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When Hitler came to power in 1933, his aim was to create a genuine German Volk. In order to command such a social revolution it was important for him to win and maintain the support of the people he was to be ruling. Hitler’s revolutionary ideas were relentlessly put forward and enforced over the twelve years of the Nazi regime and were therefore bound to leave some imprint on society, especially when so many Germans readily accepted them in the hope of benefiting from his policies. Hitler did not succeed in creating the full ‘social revolution’ that he had intended to as his ideals were often contradictory and unachievable, however, the dictatorship did implement policies which had a significant effect on the German society.
Hitler attempted to unite all German people in a racially pure and classless community- Volksgemeinschaft and Hitler promised that within this community there would be no political, religious, economic of social divisions and that the status of each German would be determined by their racial purity and commitment to the state with regards to his ideology. It is important to note that the Nazi party were not the agents of any one particular class and that they aimed to create a society where the class distinctions were dramatically reduced from their importance under the Weimar Republic. The Nazis did have an individual impact on each of the social divisions, however, and approached each class in a slightly different way to appeal to their needs and requirements at the time in the hope of ‘winning them over’ into the functions of the new Nazi state.
For him to eventually achieve his Volksgemeinschaft, it was important that Hitler won the support of the working class, which he recognised as what was to be his greatest domestic challenge. Before 1933, most unskilled workers had been committed to the socialist SPD and communist KPD although a small percentage had supported the Nazis and in 1933, the still powerful Trade Unions in theory had the means to resist Hitler and indeed did attempt to oppose Hitler’s coming to power but were easily repressed by the nazi reign which was to follow with many working class leaders becoming the first victims of concentration camps. Many Nazi policies were introduced with the benefit of the working class in mind and the most immediate and valuable benefit was a job. Hitler attempted to win the support of the workers through a combination of material improvement and state welfare and the creation of around six million jobs after 1933 was vital in attracting their support.
Hitler wanted a disciplined workforce which would not aim to challenge his dictatorship or threaten his plans for rearmament with excessive wage demands and so on 2nd May 1933, trade unions were abolished and workers were regimented in the German Labour Front (DAF) led by Robert Ley and by Nazi Factory Cell organisations.
Ley’s organisations, Beauty of Labour and Strength Through Joy were set up to persuade employers to improve working conditions and offered rewards to loyal workers with things such as evening classes, recitals and art exhibitions and several other ‘benefits as part of the community’ as Rudolf Hess commented in a speech at the Reich Chamber of Labour in 1938.They were implemented with the intention of distracting workers from the monotony of their work and increasing regimentation of their lives. Factory conditions were improved: lighting, ventilation and cleanliness were all targeted and workers began to receive more wholesome meals. By 1928 around 180 000 workers had been on a Strength Through Joy sponsored cruise and a third of the workforce had enjoyed a state financed holiday.
On the surface it seems that the workers enjoyed a much-improved lifestyle under the Nazi regime however the truth is that although they gained some improved facilities they lost their freedom and, with the suppression of trade unions, any political power that they had once had. Workers felt cheated because they had been promised an increase in wages and in reality were working longer hours for less or very little than they had been earning in the Weimar years. Industrial accidents and industrial related illness increased by 150% between 1933 and 1939 because of the level of work that these people were being asked to do and workers felt cheated by the regime as, although they were benefiting from the improvements in the workplace, these had really been implemented as a tool to build up the strength of the German Volk, rather than to directly benefit the individual worker and they felt as though they were not benefiting fully from their increased amount of effort in the production of material for Germany.
Despite any economic recovery and although grateful for the re-introduction into employment, many workers resented the regimentation and regulation of their lifestyle and grew to mistrust state propaganda. Everything that the Nazis did for the working class citizens they seemed to do indirectly for themselves: the campaigns strengthened the workforce and continued to educate the unskilled workers, improved facilities again built up the strength and community idea that Hitler wanted to implement and together these gave the Nazis and excuse to not directly benefit the workers through a wage increase.
The German middleclass, particularly the lower middle class of trades people, shopkeepers, clerks and skilled craft workers, were Hitler’s most enthusiastic supporters during his rise to power and of all the social divisions it was this mittelstand with whom Hitler most readily identified as he shared their fears hopes and prejudices. From the beginning, the regime attempted to fulfil some of the pledges that it made to the mittelstand who, after the events of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and the disfiguring depression of 1929-1932, turned to those politicians who they believed could provide them with: hope, business opportunity, jobs and lower taxes.
The middleclass had a lot of support from Nazi thinkers such as Darrï¿½ and Rosenberg as well as Hitler himself and the class generally welcomed the restoration of political stability, the imposition of wage controls and the punishments of things such as vagrancy, work shyness and homosexuality – all of which they considered to be anti-social elements of society. At the start they also won temporary protection from the large department stores and were offered low interest loans at the same time as benefiting from the confiscation of Jewish businesses.
After 1933, the mittelstand benefited from the return of business confidence but their status was not raised in the way that the status of the working-class had been as Hitler’s first priority was the creation of jobs and the maintenance of low prices neither of which directly affected this band of people.
The middle class faced problems following July 1933, when Rudolf Hess defended supermarkets from attacks and restrained the Nazi Combat League of Tradesmen, with small traders continuing to be out priced by department stores, being squeezed between the Reich food estate which controlled agricultural prices, and price freezes in the shops. By 1943 a quarter of a million small shops had gone out of business as the policy of rearmament after 1936 and the switch to a total war economy after 1941 both favoured the larger businesses. What is surprising about figures like this is that, the mittelstand was the class that was the most active in Hitler’s consolidation of power and his eventual appointment in 1933 and yet they benefited very little from the Nazi regime and ideology with it having a negative, rather than a positive or even neutral effect on them after the first few years.
With the intention of creating and protecting a racially pure, health and economically secure rural community, the Nazis put forward a policy of ‘Blood and Soil’ and in doing so glorified the role of the peasant farmer as a decent, honest and uncorrupted German. The Nazis believed that this picture was essential; is they were to provide cheap food for cities and so they undertook a series of measures to protect the rural economy. Farmers of small and middle-sized farms were safeguarded by the regime by the Reich Entailed Farm Law of 29th September 1933, which identified farms of around 30 acres as being hereditary farms that were to be passed on to the eldest son without being divided up. Farmers were also offered a financial support, which they had never been offered preciously to stay on the land and many of them were also exempt from insurance payments. Tax burdens on farms were cut and mortgage interest payments rescued by ï¿½280 million between 1934 and 1938.
Another affect on their branch of the middle class was a method of regulation, which was new to them, and which fitted in with the increasing regimentation and regulation of the country, this was the Reich Food Estate, which became a huge organisation under the Nazi regime. As with the other social classes, the effect of Nazi ideology was at first beneficial and farming income did increase from the post depression levels however it fell again after 1937 as labour costs rose, prices became fixed and farming wages could not compete with the industrial wages after the return to full employment in 1936. Peasants, therefore, received some protection from creditors and some gained from the Reich Entailed Farm Law, but they ultimately suffered from labour shortages and came to resent government restrictions in the same way that the general middle class were doing. Life on the farms remained hard with low incomes, long hours and poor facilities and despite nazi propaganda claims that the rural population was the ‘backbone of the nation’ it fell from 21% to 18% of the total population.
Hitler had little or no respect for the social elite whilst he was in power and the feeling was similar reversed, in that many aristocrats thought that Hitler was a danger to their class and their high status in society. Where the merging of class boundaries benefited the working and lower middle classes, the elite saw this as a threat as it went against everything that they believed in and so were dubious about nazi ideology from the start. Within months of coming to power, the Nazis banned hunting with dogs following Hitler’s belief that foxhunters were feminine and their culture too much like the English.
It was later on under the regimes, once Hitler had dealt with employment and the problems with the economy when the elite began to suffer though: the campaign against the pleasures of the idle rich was intensified in wartime when Martin Borrman made attempts to close down theatres, casinos and restaurants. There was no doubt the Hitler was keen to break down the old social elite in the army, civil service and high politics as the conservative and nationalist parties were banned in July 1934 and the promotion of able professionals was encouraged in both the army and bureaucracy. The impact of this intended deterioration in the importance of the elite is evident in the decrease in the percentage of aristocratic generals from 61% in 1933 to 25% in 1936. Aristocrats also resented the obligation that they now had to invite some members of the rural society to their hunt balls and the loss of many of their traditional social functions.
Although not really a specific social class, Hitler had a significant effect on the women in Germany on his coming to power in 1933, and they were affected by his ideology on the same scale as the way in which the working, middle and upper classes were affected. Women had been experiencing new freedoms under the Weimar Republic and it is important to note that they were one of the main reasons behind Hitler’s consolidation of power leading up to 1933, but soon after the Nazi’s came to power they began to feel the effect of Hitler’s ideology which, for women, was fundamentally conservative: women were the providers of healthy Aryan children, defenders of the faith and the mistresses of a domestic idyll. Hitler promoted the virtues of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church), which exploited Romantic ideals of domestic bliss. Women were banned from professional employment in 1933, offered interest-free loans in return for not seeking employment, and restricted from university education.
This was all related to Hitler’s idea of a Volksgemeinschaft and Hitler was continually making efforts to increase the German population. The idea of having children was promoted to women by the fact that mother’s won tax concessions and were awarded medals (the Mother’s Cross) to celebrate the children that they brought into the world: eight children means that a mother won a gold medal, six a silver and four a bronze. There were increasing bans on abortion and attempts were made to breed perfect Aryan children by selection though the Lebensborn (spring of life) programme in 1935, which determined which women were and were not to be ‘sterilised’. Women were not supposed to wear make-up and smoking and the wearing of trousers rather than a skirt was strongly advised against in Nazi propaganda.
The Nazis created a series of organisations for girls and women in Germany to which millions of women subscribed; these were where the schemes for welfare which supported women and their children were implemented. Many women were easily attracted by the Nazi rhetoric that glorified their status as wives and mothers and Nazi organisations were enthusiastically supported, marriage increased by 130 000 marriages per year, births by over half a million per year between 1933 and 1939. However, the direct impact of Nazi ideology and policies was limited, it is possible that the rising birth rates and the increase in marriages were related more to an increasing prosperity rather than the social policy and with the achievement of full-employment in 1936, women were returning to the workplace, increasing from 11.6 million to 14.6 million between 1933 and 1939.
The Nazi policies did not succeed in creating a full social revolution, however, Hitler’s revolutionary ideas were persistently enforced over the twelve years of the Nazi regime did succeed in integrating the majority of Germans into one national community, a Volksgemeinschaft and nazi policies did result in some mobility within social groups but did not fundamentally alter the existing class structure of society. It seems that the lower down in society that you were on Hitler’s eventual consolidation of power in 1933, the more you benefited from the Nazi ideology. The Nazis promised more than they created for each of the social classes: wages were never considerably increased for the working class, the middle class did not benefit from lower taxes and the social elite were in constant conflict about their value in society.