Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)
Chapter 16. Cult and Community
“It is the miracle of our age that you found me…among so many millions,” Hitler proclaimed at the Nuremberg Party Conference on 3 September 1936. “And that I found you is Germany’s great fortune.” With these words Hitler sought to suggest a mystical unity between himself as Führer and his followers. In a speech to NSDAP political directors two days earlier, he had already struck a pseudo-religious tone: “Once in the days of yore, you heard the voice of a man, and it touched your hearts, it awakened you, and you followed it…When we meet here, we are suffused with wonder at our coming together. Not all of you can see me, and I cannot see all of you. But I can feel you, and you can feel me.”1
Such messianic rhetoric appealed to the desire of Hitler’s followers who looked up to him as their supposed saviour with an unprecedented willingness to believe. Much of the evidence suggests that the dictator also saw himself as such and believed what he told his vassals. Hitler quickly forgot that he owed his rise to power not to some miracle but to a unique constellation of political crises, and that at the precise moment when his bid for power was about to fail he had been heaved into the Chancellery by a sinister plot.
The suggestion of unity of Volk und Führer—the people and its leader—had an effect on Hitler’s detractors as well as his supporters. By March 1937, Victor Klemperer had given up any hope for change, confiding to his diary: “Hitler does indeed seem to be his people’s chosen one. Gradually I have come to believe that his regime will last for decades.”2 On the other hand, there were some dissenting voices who warned contemporaries not to be blinded by spectacles staged by the regime. The “impossibility of free speech” and the fear of being informed upon, wrote one of the SPD in exile’s informants, led “the average observer to overestimate the extent and above all the solidity of the government’s support.”3 So how much support did Hitler really enjoy? How great was the consensus between the government and the people? Is it correct to describe the first years of the Third Reich as one of those rare historical moments when, to quote the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, “the leader’s rule and popular opinion were in complete agreement”?4
Even during his meteoric rise, Hitler had profited from his image as a charismatic leader ascribed to him by his true-believing apostles Hess and Goebbels. He promised to overcome the very crisis that had borne him aloft, to restore domestic order after years of latent civil war, to establish an ethnic-popular community (Volksgemeinschaft) beyond political quarrels and class conflicts, and to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness. Hitler became a beacon of hope to millions of people disappointed by the Weimar Republic and embittered by the “dictates” of the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler knew that he would lose the aura of a saviour if he disappointed the expectations people had of him. Thus he did everything he could to encourage the belief that the new cabinet, in contrast to its predecessors, was decisively tackling Germany’s most pressing problems, above all mass unemployment. Under the slogan of “national renewal,” a mood of optimism was created, and a social dynamic set in motion, which gave the impression that “under this government things are looking up for Germany.”5
The first signs of economic recovery in the spring of 1933 seemed to confirm this impression. Hitler was credited for his tireless energy in the “labour battle,” and bourgeois circles also appreciated the fact that, at the same time, he brutally suppressed the political Left. “The thoughts and feelings of most Germans are completely dominated by Hitler,” remarked Luise Solmitz a few days before the Reichstag election of 5 March. “His fame is shooting to the stars. He is the saviour in an evil, sad, German world.” When she asked an acquaintance who had previously rejected National Socialism which party she intended to vote for, the woman answered: “Hitler of course!…We now have to support his cause with all means at our disposal!”6 This semi-legitimate election, which yielded a major success, if not an absolute majority, further boosted Hitler’s status. “A powerful national enthusiasm” was how Elisabeth Gebensleben described the mood in a letter to her daughter, adding: “There has hardly been an emperor who was celebrated as greatly as Hitler is loved, honoured and admired.” After the announcement that made 1 May a national holiday, Gebensleben asked herself how Hitler had succeeded in “welding together a people that was divided and miserable.” Only a few days later, she enthused: “What people can boast of a man even vaguely comparable to him?”7 In November 1933, the Swiss envoy in Berlin, Paul Dinichert, concluded: “Unlimited trust in the Führer has undoubtedly spread to broad segments of the people in the preceding few months. Everywhere, in all strata of the populace, you meet people who are completely subordinate and look up to him with the most profound admiration.”8
No one could have foreseen how widespread the cultish worship of Hitler would become after only six months of his regime. Cities and communities made him an honorary citizen,9 and streets and squares were named after him. In April 1933, Hamburg’s Rathausplatz was rechristened Adolf Hitler Square. The intent was to symbolically commandeer public space and erase representatives of democratic traditions from Germany’s collective memory.10 Whole postal sacks full of fan mail arrived every day at the Chancellery, and Hitler’s private office, which was directed by Martin Bormann’s brother Albert, had to take on four additional employees. Ordinary people expressed their adulation of Hitler in countless poems. “O leader you, the tool / In God’s hands to reverse our fate / Press boldly on / Behind you a cohesive front / Solidly one as if cast in ore / Man for man,” wrote a Hitler admirer from the southern German town of Schöneich, who also thanked the “most honourable Reich chancellor” for the pleasure he derived from “studying your Mein Kampf .”11 The Chancellery was swamped by requests for Hitler to serve as godfather to newborn children. In November 1933, Hitler’s chief assistant, Wilhelm Brückner, was forced to put a stop to it, writing to one applicant: “As much as the Führer welcomes the loyalty and affection expressed in such requests, he is incapable of satisfying all of them given their sheer number. He has therefore decided only to assume the role of godfather in very exceptional cases such as a family’s seventh son or ninth child in total.”12
The cultish worship of the Führer took on some fairly bizarre forms. The East Prussian village of Sutzken, for instance, requested permission to rename itself “Hitler Heights,” and a Düsseldorf Nazi Party member tried to name his daughter “Hitlerine.” (The authorities suggested Adolfine as an alternative.) “Hitler oaks” were planted, “Hitler cakes” baked, and “Hitler roses” were bred. The Reich Association of Dog Owners applied for permission to mint a commemorative coin with the image of “our beloved Führer, who is himself a breeder and lover of pure-bred dogs.” The senate of the Eberswalde Academy of Forestry awarded Hitler an honorary doctorate in recognition of his support “for the culture of our native soil, the promotion of the agricultural classes and the encouragement of timber cultivation and the timber industry”; Hitler refused to accept the honour as a matter of “principle.”13 A lively trade in Hitler busts developed, and the image of the Führer adorned beer steins, porcelain tiles, ashtrays, playing cards, fountain pens and other banal everyday objects. The selling of Hitler kitsch and devotional trifles grew so quickly that as early as April 1933 the government announced it was taking measures to rein in the commercial exploitation of the Führer’s likeness.14
Such excesses of cultish worship, as laughable as they may appear today, were serious expressions of the intense, erotically charged connection between large segments of the German population and Hitler. The cultish worship of the Führer was by no means just the product of a clever campaign of manipulation. On the contrary, “ethnic comrades,” male and female, fell over themselves to exalt Hitler, projecting all their hopes and desires onto the figure of the Führer and thereby divorcing their image of him even further from reality. The propagandistic staging of the Hitler myth and the eagerness of the masses to endorse and subjugate themselves to it encouraged one another.
Enthusiasm for Hitler reached an initial zenith on the occasion of his forty-fourth birthday on 20 April 1933. “In a unison of hearts scarcely imaginable a few weeks ago, the people declared its allegiance to Adolf Hitler as leader of the new Germany,” wrote the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten newspaper. The countless messages of congratulation preserved in the files of the Führer’s office suggest that the paper was not exaggerating. Goebbels captured the sentiment of the day in a congratulatory article in which he celebrated Hitler as “a man of very great stature” who exercised a “mysterious magic” over everyone who came in contact with him. Hitler, the propaganda minister claimed, had not changed through all the highs and lows of his career. “The longer one knows him,” Goebbels wrote, “the more one learns to appreciate and love him, and the more unreservedly one is prepared to devote oneself to his great cause.”15 Such encomia reflected a shift in public attitudes. Hitler was no longer the polarising leader of a political party, but a figure of integration who embodied national unity and a “people’s chancellor” who stood above all quarrelling. Victor Klemperer, who carefully monitored the language used by the Third Reich, noted: “To be added next to protective custody in my lexicon is people’s chancellor.”16
Birthday gifts were piled high in the Great Hall of the Chancellery, where Bismarck had chaired the Berlin Congress of 1878, reminding Hitler’s assistant Fritz Wiedemann of a “department store.” “There was a bit of everything,” Wiedemann recalled,
from a valuable oil painting some industrialist had given him to a pair of woollen socks from some old lady…In total it was a collection of a few nice things and a whole lot of kitsch. But whether they were valuable or not, they were moving expressions of the admiration and love the broad masses of the people felt for this man.17
Popular Hitler worship was in evidence throughout the Third Reich. In cinemas, there would be cascades of applause whenever the weekly newsreels showed the Führer’s image, as the Polish journalist Count Antoni Sobanski observed to his amazement in the spring of 1933.18 Most people voluntarily adopted the “Heil Hitler” greeting, with increasing numbers meaning it sincerely, rather than simply going along with the crowd. In April 1933, Annemarie Köhler, the doctor from the town of Pirna to whom Klemperer entrusted his diary, wrote of how “fanatical” the staff at her hospital had become. “They sit around the radio,” Köhler related. “When the ‘Horst Wessel Song’ is played…they all stand up and perform the raised-arm Nazi salute.”19 The salute became an inviolable custom in many National Socialist families. A letter to the “honorable Führer” from a family in Mannheim in March 1933 read: “Our little Rita would like to send her regards to the Führer with a Heil Hitler! For that reason, we have taken the liberty of enclosing a photo of her performing the German salute. She is ten months old and is the youngest of five. Whenever we show her a picture of Uncle Adolf, she immediately salutes.”20
Images of Hitler hung not just in private dwellings and government offices. They were everywhere in the public sphere. During the popular referendums organised by the regime, there was no escaping Hitler’s likeness. One SPD-in-exile observer wrote of the vote on 19 August 1934: “Hitler on all the billboards. Hitler in all the shop windows. Hitler indeed in every kind of window you can find. Every tram, every train, every car—Hitler looks out of every window.”21 Many Germans turned to the Chancellery to try to get a picture of their “beloved Führer” autographed. In August 1934, when Heinrich Himmler procured a picture with Hitler’s personal dedication for his parents, the Himmler household in Munich was beside itself. Gebhard Himmler, Heinrich’s father, reported: “Dear Mum was in ecstasy.”22
The Obersalzberg became a destination for pilgrimages. Thousands of devotees made their way to Hitler’s country retreat to try to get a glimpse of their hero. “The area around Wachenfeld house is constantly occupied by men and women admirers,” the president of Upper Bavaria reported in August 1934. “Even on walks in isolated spots the Reich chancellor is pursued by a throng of intrusive admirers and inquisitive persons.”23 Wiedemann found that there was “something religious” about the processions of these pilgrims: “Silently they passed with an expression which made clear that this was one of the greatest moments of their lives.”24
Wherever Hitler went in the first years of his rule, he was celebrated like a pop star. “Everywhere ovations for him…magnificent how the people are awakening!” Goebbels noted on 18 April 1933 after travelling with Hitler by car from Berchtesgaden to Munich.25 Albert Speer’s memoirs contain similar descriptions: “Two men from the military escort walked in front of the car, with three more on each side, as the car proceeded at a crawl through the pressing crowd. As I usually did, I sat right behind Hitler on the emergency seat, and I’ll never forget the impact of the jubilations, the delirium that was expressed in so many of the faces.”26 There can be no doubt that such scenes of jubilation were not organised: they were spontaneous outbursts of quasi-religious faith in the man who was credited with the powers of a miracle healer.
An incident recorded by Fritz Wiedemann illustrates these pseudo-religious components of the admiration for Hitler. During a visit to Hamburg, the crowd forced its way through the military escort, and one man succeeded in grasping Hitler’s hand. “He began dancing around as if mad and crying over and over, ‘I touched his hand, I touched his hand,’ ” recalled Wiedemann. “If the man had declared that he had been lame and could now walk again, I would not have been surprised. The crowd would have definitely believed it.”27 William Shirer witnessed similar scenes of pseudo-religious ecstasy at the Nuremberg Party Conference in 1934, when Hitler appeared for a moment on the balcony of his hotel room above a thousand-strong crowd, consisting largely of women. “They reminded me of the crazed expressions I saw once in the back country of Louisiana on the faces of some Holy Rollers who were about to hit the trail,” wrote Shirer. “They looked up at him as if he were a messiah, their faces transformed into something positively inhuman.”28
There was no way such excessive and continual hero worship could fail to affect Hitler’s self-image. “Only one German has ever been celebrated in this way—Luther!” he called out triumphantly to his entourage in the autumn of 1934, when his motorcade from Weimar to Nuremberg had trouble making its way through the masses of his admirers.29 The dictator visibly enjoyed being the centre of such unusual public appreciation. The awkwardness he had displayed on public occasions at the start of his chancellorship evaporated, and he became increasingly confident, his sense of self-importance growing as he was borne on wave upon wave of approval. Before long, he was addicted to the thrill of popular admiration. It reinforced Hitler’s belief that he had been chosen by Providence to carry out a historic mission.
Pro-Hitler euphoria was by no means restricted to middle-class circles. It also increasingly spread to the working classes. Key to this was the regime’s success in fighting unemployment. Economic developments from 1933 were referred to as an economic miracle, and in fact the number of jobless in Germany declined far more quickly than in other industrialised nations at the time. By 1936, primarily thanks to accelerated rearmament, Germany had practically achieved full employment. The rapid economic recovery had been financed by massive deficit spending, the costs of which would only become apparent later.30But what mattered most to workers was that a feeling of social security had been restored after the traumatic years of the Depression. As an observer for the SPD in exile in Rhineland-Westphalia reported in March 1935: “Today, having been given jobs in the arms industry, people who were to the left of us and were even Communists, defend the system, saying, ‘I don’t care about the whys and wherefores. I’ve got work. That’s something the others were never able to take care of.’ ”31 Another such report from February 1936 quotes workers who used to be members of the SPD and of the Reich Banner: “You people always made socialist speeches, but the Nazis have given us jobs…I don’t care whether I make grenades or build the autobahn. I just want to work. Why did you not take job creation seriously?”32
Hitler also increased his popularity among the working classes by taking nearly every opportunity to excoriate the lack of social respect for physical labour. “Honour labour and respect the worker!” he proclaimed at the main 1 May event in Berlin in 1933. Mental and physical labourers, he said, should never be pitted against one another: “That’s why we will root out the conceit that causes some individuals to look down on their comrades who ‘only’ work with a lathe, a machine or a plough.”33 Hitler’s message was that greater appreciation for physical labour would raise the social prestige of workers and break down stubborn social prejudices in society. Hitler’s fondness for styling himself as a “labourer” was part of his campaign to court the working classes and win them over for his regime.
Observers from the SPD in exile had no choice but to acknowledge the success of this strategy. “Major segments of the working classes have lapsed into unquestioning deification of Hitler,” one report from June/July 1934 noted ruefully. Workers were still “greatly obsessed with Hitlerism,” a report from February 1935 read, and three months later another observer concluded that “those workers who were previously indifferent are today the most submissive followers of the system and the most fervent believers in the cult of Hitler.”34 These reports are all the more credible because they were made by opponents and not adherents of the regime. Thus it was not merely wishful thinking when Goebbels repeatedly noted in his diary that workers were the “most loyal” supporters of National Socialism.35 The bloody purge of the SA in late June 1934 did nothing to diminish Hitler’s popularity among the working classes. On the contrary, many workers approved of Hitler’s “energetic” action. As one SPD report noted, “Hitler is a fellow who does nothing by half measures” was a widely held view.36
Nonetheless, the huge popularity Hitler enjoyed did not spill over to his party. With the sacrosanct Führer increasingly considered beyond banal everyday reality, criticism of aspects of the regime was concentrated on his subordinates. This mechanism became particularly apparent in the first half of 1934, a period when the public mood worsened. “Generally speaking, Adolf Hitler is exempt from criticism,” an SPD report from Berlin concluded. “He is credited with having good intentions, and people do not think he can do anything about the corruption of his subordinates.” The sentiment which one voter had scrawled upon an election ballot, “Yes to Adolf Hitler, but a thousandfold no to the brown bigwigs,”37 was widespread. Hitler benefited from comparisons with many party functionaries who flaunted their newly won power and were easily corruptible. In contrast the Führer depicted himself as a “simple man of the people,” someone with few personal needs who placed himself entirely at the service of the nation. “I am probably the only statesman in the world who does not have a bank account,” he boasted in late March 1936 in a speech to the workers at the Krupp factory in Essen. “I have no stocks or shares in any company. I don’t draw any dividends.”38 Very few people realised that the official image of Hitler’s modest lifestyle had nothing to do with reality. Moreover, the mythology of the Führer served a compensatory function; it blunted dissatisfaction over the problems and shortcomings of the Third Reich by blaming them solely on Hitler’s subordinates. If Hitler were aware of the problems, popular opinion ran, he would doubtless make sure they were alleviated.39 “If only the Führer knew” already established itself as a figure of speech in the early years of the regime.40
Hitler was well aware of the growing gap between his own beatified status and the negative image of Nazi Party functionaries. In a speech to his political directors at the Nuremberg party rally in 1935, he lashed out at all those “who would distinguish between the Führer and his followers…who would say yes to the Führer but question the necessity of the party.” Hitler told his audience: “For me, you are the political officers of the German nation and you are indivisible from me come what may.”41 But such assurances did nothing to change the fact that Hitler’s popularity was far greater than the party’s, and indeed to an extent came at the expense of the latter. Whereas the Führer received credit for all the regime’s achievements, disgruntlement was aimed exclusively at the “little Hitlers,” the Nazi Party’s local leadership.
Hitler’s reputation was based on Germany’s unexpectedly rapid economic recovery and his spectacular foreign-policy triumphs. The Saar region referendum of January 1935 and the reintroduction of compulsory military service two months later generated enthusiasm far beyond National Socialist circles. “Hitler is a guy who does not take any guff, who has backbone and who does what he thinks is right and necessary,” read one SPD-in-exile report.42 Nazi propaganda gleefully seized and expanded upon such sentiments. On the occasion of his forty-sixth birthday in 1935, the Nazi press spokesman, Otto Dietrich, celebrated Hitler as the “most supreme leader,” who had secured Germany’s ability to defend itself with his “incomparable decisiveness.” Goebbels added: “The entire people loves him, because it feels safe in his hands like a child in the arms of its mother…Just as we do, who are gathered close by him, so the last man in the farthest village says in this hour: ‘What he was, he is, and what he is, he should remain: our Hitler.’ ”43
But in the autumn of 1935, discontent over shortages of goods and inflation were once again growing. An SPD report from Saxony read: “The power of the cult of Hitler is no longer unbroken. Doubts are beginning to gnaw at the Hitler myth.” Another observer in Westphalia reported: “His star is beginning to fade.”44 When he tried to alert Hitler to the public unease, Fritz Wiedemann received a blunt rebuke. “The mood among the people is not bad—it is good,” Hitler scolded him. “I know better…Spare me such things in future.”45 Yet in truth, the dictator, who had a fine instinct for changes in the public mood, was worried himself. As we have seen, the remilitarisation of the Rhineland in March 1936 served in part to distract from domestic difficulties. Once initial fears of a military response by the Western powers proved unfounded, this risky operation unleashed a new wave of enthusiasm for Hitler, which was reflected in the results of the popular referendum of 29 March 1936. “Again and again, Hitler seems like a man of great character,” reported observers for the SPD in exile. “Again and again, people look up and admire the man credited with the monstrous achievements of National Socialist power and organisation.”46
“He is an idol for every one of us,” Goebbels noted in his diary in early October 1936, after Hitler had made another triumphant appearance at the harvest festival on Bückeberg Mountain.47 By then the mythic status of the Führer was well established. Hitler represented the strongest point of connection between the government and the people, and those who staged the Hitler cult did everything to celebrate and deify this supposed bringer of light. The National Socialist calendar of holidays, patterned after the Christian one, offered them plenty of opportunities. It kicked off on 30 January, the anniversary of the Nazi “seizure of power.” On 24 February, Hitler commemorated the proclamation of the party programme in 1920 with the old guard in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus. On 16 March, the Heroes’ Memorial Day—formerly the People’s Day of Mourning—featured a ceremonial event in the Reichstag followed by a military parade. April the 20th was the Führer’s birthday. The Day of National Labour—1 May—was staged as a celebration of the ethnic-popular community. It was followed by Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, the summer solstice on 21 June and the harvest festival, the “day to honour our farmers,” at Bückeberg Mountain near the town of Hameln in early October. The cycle of holidays ended on 9 November with the march of the “old fighters” from the Bürgerbräukeller to the Feldherrnhalle, where a commemorative ceremony was held for the “fallen warriors of the movement.”48
But the undisputed high point of the National Socialist calendar was the Nuremberg party rally in early September. Hundreds of thousands of functionaries, SA, SS and Labour Service men, Hitler Youth and League of German Girls members gathered each year in the ancient city of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation for the party’s “general roll call.” This painstakingly organised series of events bore hardly any resemblance to a traditional party conference. The rallies were not held to discuss controversial issues—which did not exist anyway in a party ruled by an infallible leader—but rather to glorify the regime and, in particular, the man who headed it. Contemporaries saw the rallies as “the epitome of the Third Reich’s glamour and power.”49 All means available were employed here to visually represent the movement’s capacity for mobilisation, dynamics and solidarity.
The Nazis had initially staged their 1927 and 1929 party rallies in Nuremberg, although the city fathers had not been particularly keen to host the event. For Hitler, the location offered the chance to portray himself as the reviver of the old German Empire in front of an appropriately Romantic, medieval backdrop. From 1930 to 1932, with the Nazis battling for power, no rallies were held, and the decision to revive the spectacle after Hitler became chancellor was taken relatively late. “Nuremberg rally decided,” noted Goebbels in late July 1933. “It will be really big.”50 Much of the four-day celebration seemed a bit improvised—not surprisingly given the lack of preparation time. SA Chief of Staff Ernst Röhm had a major place at Hitler’s side and accompanied him step for step at the ceremony honouring the dead in Luitpoldhain Park. The next year, after Röhm and his followers had been liquidated, the ceremony changed. The SA no longer enjoyed a central role. Along with the Labour Service, the Reichswehr took part in the rally for the first time, underscoring its status, guaranteed by Hitler, as “the nation’s sole bearer of arms.”51
With the 1934 Nuremberg rally, the event took on its permanent form, except for a few minor amendments made in the following years. The duration was extended from four to first seven and then eight days, and each day had a specific theme. The course of events was by now “so well rehearsed that it proceeds like military mobilisation,” Hess reported about the spectacle in 1937.52 It began with Hitler’s arrival in the city, either by specially chartered train or plane, and the trip to his hotel, the Deutscher Hof. William Shirer, who attended the 1934 rally, was initially unimpressed, writing: “He fumbled his cap with his left hand as he stood in his car acknowledging the delirious welcome with somewhat feeble salutes from his right arm.”53 In the afternoon, Hitler was received by Nuremberg’s mayor, Willy Liebel, in the main town hall ballroom. In 1938, this ceremony had a special note in the form of insignia and jewellery from the Holy Roman Empire that had been brought from Vienna to Nuremberg after the Anschluss.54 The first day of the rally concluded with a performance of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, usually conducted by the director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler. “A fantastic cast and a great performance,” noted Goebbels in September 1938. “Furtwängler is a musical genius. I sat right behind him and could observe him closely. What a man. The Führer, too, was boundless in his enthusiasm.”55
On the morning of the second day, from the balcony of the Deutscher Hof, which was constantly surrounded by curiosity-seekers, the Nazi leader inspected the Hitler Youth as they marched by with their flags. After that the party congress was opened in the Luitpoldhalle. Hitler and his vassals marched into the auditorium to the strains of the “Badenweiler March,” a Bavarian military march, composed in honour of Germany’s first victory over France in the First World War. One contemporary described the scene as follows: “The hall is decked out in white satin curtains, with the places for the guests of honour, the diplomatic corps, the orchestra and the choir decorated in deep red. A giant swastika surrounded by gold oak clusters on a black background dominates the space.”56 To music by Wagner, hundreds of standards, the “field banners of the movement,” were brought into the hall, first and foremost the “blood banner” from the failed November putsch. For Shirer, the whole ceremony had “something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas mass in a great Gothic cathedral.” After opening remarks by Rudolf Hess, who tried to outdo himself year after year in his hymns of praise for Hitler, and the subsequent ceremony in memory of the movement’s “blood witnesses,” Adolf Wagner—the Gauleiter of Munich-Upper Bavaria—read out the “Führer’s proclamation.” As Shirer noted, “Curiously, [he] has a voice and a manner of speaking so like Hitler’s that some of the correspondents who were listening back at the hotel thought it was Hitler.”57 The evening featured a “culture conference” in the opera house, which was introduced by Alfred Rosenberg and concluded with a speech by Hitler. As of 1937, this ceremony included the presentation of a “National Prize for Art and Science,” the Nazi Party’s answer to the embarrassing awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the writer Carl von Ossietzky, who was imprisoned in Esterwegen concentration camp.58
The third day began with a march of Labour Service men to the Zeppelin Field. “Standing there in the early-morning sunlight which sparkled on their shiny spades, 50,000 of them, with the first thousand bared above the waist, suddenly made the German spectators go mad with joy when, without warning, they broke into a perfect goose-step,” wrote Shirer, adding: “The goose-step has always seemed to me to be an outlandish exhibition of the human being in his most undignified and stupid state, but I felt for the first time this morning what an inner chord it strikes in the strange soul of the German people.”59 The high point of this event was a call-and-response from the choir, which ended with: “Let the work of our hands succeed / For every cut of the spade we take / Shall be a prayer for Germany.”60 After being addressed by Reich Labour Leader Konstantin Hierl and Hitler, the columns of workers marched through the city past the Deutscher Hof. The ceremony demanded stamina of both Hitler and the members of his entourage. “Four hours of marching,” Goebbels carped. “The sun beating down. Barely endurable.”61 In 1937, with the introduction of a “Day of Community,” the rhythm of marches and roll calls was interrupted by young women and men entertaining spectators at the Zeppelin Field with dances and athletic performances. In the evening, the Nazi political leaders marched by torchlight past the Deutscher Hof. “Watched from the Führer’s balcony,” Goebbels gushed. “A wonderful, colourful spectacle. All the Gaue led by the old Gauleiter.”62
The fifth day commenced with special meetings of the party congress. The main attraction was the march of the political directors onto the Zeppelin Field. Since 1936, this was held in the evening, and Albert Speer had come up with a special idea. The moment that Hitler’s arrival was announced, 130 spotlights positioned around the field were switched on. The beams of light reached up to eight kilometres into the night sky. “Now, in a heartbeat, the spotlights tear through the black sky beyond the ramparts,” an official report on the rally excitedly described the spectacle. “Blue cords of light ascend to the heights. They make their way together, join with one another and form a dome of fluid light above the people’s heads.”63
In his memoirs, Speer called the “dome of light” his loveliest creation, and indeed the clever installation made a lasting impression even on foreign spectators. The British ambassador, Nevile Henderson, compared it to being in the interior of a cathedral made of ice.64 To the sound of fanfares, Hitler, accompanied by Reich Organisational Director Robert Ley, strode through the broad centre aisle to the “Führer stage.” When illuminated, it looked like an oversized altar, and upon it the high priest of the movement celebrated his mass. The elevation of Hitler to a charismatic saint and an enlightened messiah was never as palpable as in the liturgy of this night-time “hour of consecration.” In 1936, Robert Ley called out: “We believe in Our Lord in heaven, who created us, who directs and protects us, and who sent you to us, my Führer, so that you could liberate Germany. That is what we believe, my Führer!”65
The sixth day belonged to the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. More than 50,000 boys and girls gathered in the morning on the main arena of the old sports stadium to pay tribute to the Führer. “No sooner did the command ‘At ease’ come than a thunderous roar of tens of thousands of voices went up,” the official report from 1938 related. “Everyone was allowed to express what they felt. It was as though the air was vibrating.”66 Three years earlier, at the same site, Hitler had proclaimed his ideals for Germany’s youth: “fast as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupp-forged steel.”67 Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach swore an oath of loyalty to the Führer on behalf of the entire Hitler Youth, and after a short address by Hitler, Hess administered the oaths to be taken by all young people who aspired to join the party. The ceremony concluded with Hitler, Schirach and Hess walking through the ranks before driving in a car through the stadium, bathing in the applause from the stands.
On the morning of the seventh day, the SA and SS turned out for roll call in the expansive Luitpold Arena. “Heil, my men!” was Hitler’s greeting. “Heil, my Führer!” came the answer from 100,000 throats.68This ceremony was rather problematic in 1934, since the Night of the Long Knives had taken place only a couple of months beforehand. “There was considerable tension in the stadium and I noticed that Hitler’s own SS bodyguard was drawn up in force in front of him, separating him from the mass of the brown-shirts,” wrote Shirer.69 In subsequent years, the situation relaxed, and the ceremony in the Luitpoldarena, like the other rally events, followed a predetermined ritual. To the sounds of mournful music, and accompanied by SA Chief of Staff Lutze and Reichsführer-SS Himmler a respectful distance behind him, Hitler made his way across the “Street of the Führer” to the memorial monument, where he stood for a long time, silent, before the “blood banner.” It was an image that more than any other symbolised the isolated special position of the charismatic leader among the rows and columns of his followers. Hitler then retraced his steps to the stage, followed by the bearers of the “blood banner.” After an address in which he praised the SA and SS as the “best political fighting troops of the German people,”70 and after the singing of the German national anthem, he consecrated the new standards of party formations by touching them with the “blood banner.” “An almost religious ceremony with a fixed, never-changing tradition,” commented Goebbels.71 This was followed by an hours-long march past the Führer, standing in an open car, on Adolf-Hitler Platz.
The eighth and final day of the rally was dominated by Wehrmacht exercises. It began with a morning reveille and a trio of open-air concerts on Nuremberg’s three largest squares. That afternoon, soldiers demonstrated the state of German armaments on Zeppelin Field in front of jam-packed stands and before the eyes of foreign diplomats and military attachés. “A grandiose picture of our Wehrmacht,” wrote a satisfied Goebbels about the presentation in 1936. “All branches of the military get their due. Marvellous flying formations…tanks, artillery, cavalry…wonderful and a joy to behold.”72 In later years, this military spectacle was supposed to take place on the gigantic, specially designated field at one end of the rally grounds, but like the other grotesquely proportioned construction projects envisioned in Nuremberg, work was halted by the Second World War. The rally came to an end with a programmatic speech by Hitler. Around midnight, the Wehrmacht music corps and marching bands closed the ceremonies with a Grand Tattoo.
The centrepiece of the Nuremberg rallies was always Hitler. He was lead actor, master of ceremonies and high priest all rolled into one. The perfectly drilled choreography was focused exclusively around him. For the four to eight days of the rallies, he was utterly in his element. He held fifteen to twenty addresses, sometimes as many as four in one day. The rallies were the perfect opportunity to indulge his monomaniacal need to speak. He experienced the week-long event in a state of ecstasy, almost intoxication, and there was inevitably a feeling of emptiness when it was over. The day afterwards, he confessed in January 1942, more than three years after the final Nuremberg rally, had always had “something sad like when the decorations are taken down from the Christmas tree.”73 The Nuremberg rally in 1939, which was supposed to be held under the slogan “The Party Conference of Peace,” was cancelled in late August amidst preparations to invade Poland.
On the other hand, the Nuremberg rallies were physically exhausting. Hitler later recalled that the hardest part had been standing at attention with a raised arm for hours as his followers marched past him: “A couple of times, I got dizzy.”74 At the end of every ceremony, Goebbels would find him lying exhausted on the sofa of his hotel room. “He has given everything he had,” the propaganda minister noted in 1936. “He’ll have to take a break.”75 That year was particularly trying since Hitler also had to attend a “Memorial Party Conference” in Weimar as well as the Olympic Summer Games in Berlin. His entourage pleaded with him to cancel the Nuremberg rally for that year, but he adamantly refused.76
After each rally, Hitler assembled his paladins for a post-mortem of the event. He handed out praise and criticism and made suggestions for the future. But he was unwilling to change the sequence of ceremonies once it had been set. While he was alive, he told Speer in 1938, the “form” had to become “an immutable rite.” As he explained: “Then no one will be able to change it later. I am afraid that those who come after me will feel the urge to change things. Some future Führer of the Reich may not have my talents, but this framework will support him and give him authority.”77 Here, too, Hitler articulated fears that he would die young and that his work might not survive him. The consecration of rituals was his way of lending potential successors something of his own charisma and establishing the Third Reich for the long term.
The mass spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies had the desired effect on both German and foreign observers. The French ambassador, François-Poncet, who attended the 1937 rally, recalled:
Amazing and indescribable was the atmosphere of general enthusiasm into which the ancient city was submerged, that unique intoxication that seized hundreds of thousands of men and women, the romantic excitement, mythic ecstasy, a kind of holy madness. During those eight days Nuremberg…was a city under a magic spell—one could almost say a city transported to an altogether different world.78
In retrospect, British Ambassador Henderson opined that no one could claim to be fully acquainted with the Nazi movement without having attended and soaked in the atmosphere of a Nuremberg rally.79
Even as sceptical an observer as William Shirer would write in late 1934: “You have to go through one of these to understand Hitler’s hold on the people, to feel the dynamic in the movement he’s unleashed and the sheer, disciplined strength that the German people possess.”80 The magical backdrop of Nuremberg had a particular effect on foreign journalists who would otherwise have been expected to maintain critical distance towards the spectacle. A New York Times report on the last day of the 1937 rally recorded foreign journalists from all over the world listening to Hitler’s concluding speech in their hotel and all spontaneously performing the raised-arm German greeting and enthusiastically singing along with the German national anthem and the “Horst Wessel Song.”81 Both Germans and foreigners were taken in by the majestic surface of the Third Reich, so that they lost sight of the dark sides of the dictatorship.
From the very beginning, the Nazi leadership had tried to reach out to the greatest number of people possible with the mass spectacle in Nuremberg. The main means of doing so was radio broadcasts. Yet they were largely restricted to recordings of speeches and were unable to communicate much of the atmosphere. By 1935, listeners had begun to get tired of them. “The comprehensive coverage on radio and in newspapers did not truly captivate the masses even during the rally week,” concluded a report from the Rhineland. “The people were indifferent.”82 It made sense to use the medium of film as a disseminator.
The NSDAP had the 1927 and 1929 Nuremberg rallies filmed, but the end results consisted of primitive, silent footage intended only for party initiates and never broadly distributed. Moreover, at that time Hitler was not yet the absolutely dominant figure of the event.83 That changed after the “seizure of power,” and for the “Party Rally of Victory.” In 1933, a work of vastly superior quality was commissioned to allow cinema audiences the chance to “experience” the event. Leni Riefenstahl’s hour had come.
The gifted young actress had established contact with Hitler in the spring of 1932 after attracting his attention in the lead role in her directorial debut, The Blue Light. By that autumn, she had become a regular guest at the Goebbelses’ house, where she occasionally encountered Hitler. She knew that her career would benefit if the National Socialists came to power,84 and in mid-May 1933 Goebbels proposed a collaboration. “In the afternoon Leni Riefenstahl,” he noted. “She told of her plans. I suggested a Hitler film. She was very enthusiastic.” In June, the two discussed the details, with the propaganda minister remarking, “She’s the only one of the stars who understands us.” By August the deal was done, and Riefenstahl was invited to lunch at the Chancellery—a sign of Hitler’s special favour. “She’s going to make our party rally film,” Goebbels enthused.85 The news was officially announced at the end of the month, only a few days before the Nuremberg rally. “At the express wish of the Führer,” it read, Fräulein Riefenstahl had been entrusted with the artistic direction of the party-rally film.86
The fact that an actress-turned-director and a non-party member was handed this project was a thorn in the side of the veteran Nazis at the film division of the Propaganda Ministry, in particular its director, Arnold Raether. Behind the scenes, there was intriguing and feuding aimed at calling Riefenstahl’s competence into question. But as long as she enjoyed Hitler’s favour, she had nothing to fear. And after her first Nuremberg rally film, which would bear the title The Victory of Faith, even the doubters in Hitler’s entourage were convinced of her skill as a director.87
On her own initiative, Riefenstahl hired three gifted cameramen: Sepp Allgeier, Franz Weihmayr and Walter Frentz, the last of whom would become Hitler’s preferred cameraman and play an important role during the Second World War.88 Understandably, the young female director, who led her team with great self-confidence during the four days of filming, caused quite a stir in Nuremberg. After the rally was over, she retreated to edit her footage. Goebbels, with whom she conferred, was certain: “She will produce something worthwhile.”89 Riefenstahl’s most original contribution was to break the static, somewhat monotonous sequence of speeches and marches by giving them a flowing rhythm, which made them more interesting. Disregarding the chronology of the rally, she recut the events into a suggestive series of visual images. She did without a voice-over, which was quite unusual for a documentary film, using only original statements by the speakers and the audience’s reaction. The entire film was accompanied by a soundtrack by Herbert Windt, a mixture of Wagneresque passages, folk melodies and crisp marches.90
Nonetheless, The Victory of Faith was anything but perfect, partly because the director was still a novice editor, partly because she was forced in part to use conventional weekly newsreel footage. Some scenes were unintentionally funny, such as when Göring paraded past Hitler’s limousine unaware that the Führer wanted to shake his hand, or when Baldur von Schirach accidentally brushed Hitler’s uniform cap from the rostrum with his behind.91 But the dictator had no objections when the film was shown to a select private audience in November 1933. “A fabulous SA symphony,” remarked Goebbels. “Riefenstahl did a good job. She is absolutely shattered by the work. Hitler moved. Should be a huge hit.”92 The film premiered on 1 December in the Ufa-Palast cinema in Berlin. The event was like a state occasion. Taking part along with Hitler, Goebbels, Röhm and Hess were other prominent government representatives including Papen, Neurath, Frick and Blomberg. “When the final note had faded, the visibly moved audience took to its feet and sang the ‘Horst Wessel Song’ to express its connection with the Führer and the movement,” reported Lichtspielbühne magazine. “But even then no one clapped. There was a moment of solemn silence, after which the enthusiasm was released in deafening ovations.”93 In the days that followed, Hitler’s entourage was subjected to repeated screenings of the film. Even Goebbels got sick and tired. “Evening at home,” he noted. “Führer…party rally film. Soon I’ll have had enough of it.”94
The press also greeted The Victory of Faith warmly as a “document of its time of incalculable value,” a “cinematic oratorio” and an “Eroica of the Nuremberg Rally.” One publicity campaign asserted: “The Führer has become Germany…[and] all of Germany shall now hear him thanks to the miracle of this film.”95 Local NSDAP chapters were instructed to cancel all other events on the day this “massively powerful cinematic work” was shown so that the greatest number of party members and people in general would be able to attend. With the help of mobile film trucks, the film was also shown in rural areas that did not have cinemas. As a result, as many as 20 million people were said to have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s directorial debut.96
But after six months the film was withdrawn from circulation. In a number of shots, Röhm could be seen next to Hitler, and after 30 June 1934, he was persona non grata on the silver screen. Almost all copies of the film were destroyed, most likely on Hitler’s orders. After 1945, the film was considered lost, until a copy was discovered in the East German state archives in the 1980s.97 The Nazis needed a replacement film, and Riefenstahl was once again hired to direct it. In late August 1934 as a “special representative of the NSDAP Reich Direction,” she signed a distribution agreement with Ufa.98 A week before the “Party Rally for Unity and Strength,” she travelled to Nuremberg to begin preparations for Triumph of the Will. The title had been Hitler’s idea.
Riefenstahl’s second film was on an entirely different level in terms of finances, personnel and technology. The director could draw on a budget of 300,000 reichsmarks and a staff of 170 employees, including 18 cameramen. “Film towers,” equipped with cameras, microphones and spotlights, were erected at high points on the Nuremberg party rally grounds. A lift was installed on a 28-metre-high mast in the Luitpoldarena so that an operator with a hand-held camera could get new perspectives on the gigantic marching grounds. Tracks were laid around the speakers’ stage so that Hitler could be filmed at unprecedented proximity and from various camera angles. Ultimately 130,000 metres of film were developed. Working at the Geyer Film Copying works in Berlin, Riefenstahl eventually trimmed that down to 3,000 metres, yielding a 114-minute film.99
As in The Victory of Faith, the director did not use a voice-over and ignored the chronology of the rally, instead boiling the seven days down to three and a half.100 In contrast to her first film, Hitler was the all-dominating main character this time. The entire narrative was focused on the expectations of spectators who cried out, “We want to see our Führer!” Even the opening credits were preparation for his appearance: “On 5 September 1934 / 20 years after the outbreak of the World War / 16 years after the beginning of Germany’s suffering / 19 months after the beginning of Germany’s rebirth / Adolf Hitler again flew to Nuremberg to inspect his true followers.” The opening scene shows the Führer in his aeroplane descending towards Nuremberg like a saviour sent from heaven. Riefenstahl then staged Hitler’s journey from the airport to his hotel as a secular version of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Standing in an open Mercedes, Hitler receives the adulation of the masses. A camera mounted in the car filmed him from behind, against the sunshine, so that his head seems to be ringed by a halo. A skilled use of cuts and counter-cuts shows Hitler mostly filmed from below and his jubilant admirers mostly from above. The Führer and his followers—the great, godlike charismatic leader and the faithful masses who looked up to him—are combined in a mystic unity.101
In November 1934, Goebbels viewed the first excerpts from the film. “Afternoon with Leni Riefenstahl, magnificent shots from the rally film,” he noted. “Leni has got talent. If she were a man!” Five months later, when the film was finally finished, Goebbels was no less enthusiastic: “A grandiose spectacle. In the final section perhaps a bit drawn-out, but otherwise a mind-shattering portrayal. Leni’s masterpiece.”102Triumph of the Will premiered on 28 March 1935, two weeks after the reintroduction of compulsory military service. For the “film event of the year,” Albert Speer had dressed up the façade of the Ufa-Palast cinema and hung gigantic swastika flags all over it. An 8-metre-tall bronze Reich eagle was mounted above the entrance, which was illuminated by spotlights on the evening of the premiere. Once again party and government VIPs put in appearances, and after the frenetic applause had died down following the screening, Hitler presented the director with an enormous bouquet of lilacs.103 The reviews in the Nazi and Nazified press read like hymns. “The greatest cinematic work we have ever seen,” gushed the Völkischer Beobachter.104 Cinemas reported record numbers of ticket sales in the first few weeks of the film’s run, and Triumph of the Will became Germany’s most-watched film that year. On 25 June 1935, Goebbels presented Riefenstahl with the National Film Prize. In his citation, the propaganda minister praised her work as “the great cinematic vision of the Führer, who appears in it for the first time with a previously unknown, visual urgency.”105
In terms of its propaganda value for the regime, Triumph of the Will was the film about Hitler. As one latter-day scholar of Nazi film put it, “here Hitler was shown the way he wanted to be seen for all time.”106The cult surrounding the Führer was also maintained in other visual media, for instance in Hoffmann’s popular books of photography, Youth around Hitler (1935), Hitler in His Mountains (1935) and Hitler beyond the Everyday Routine (1937), which sought to present the dictator as a nature enthusiast, a caring head of state and a lover of children.107 But more than any other work, Riefenstahl’s second Nuremberg rally film created the dominant image of Hitler and his relationship to the German people, not just in Germany but abroad as well, where Triumph of the Will was also screened and awarded prizes. During the Second World War, excerpts from it would be used for anti-Nazi educational films in Anglo-Saxon countries.108
“One People—one Empire—one Leader”: those who saw Riefenstahl’s opus usually came away with the impression that this was not just a propaganda slogan, but reality in the Third Reich. But was it truly? Did the ideal of Volksgemeinschaft, the ethnic-popular community, really exist, or was it a deceptive illusion, a construct alien to reality? Prior to 1933, Hitler’s promise to overcome party and class divisions had been one of his most persuasive campaign slogans, greatly contributing to the attractiveness of Hitler and the National Socialist movement.109 It enlisted people’s desires for a stable social and political order, as free as possible from conflict, as an indispensable basis for German national renewal. After coming to power, Hitler always wove these leitmotifs into his speeches. The new government, he emphasised in his first radio address as chancellor on 1 February 1933, would attempt “to make our people conscious once again, across all castes and classes, of its ethnic and political unity and the corresponding responsibilities.” The introduction of a universal compulsory labour service, he explained at the end of that month in an interview with the stringer for the Associated Press in Berlin, Louis P. Lochner, would help “bridge class divides.” In Potsdam’s Garrison Church on 21 March, he demanded that “a German people must once more coalesce from farmers, the middle classes and workers.” And two days later, when the Enabling Act was introduced, he intoned that the “creation of a genuine ethnic-popular community, which would rise above the special interests and conflicts of castes and classes,” was Germany’s only way out of crisis. “The millions of people who are divided up into professions, who have been separated into artificial classes, who have been blinded by obscure caste thinking and class insanity and can no longer understand each other, will all have to find a way back to one another,” he reiterated at the 1 May celebration on Berlin’s Tempelhof Field.110
Like much of Hitler’s political platform, the idea of ethnic-popular community was deliberately kept opaque and open to interpretation. When the writer Hanns Johst asked for a clearer definition of the idea in conversation with Hitler in January 1934, he received the nebulous answer: “Ethnic-popular community means the community of all productive labour, the unity of all life interests, the overcoming of the private bourgeoisie and mechanistic union-organised masses, the uncompromising identity of personal destiny and the nation, of the individual and the people.”111 What stood beyond all doubt was that the society Hitler envisioned would be forged along racist lines. The only people allowed to be “ethnic-popular comrades” were those “of German blood,” as the first point in the NSDAP party programme of 1920 had declared. There was no place in the ethnic-popular community for Jewish Germans or other groups stigmatised as racially inferior. It was also clear that Hitler’s promise to overcome class antagonism did not mean that he denied the existence of conflicts of economic interest and the need for them to be represented. It did mean that they were to remain subordinate to politics.112
From the very beginning, the Nazis were keen to court the working classes, which was not just the largest group of employed people but also the one that, prior to 1933, in so far as they were organised by the SPD or KPD, had proved most resistant to the lure of Nazi propaganda. Hitler knew that there was no way to realise his ethnic-popular community without them or against their will. The “German worker,” he stressed in his speech at Berlin’s Sportpalast on 10 February 1933, would in future no longer be an “alien” in the German Reich. On the contrary, “the gates would be opened” so that he could “join the German ethnic-popular community as a bearer of the German nation.”113 To this end, the regime pursued a carrot-and-stick strategy. The party violently broke up working-class political parties and union organisations on the one hand, while offering attractive opportunities for integration on the other. On 10 May 1933, in a speech at the founding of the German Labour Front, which replaced the forcibly disbanded unions, Hitler characterised himself as an “honest mediator for both sides,” who would ensure the interests of business and labour were balanced.114
Nonetheless, the Law on the Ordering of National Labour, of January 1934, clearly privileged employers, transferring the Führer principle to the realm of business. At the head of the “company community” was the “company leader,” with the workers defined as his “followers.”115 In return for their loss of the right to influence company decisions and negotiate wages, however, workers were offered a series of concessions. The German Labour Office made efforts to approve work conditions and relations. Factory canteens were established; sports facilities and swimming pools were built; measures were taken to reduce noise and improve air quality and hygiene; and green spaces were laid out around factories. These were all attempts to give workers a sense of the “dignity of labour.” The historian Peter Reichel has offered a precise summary: “In reality, capitalist conditions of production were not changed. They were only differently interpreted and staged. Perception was to be changed, via a veil of beautiful illusion.”116 Men’s social existence was not to determine their consciousness, as Marxist teaching had it: their consciousness was to determine their social being.
More important and successful in the long term was a German Labour Front subsidiary programme, the “Strength through Joy” initiative, which was founded in November 1933 and modelled after the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro in Fascist Italy. Its goal was to improve leisure activities for workers as a means of boosting their productivity and willingness to assimilate into Nazi society. In a short time, it developed into a mammoth organisation with 7,000 paid employees and 135,000 volunteers. “Strength through Joy,” said Robert Ley, the director of the Labour Front, in June 1938, “is the most concise formula for introducing the broad masses to National Socialism.”117 The leisure-time activities on offer included theatre and concert visits, exhibitions, tours of museums, tennis and riding lessons, adult education courses and even holidays. The latter were particularly popular. “For many people, ‘Strength through Joy’ is simply a travel agent that offers enormous advantages,” an SPD-in-exile observer reported in February 1938.118Travelling presupposed that workers got paid holidays, and in fact after 1933, they usually enjoyed six to twelve days’ annual leave. Between 1934 and 1938 an average of more than a million Germans took all-inclusive trips with “Strength through Joy” every year. An additional 5 million took part in weekend excursions or short trips of a day or two.119
Especially coveted were trips overseas, for which “Strength through Joy” had its own fleet of cruise ships, including the newly built MS Wilhelm Gustloff and MS Robert Ley. In contrast to conventional passenger ships, these vessels did not have different classes of cabins. “The difference between third-, second- and first-class quarters on big cruise ships were terrible and incomprehensible,” Hitler opined in one of his monologues in his wartime headquarters, since they rendered differences in lifestyle visible for all to see. “This is one of the main things for the German Labour Front to take care of,” he added.120 In the classless society on board a state-sponsored cruise ship, people from various walks of life were supposed to come together in harmony and provide an example for the assimilation of workers into the ethnic-popular community. “Towards the sun—German workers travel to Madeira,” promised one popular travel report.121 Goebbels was enthusiastic: “This is also something wonderful. Workers who have left their hometowns travel across land and sea and are glad when they’re back in Germany.”122
Of course, there was a considerable gap between promises and reality. The holidaymakers aboard “Strength through Joy” ships were by no means a cross section of German society. Members of the middle classes, white-collar employees, civil servants, the self-employed and party functionaries were disproportionately represented, while workers remained in the clear minority.123 The costs of a trip by sea to Madeira were still beyond the means of most working-class households. In the SPD reports, people repeatedly complained that the trips abroad were reserved for the “bigwigs” and were far too expensive for average earners.124 On the other hand, there was growing appreciation of the leisure activities on offer, especially weekend and holiday trips within Germany. “ ‘If it is that cheap, you might as well put your hand up.’ That’s what many workers are saying and taking part,” reported one SPD observer.125 In February 1938, it was reported that “Strength through Joy” had become very popular in Berlin: “The events address the desire of the little man who wants to let his hair down for once and experience the same things the ‘big boys’ enjoy. It is a clever speculation about the petit-bourgeois desires of the apolitical workers.”126 But the SPD-in-exile observers had to admit that even formerly committed Social Democrats were susceptible and that this was an effective form of propaganda: “At the very least, ‘Strength through Joy’ is a distraction that serves to cloud people’s minds and works propagandistically on behalf of the regime.”127
“Strength through Joy” planners were aware that, despite the publicity campaigns, a lot of holiday wishes remained unfulfilled. To alleviate the dissatisfaction, they turned their attention towards constructing gigantic holiday resorts and leisure facilities. The most prestigious enterprise was the “Strength through Joy” sea spa Prora on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen.128 Construction began in 1936, and the six-storey apartment blocks were supposed to stretch for 4.5 kilometres and house 20,000 holidaymakers. A one-week stay was supposed to cost no more than 20 reichsmarks, affordable even for low-income workers. Hitler was enthralled by what he called the “biggest seaside resort on earth.”129 An SPD report in April 1939 admitted: “This building is one of the most effective advertisements for the Third Reich.”130 But the structure was never completed: work on it was suspended with the start of the Second World War.
The beginnings of mass tourism in the Third Reich were part of a larger project and an example of the vision of a Nazi leisure and consumer society. Hitler wanted the racially homogeneous ethnic-popular community to be characterised by high levels of consumption.131 Yet as we have seen, in its early years the Hitler regime prioritised rearmament over the desires of private consumers. In keeping with this policy, wage and income rises were quite modest. Real wages for workers in Germany rose only slightly between 1933 and 1939, and this was largely due to an extension of working hours.132 Against this backdrop, there is little evidence for the argument advanced by Götz Aly in his book Hitler’s Willing Beneficiaries that the Nazi regime was a “dictatorship of favours” that primarily served the interests of the weaker members of society.133
The Nazi mass consumer society remained little more than a promise, a vision of things possibly yet to come. A taste of it was provided by a series of Volksprodukte—people’s products—which were supposed to be made widely available as state-of-the-art technological items. First and foremost among them was the Volksempfänger (People’s Receiver) radio. Bearing the model number VE 301—a nod to the “seizure of power” on 30 January—it was unveiled to the public, with Hitler in attendance, at the Berlin Radio Trade Fair in August 1933. Standardisation and serial mass production meant that the radio could be purchased for the sensationally low price of 76 reichsmarks—with instalment plans available for low-income consumers. In 1939, it was joined by a further model, the Deutscher Kleinempfänger (DKE—Small German Receiver), which cost only 35 reichsmarks.134 The Nazis never achieved their stated goal of putting a radio in every German household, but the number of listeners jumped from 4.5 million in 1933 to more than 11 million by 1939: 57 per cent of all households owned a receiver.135 In radio, the National Socialists had control over the most important means for manipulating the masses. But Goebbels was aware that the aggressive propaganda the regime had promulgated at the start of its reign would cause people to tune out in the long term. For that reason, by September 1933 he was already calling for more entertainment programming. “The programmes have to be relaxing,” the propaganda minister demanded. “Party politics must be kept to a minimum.”136
Hitler never offered an opinion about television, whose development was encouraged after 1933, but as a gadget enthusiast, he is likely to have been interested in it. “I openly admit that I’m a fool for technology,” he said in February 1942. “Anyone who comes to me with some surprising technological innovation will have an advantage.”137 Goebbels, who recognised early on the potential of the new medium, kept him apprised about the progress being made in developing television. The propaganda minister repeatedly noted in his diary that television had a “great future” and that people were on the threshold of “revolutionary innovations.”138 In 1935, the first “television parlours” were established. But the technology was primitive, and there were not many programmes to watch. A mass-produced television comparable to the “people’s receiver” was a long way off, even if the Westdeutscher Beobachter newspaper prophesied in a report on the Radio Trade Fair in 1938 that television would soon be as commonplace as radio.139
The Nazis were less successful with another Volksprodukt, the Volkswagen. As an automobile fanatic, the mass motorisation of German society was an ideal close to Hitler’s heart. Just as the radio industry had succeeded in making an affordable “people’s receiver,” Hitler proclaimed at the International Motor Show in early March 1934, the automobile industry should do its part “to build a car that will attract a million new customers.”140 Hitler did not use the term, but the Leipziger Neueste Nachrichten was hardly putting words in his mouth when it ran the headline: “Create the German Volkswagen!”141 The price for the new vehicle was supposed to be less than 1,000 reichsmarks—a sum that most carmakers felt was far too low to be profitable. Ferdinand Porsche, whom Hitler greatly respected and defended against resistance from the automotive industry, was commissioned to design the vehicle. At the 1936 International Motor Show, Hitler told carmakers that the automobile had to go from being a “luxury item for the few to a practical item for all.” He would see the Volkswagen project through with “uncompromising determination,” Hitler announced, and he had no doubt that the ingenious Porsche would bring the “costs for procuring, running and maintaining the vehicle into an acceptable relation with the income of the broad masses of our people.”142
But the Reich Association of the Automobile Industry remained sceptical, so Hitler transferred responsibility for the project to Ley’s German Labour Front. In late May 1937, the “Society for the Preparation for the German Volkswagen” was founded, and that summer it was decided to base the main factory near the town of Fallersleben.143 When laying the foundation stone on 26 May 1938, Hitler once again aimed a barb at critics who had argued that it was impossible to produce an affordable motor vehicle for the masses. “I hate the word ‘impossible,’ ” Hitler declared. “It has always been a mark of cowardly people, who do not dare to realise great ambitions.” Hitler revealed that the new vehicle would be called the “Strength through Joy Car” and announced that he would build both “the most massive German automobile factory” and a “model German workers’ city.”144
The public response was extraordinary. Many Germans greeted the announcement of a car for the people as “a great, pleasant surprise,” an SPD observer reported in April 1939. “A veritable ‘Strength through Joy’ psychosis has arisen. For a long time, the ‘Strength through Joy Car’ was one of the main topics of conversation among all social classes in Germany.” The idea of an automobile for the masses temporarily pushed aside all domestic and international concerns. “The politician who promises everyone a car is, if the masses believe his promises, a man of the masses. As far as the ‘Strength through Joy Car’ is concerned, the German people believe Hitler’s announcements.”145 To help people purchase the car, the “Strength through Joy” organisation set up a savings plan that had potential customers putting aside a minimum of 5 reichsmarks a month towards the 990 reichsmark price of the car. By late 1939, 270,000 people had signed on, and by the end of the war that number had risen to 340,000. But only 5 per cent of them came from the working classes. And they never got their cars. During the war, the Volkswagen factory mainly produced jeeps for the Wehrmacht.146
The gap between propaganda and reality was even more marked in the social welfare institution the National Socialists considered the epitome of a functioning ethnic-popular community: the “Winter Relief.” In the summer of 1933, Hitler announced his intention to found a welfare programme for the needy. Private welfare organisations had already run a Winter Relief for those requiring help in the late Weimar Republic, but it had not been much of a success.147 The Nazi regime approached the project with far greater élan. Under the slogan “Fighting Hunger and Cold,” the government wanted to show that it was serious about its principle of “communal before individual benefit.” Erich Hilgenfeldt, the Reich administrator of the National Socialist People’s Welfare, the largest mass organisation after the German Labour Front, was charged with setting up the new entity. On 13 September 1933, Hitler and Goebbels opened the first Winter Relief agency to great fanfare. With this measure, Hitler announced, he wanted to prove “that this ethnic-popular community is not just an empty concept, but is truly something alive.” “International Marxist solidarity” had been broken, he added, so that it could be replaced with “the national solidarity of the German people.”148
A satisfied Goebbels later noted: “Our action against hunger and cold has made a huge impression.”149 The first call for donations succeeded in raising 358 million reichsmarks—a figure that would be bettered year on year until it reached 680 million reichsmarks in 1939-40. In a speech about the Winter Relief in 1937, Hitler called it the “largest social welfare organisation of all time.”150 Members of almost all Nazi organisations worked as volunteers, collecting money street to street and door to door and selling badges and pins. On the first Sunday in December, the Day of National Solidarity, prominent representatives of the regime also took part. For Goebbels, who collected money in front of the luxury Hotel Adlon in Berlin, these occasions were “popular festivals.” “Unbelievable,” he wrote.
Tens of thousands. A celebration and hullabaloo that was impossible to ignore. I was almost crushed to death. Twice I had to flee inside the hotel. The marvellous people of Berlin. They gave and gave. Most generously the poor. I got tears in my eyes…Reported to the Führer that evening…A huge triumph. I filled up 42 collection cans.151
On every first Sunday between October and March, the regime appealed to Germans to eat only stew and donate the money they saved to the Winter Relief. Hitler used his entire repertoire to make this sacrifice seem palatable to his “ethnic comrades”:
And even if others say: You know, I’d love to take part in Stew Sunday, but I have constant stomach trouble, and I don’t see the point, since I’ll donate ten pfennigs anyway. [We say:] no, my dear friend, we set it all up deliberately. On purpose. Especially for you who doesn’t see the point, it is useful for us to point you back at least once in the direction of your people, to the millions of your ethnic comrades, who would be happy to eat nothing all winter but the stew that you eat perhaps once a month.152
Only stews were served at Sunday lunches in the Chancellery, and those at the table were called upon to donate money as well. “The number of guests shrank to two or three,” Albert Speer recalled, “which led Hitler to talk sarcastically about some of his associates’ willingness to make sacrifices.”153
But the Winter Relief was a “voluntary” charity organisation in name only. Workers had to tolerate contributions—10 per cent of their income taxes from 1935—being directly deducted from their wages. Those who refused to donate could count on being sanctioned. In November 1935, a farmer in northern Bavaria who had declared that he had no extra money for the Winter Relief received a sharp rebuke from the local Nazi chapter, accusing him of being “unwilling to feel like a member of the German ethnic-popular community.” He was threatened, should he not change his behaviour, with being brought to “where enemies of the state and parasites on the people are usually taken.”154 In the long run, the public grew disgruntled with being constantly called upon to make sacrifices and approached by collectors. Charity drives in the streets and door to door, one SPD observer reported in December 1935, had taken on the character of “organised highway robbery.” By January 1938, another observer wrote, they had “practically become a levy that no one can avoid.”155 Rumours also began to circulate that donations were not truly going to the needy. People joked that the abbreviation for the Winter Relief, WHV (Winterhilfswerk) actually stood for Wir hungen weiter (we continue to starve) or Waffenhilfswerk (Weapons Assistance Fund).156 There was some justification for the idea that the Winter Relief helped finance Hitler’s plans for war. The putative charity helped the Nazi regime throttle its expenditures for social welfare programmes and invest the money saved in arms. The phrase “socialism in deeds,” which Hitler and his vassals used to describe the Winter Relief, could hardly be taken at face value.
The same applied to Hitler’s promise that within the ethnic-popular community every German would enjoy the same chances to better himself, so that in the end the best and brightest would rise to positions of leadership. The central task of government leadership, Hitler declared in his closing address at the Nuremberg rally in 1934, had to be to create the conditions for the “most gifted minds to be deservedly advantaged regardless of origin, titles, class and wealth.”157 In an interview with Louis P. Lochner, he said that he agreed with the American idea of not “reducing everyone to the same level,” but rather maintaining the “ladder principle.” “Everyone must get the chance to climb the ladder,” he declared.158 In early 1937, during an afternoon walk with Goebbels on the Obersalzberg, Hitler elaborated on his vision of the Nazi society of the future. Afterwards Goebbels noted: “The way to rise up must be available for everyone. Not bound to exams, but performance…The misery of testing must be done away with everywhere. A hierarchy of performance has to be created. Strictly organised. Wealth to be concentrated there. True socialism means clearing the way for the capable.”159
In his monologues in his military headquarters during the Second World War, Hitler would repeatedly revisit the idea of “a clear path for the capable.” The decisive thing, he asserted, was to ensure “that the gates were open for all gifted people.” In order to do that, Hitler added, Germany would have to eradicate its overdependence on “evaluations and pieces of paper.” He went on: “In my movement, I myself have had great experiences in the highest positions. I have the highest civil servants who are agricultural workers and have continued to prove themselves.” Performance, Hitler said, should be the only qualification for military promotion. “If a person has the stuff to excel, I don’t look at whether he comes from a proletarian background,” Hitler explained, “nor do I prevent children of military families from proving their worth once more.”160
But Hitler’s egalitarian rhetoric was one thing, and social reality in the Third Reich another. On the one hand, members of previously disadvantaged social classes had better chances to work their way up the social ladder. The NSDAP and its subordinate organisations in particular, with their gigantic apparatus and the rapidly expanding armed forces after the reintroduction of compulsory military service, offered a host of new, well-paid posts. The promise that performance would outweigh social background and class especially appealed to the younger generation, whose career prospects had looked so bleak prior to 1933. The chance for young university graduates to advance their careers quickly and even occupy leading positions stimulated their desire to achieve and unleashed considerable social energy. The opportunity for upward social mobility accounted for a large amount of the Nazi Party’s attractiveness as a “modernising” force.161
Still, none of that altered the basic structure of German society. Hitler was by no means the social revolutionary, as the odd historian has claimed.162 Class hurdles and barriers were lowered, but they still existed, and by no means was there full equality of opportunity in the Third Reich. Nazi propaganda, however, was remarkably successful in communicating a “feeling of social equality,” and this alone reinforced Hitler’s perceived role as a messianic saviour and strengthened Germans’ emotional attachment to his regime.163
Hitler’s “ethnic-popular community,” therefore, was not simply a chimera or a deceptive façade, but nor did it become social reality or challenge the status quo of wealth and property. In the words of two prominent German historians, its appeal was based on “the ideal it represented, not the recognition of social reality.”164 Moreover, the vision for the future it entailed was not that of a society where everyone was equal, but precisely the opposite: a society characterised by extreme inequalities resulting from the Nazis’ biological, racist policies. The integration of “ethnic comrades” went hand in hand with the exclusion of those deemed “alien to the community.”
The latter category included not only enemies of the regime and Jewish Germans, but in principle anyone who did not conform to racist Nazi standards, be they the physically and mentally disabled, “antisocials,” alcoholics, homosexuals or gypsies. In so far as they were not “improvable,” these groups were to be subjected to racial-hygienic “special treatment.” In the second volume of Mein Kampf, Hitler had already specified the maintenance of “racial purity” as one of the main tasks of the “ethnic state.” What he meant was that “only the healthy should bear children.” To this end, the state was to call upon “the most modern medical assistance” in order that “everyone who is demonstrably sick or genetically burdened…be declared unfit and made incapable of reproduction.” This was to be accompanied by the “systematic promotion of fertility among the healthiest bearers of our ethnic identity.”165 Hitler repeatedly returned to these demands in his speeches prior to 1933. At the 1929 Nuremberg rally, he cited the example of Sparta, the “clearest racial state in human history,” which had “systematically enacted racial laws.” He contrasted this with the “modern humanistic nonsense” of the health and social policies in the Weimar Republic, which “preserve weakness at the cost of those who are healthier.” Hitler declared: “Slowly but surely we are breeding the weak and killing off the strong…The remaking of the ethnic-popular body is the greatest mission of National Socialism.”166
This racist programme was anything but original. Hitler was reviving ideas that had been disseminated internationally in the 1890s, as the concept of eugenics was growing in popularity.167 After the enormous bloodletting of the First World War, such notions had once again gained credence among some doctors, psychiatrists, scientists and politicians, including a few socialists. The idea that “the best” had fallen in the war while “the inferior” had survived and been fattened up by the social welfare state dominated the discussion of eugenics in the Weimar Republic. In 1920, the criminal law expert Karl Binding and the psychiatrist Alfred Hoche had published a pamphlet polemically entitled “The Admission of the Destruction of Unfit Life,” that called upon Germans to follow the Spartan example and kill sickly infants and old people. “In matters of life and death, sympathy is the least appropriate emotion towards the dead in spirit,” the authors argued. “There is no sympathy without suffering.”168
In July 1932, the Prussian Health Council debated a proposed law that would have cleared the way for the compulsory sterilisation of the so-called genetically ill. That same year, the organisation representing German doctors lobbied for the introduction of eugenic sterilisation to combat “the deterioration of German genetic material” and to “relieve pressure on public funds.”169 Once the Nazis were in power, the advocates of racist eugenics received a green light for their plans. On 14 July 1933, Hitler’s cabinet approved the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Ill Offspring, which for the first time legalised compulsory sterilisation on the grounds of so-called racial hygiene. When Papen argued against compulsory measures, saying that appeals could be made to those affected, he was coolly rebuked by Hitler. The operations foreseen by the law, Hitler argued, were “not only minor, but ethically unimpeachable if one considered that genetically ill people would continue to reproduce in considerable numbers while millions of healthy children remained unborn.”170 With an eye towards the ongoing negotiations over the concordat with the Catholic Church, the announcement of the law was postponed for eleven days; it took effect on 1 January 1934. In his address to the Reichstag on the first anniversary of the “seizure of power,” Hitler spoke of “truly revolutionary measures” that had been taken against the “army of those whose genetic proclivities meant that they had been born on the negative side of ethnic-popular life.”171
The law decreed that people “whose offspring were, on the basis of medical experience, deemed extremely likely to suffer from serious genetic physical and mental deficiencies” could be made “infertile via surgical operation.” Genetic deficiencies in the sense of the law included imbecility, schizophrenia, manic-depressive conditions, falling sickness, Huntington’s chorea, congenital blindness and deafness, major physical deformities and even alcoholism. An application for sterilisation could be made either by the persons concerned or their legal representatives, or by public doctors and the directors of hospitals, clinics and convalescent homes. Cases were decided upon by newly established genetic health courts consisting of a judge and two doctors.172 The introduction of the law was accompanied by a nationwide publicity campaign promoting compulsory sterilisation as “an act of charity and caring.”173 The courts approved 90 per cent of the applications; 290,000-300,000 men and women were sterilised in this fashion before the start of the Second World War, roughly half on the basis of “congenital imbecility”—a very flexible concept.174 Compulsory sterilisation gave the regime an instrument for extending its policies of racial hygiene to all sorts of marginalised groups and to punish various forms of behaviour that deviated from the social norm. Hans-Ulrich Wehler had correctly called this process a “dry run for the euthanasia programme” after 1939, whose deadly “expunging” was the extreme extension of this sort of “ethnic corpus” therapy.175
Germany’s Jewish minority was the primary group excluded from the Nazi ethnic-popular community. Hitler set their legal and social marginalisation in motion with the nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses in late March 1933 and the discriminatory laws that followed one month later.176 After that, however, the Nazi regime held back somewhat. Hitler enumerated the reasons why at a conference of his Reich governors in late September 1933. A transcript of the speech read:
He as Reich chancellor would have preferred a gradually stricter treatment of Jews in Germany by creating a new citizenship law and then increasingly cracking down on Jews. But the Jewish-organised international boycott demanded the most vigorous response possible. Abroad people complained that Jews were being treated legally as second-class citizens…Since Jews had considerable influence abroad, it was prudent not to give them any material they could use as propaganda against Germany.177
But it was not just deference to foreign opinion that initially dissuaded Hitler from forcing through further anti-Jewish laws. Having announced the end of the revolutionary phase of his “seizure of power” in July 1933, he also wanted to rein in the violent excesses of the SA. The Third Reich’s first waves of anti-Semitism petered out in the second half of 1933.178
Yet away from the public eye, Jews were still being forced out of German economic, social and cultural life. In the towns and villages of provincial Germany, the anti-Jewish boycott continued, and posters and signs reading “Jews unwelcome” or “No admissions for Jews” could be seen at taverns or at the entry to towns. Synagogues were attacked, Jewish graves were defaced, and the homes and businesses of Jews had their windows smashed on a daily basis. Jews were insulted, belittled and physically beaten on the streets. “All the Jewish residents who have not fled live in constant panic,” read a Nazi report from the northern Bavarian town of Gunzenhausen, which had seen the outbreak of a fully fledged pogrom in March 1934.179
Such anti-Semitic violence offered radical party activists in provincial Germany an ideal environment to draw strict racial borders within local society, isolating their Jewish neighbours and stigmatising “ethnic comrades” who continued to frequent Jewish shops and maintain contact with Jews.180 Local police officers were caught between a rock and a hard place, having to assert the state’s monopoly on force on the one hand while risking unpopularity with the well-known leaders of anti-Semitic mobs on the other. If they intervened at all, it was mostly too late, and as a rule, they arrested the victims and not the perpetrators. “Fearful of the party, the local police authorities do not satisfactorily respond to attacks, which are especially prevalent before Christmas,” the state police office in the region of Kassel reported in December 1934.181
In the spring of 1935, anti-Jewish agitation dramatically increased. Along with boycotts, local Nazi groups opened up a second battleground with a campaign against so-called “race defilers.” Jewish men and non-Jewish women suspected of carrying on affairs were driven through the streets and subjected to public humiliation in “pillory parades.”182 In every corner of the Third Reich, copies of the rabidly anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, with its lurid reports of “race defilement,” were publicly displayed in glass cases. Often they listed the names and addresses of “ethnic comrades” who still patronised Jewish businesses. “There are always crowds around the Stürmer cases,” read a report from East Prussia to the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith. “The newspaper and its pictures have a powerful effect on the public, terrifying old customers so that they no longer dare to enter [Jewish] businesses.”183 The pressure to break off social and commercial relationships with Jews was constantly ratcheted up, and few Germans had the courage to resist. For their part, many Jews tried to make themselves inconspicuous and avoided appearing in public. “It is no fun going out any more,” the forcibly retired teacher Willy Cohn wrote from Breslau. “The repulsive articles in the Stürmer are everywhere. It is surprising that more doesn’t happen considering how incited the populace is.”184
This second wave of anti-Semitism in Germany was not ordered from above, but there are indications that it was entirely welcome to the Nazi leadership, including Hitler. It was a pressure valve for dissatisfaction among the party grass roots, in particular SA men frustrated by the Night of the Long Knives. Moreover, after the success of the Saar referendum in January and the unproblematic reintroduction of compulsory military service in March, the need to defer to foreign opinion decreased. Significantly, that April, Hitler rejected an appeal to ban signs reading “Jews forbidden,” which were said to make a bad impression on foreign visitors. On the contrary, Hitler said that he had “nothing against such signs.”185 Not without reason, the most radical party activists believed that they were acting in Hitler’s interests, even if the regime did not officially endorse the anti-Semitic violence. The opinion that “the Führer had two faces,” wrote a Hessian senior official from Wiesbaden, was widespread within “low-ranking party offices.” He believed that: “Certain ordinances, especially in the area of the Jewish question, had to be issued because of foreign opinion. But the Führer’s true will was known to every genuine National Socialist from his world view, and the task was to carry out this will.”186 In May 1935, the Gestapo in the region of Münster reported that broad sections of the movement, especially the SA, thought that the time had come “to take care of the Jewish problem from the ground up” and that the government would “then follow.”187
The Nazi press whipped up the anti-Semitic fervour, with Goebbels in the role of the ringleader. “Jewish question—take more of a lead,” he noted in early May 1935. During a stroll down Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm, he found himself angered by the number of Jews who still appeared in public. “Another veritable parade of Jews. That will have to be taken care of soon.”188 In the newspaper Der Angriff, he wrote: “Some people believe that we do not notice how Jewry is once more trying to spread out today across all our streets. The Jew had better respect the dictates of hospitality and not act as if he were our equal.”189
But in the spring of 1935, it became clear that once unleashed, anti-Semitic violence could develop a dynamic of its own and spread beyond the control of party authorities. In late May in Munich, Nazi activists and SS men in civilian clothing descended upon Jewish businesses in the city, intimidating customers and employees, and forcing shop owners to close their doors. Passers-by who criticised what was going on were abused, and a few policemen physically attacked. “These conditions are intolerable,” protested the Jewish lawyer Leopold Weinmann, who had witnessed several of the incidents, in a letter to the Reich Interior Ministry. “Surely a cultured tourist city like Munich cannot tolerate regularly recurring scenes straight out of the Wild West.”190
In mid-July, there was also major anti-Semitic violence in Berlin. The starting point was a cinema on Kurfürstendamm where Jewish patrons had allegedly protested against the showing of the anti-Semitic Swedish film Petterson and Brendel. Goebbels, who was on holiday in the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm and who discussed the matter intensely with Hitler from 12 to 14 July, remarked: “Telegram from Berlin: Jews demonstrating against an anti-Semitic film. The Führer has had enough…This is truly outlandish. Something will have to give soon.”191 On the evening of 15 July, as Der Angriff reported the next day, a mob assembled in front of the cinema in order to “express their dissatisfaction at the provocative behaviour of the Jewish cinemagoers.”192 Afterwards, the demonstrators moved on to nearby cafés and restaurants where they beat up Jewish patrons and passers-by. “The street echoed with countless repeated cries of ‘The Jews are our misfortune!,’ ” wrote the reporter for the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.
Several Jewish shops were demolished. In panicked terror, several figures that were difficult to identify in the light of the street lamps fled across the boulevard…Vendors of Der Stürmer appeared with thick bundles of the paper and did brisk business. Gradually the police dispersed the mob and restored the normal flow of traffic. By 12.30 in the morning the tumult was over.193
The unrest was replicated in many German cities and regions, accompanied by a frenetic anti-Semitic publicity campaign. “The anti-Jewish agitation has exceeded all bounds,” noted Victor Klemperer in his diary in early August 1935. “It is much worse than during the first boycott. Here and there, there have been incipient pogroms. Everyone fears that they will be beaten to death before too long.”194 With violence threatening to get completely out of hand, the Nazi leadership decided that the time was ripe to draw in the reins. “Clear instructions from central administrative offices are needed as to what is allowed and what is not in the anti-Jewish wave of propaganda,” the state police office of the region of Cologne was already demanding in June 1935. Otherwise, police officers, who “ultimately bore the entire weight of responsibility,” could not count on adequate support when they intervened.195
On 4 August, at the Gau party conference in Essen, Interior Minister Frick announced comprehensive legal measures concerning the “Jewish question,” explicitly coming out against street terror by radical party members.196 Five days later, Hitler had his deputy Hess tell all party offices to prevent individual acts of violence against Jews in future.197 These individual instances of persecution had served their purpose in so far as they had paved the way for a further tightening of anti-Semitic legislation. Speaking in the wake of the unrest in Berlin, the head of the Security Service of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, made much the same point: “The racially inclined part of the German people believes that the measures taken thus far without fanfare against the Jews are insufficient and they are demanding a generally stricter approach.”198 A memo by the Security Service’s “Department of Jewish Affairs” of 17 August seconded that sentiment, stating that “all major offices reject a solution to the Jewish question by acts of terror.” Instead, the memo argued, it was necessary to proclaim “effective laws to show the people that the Jewish question is being resolved from above.”199
The Gestapo and Security Service’s “Jewish experts” shared this wish with Hjalmar Schacht, whom Hitler had made Reich economics minister in early August 1934 in addition to his duties as president of the Reichsbank. In May 1935 he had complained to Hitler about the “uncontrolled battle against individual Jews outside the law, indeed in contravention of government ordinances,” warning that the international boycott was having a negative effect on the German economy.200 In a speech in Königsberg on 10 August, which was broadcast on national radio, Schacht launched a remarkably direct attack on anti-Semitic rowdies in the NSDAP, calling them “people who heroically deface windows at night and put up posters calling any German who buys anything in a Jewish shop a traitor to his people.”201 But this criticism was by no means a rejection of the Nazis’ racist anti-Jewish policies, as Schacht made clear two days later at a high-ranking meeting at the Economics Ministry, to which he invited Wilhelm Frick, Franz Gürtner, Schwerin von Krosigk, Reinhard Heydrich, Education Minister Bernhard Rust and Prussian finance minister Johannes Popitz.
There a determined Schacht demanded that the “current lawlessness and the illegal activity” be halted since it made it impossible for him “to solve the economic questions with which he was entrusted.” At the same time, he stated for the record that he held the principles of the National Socialist programme to be “thoroughly correct” and felt that they “must be carried through by all means.” Schacht declared: “I’ve lived for thirty years with Jews, and for thirty years I have taken money from them, not vice versa. Nonetheless, the current methods are intolerable. A system has to be introduced into the prevailing confusion, and before this system is put into practice, people must cease and desist from other measures.” Frick agreed that the “Jewish question” could not be solved with “wild individual actions,” but rather only “slowly but surely with legal means” until, in accordance with the party manifesto, “the alien Jewish organism has been expunged without exception from the German people.” Frick announced that laws were being drawn up to “rein in the dominance of Jewish influence.” Among them was a “law on race,” which, as Gürtner elaborated, would prohibit marriage between Jews and Aryans. Heydrich, who spoke last, concurred with the earlier speakers that the unsatisfactory situation at present could only be cleared up through “legislative measures by the state that would gradually, step by step and upon orders by the Führer achieve the goal of expunging the Jewish influence without exception.”202
In a letter of 9 September to the participants at the meeting, Heydrich once again detailed his proposals for “solving the Jewish question.” He called for the Jews to be subjected to “foreigners’ law” as a means of “separating them from the German ethnic-popular community” and of denying them freedom of mobility, thereby preventing “the tide of Jews moving to the big cities.” “Mixed marriages” should be forbidden, and extramarital relations between Germans and Jews criminalised as acts of “racial defilement.” Public contracts should no longer be awarded to Jews, and they should be prohibited from dealing in property. All of these measures, Heydrich wrote in summing up, would serve as an “incentive to emigrate.”203 That was the goal which the head of the Security Service was advocating in the mid-1930s. “Systematic mass murder,” Heydrich’s biographer Robert Gerwarth has concluded, “was at this point beyond the imagination of even Heydrich and his anti-Jewish ‘theoretical pioneers.’ ”204 The same seems to have been true of Hitler. Despite the homicidal fantasies he had committed to paper in Mein Kampf, his steadfast insistence of “removing” Jews from the German ethnic-popular community did not entail physically annihilating them, but rather pursuing their legal discrimination, social isolation and economic expropriation to the point that they would either live in Germany under pitiable conditions and in utter segregation—or, preferably, be forced to emigrate.
By late August 1935, a broad consensus had crystallised between the Nazi leadership, the relevant government ministries and the Gestapo and the Security Service as to how to proceed on the “Jewish question.” The approval of the race laws at the Nuremberg rally in mid-September was no great surprise.205 What was surprising was that Hitler staged the announcement in a manoeuvre reminiscent of his foreign-policy coups. Originally, the Reichstag, which was called to session for the first and only time in Nuremberg on 15 September, was only supposed to ratify a law making the swastika flag the Reich’s official national banner, replacing the old black-white-and-red imperial flag. The background was an incident in New York, where anti-Nazi dock workers had forcibly lowered the swastika flag from the MS Bremen. They were arrested, but an American judge subsequently ordered their release and attacked the policies of the Third Reich. Hitler and Goebbels were livid. The propaganda minister noted: “Our answer: The Reichstag will convene in Nuremberg and declare the swastika banner to be our national flag. Hitler in full swing.”206
But on the evening of 13 September, the fourth day of the Nuremberg rally, Hitler decided that the Reichstag session should ratify not just the Reich Flag Law, but also the “race law,” which Frick and Gürtner had announced at the meeting of 20 August. Goebbels wrote: “In the evening palaver in the hotel. Consulted with the Führer about the new laws.”207 The reasons for Hitler’s sudden decision are not entirely clear. Possibly, with pressure from below having built up for months, Hitler may have felt that the time was ripe to placate his radical party comrades with a decisive administrative step and thus tame their need for action. That would be in keeping with his tendency to postpone taking major decisions, only to then make up his mind in a flash without considering any arguments to the contrary. He knew that the preparations for the planned law were advanced, and in his eyes, the rally may have seemed like the perfect forum to pressure the ministerial bureaucrats to finish formulating it and to ensure that it was greeted with the maximum enthusiasm when announced.
Late on the evening of 13 September Ministerial Counsel Bernhard Lösener, the “Jewish expert” in the Reich Interior Ministry, was ordered by telephone to fly to Nuremberg the next morning with his colleague from the Central Division, Ministerial Counsel Franz Albrecht Medicus. There they were informed by State Secretaries Hans Pfundtner and Wilhelm Stuckart that Hitler had charged them the previous day with formulating a “Jewish law” that would prohibit marriages between Jews and Aryans, extramarital sexual relations between the two, and the employment of Aryan servant girls in Jewish households.208Over the course of the day, the bureaucrats came up with a number of versions, which Frick presented to Hitler, only to be sent back with orders for changes. The main issue was whether the law should only apply to “full Jews,” or whether it was to include Jewish “half-breeds’ as well. Finally, around midnight, Hitler ordered the bureaucrats to give him four variations by the following morning, ranging from a strict version A to intermediate versions B and C to a mild version D. To “round off the legislation,” he also demanded a Reich Citizenship Law to be presented to him that very night. In his recollections from 1950, Lösener was still outraged at “Hitler’s new mood” that had forced him and his colleagues to come up with the draft law under extreme pressure when they were “physically and mentally at the end of their strength.”209 In fact, this was anything but a spontaneous intervention by Hitler. On the contrary, the need for a new Reich citizenship law had been under discussion for months, and preparations were well advanced. It only made sense to introduce it together with the “race law.” Goebbels emphasised the connection in his diary entry he wrote about a conference with Hitler during the night of 14-15 September: “Frick and Hess were still there. Thoroughly consulted about the laws. New citizenship law that strips Jews of citizenship…Jew law that prohibits Jewish marriages with Germans and a series of other intensifications. We’re still adjusting it. But it will work.”210
The ministerial bureaucrats only learned during the Reichstag session on 15 September that Hitler had opted for the mild version D, albeit having struck out the phrase “This law only applies to full Jews” with his own hand, yet in the official announcements of the law, presumably with an eye towards foreign reactions, the phrase was maintained.211 The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour prohibited marriage and sexual intercourse “between Jews and citizens of Germany or related blood.” Jews were also banned from taking on non-Jewish female household employees under the age of 45 and from “flying the Reich and national flag or displaying the Reich colours.” The Reich Citizenship Law read: “A Reich citizen can only be someone who is a national of German or related blood and who proves by his conduct that he is willing and suitable to loyally serve the German people and Reich.” Only full Reich citizens were entitled to “full political rights as spelled out in laws.” Jewish Germans would henceforth only be considered as members of “the Protective Association of the German Reich,” to which they owed “special loyalty.”212
In a short speech by his standards, in the auditorium of the Nuremberg Cultural Association, in which he asked the Reichstag deputies to ratify the law, Hitler let the tactically maintained mask of moderation drop and showed himself for what he truly was: a fanatic anti-Semite who was determined to enact the racist Nazi programme at all costs. He scathingly attacked Jews in Germany and abroad whom he accused of being “corrosive and pitting peoples against one another.” He unapologetically declared that the victims of anti-Semitism in Germany had triggered the violence themselves. In numerous locations, Hitler contended, people had “bitterly complained about the provocative behaviour of individual members of this people.” If such behaviour was not to lead “to unpredictable defensive reactions of the outraged populace…the only way was to legally regulate the problem.” His government had been guided, Hitler claimed, by the idea that “a singular secular solution would perhaps create a level on which the German people might find a tolerable relationship to the Jewish people.” Should this hope not materialise, Hitler threatened, the problem would be transferred to the National Socialist Party “for a definitive solution.”213In other words, in that case the radical activists in the party would be given the green light to intensify the anti-Semitic pressure from below.
Hitler’s claim that the Nuremberg Laws were an attempt to find a “tolerable relationship to the Jewish people” was a deliberate lie intended to lead the public astray. In his diary, Goebbels left no doubt that the laws of 15 September were aimed at segregating Jews from the majority of society and providing momentum for their further persecution. “Today was of secular significance,” he wrote. “Jewry has suffered a heavy blow. We have dared become the first people in many hundreds of years to take the bull by the horns.”214 Ten days after the Reichstag had unanimously ratified the Nuremberg Laws, Walter Gross, the Reich director of the NSDAP Office for Racial Politics, told his local officials how Hitler wished them to be interpreted: “The ultimate goal…of the Third Reich’s entire racial policy…is the displacement of everything Jewish in the sense of the excretion of an alien element.”215
“If you followed the National Socialist movement attentively, you had to see these things coming,” Willy Cohn commented after the ratification of the Nuremberg Laws. “In this respect they’re extremely consistent.”216 Victor Klemperer, who was married to a non-Jewish German, confined himself to a bitter diary entry: “The disgust is enough to make you ill.”217 The Nazi press enthusiastically welcomed the new legislation. On 16 September, the Westdeutscher Beobachter led with the headline: “We profess our loyalty to the purity of the race!” In a cynical commentary, the editor-in-chief wrote: “The Jewish race should feel lucky for the generosity of an Adolf Hitler. Every other people would have deemed its corrupters fair game. Instead of an emergency law, however, Germany provides state protection and legal order.”218
It seems that the reactions of the German populace to the Nuremberg Laws varied greatly. Gestapo reports initially asserted that the laws had been received with approval and satisfaction since they finally created “a situation of clarity” and would put an end to the “unsavoury individual actions” of previous months.219 On the other hand, from heavily Catholic areas like the region of Aachen came reports that “the laws had not been greeted with unanimous applause.”220 SPD-in-exile observers even wrote that the laws had “been met with vigorous rejection within the populace” and had been interpreted “not as a sign of the strength of the National Socialist movement but as evidence of weakness.”221 At the same time, the observers could not deny that constant anti-Semitic propaganda had left its mark on the German working classes. “In general, one can say that the National Socialists have in fact succeeded in deepening the gap between the people and the Jews,” one report from January 1936 read. “The sense that the Jews are a separate race is now very common.”222
Because Hitler had rejected the proviso that the Nuremberg Laws should only apply to “full Jews,” instructions on how the laws were to be enforced needed to answer the question of who was in fact affected. A bitter, extended quarrel arose between the Interior Ministry and representatives of the NSDAP. Whereas Wilhelm Stuckart and Bernhard Lösener felt that only people with more than two Jewish grandparents should be considered Jewish, party representatives led by the Reich Doctors’ leader, Gerhard Wagner, insisted that the definition be expanded to included “quarter-Jews,” defined as people with one Jewish grandparent.223 Hitler initially avoided making a decision. Goebbels noted on 1 October: “Jewish question still not decided. We’ve debated for a long while, but the Führer is still unsure.”224 The argument continued throughout October and was increasingly focused round the status of “half-Jews,” defined as people with two Jewish grandparents. At the last minute, Hitler cancelled a high-level meeting on 5 November intended to resolve the issue.225 But there came a point when further delays were impossible. “The Führer wants a decision now,” Goebbels noted on 7 November. “A compromise has to be reached anyway, and an absolutely satisfactory solution is impossible.”226
The First Ordinance on the Reich Citizenship Law of 14 November ended the tug of war. The Interior Ministry had largely got its way on the question of who was to be defined as Jewish, as the ordinance stipulated: “A Jew is someone descended from at least three Jewish grandparents in the racial sense.” “Half-Jews” were only to be treated as Jews if they were members of the Jewish religious community or married to a Jewish spouse.227 Goebbels noted: “A compromise but the best one available. Quarter-Jews to us. Half-Jews only in exceptional cases. In God’s name, let’s have some peace. Announce it skilfully and discreetly in the press. Not too much hullaballoo.”228 The propaganda minister’s reticence was understandable. The ordinance revealed the utter absurdity of trying to classify the population according to racist criteria. For example, “half-Jews” were defined as people who had “two Jewish grandparents in the racial sense.” But since there was no way to determine legally the characteristics of the Jewish “race,” religion had to be enlisted. The ordinance stated: “A grandparent is automatically considered fully Jewish if he or she belonged to the Jewish religious community.” It would have been difficult to make the grotesque senselessness of Nazi racial legislation any more apparent.229
In the wake of the Nuremberg Laws, the petty, everyday war against Jews continued. But with the Olympics approaching, the Nazi regime had no interest in a repeat of the pogrom-like violence of the summer of 1935. A few days before the start of the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hess ordered the removal of all “signs with extremist content” so as to avoid “making a bad impression on foreign tourists.”230 The German press was instructed on 27 January 1936 not to report on “violent confrontations with Jews”: “Such things should be scrupulously avoided, right on down to the local sections of newspapers, in order not to provide foreign propaganda with material it can use against the Winter Games.”231
When Wilhelm Gustloff, the leader of the Swiss branch of the NSDAP, was shot dead in Davos by a Jewish medical student two days before the start of the Games, the Nazi leadership’s reaction was muted. Goebbels’s spontaneous reaction was: “The Jews will pay for this. We’ll take major actions against this.”232 But Hitler restrained his propaganda minister. As would not be the case with Kristallnacht in November 1938, this time the regime made no attempt to use the assassination as an excuse to mobilise “popular anger” against the Jewish minority.233 At Gustloff’s funeral in the northern German city of Schwerin on 12 February, Hitler did launch some sharply worded attacks, however, claiming that the Davos killing was evidence of a “guiding hand” and the “hateful power of our Jewish enemies.” He added: “We understand and register this declaration of war!”234
The International Olympic Committee had awarded Berlin the 1936 Summer Games in 1931, but a year later, when the Nazis became the strongest party in Germany, the IOC began to have reservations. Via an intermediary, the Belgian IOC president, Henri de Baillet-Latour, enquired at the Brown House how the National Socialists intended to stage the Games should they come to power. Hitler answered that he was looking forward to the Games with “great interest.”235 On 16 March 1933, the newly appointed chancellor received the president of the German National Olympic Committee, Theodor Lewald, and promised him support for the preparation of the Games “in every respect.”236 Hitler refused the offer of an honorary post with the committee, but he did take over symbolic patronage for the event after Hindenburg’s death in November 1934.237 In the meantime, the IOC had also awarded the Winter Games to Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
From the very beginning, Hitler recognised the opportunities that came with hosting the Olympics. They offered a unique chance to present the world with images of a reinvigorated but peaceful and cosmopolitan Germany. He and Goebbels saw absolutely eye to eye on this. The latter’s ministry formed a “propaganda committee for the Olympic Games” in January 1934 to coordinate large-scale publicity campaigns in Germany and abroad. “The 1936 Olympics are going to be huge,” Goebbels promised. “We’re really going to beat the drum!”238 The regime spared neither effort nor money to squeeze every last drop of prestige from the Games. On 5 October 1933, Hitler made an initial inspection of the site for the “Reich Sports Field” on Berlin’s western fringe to get a picture of the location and the progress made in the preparations. He brusquely cancelled the plans of sports functionaries to expand the existing stadium, ordering the construction of a new, modern arena with a capacity of 100,000 spectators. It was a “Reich task,” Hitler declared in notes taken by Lewald: “If you’ve invited the whole world as your guest, something grandiose and beautiful must be created…a few million more here or there make no difference.”239 The gigantic site was to be transformed into the largest sporting complex in the world, with numerous additional sites for competitions, an open-air stage, a “House of German Sports” and military marching grounds. The architect Werner March, who had constructed the models for Germany’s application to the IOC, was commissioned to plan the entire project.240
Hitler enthusiastically followed construction progress, suggesting changes and occasionally criticising the design of the stadium, with which he was never completely satisfied.241 It is pure legend, however, that he was so angry about March’s plans that he threatened to cancel the Olympics, as Albert Speer later contended in his memoirs and as Joachim Fest naively passed on.242 Speer, who was only at the beginning of his career as Hitler’s favourite architect in 1933 and 1934, was likely disappointed by someone else being commissioned to build the Olympic Stadium.
A more serious threat to the 1936 Olympics was the international movement calling for a boycott that had formed shortly after Hitler had assumed power. The early anti-Semitic excesses of the Nazi regime occasioned outrage—particularly in the United States. By April 1933, the New York Times was already reporting that the Games could be cancelled because of the German government’s campaign against the Jews.243 The president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, floated the idea of transferring the Games to Rome or Tokyo, or cancelling them altogether. The IOC was satisfied, however, when the German side declared that it would adhere to Olympic rules and Jewish Germans would not be excluded from any of the competitions. In June 1934, the German Olympic Committee nominated twenty-one Jewish athletes for the Olympic training camp, but in the end, only two token individuals—“half-Jews” under Nazi racial classification—were included in Germany’s Olympic team: the ice hockey player Rudi Ball, who plied his trade in Italy, and fencer Helene Mayer, who won gold for Germany in 1928 and had lived in California since 1932. She would win the silver medal in Berlin.244
A cancellation of the Games or a boycott by a great sporting nation like the United States would have meant a significant loss of prestige, and Hitler was at pains to take the wind out of his critics’ sails.245 He was assisted in this by Theodor Lewald who, despite being regularly assailed in the Nazi press for his Jewish background, did everything in his power to reassure the foreign public and the IOC about the National Socialists’ intentions. In the summer of 1934, when Brundage travelled to Germany to get a picture of the situation of Jewish athletes, his host adroitly threw dust in his eyes. Upon returning to the US, Brundage became a steadfast advocate of United States participation in both the Winter and Summer Games.246 Nonetheless, the anti-Semitic violence of the summer of 1935 and the Nuremberg Laws rekindled the debate about the Games in the United States. Advocates of a boycott seemed to gain the upper hand in the country’s largest athletics association, the Amateur Athletic Union, with AAU President Jeremiah Mahoney telling Lewald in October 1935 that participation in the Games would amount to a tacit acknowledgement of “everything the swastika symbolised.”247 But Avery Brundage and his supporters managed to secure a slight majority at the AAU convention that December. Germany’s sports functionaries and the leaders of the regime breathed a sigh of relief.248
Only two months later, on 6 February 1936, Hitler opened the Winter Games in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen ice hockey stadium in front of 60,000 spectators and more than 1,000 athletes from 28 countries. “Endless applause from the audience,” noted Goebbels. “Almost all foreign athletes performed the Hitler salute when they marched past the Führer.”249 But the propaganda minister as well as most German people present mistook the traditional Olympic raised-right-arm salute for the Nazi “German greeting.”250 All in all the Nazi leadership was satisfied with the ten-day event, at which the Norwegian figure-skating gold medallist Sonja Henie had captured the hearts of the crowds. The test run for Berlin had been a success, and there had been no unwelcome incidents. “On the whole the Nazis have done a wonderful propaganda job,” William Shirer admitted. “They’ve greatly impressed most of the visiting foreigners with the lavish but smooth way in which they’ve run the games and with their kind manners, which to us who came from Berlin of course seemed staged.”251
After Garmisch-Partenkirchen, not even the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, which so blatantly belied Hitler’s pretence of peacefulness, could endanger the Berlin Games. On the contrary, the ineffectual response of the Western allies to yet another German violation of international agreements weakened the position of those who favoured a boycott. Even France, the country that should have felt most threatened by the remilitarisation, never seriously considered withholding its athletes from the competition. The new Popular Front government under socialist premier Léon Blum approved the funds for the French Olympic team. The policy of appeasement also won out within the Olympic movement.
The Reich capital got a thorough makeover. “Berlin is being transformed into a true festival city,” Goebbels noted on 24 July, a week before the start of the Games. “But there’s still a lot to do.” On 30 July, after a drive around the city to inspect things, he was satisfied: “Berlin is now ready. It is gleaming in its lightest vestments.”252 Banners and other symbols of the regime were everywhere, on public squares, office buildings and private houses. Signs refusing entry to Jews had been removed, and discriminatory labels on park benches painted over.253 For two weeks, Der Stürmer was nowhere to be found at newspaper kiosks, and Der Angriff reminded its readers to be solicitous towards foreign visitors: “We must be more charming than the Parisians, easier-going than the Viennese, livelier than the Romans, more cosmopolitan than Londoners and more practical than New Yorkers.”254 An Olympic tourist guide presented Berlin as a vibrant world metropolis and as the headquarters of a confident nationalist government: “[Wilhelmstrasse] is home to the workplace of a man whom every visitor to Berlin would give his eye-teeth to see: Adolf Hitler.”255
If it was raining slightly in Berlin on 1 August, the opening day of the eleventh Olympic Summer Games, it did nothing to dampen the “festival fever.”256 At 1 p.m., Hitler received the members of the International and German National Olympic Committees, thanking them for their work and declaring that the German Reich had “gladly and happily” taken on responsibility for hosting the competition in a form “befitting the great idea and traditions of the Olympic Games.”257 Undermining this sentiment was the fact that Hitler, after travelling the 15-kilometre stretch to the Reich Sports Field in an open car that afternoon, first stopped at the Bell Tower to inspect an honour guard of the army, navy and air force and then proceeded with Werner von Blomberg to the Langemarckhalle to commemorate Germany’s fallen soldiers in the First World War. Only after that, at 4 p.m., did he lead a delegation of the IOC and the German National Olympic Committee into the Olympic Stadium, where he strode, frenetically cheered by 80,000 spectators, to his “Führer box.” The strict choreography of the ceremony was interrupted for a moment, when a small girl—the 5-year-old daughter of the general secretary of the German National Olympic Committee—ran up to Hitler, curtsied and gave him a bouquet of flowers. The scene was apparently unplanned, but Hitler, who gladly had his picture taken with children, must have liked it.258
After that the forty-nine participating nations paraded into the stadium. (The Soviet Union boycotted the event, and the country’s civil war kept Spain out of the Games.) The French were greeted with particular applause when they walked past the Führer’s box with arms raised, which the crowd again misinterpreted as the German greeting. By contrast, the British team declined to salute and was given a cool reception, which even Goebbels described as “somewhat embarrassing.”259 When all the teams had arrived in the oval arena, Hitler declared the Games open for competition. The Olympic flag was raised, thousands of doves flew towards the heavens which had cleared by now, and cannons fired a twenty-one-gun salute. An Olympic hymn especially composed by Richard Strauss was played. Then the final torchbearer ran into the stadium and lit the Olympic fire. Rudolf Ismayr, a gold-medal-winning weightlifter at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, recited the Olympic oath, although he took hold of the swastika banner, not the five-ringed Olympic flag—the merging of Nazi elements into Olympic ritual could hardly have been more obvious.260
The entire opening ceremony was designed to focus on Hitler. Fanfares announced his arrival, and his way to the VIP box was musically accompanied by Wagner’s “Homage March.” The enthusiasm that greeted Hitler in the stadium was not lost on the foreign athletes. One female Olympian from Britain felt that it was as if God himself had descended from heaven.261 That evening, the people of Berlin showered their leader with tempestuous ovations when he returned to Wilhelmstrasse. “Often on the balcony,” noted Goebbels. “The masses were out of their heads. It was very moving. Girls were brought up and wept before the Führer. A beautiful and a great day. A victory for the German cause.”262
Hitler attended almost every day of competition, and those who observed him up close were taken aback by his behaviour. The sporting spirit was alien to the leader of the Third Reich. If German athletes were beaten, his countenance immediately darkened. But if a German sportsman won, reported Martha Dodd, his enthusiasm knew no limits, and he would leap up from his seat with childish glee.263 It is a legend, however, that he refused to shake hands with the black American sprinter Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals and became the star of the Games. After Hitler had congratulated the Finnish and German medal winners on the first day of competition in his box, Henri de Baillet-Latour pointed out that such a gesture violated the Olympic protocol, whereupon Hitler did not congratulate any of the winners.264Nevertheless, numerous sources show that Hitler and the other leading Nazis were not at all pleased about the multiple triumphs of a black American since they convincingly gave the lie to the doctrine of the superiority of the “white race.” After the events of 4 August, Goebbels noted: “We Germans won one gold medal, and the Americans three, two of them by a Negro. That’s a scandal. White people should be ashamed. But what does that matter over there in that country without culture.”265 When Baldur von Schirach suggested it would make an excellent impression abroad if Hitler were to receive Owens in the Chancellery, the dictator was outraged. “Do you truly believe that I will allow myself to be photographed shaking hands with a Negro?” Hitler yelled in Schirach’s face.266
Hans Frank remembered Hitler being “passionately interested” in the Games and “always full of feverish suspense at who would win what medal.”267 In the end, Germany topped the medals table ahead of the United States with 33 gold, 26 silver and 30 bronze—an outcome Goebbels praised as being “the result of reawakened ambition.” He added: “This Olympics is a very big breakthrough…we can once more be proud of Germany…The leading sports nation in the world. That is magnificent.”268
Germany impressed the world not just with sporting successes, but also, as had been the case in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with its perfect organisation and an accompanying programme that showcased the regime’s best side to foreign visitors. In retrospect, Hitler’s interpreter Paul Schmidt called the sixteen-day event an “apotheosis for Hitler and the Third Reich.” In numerous conversations with foreigners, Schmidt observed that they encountered Hitler with “the highest interest—to say nothing of great admiration.”269 André François-Poncet made a similar observation:
The power of attraction he emanates has an effect beyond the borders of his own country. Kings, princes and famous guests come to the capital less to take in the upcoming Games than to meet this man, who seems destined to so greatly influence the future and who seems to hold the fate of the continent in his hands.270
Hitler’s paladins fell over themselves trying to outdo one another with parties and receptions for international VIPs. Joachim von Ribbentrop, just named Nazi Germany’s ambassador to Great Britain, invited more than 600 guests to dinner at his villa in the southern Berlin district of Dahlem on 11 August. Three days later, Göring hosted a huge garden party in the grounds of the new Aviation Ministry, and Goebbels topped everyone on 15 August, the day before the Olympics concluded, with an “Italian Night” on Pfaueninsel Island in the Havel River that was attended by more than 2,700 people. “Great fireworks,” he noted. “A life as never before. Magical lighting…Partner dancing. An elegant picture…The nicest party we’ve ever hosted.”271
The 1936 Olympic Summer Games were also a media spectacle. More than 1,800 journalists were accredited for the event, and 41 broadcasters from around the world had sent reporters, who worked in sound booths in the Olympic Stadium; 125 German photographers supplied national and international agencies with pictures. For the first time ever, a major sporting event was broadcast live on television on the “Paul Nipkow” station and 160,000 viewers were able to watch the competitions in “television parlours” in Berlin, Potsdam and Leipzig, although the quality of the broadcasts left much to be desired.272
The most lasting impression came from Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary film about the Olympics, for which she had been commissioned in August 1935. Once again, Hitler’s star director came up with a number of innovations. She attached hand cameras to balloons so as to capture a bird’s-eye view of the stadium. Trenches inside the arena allowed cameramen to film the athletes from close proximity and unusual angles. Riefenstahl’s footage not only cast an aesthetic eye on perfectly trained, mostly masculine bodies. It was also a homage to the “new Germany,” which she depicted as the successor to Ancient Greece. Various sequences showed Hitler as a true sports lover rooting for Germany’s athletes and celebrating their triumphs. The two-part film—entitled Festival of Peoples and Festival of Beauty—premiered in the Ufa-Palast cinema on 20 April 1938, Hitler’s forty-ninth birthday. Like her Nuremberg rally films, it was valuable to the Nazis because it concealed the reality of the Third Reich behind the beautifully staged appearances of the peaceful Olympic Games. “One is carried away by the power, depth and beauty of this work,” Goebbels enthused. “A masterful achievement by Leni Riefenstahl.”273
Without doubt, the Olympic Games were a great propaganda triumph for the Nazi regime and did wonders for Hitler’s international standing. Most of the foreign journalists and visitors were blinded by the welcoming atmosphere and the smooth organisation. The Nazis had “put up a very good front,” William Shirer concluded.274 Once the Games were over, everyday reality in the Third Reich, including the persecution of Jews, soon resumed. There was a common saying among party radicals and SA men: “Once the Games are history, we’ll beat the Jews into misery.”275 Victor Klemperer, who saw through the false front of the Olympics better than most people, predicted an “explosion” at the next Nuremberg rally, in which people would take their pent-up desire for aggression out on Jews.276 Indeed, at the rally in September 1936, Nazi leaders competed with one another to see who could deliver the most hateful anti-Semitic tirade. In his opening and concluding speeches, Hitler once again invoked the Jewish-Bolshevik “global peril.” An “international Jewish revolutionary centre in Moscow,” he claimed, “was trying to revolutionise Europe via radio broadcasts and thousands of money and agitation channels.”277 The wild demagogue of Munich’s beer cellars in the 1920s once again broke through the façade of the statesman and “people’s chancellor.” “What the Party Conference of Honour brought forth…in paroxysms of Jew-baiting and insane lies exceeded the imagination,” wrote the downhearted Klemperer in his diary. “You constantly hope that voices of shame and fear would be raised and a protest from abroad would come…but no!” Instead, Klemperer was forced to record, “admiration for the Third Reich, for its culture, trembling fear in the face of its army and its threats.”278