The majority of German citizens conformed to Nazi rule because of the dual positive and negative pressures exerted by the regime. The Nazis designed and aggressively propagated a programme likely to be attractive to most of the community and backed this up with an apparatus of terror to silence those not convinced. The successes of the party within the country assured widespread support. Hitler’s foreign policy, that overturned the Treaty of Versailles and secured Germany a great deal of territory even before the war, garnered him unparalleled popularity. The few opposition groups, and those groups targeted by Nazi ideology, were sent to concentration camps and a vigorous secret police assured that no opposition, especially not vocal, remained in Germany for long. Even when the atrocities of the Nazis became somewhat known Germans continued to conform to Nazi rule, primarily as a result of the anti-Semitism and bigotry prevalent in German society, effectively fostered by the Nazis. Finally, the Hitler myth is vital in understanding why the majority of Germans conformed to the rule of the regime.
The contrast between Nazi rule and that of the Weimar Government that preceded it is vital in understanding why the majority of Germans conformed to Nazi rule. Gellately describes how “many Germans … believed that the liberal Weimar Republic was a degenerate society, and that their country was on the road to ruin”. Newspapers were filled with stories regarding crime, drugs, murder and the activities of organized gangs. Crime had risen steadily between 1927 and 1932, the rate of some crimes in large cities almost doubling. The death penalty, a popular punishment, was bestowed 1141 times from 1919 to 1932, of which only 184 were executed, a figure which infuriated many German citizens. “Hitler and his party”, on the other hand, promised “to restore some semblance of the ‘normality’ for which they [the majority of Germans] longed” (Gellately). Hitler gave the police far greater powers than they had had previously, which they immediately began exercising – even petty criminals such as swindlers and con-artists were sent to concentration camps without trial.
Death sentences under Hitler increased in number and 80% were actually carried out, a huge increase from Weimar’s 16%. Exaggerated stories of crime and punishment were sent to the press so often that they “became constituent parts of Nazi mythology” (Gellately). The Nazi party’s emphasis on the rebuilding of the German state, an idea spread primarily through propaganda, was exceedingly popular. The Nazis also linked crime to Jews, homosexuals and gypsies, which heightened the homophobia and anti-Semitism already prevalent in German society, which meant that the more radical aspects of Nazi ideology were more accepted in society. The image of Hitler as a “radical proponent of cleaning up the streets, banishing offenders, and purifying the race” and the “stories about swift justice” all “fuelled [the] populist myths about the regime as a crime fighter, and thus earned it considerable support” (Gellately), which helps explain why the majority of Germans conformed to the Nazi regime.
The domestic policy of the Nazi party was closely related to its foreign policy, which provided successes that are even more important in understanding why the majority of Germans conformed to Nazi rule. The majority of Germany believed that the Treaty of Versailles was a great injustice, and many, including Hitler, believed Germany had only lost because the army had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the Jews and politicians of Germany. After Hitler assumed complete power over Germany the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles were overturned one by one, and each was greeted with overwhelming public support of Hitler’s actions. In 1934 Hitler publicly announced that the German army, limited to 100 000 by the treaty, had already expanded to 240 000 and would grow to 550 000 in less than three years.
At the same time he made public the existence of a German air force, forbidden under the terms of Versailles. In 1936, while France had no government in control, Hitler ordered German troops to march into the demilitarized Rhineland. Next, in October 1939, German reoccupied first the Sudetenland and then, in a surprise tank invasion, the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. These bloodless successes overjoyed the German populace, as shown by the wild, enthusiastic crowd scenes seen around Germany after each foreign policy success. The outbreak of war brought even greater success. Quickly defeating both Poland and France, and beating Britain back to her Island, then pushing far into Russian territory, the Nazi Government appeared to be well on the way to completely dominating the continent. Now at the peak of its power, the vast majority of Germans not only conformed to Nazi rule but actively supported it.
Almost all youth, male and female, were enrolled in Hitler Youth, as the competing youth associations (even the illegal gangs) had been removed, their leaders sent to concentration camps. Unemployment was essentially nil, with the German army and Germans arm production assuring employment for anyone that wanted it. The SPD (Social Democrats) in exile sent agents to gauge popular opinion and found that the Nazis were almost uniformly supported throughout the country.
Apart from the domestic and foreign policy success of the regime, the use of terror in Nazi society is also important in understanding why the majority of Germans conformed to Nazi rule. The orthodox view of the role of the Gestapo, represented by such historians as Jackel and Hillgrüber, is that the German secret policy pervaded every aspect of society, and that most Germans were so afraid of being arrested and interrogated that they were terrorized into submission. Recent research, however, has proven this judgment false. “The terror was … not the blanket, indiscriminate terror of popular myth” (Johnson). In the Cologne region, for example, the Gestapo had only one officer for every 10 000 to 15 000 inhabitants (according to Johnson). Nazi terror was instead targeted only at opposition groups and those condemned by Nazi ideology. When an average, non-Jewish, heterosexual German was under Gestapo scrutiny, they were generally treated leniently and almost never punished. When a Jew or opposition of the state was interrogated, however, they were treated brutally and almost always sent to a concentration camp.
The majority of Germans did not conform to Nazi rule because of the terror instilled by the Gestapo; they conformed because of the attractions of the regime as shown by its domestic and foreign policy success. On the other hand, the minority groups that were either targeted by Nazi ideology and those that were not won over by success were actually forced to conform to Nazi rule. The minority groups were primarily uncovered, according to both Johnson and Gellately, through denunciations. Many ordinary Germans were so won over by Nazi ideology that they would report to the Gestapo any suspicious behaviour, such as homosexuality or sympathy for the plight of the Jews. In fact, almost anyone who did not openly support the regime was denounced by at least one neighbour.
This made the Gestapo a highly effective unit, despite its small numbers, when tracking down ideological enemies of the state. The Gestapo also proved highly effective in tracking down more serious opponents of the state. Through “forced confessions, reports from informers and paid spies, house searchers, police raids, information supplied by Nazi Party officials, SS and SA storm troopers, and police auxiliaries, long-existing police registers of political opponents and known criminals, and other official sources” (Gellately) the Gestapo tracked down and removed all serious opposition to the Nazi regime. In this way the Gestapo is vital to an understanding of why the majority of Germans conformed to Nazi rule – because those few who might harbor doubts about the regime could never voice them for fear of persecution.
The most dubious elements of Nazi policy – the systematic murder of huge numbers of people based on race or sexual preference – were grounded in deep-seated prejudices that proliferated German society. The prejudice against homosexuality was extremely, so it is not a stretch of credibility to surmise that many Germans supported the imprisonment of confirmed homosexuals. Hitler’s advertisement of Röhm’s sexuality as justification for his murder is indicative of the strength of homophobia in Germany. Anti-Semitism in Germany (indeed, Europe) stretches back well over a thousand years. Again, it seems certain that most of the German population would have personally approved, to varying levels, of the persecution of the Jews.
This is not to say that the majority of Germans supported the Nazi atrocities, but that the majority of Germans supported the principle of discrimination (if not the extremes to which it was carried). While virtually all balked when presented with Nazi war crimes (although Kershaw argues that the systematic gassing programme was largely unknown, not all can have been sincere given the direct participation of Germans in many parts of the process), the principle behind the killings was appreciated by many Germans. By building on existing prejudices that Nazis ensured that most Germans could find something to support in Nazi ideology.
Finally, one of the most important factors in explaining German conformity is in the foundation of the Nazis’ unity – the most stunning propaganda success the regime enjoyed, the establishment of the Hitler myth. This propaganda helped create a population that did not just conform, but willingly conformed. Kershaw argues that while ultimately most of Nazi propaganda failed in their objectives, Goebbels succeeded in depicting Hitler as a dynamic, active, visionary leader who would lead Germany to greatness. Kershaw states that “Hitler was seen as the representative of ‘popular justice’, the voice of the ‘healthy sentiment of the people’, the upholder of public morality, the embodiment of strong, if necessarily ruthless, action against the ‘enemies of the people’ to enforce ‘law and order'”. Before the war Hitler was portrayed as both a statesmen and as “the future military leader, taking muster of his armed forces” (Kershaw).
When the war began this image was broadened and “the image of Hitler as supreme war leader and military strategist came to dominate all other components of the ‘Führer myth'”. The decline of the Hitler myth followed the military reversals of the war, when the population realised Hitler’s personal responsibility for the catastrophe of Stalingrad. But until then the myth formed a significant part of the reasons why Germans conformed to Nazi rule. Accompanied by the early successes of the Nazi regime, this created a very persuasive regime regardless of the attractiveness of its ideology. Without an attractive ideology, a majority of Germans would have willingly conformed to Nazi rule at least as long as they didn’t have to make sacrifices to do so. Combined with the Nazi ideology, which was attractive to a broad cross-section of Germany, the high level of conformity exhibited in Nazi Germany does not seem remarkable.
Germans conformed to Nazi rule primarily because of the regimes initial domestic and foreign policy success, and the success of the establishment of the Hitler myth. Those groups who either opposed the regime or were targeted by Nazi ideology had little impact on the overall support of the party because they were silenced by the highly-effective Gestapo.