of the wage in 1929. The political instability created a revolutionary atmosphere, and this was where the National Socialists entered the scene with solutions and promises for every person. They offered employment for the workers, new self-respect and importance to the lower middle-class, vaster profits and freedom from trade union restraints to capitalists, a great army to the army leaders, to all Germans German supremacy, and to the whole World - peace.
If Horst von Maltitz is right in that the Nazi party did not come up with one new idea in their program, these ideas and attitudes must already have been present among the German people. What attitudes then, were present?
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ATTITUDES
It is always difficult to trace the origin of attitudes among people, but some events in history can often be pointed out as evidence for their presence. I have concentrated on some of the attitudes that is often connected with Nazism to better understand how the party could come to power by applying and developing these in its politics. These are anti-Semitism, racial purity, nationalism and militarism, romanticism, and the German culture itself.
different ways of explaining the widespread anti-Semitism in not only Germany,
but also other European countries in the beginning of this century. One way is
to look at the historical perspective. Maltitz states that anti-Semitism has
been remarkably persistent for 2,000 years and that we can trace the origins of
it back to the development of Christianity from Judaism. According to Maltitz,
even Martin Luther advocated burning down synagogues and Jewish schools,
destroying the houses of the Jews, and expelling them from Germany. These
deep-rooted feelings made anti-Semitic organizations rise in the late
nineteenth century, and in thirty years of propaganda, they had disseminated
anti-Semitism throughout Germany and had created a firm ideological
understructure on which Hitler later could build. By about 1900, anti-Semitism
had become a domesticated, indigenous, and accepted doctrine to the vast
majority of the German people.
V.R. Berghahn also recognizes the pre-existence of anti-Semitism. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Jews not only alleged to have an economical and cultural harmful influence, but were also said to pose a biological threat to the genetic purity of the ‘Aryan race’.
How could theses tensions and feelings towards the Jews result in a horrible ”wild goose chase” during the second world war? A writer, Léon Poliakov, who himself was a Jew of German descent, became intimately acquainted with ten former Nazis and got their life stories. He argues that for the Nazis to gain support among the masses, they needed a single enemy - the Jews. Hitler also verified this: ”For a people like the German people, it is particularly necessary to indicate one sole enemy, to march against one sole enemy”. Maltitz develops this further with mentioning that the reason for applying this scape-goat theory, was due to the German loss in World War I. He states that the German nation was psychologically almost wholly unprepared for the defeat, and the result was a trauma for the entire nation. Therefore, a scape-goat was needed, and how convenient it must have been for Hitler, when the tensions against Jews already existed, to denominate them as the enemy and cause for the loss of World War I. Goebbels concludes this theory in his speech to the German nation:
”The Jew is the cause and the beneficiary of our misery. He has used the social difficulties of the broad masses of our people to deepen the unholy split between Right and Left among our people. He has made two halves of Germany. He is the real cause for our loss of the Great War.”
Social Darwinism, which applied Darwin’s doctrines of the fight for life and survival of the fittest to political and social relationships, in company with racial literature in the nineteenth century, made the racial purity attitudes grow. Especially an Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, made a huge impact on this development. In his book ”Die Grundlagen des XIX Jahrhunderts”, he writes about the Germans as the superior race, destined to rule. It credits the Germanic people with nearly all great cultural achievements, and this attracted the German middle class. The Pan-German association spread racial doctrines far and wide, particularly through the teaching profession. Their effect on the German youth was very strong. It did much to formulate what became the National Socialists racial ideology and to lay the foundation for its popular acceptance. This is how the ideology could be explained to the German people, according to Maltitz: ‘If history tells us that nations and cultures perish when they disregard ”natural laws” of survival of the fittest or best, then it is necessary to take decisive actions to prevent this from happening to Germany. In a nation’s fight for life, these natural laws operate beyond good or evil, right or wrong.’
Nationalism and militarism
From around 1871 to the outbreak of World War I, Germany developed its aggressive nationalism. Many thought that since Germany was now united, it should lead to a greater German power and prestige in the world. The idea of power of the Nation and its welfare took precedence over any ethical postulate. Later on, the Nazis built on these feelings with extreme propaganda - flags, plenty of banners, countless meetings, etc.
Militarism is also strongly linked with nationalism. It had been a dominant factor of Prussian history, and during World War I, the military established dominance over political leadership. Especially the youths took up the spirit of militarism, and thus, the people could be organized to participate in the nation’s glory. Maltitz says that the people welcomed the discipline and order, and the trust in one strong leader - the Führer. Gerhard Ritter also states that the people supported ”a man of the people” (Hitler), but he opposes the statement by Maltitz, pointing to that the great electoral successes of Hitler since 1930, cannot be explained by the Germans’ wish to find in political life a military discipline, by a desire to be given orders and to obey them. Whatever the truth is, the positive side of it is that today, much of the spirit can be found in the German business, for instance, discipline, incorruptibility and loyalty. Maltitz believes that this is one reason for the country’s economic success after the war, and I am not reluctant to believe him. 
Romanticism and German culture
The German Romanticism can be described as a wish of return to nature and revolt against rationalism, with nostalgia, emotions and senses as important ingredients. There was a strong tendency to carry an idea to extremes and to lose themselves intellectually and emotionally without thinking too much of the future. This can be seen in the vast creations of poetry, music and literature, especially during the ”golden years” of the Weimar Republic, between the two wars. The attitudes gradually changed towards the love of the ”Völk” (the German people) and the hatred of other nations and races. Again, it is easy to see how nationalism, romanticism and racism were mixed together, making it easy for the Nazis to develop these ideas. Also, the young generation, who saw the misery and the hopeless future in industrialization and urbanization, was affected by talks about the ”German soul”, and old stories about German heroes, fighters and successes. Hitler himself, as argued by Maltitz, was not interested in the ”German soul”, but included this in the propaganda to please those who were. Countless ideas and slogans were derived from Romantic literature, such as ”blood and soil”. Peter Gay also notes the youths as restless and bewildered after the first world war, and who sought salvation in the poets, in a pantheistic love of nature and a mystical love of the fatherland, which would later lead them to accept the excitement of the Nazi party.
Maltitz’s conclusion that the main reason for the ready acceptance of the ideology was the fact that basically it presented what millions of Germans thought anyway, is a good summary of the topic. Hitler collected these ideas, organized them, and put them into action - towards the Jews, the Nation, and the World. Therefore it cannot be fair to see World War II as Hitler vs. the World, but instead the German People vs. Reality - the reality of understanding and realizing who they really were (or were not) in a broader perspective of our civilization: a journey towards the moral and human values that we take for granted should rule today. In a way, they were all guilty of charge.
Maybe the rise of Nazism was inevitable. The mentioned attitudes among the German people had grown to be a dangerous bomb, only waiting for someone to pull the trigger. It was destiny that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party triggered it. However, a different history might have revealed another account, which could have resulted in a bigger explosion than the one causing World War II and the horror thereof.
This in return, we can only speculate.
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ibid., ch. 7
ibid., ch. 8
Gerhard Ritter, ”The fault of Mass Democracy” in Snell, The Nazi revolution, p. 77
Maltitz, Hitler’s Germany, p. 267
Maltitz, ch. 6, cf. Berghahn, Modern Germany, pp. 83-84
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Maltitz, Hitler’s Germany, p. 269