The National Socialist Party came to power through a series of swift, ruthless and devastating actions which firmly established Germany as a fascist state. The centralisation of power in Germany, known as ‘co-ordination’ (Gleichschaltung), was initiated on the day of the election and was carried out with such clinical efficiency, that the German state was completely transformed within a matter of months.
Hitler’s Gleichschaltung was extremely successful in altering the cultural and economic landscape of Germany in the years between 1933 and the commencement of the Second World War in 1939. National Socialism touched every aspect of life; youth culture, the role of women, education, the economy and the effect it had on employment, the working class, as well as religion in the domination of the Christian Church. As this essay will explain, each of these individual developments in German society, which were initiated by the Nazi regime, came together to precipitate a complete cultural transformation for the lives of German people by 1939.
Nazi Seduction of the German People
The attraction of the Third Reich was compelling for the German people and strong feelings of national pride were instilled in the mass population. Germans were moved by wave after wave of brilliantly staged nationalistic promptings in the form of spectacular public rallies and stirring speeches. The totalitarian state model, which was so important to the Nazi Party’s grip on its people, was achieved through a mix of persuasion, motivation and discrimination.
Individualism was quickly replaced by a way of life steeped in collective gestures and symbols; mass rallies, uniforms, public commemorations and in particular, the gesture synonymous with the Nazi era – the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute. Although these public messages became tiresome to many Germans, they were a constant theme throughout the Nazi era, and were therefore inescapable. They were successful in convincing the German masses of the power of the Third Reich as an all conquering, superior phenomenon.
The mobilisation of German youth was a vital cog in the National Socialist propaganda machine. The drive towards creating a fiercely dependent and loyal German youth was formed on the basis of a rejection of the old bourgeois world in favour idealistic notions of a new and more egalitarian society.The lengths to which the Nazi’s went, in order to harness the loyalty of the German youth were great and centred on the creation of a rival organisation to the formal education system called the Hitler Youth (Hitler – Jugend). When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Hitler Youth organisation had only 107,956 members.
By the end of 1933 however, under the leadership of Baldur von Schirach, most youth movements were under the influence of the Nazis and the few remaining nonconformists such as Catholic organisations were feeling the Nazi influence. Two laws, which came into effect in December 1936 and March 1939 made participation in the Hitler Youth (HJ) mandatory, driving up membership of the organisation to 8,870,000 at the beginning of 1939.
The Hitler Youth indoctrinated young Germans with Nazi concepts of race, discipline and obedience. Summer camps were set up, in which political ideological teachings, physical fitness, rifle practice, endurance and team-building games were core activities. The aim was to breed a new type of German, one which was loyal to National Socialism and would thus ensure the future existence and expansion of Germany as a Nazi state.
The family was an institution of supreme importance to the Nazis, being regarded as crucial to the future success of The Third Reich. Much was done to raise the popularity of marriage and increase birth-rate, as mothers who stayed at home to bring up large families were put on a pedestal and treated with utmost respect. On 12 August – the birthday of Hitler’s mother – every mother who had given birth to a large number of children was awarded a Mother’s Cross. Rewards for raising large families were also financial, as special welfare benefits were awarded to encourage marriage and motherhood. Newly married couples were offered a 1,000 mark loan, repayable at three per cent interest, which was reduced by 25 per cent after the birth of each child. This loan effectively turned into a free gift from the state following the birth of four healthy children.
The role of women in Nazi Germany was clearly defined, encouraging them to embrace their ‘natural’ role as mothers. As already mentioned, women were the focus of the Nazi drive to boost birth rate, and were ushered away from the idea of a full-time career in favour of starting or extending a family. Furthermore, within education, girls would be directed away from developing their academic ability and independence, in favour of training for future maternal roles through compulsory courses in domestic science and biology. Upon reaching adulthood, the indoctrination of Nazi ideals continued through membership of three women’s organisations, all created by the Nazi party – the German Woman’s Enterprise, the National Socialist Womanhood and the Reich Mothers’ Service. By March 1939, over 1.7 million German women had attended one of these Nazi organised courses.
The Working Class
In its crusade to win over the working class, the Nazis offered a vast array of publicly funded leisure activities. The Nazi Kraft durch Freude (KdF) (Strength through Joy) organisation was officially founded to promote the physical prowess of the individual, although in reality its essential purpose was to educate and socialise the German population into National Socialism. The Nazi leisure policy was initiated with the hidden intention of rallying the German people towards active voluntary participation in National Socialist Germany. An active, thriving leisure movement it was believed would contribute to the thrust of National Socialism as a whole, enhancing the vitality and all round commitment to the German cause.
The economic success of the Nazi regime is remembered most for its remarkable success in reducing unemployment. The cornerstone of this recovery was the implementation of the many work programmes, which created jobs for the phenomenal number of unemployed Germans at the beginning of Hitler’s reign. German economists had recognised that the abandonment of narrow fiscalism in favour of counter-cyclical strategies based upon investment in the infrastructure and public housing was essential in order to reduce levels of unemployment. Job creation schemes, such as the construction of the Autobahn – the major motorway network – and house building schemes resulted in a fall in unemployment from 34% in January 1933 to 13.5% in July 1934.
Upon coming to power, Hitler embarked on a crusade to eradicate Christianity, as he believed it to be a product of Jewish culture – a religion he perceived as a corrosive influence on the German population. The process of gradually reducing the influence and presence of the church in Nazi Germany was achieved in a number of ways. The establishment of the Reich Church, the German Christians organisation and the German Faith movement introduced a new Christian religion based on the core ideals and beliefs of National Socialism. This was yet another example of the iron grip with which the Nazis sought to control the German population.
Nazi economic and social policy had a phenomenal effect on the German mass population by 1939. The levels of propaganda used to capture the loyalty of the German people were deeply influential, effectively brainwashing the population. The focus on the future strength and solidarity of The Third Reich as a totalitarian state saw key aspects of the German lifestyle subjected to significant changes between 1933 and 1939. The effect that Nazi social and economic policies had were seen most significantly in their effect on women, youth, education, the economy with regards to employment, the motivation of the working class, and religion. Nazi propaganda went further than this in its influence on the German way of life, as the press, industry, art and culture, and all forms of entertainment were transformed into mere puppets of the Nazi regime. The gradual erosion of individualism and devotion to The Third Reich amongst German people could not have been achieved without the changes implemented in these fundamental aspects of daily life.