“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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