Hitler’s confidence, and his absolutism were part of his appeal to the masses.1 He was famous for his uncompromising statements, and Haffner remarks upon Hitler’s appeal, explaining that it was his complete polarization as an individual that incited such vigorous excitement in the German people. Of his confidence in leading Germany wherever he wished, one can note a brief exchange between Hitler and a British reporter by the name of Mosley.
… Hitler … demanded that I come forward and be introduced. He was in a good mood; he made a couple of jokes about the English Press when he knew who I was, and then banteringly asked why British journalists in Germany wrote so much about the threat of war. “There will be no war,” he said. “Don’t you agree?”
This, mark you, was the summer of 1939.
I said there would be no war if the rights of Poland and the Free City of Danzig were not infringed.
Hitler slapped his thigh, and laughed. “Even if there are, there will be no war,” he said. “There was no war over Sudetenland, nor over Czechoslovakia. There will be no war over Danzig.” When I demurred he repeated: “There was no war over Sudetenland! There will be none over Poland! The conditions are exactly the same and your actions will be the same.”2
Hitler’s position as head of party was something he was equally confident about. Of the party, Hitler once said, “The party is the Führer and the Führer is the party.”3 However, for all of Hitler’s allegations of unity, along the Nazi rise to power, he in fact stood apart, and above the party, to some degree or another. Sophie Scholl asked of her father, “But does the Führer have any idea of the concentration camps?” Her father responds, “How could he not know, since they’ve existed for years and were set up by his closest friends? And why didn’t he use his power to do away with them at once? And why are those released from them forbidden on pain of death to tell anything about what they went through?”4
For the masses, Hitler was not synonymous with the party—he was no simple mouthpiece, indistinct from the Nazi party itself. The exchange above instead suggests a belief in Hitler as a leader of the people, and confusion as to the disconnect with what Hitler had seemed to be, and what he now seemed to be condoning. This separation of the leader of all Germany and the political party in power can be explained in part by this “cheap mass intoxication” that Haffner writes about. To further exploit this yearning in the masses, Goebbels implemented a propaganda campaign of historic proportions.
In the early 1930s, as Hitler gained popularity, and just before he was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg, propaganda posters showed Hitler and Hindenburg together. In one poster, Nationalist colors of red, white and black are used in one, with the caption, “The Reich will never be destroyed if you are united and loyal.”5 In another, Hitler and Hindenburg are shown standing. It reads, “In the deepest need Hindenburg chose Adolf Hitler for Reich Chancellor. You too should vote for List 1.”6 This is of course is disingenuous, Hindenburg needed Hitler like a fish needs a bicycle, but he dared not let the rabble rouser out of his sight, or he risked the continued stability of Germany.
Early on, the campaign sought to make an image for Hitler in keeping with his rhetoric. He sought a united Germany, at all costs, and Hindenburg was already accepted by the mainstream of German society as a great leader. Hitler in his bid for the chancellorship could effectively borrow this image, and move decidedly into mainstream politics.7
Later on, after Hitler had become Chancellor, and then dictator, further propaganda kept the people united. In another poster, a German worker is shown, lifting a stone into place on the wall. The background is sparse, and the worker appears Aryan, being blond and tall. The caption reads, “Hitler is building. Help him. Buy German goods.”8 This simple rhetoric was common to propaganda posters, if the archives at Calvin College are any indication.
The emphasis in these posters was not deep visual symbolism—this wouldn’t have been often picked up on by the masses. Instead, the posters contained short, pithy sayings, or oratorical prose. Goebbels and Hitler both claimed that propaganda was a great art, and to communicate effectively a united message to the masses was the goal. No deep thinking or heavy symbology would be as effective. Hitler wanted an unthinking mass of Germans, united in attitude, to avoid dissent and confusion. As he said in Mein Kampf, “All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level has to be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to.”9
While symbology wasn’t heavily relied upon, there were instances of it in the propaganda, probably due to Goebbels’s promotion of ‘Führer Worship’. One comparison, very Christian in its symbolism, was found in a poster featuring a dove, descending from above Hitler, with the sun blazing brightly behind him, as he holds the Nazi flag in his right hand. The text, again, is potent rhetoric, “Long live Germany!”10 In another instance, one of the well known paintings of the Nazi regime was entitled Der Bannerträger, or “The Standard-Bearer,” painted in the mid-1930s, probably 1935. Hitler stands looking to the left, in a suit of shining armor, holding the Nazi flag. The symbolism is medieval, and harkens to the Crusades, pointing to German militarism. Claims have been made that Hitler handpicked this from a number of other depictions, in which he was apparently disappointed.11
Goebbels did a great many things to craft Hitler’s image, and these are but a few examples. Propaganda was found in many forms in the Third Reich, but Hitler’s visage and the swastika were definitely the most recognizable symbols for the German populace.12
Toward the end of the war, Hitler struggled with waning enthusiasm for the war, the party, and a lack of unity in miltary leadership. These combined forces did not topple his government, or remove him from power. Protests were few in number, and were quickly silenced. In addition, Hitler’s domination over his generals in war strategy was actually complete enough to lead to his own demise, as the the overextended eastern front of the Wehrmacht was overrun by Soviet forces.
Hitler’s generals were a disparate group, loosely united by dedication to Germany, and the force of Hitler’s personality, as well as Hitler’s deliberate positioning of them such that they would quarrel with each other rather than challenge him. One of Hitler’s top generals, Franz Halder, took extensive notes during the war. His notes indicate no moral reservations about the attack on Poland. This indicates not a mindset of anti-Semitism, but of warmongering. Megargee, author or War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941, quotes a record indicating the peace between Germany and Poland was fairly disingenuous.13 However, Halder does not seem particularly invested in racial ideologies, in fact, he makes a note that the military should be particularly cautious in avoiding getting embroiled in politics. Such a position does not point to a particular devotion to Hitler’s ideas—rather it suggests that Hitler’s position as leader or his force of personality were the cementing forces for Halder himself. Halder’s notes further indicate a brusque, business-like attitude toward both Hitler and the war.
Other military leaders were of various dispositions. Göring, for example, was as devoted to Hitler as he was to the war—anything Hitler asked for, he would promise, including air support at Stalingrad, which was logistically impossible to deliver.14 Some military leaders in Germany eventually turned on Hitler, but would not challenge him openly, and lacked the courage to shoot him despite many opportunities. The failed July 20th bomb plot, pushed chiefly by Stauffenberg, was the most extensive of the military’s resistance to Hitler, but he was hardly wounded.15 Despite the attempts on his life, he maintained control of the military without obvious challenges.
The relationship of leadership within the military is far more nuanced than the memoirs of Hitler’s generals would make it seem, Megargee asserts. Hitler’s generals were not simply following their duty to their leader, although such motivations were a component in their behavior. Halder’s War Diary records of Hitler, “…the commander must give orders that express the common feelings of his men.”16 This does not mean that Hitler’s generals were anti-Semitic, as Megargee suggests, but rather that the military was ready and willing to fight a war for Germany’s greatness, against whatever perceived enemy, real or not, that their leaders could point to with any convincing oration.
Hitler’s military leadership and the average citizen were less interested in the Nazi party than they were in a singularly effective leader. Megargee explains that it was belief in the individual, Hitler, that led to belief in the party, and that the oath that so many took, was almost superfluous.17 Haffner’s account suggests that his some of his own generation, and some of the former Freikorps, were perhaps the most common adherents to Hitler’s actual philosophy.18
Hitler’s appeal to the masses was not without resistance; there were incidents of resistance to both Hitler himself and the Nazi party. Gertrude Sombart said in an interview, “…most people of course, were for Hitler.” She relates further, that after the an assassination attempt, she remarked to her husband that it was bad luck that Hitler had survived. Her husband told her to hush, as there was an SS officer nearby, but from a woman who was with them came similarly derogatory comments about Germany’s leader.19
What We Knew, a collection of interviews from both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans who lived through WWII, makes it clear that it was a common sentiment to dislike the Nazi party—especially through the war itself. Inge Scholl relates an account of her siblings and their protests against the regime in a memoir. Sophie Scholl, with several of her fellow college students, and their professor, protested the Nazi regime, distributing anonymous leaflets promoting resistance to the government. “Do not forget that every people deserves the government it is willing to endure!” the leaflets said.20 This formal resistance arrived toward the the middle of the war, much after the Nazis had already suspended civil liberties and tightened their grip on Germany. The six originators of the group, called die Weisse Rose, were executed by the Nazis in 1943.21 There were others, including Helmuth Hübener, who wrote his own leaflets on a typewriter while listening to British radio. Hübener and two of his friends and supporters were arrested. Only one of the three friends survived to relate the tale, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe.22 Whatever resistance there was, these groups’ outspoken, dissenting voices against the Nazi government were in the minority, despite general public frustration with the Nazis.
While there were groups that protested the regime, it seems that the clarity and extent of information about the ‘Final Solution’ itself was varied among the public. The German populace was fearful of saying a word against the regime—few were willing to risk what liberty they had. The Nazi party forbad those few that left concentration camps to ever speak about it, on pain of death.23 In fact, various sources suggest that the actual mass-murder of the Jews, fulfilling Hitler’s desires for a ‘Final Solution’, was the best kept secret of the Third Reich.
The lack of written communications between Hitler and Himmler about the concentration camps and the ‘Final Solution’ is conspicuous. There are several contributing factors, the first being that Hitler preferred spoken to written communication. The second follows on that premise, being that Hitler generally spoke to Himmler on the phone at least once a day.24 However, the Nazi Regime was a modern one—there were notes and records on many things, and it has been regarded as perhaps the mostly highly documented regime of the 20th century. So this lack of recorded directives for Himmler remains conspicuous. Notes of Himmler’s were recorded after telephone sessions with Hitler, and after 1938, Hitler began publicly threatening the Jews with extermination if they did not leave Europe. However, within the eye of the public, there is a distinction between rhetoric, speeches, or painting a group as pariahs, and actively exterminating a group openly. While the average German citizen may have been aware of some of what was going on in the death camps, it seems clear that Hitler knew that open discussion would be detrimental to his cause. A memo banning discussion of the ‘Final Solution’ in public was sent out in July of 1943.25
Hitler’s deliberate avoidance of written orders in general, as well as his particular avoidance to records of the “Final Solution” seem then attributable to a fundamental preoccupation with the public eye. Hitler’s vanity—his fixation on how he appeared and what he communicated, particularly in his speech-making, is well documented.26 Without any written records from Hitler himself on the ‘Final Solution’, one can conclude that Hitler was covering his bases, so to speak. The public was vaguely aware of the concentration camps, and he was preparing for the day that the mass-murders and the death camps became entirely public. The reaction of the public wasn’t as united as he wished,27 and this would certainly have made such a media conscious leader pause, no matter how bold.
Anti-Semitism could not have been the primary driving force for most Germans—they simply weren’t completely engrossed enough in Hitler’s haphazard ideology. Hitler’s control of Germany then seems most easily attributable to German perceptions and expectations about authority, and the force of Hitler’s oratory. Propaganda, filled with rhetoric, played its part as well, but above all else, the people were expecting a leader, a savior, a redeemer of Germany. Such needs were common sentiment, and would not be surprising in a monarchy, but the return of a dictatorship in the modern era promised a different kind of regime than had hitherto been seen in Europe.