‘Cars, radios and holidays: did the Volksgemeinschaft create Volkish Ubermensch or Passive Participants after Prizes?’

Image

“The Ministry has the task of achieving a mobilisation of mind and spirit… We did not lose the war because our artillery gave out but because the weapons of our minds did not fire.”

– Goebbels, J, ‘Address to the Officials and Directors of the Radio Corporation’, Berlin, March 25th 1933.

When we think about the Nazi state, several things usually come to mind.  A raving Hitler, all hand gestures and guttural German, standing behind a podium in front of thousands of adoring ‘fans’.  German soldiers goosestepping in perfect unison during a military parade.  An Aryan mother feeding her equally Aryan and numerous children while a picture of the Chancellor on the wall looks down on them.  Broken shop windows and yellow stars.  Men in black shirts and whole families that just disappeared.  Concentration camps like Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.  War.

Imprinted into our memory by high school history lessons and the media through films and television, the full scope of life under the Nazi regime seems apparent.  ‘Ze Germans’ were bad: sheep like followers of the even worse ‘endgame’ boss Hitler and his grossly caricatured cronies like the drunken, overweight Goring and thought policeman extraordinaire Himmler.  What many don’t realise however is the principle which drove the Nazi Party to power and ‘justified’ all the actions of the Third Reich, both good and bad.

This was the volksgemeinschaft.

Image

What was the volksgemeinschaft?

The volksgemeinschaft was a policy that crossed racial, social and political spheres which sought to unify the German people behind Hitler and the Nazi Party.  It preached of a classless society of Germans, linked through heritage, to restore the nation.  Still affected by the punishing Treaty of Versailles and reeling from the instability of the Weimar Republic and the Great Depression, Germany turned to a political party that pledged for a return to traditional family values, blamed the nation’s problems on everyone else and promised to return the country to its rightful place in the world.  This was the essence of the volksgemeinschaft.

The word itself comes from the Volk (the ethnic German people) and the gemeinschaft (a sociological view of community or family).  It sought to identify the German nation as a single community of true Germans who would work and sacrifice for each other.  In this ‘identity’ was both a racial and political component.  As a result the people who were excluded from the family were just as significant as those who were included.  Those who Hitler could not view as willing to sacrifice for the nation were therefore driven from it.  They were separated into National Comrades and Community Aliens.  Communists who were loyal to the proletariat and social democrats that had stabbed Germany in the back during 1918 were obviously unacceptable.  Jews, Slavs, Gypsy’s and the disabled were racially impure and therefore excluded.  Even pure Germans who were critical or lazy and shirked the responsibilities towards the struggle were considered unacceptable.

How was the volksgemeinschaft applied?

Seeking to entirely remake a modern society, Hitler sought sweeping changes.  The youth of Germany was regimented.  To facilitate this teachers and curriculums were ‘Nazified’ and church youth groups were replaced by Nazi equivalents.  The Hitler Youth focused on the values of physical education and political indoctrination over intellectual pursuits.  Boys were essentially trained from the age of 10 to become racially pure and politically loyal soldiers for the Third Reich.  Girls were similarly trained to become loyal mothers of even more racially pure Germans, the volksgemeinschaft seeing this as a woman’s true role within society.  Their loyalty was to the state and to Hitler.  This indoctrination was so successful that in several cases children reported their own parents to the regime for a lack of loyalty.

Image

The destruction of class saw all labour unions disbanded and replaced with a single Nazi entity, the German Labour Front (DAF).  Blue and white collar workers were renamed workers of the fist and brain respectively.  The Nazi government started inducing workers with bribes of holidays, radios and theatre & show tickets for loyalty and productivity.  It tried to show that the working class could now access all the benefits of the wealthy as part of the volksgemeinschaft.  Programs such as Eintopf and Winterhilfe (one-pot meals and winter relief) showed fellow Germans sacrificing to support each other within the Greater German ‘Family’.  And all the while Goebbels blasted the air waves and newspapers with Germany’s great success at the remaking of a pure and prosperous society.

Image

Was the volksgemeinschaft successful?

In a word: No.  But to an extent: Yes.

With Germany crumbling from the East and West, there was no November revolution like in 1918.  The all-encompassing combination of the Gestapo and Goebbels propaganda machine kept the German people in check.  Examples of exclusion such as Kristallnacht and concentration camps saw the exclusionary nature of the volksgemeinschaft succeed, the end result seeing millions of Slavs, Gypsy’s, Jews and the disabled killed.  The pseudo-religion of racial purity was taken to its tragic end.  Notions of classlessness were successful, if you only view Goebbels propaganda machine.  Most of the working class were happy to take the prizes on offer without buying into the political garbage that came with it. Despite ‘rebranding’, the class system remained in Germany. The reset to traditional women’s roles failed to take into account wartime manpower needs: more women than ever were working by the end of the war.  And while large parts of the youth were indoctrinated, groups such as the Swing Youth and Edelweiss Pirates continued to rebel against the structured nature of German society.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Fritzsche, Peter, Life and Death in the Third Reich, Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2008

Koonz, Claudia, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics, St. Martins, New York, 1988

Mason, Timothy, Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995

Roberts, Stephan, The House that Hitler Built, Harper Brothers, New York, 1938

Welch, David ‘Nazi Propaganda and the Volksgemeinschaft: Constructing a People’s Community’ in Journal of Contemporary History, 39 2

Welch, David, The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, Routledge Publishing, London, 1994

Advertisements

5 comments on “‘Cars, radios and holidays: did the Volksgemeinschaft create Volkish Ubermensch or Passive Participants after Prizes?’

  1. adamthecon says:

    You’ve written up a very interesting account of indoctrination under the Nazi regime, Andrew. I find that every time this issue is brought up there are numerous arguments over why there was, or if there was any, real support for the Nazi Regime. Of course, as with any oppressive regime, both the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’ were applied in order to keep the populace in line. I agree with your arguments the Nazi ‘stick’ of death and concentration camps, disappearances, and criminal convictions have remained a central tenet of the Allied narrative. This same narrative can definitely be seen to be integral to the identification of America as ‘Liberators’ and ‘Defenders of the Free World’ which only truly began being question during Vietnam.

    I can’t blame them for holding onto it as they are pretty cool epitaphs, but I digress.

    The role of the Volksgemeinschaft and the Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy) is often forgotten when the Nazis are portrayed as ‘the bad guys’. The problem with this reading is that it places a uniqueness upon the regime equating it an aberration rather than a potential outcome for any state. By looking at how the Volkgemeinschaft functioned as a part of propaganda and its successfulness, the role of the German people under the Nazis can be more fully understood. I know you’ve probably done this to death Andrew, but one of Richard Evans Lectures that he has given is on a very similar topic. I’ve linked it below. It’s called Coercion and Consent.

    http://moodle.srms.kent.sch.uk/$stu*/Stu/History/Year%2013/Nazi%20Germany%20coursework/Podcasts/Evans%20lecture%20Coercion%20and%20consent.pdf

    fantastic summary!

  2. Hi Andrew,
    As much as I couldn’t understand or pronounce a lot of the words within your blog ( as all I know how to say in German is yes, no ,1, 2, 3) I found it a very good read. Hitler and his entire campaign has always interested me in how such situation as Nazi Germany can take place and your paper has only inspired me to follow through and find out. How did you find primary documentation in English to use as your primary sources?
    One other thing you may be able to answer off your research too, Although Hitler did offer all these incentives for workers and make promises of a better nation, don’t you think that someone or a group would have stood up at some point and said this is wrong what we are doing to the Jews, the disabled, gays and alike? Why do you think his regime when so unopposed for so long? or was it a matter that when people came to their senses, it was too late?

    • carolynewmq says:

      Hi Scott, sorry I’m just going to chime in here for a minute. I know this isn’t my project! In relation to your question on whether someone would have stood up against what the Nazis were doing to Jews in particular, the propaganda from the time was really indoctrinating even from a young age. I have a put a link underneath here to an excerpt from a children’s book published in 1938 called ‘Der Giftpilz’ (literally meaning ‘The Poison Mushroom’) which was a form of antisemitic propaganda. Even from such a young age children were being fed antisemitic propaganda. It was this kind of propaganda which I think would have had an effect on whether or not someone protested against what the Nazis were doing.

      Sorry to butt in here! I just found it really interesting when I was doing my own research into Nazi propaganda.

      http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/story2.htm

  3. owentaunton says:

    very good read. the points that you make i hadnt really read into before or thought about which is really interesting.

  4. greergamble says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I thought this was really interesting, particularly when you touched on the question of class. When I was younger the word “socialism” in the Nazi party’s name seemed like a mistranslation but obviously Nazi Germany was a planned economy etc. By explaining how the “volksgemeinschaft” (??) ideology and practice opened up facets of life or “prizes” that were previously unavailable to lower-class Germans you give a really good reason for why people felt so loyal to the Party. I suppose we will never know if most people were truly loyal or if like you suggest it was just about getting prizes.
    You also touch on things like Hitler Youth- it might be really interesting to research (or maybe you already have) the relationship between young people who had been indoctrinated since birth, and their parents, re. ideology, during the Nazi years. I wonder if there was much generational conflict happening? You do hear stories of kids ratting their parents out to the Gestapo, and I wonder if that was a common thing?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s